Open letter to Ian Page

An expelled member of the Socialist Party appeals for support

Comrade Ian, I read your recent interview with the Weekly Worker (March 30). There was much of what you said with which I found myself in full agreement. Some of your other comments, however, in particular relating to my expulsion from the Socialist Party, were puzzling, not to say worrying.

With the mess surrounding our approach towards the London Socialist Alliance the crisis in our organisation must be reaching a nadir. Comrades Peter Taaffe and Bill Mullins have in the name of the Socialist Party taken a crazy sectarian course. Every week we read new reports of SP members trying to wreck the LSA election campaign. Last week it was Linda Taaffe, the week before Glen Kelly, who were urging anyone who was prepared to listen that there should be no support for the LSA's list on May 4.

Our general secretary, Peter Taaffe, has now gone into print in Socialism Today justifying the SP's open hostility to what he calls the London 'Socialist Alliance' (April). Are the inverted commas there because the "organically sectarian" CPGB was responsible for initiating the thing? Either way, having done nothing to build the LSA when we were the "largest force within it", comrade Taaffe now bitterly complains that the SWP has taken over. Yet, however "spectacular" their "political somersault", the SWP's conversion to "electoralism" and political cooperation with others should be welcomed. Naturally no one is asking for or expecting an ideological truce over other issues such as Liverpool, Unison, the NUS, etc. Debate at close quarters is always more productive than hurling long-range insults.

Comrade Taaffe rounds on the SWP for behaving undemocratically in the LSA. He also insults the other leftwing groups in the LSA who have supposedly kow-towed to them. The examples the comrade cites shows he is attempting to make mountains out of molehills. In the heat of an election campaign writing and circulating leaflets that have not been before a full committee meeting is wrong, but not a high crime.

From what I have been told and read, in general the SWP have behaved in an exemplary fashion. They have neither bullied nor used the LSA as a cynical front. They are seeking to get Paul Foot and Mark Steel elected to the GLA and gain members, says Peter. But are we not trying to get socialists elected to the GLA - not least a certain comrade Ian Page in Lewisham and Greenwich? And what about the Socialist Party's Arwyn Thomas on the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation list? Why does comrade Taaffe fail to mention CATP in his article, when the leadership officially backs Pat Sikorski's latest stunt, apparently because it represents the emergence of a "new workers' party" in Britain? What of recruits? Is it illegitimate for organisations of the left to use campaigns, including election campaigns, to gain new members? Surely not.

Thankfully, as you know, the Taaffe-Mullins leadership have encountered stiff opposition to their sectarianism over the LSA. In the Weekly Worker you yourself state quite categorically that you back the whole LSA list. We also have the Weekly Worker to thank for informing us that comrade Dave Nellist is likewise against the Taaffe-Mullins line and for a vote for all LSA candidates. What is more, I understand that Tommy Sheridan MSP will be speaking in support of the LSA list at the Friends House rally on Thursday April 13. Comrade Taaffe can boast as much as he likes about the SP's electoral successes, but our councillors and CWI MP stand with the LSA and against sectarianism. Good! And so do I, along with a wide swathe of the London membership who rebelled against the pro-CATP and anti-LSA line. Comrade Taaffe was forced to back down and allow a 'free vote'.

Personally I would urge all members of the SP and the Committee for a Workers International to stay in and fight the Taaffe-Mullins leadership. Do not resign, do not walk away.

That was my attitude once I started to develop differences with the leadership. Having been a member for 14 years, I felt I owed it to my comrades to remain loyal to them in the name of the cause of socialism which motivates us all. That is why I decided to write what became 'For democratic centralism' which has, from what I understand, been widely circulated within the SP's ranks, albeit unofficially.

Disappointingly and strangely, comrade Page, you do not object to my subsequent expulsion. You state that I "obviously" support the ideas of the CPGB. Apparently if you support the "theoretical and practical line of another party" you should "join them". I disagree. Yes, Harry Paterson goes along with many things put forward by the CPGB. Not only on democratic centralism, but the LSA. Here Ian Page, Dave Nellist and Tommy Sheridan are in the same 'pro-CPGB' camp as me. However, I remain to be convinced on a number of important issues: eg, the CPGB's attitude on Ireland.

What I argued for in my document, 'For democratic centralism', was that differences in the workers' movement are natural and often extremely healthy. Democratic centralism is the method whereby differences can best be resolved in the interests of the working class and the struggle for socialism and communism.

How did the Taaffe-Mullins leadership react to my document? They reacted as frightened bureaucrats. I believe that not only have my rights, but those of every SP member, have been trampled on. Our 'democratic unity' is nothing more than a fig leaf for the rule of a theoretically bankrupt clique which is terrified of serious open debate. In short it claims fidelity to the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, but in practice our culture is that of a right-centrist sect.

At first, having taken many months preparing 'For democratic centralism', I was assured that there would be no problem whatsoever in beginning a discussion on the subject. Indeed I was told that the Members Bulletin was being held ready for it. That was until the leadership got to actually read the thing. It was in early November 1999 that I circulated copies of the first draft to comrades in my Nottingham branch and to the national committee. The heavy hand of censorship was not long in coming.

On November 15 1999 I received a phone call from Pete Watson (one of the region's NC members). Comrade Watson said he wished to report the substance of the discussion around my document that had taken place at the NC meeting of November 13-14 and the decision subsequently taken by the leadership, which was:

  1. "That your document will not be allowed to appear in the Members Bulletin, as it represents ideas alien and hostile to the traditions of our party and it contributes nothing to the building of our party."
  2. "You are forbidden to distribute your document to any comrades outside the branch."
  3. "The NC will not be responding either verbally or in writing."

On November 16 1999 I e-mailed Ken Smith (the executive member with responsibility for my region), requesting that he state in writing that Pete Watson's report-back and my understanding of it was correct. He did not respond.

A couple of days later I managed to contact comrade Smith by phone. He confirmed that he had received my e-mail, but refused point blank to confirm the decision in writing or even to make available the relevant NC minute relating to the decision. After an exchange lasting some eight minutes he remained impervious to my repeated requests for written confirmation from the NC, making it clear that had I not already circulated copies to the comrades in my branch they too would have been forbidden from seeing it. The messenger of these woeful tidings finally suggested that if I wanted things in writing then I should "take it up with Pete" (Watson). On pointing out to comrade Smith that the whole NC approach constituted a flagrant breach of our draft constitution, I was instantly informed that, as our constitution existed only in draft form, I could have no recourse to it. At that point comrade Smith hung up.

I then duly called Peter Watson. I told him about my conversation with comrade Smith and again requested written confirmation of the ban on my document, 'For democratic centralism', and protested vigorously at the outrageous infringement of my rights. What was comrade Watson's response? Rattled, he admitted that he was "not sure where we stand on putting things in writing". He said, "I'll have to speak to Ken." I copied to Pete the e-mail I had sent to Ken, and again asked for a reply. He did not respond.

Events took a rather more serious turn when my branch leadership in Nottingham decided to conduct a disciplinary investigation, charging me, of all things, with "being a collaborator of the CPGB and through that collaboration damaging and undermining our party".

Without a shred of proof it was asserted that I was 'Pat Strong', the dissident SPer who writes for the Weekly Worker. Incidentally I have read Dave Nellist, Alan McCombes, Phil Stott, Hannah Sell, etc in the Weekly Worker. No crime in my opinion. It was further asserted at my 'trial' that I had been responsible for mailing several copies of my document from Scotland to comrades around the country and that the recipients formed some sort of CPGB mailing list! This is conspiracy theory gone mad. An organisation which displays such paranoia about ideological debate is, to put it mildly, in a very unhealthy state.

What should have been investigated was our leadership's hypocrisy, its violation of my right to freely circulate written ideas, the contempt shown to a rank and file who were to be prevented from seeing my 'For democratic centralism'. To cut a long story short, needless to say, instead of comrade Taaffe and the NC being held to account, I was expelled from the Socialist Party - a decision against which I am appealing.

Comrade Page, given all this, I was disappointed to read your assertion that, "The Harry Paterson document was circulated." Clearly, comrade, you were unaware of the true course of events. My document was circulated unofficially by SP members and former members. As a result the internal ban in the SP was partially lifted. That is when you got to read it.

Possibly the saddest aspect of your Weekly Worker comments is when you seek to justify my expulsion: "Quite obviously Harry Paterson supports the ideas of the CPGB. What can you do in such a case?" The best way to answer this would be to say that I neither accept nor reject any 'positions' simply because they are perceived as 'belonging' to another organisation. The idea that any one party or group has a monopoly on truth has far more in common with mindless semi-religious cultism than revolutionary socialism.

I have to ask you, comrade Page - if you accept that it is correct to expel comrades for their unorthodox thoughts, how do you expect our party to develop a critical sense towards events, both historical and contemporary? If we are not careful, all we will be left with are a handful of unthinking automatons parroting the latest thoughts of Peter Taaffe and his successors. Our movement has surely had more than enough of that.

In conclusion, let me state that I am firmly committed to building the Socialist Party on the basis of democratic centralism and a revolutionary programme. I call upon all comrades, including you, comrade Page, to support my appeal against expulsion. Send resolutions to centre and contact me to speak at your branch.

Harry Paterson