Standing against LSA

Terry Liddle is a founding member of the Greenwich Socialist Alliance, but as a Green Party candidate he will be opposing the London Socialist Alliance on May 4. Peter Manson spoke to him

How would you describe your political evolution?

I started out at the age of 15 in 1963 in the Young Communist League. I was very briefly a member of the Socialist Labour League before it became the Workers Revolutionary Party after I left the YCL.

It was the sort of experience that would put anybody off Trotskyism for life. It reproduces some of the worst practices of Stalinism, but in smaller units - because of that it becomes magnified. There was this absurd - in many ways obscene - cult of personality around Gerry Healy. Anybody who criticised him was not only subjected to verbal abuse, but in some cases to physical abuse. I decided I had had enough and wanted to leave, but I was told I was not allowed to: I had to come to a meeting to be expelled! I refused and they continued to pester me. Eventually I took a long holiday in rural Wiltshire to get away from them.

After that I joined the Independent Labour Party and when they started going back into Labour I went with them. For most of my political life I was a Labour member. In my 22 years in the party I held positions at branch and constituency level - chair, secretary, youth officer, political education officer.

In the trade union movement I was, for example, a branch secretary and I have been a shop steward and convened a joint shop stewards committee.

I think you describe yourself as a revolutionary socialist.

Undoubtedly. If you mean someone who subscribes to the Marxist concept of the "forcible overthrow of all hitherto existing social conditions" - what Marx and Engels wrote about in the Communist manifesto - then, yes, I am a revolutionary socialist.

You are also a member of the Republican Communist Network.

That's right. I would tend to use 'socialist' and 'communist' interchangeably in much the way as they were used in Marx's time, and in the way in which they were used by some people in the Second International: for example, George Yates and Jack Fitzgerald in this country. Of course, when you had the breakaway, and the communist parties were formed after the Russian Revolution, some people called themselves 'socialist' and others 'communist'. But for me the final aim is world communism, which I would define as a global society without frontiers, without classes, without money, without commodity production and without the political state.

What was it that caused you to embrace organised green politics?

Even when I was a member of the Labour Party, I was very concerned with green issues. At one time I was quite active in the animals rights movement. I took up environmental issues such as pollution, and the whole thing around peaceful and military use of nuclear power. I felt the Green Party had very good policies on these things - in fact it had the policies that at one time the Labour Party had - for example, on unilateral nuclear disarmament.

The Labour Party was becoming more and more undemocratic - the individual constituency party, the individual member just wasn't listened to. Power was being concentrated very much at the centre - first under Kinnock, but the whole process accelerated when Blair became the leader. He did what Gaitskell couldn't do in the 60s, which was to remove the old clause four, part four - the commitment to public ownership. That for me was the final straw.

Because of my interest in green politics, and also because of the very democratic and decentralised way in which the Green Party works, I thought that was about the best place for me to go. Although it is not exclusively socialist, there are a whole number of socialists in it.

So you're a communist first and an environmentalist second?

I think the two go together. The only way that the world's environmental problems can be solved is by the overthrow of the system which is the cause of those problems - capitalism.

Yet you find yourself in a party which, although it may have socialists in it, is not socialist, where you have no chance of persuading the majority. Shouldn't you be working mainly in a specifically socialist organisation, fighting for your particular concerns within it?

Actually I think there is a chance of persuading the majority - especially if you look at the way the Green Party has moved in the 23 years of its existence. It began as the People Party in 1973 - then it was described as 'conservative anarchist'. Now it very much sees itself as a party of the left. There are, it is true, a lot of people in the Green Party who are quite frightened for various reasons - some of them quite genuine - of the 's' word: socialism. They identify socialism either with what has been done by past Labour governments or what happened in the Soviet Union. But if you explain what socialism is (and what it isn't as well), then there's a chance of winning those people over.

The problem with the socialist movement as such (by that I mean people describing themselves as Marxist) is, first, that it's very fragmented for historical reasons; and second, it has very little real influence at the moment upon working class people. Because of that it tends to devote an awful lot of its time to infighting and factionalism, which at times becomes virtually incestuous - it's almost become like a large, dysfunctional family.

You said the abolition of clause four was a key moment in your decision to leave the Labour Party, but the Green Party hasn't got a clause four or anything like it.

No, the Green Party has no constitution as such, but it has its Manifesto for a sustainable society, which is in a continual process of change. It's updated and amended at the two party conferences which take place annually. This year we got through an amendment which virtually says that the source of the environmental and other problems the world faces is global capitalism. So that's a start.

What socialists in the Green Party have got to do is to convince the majority - and to some extent those in the wider green movement as well - that the only real answer isn't piecemeal reforms - trying to tame capitalism or contain its worst excesses, by taxation for example - but by getting rid of the damned thing. Which is a long job, but then convincing the majority of working class people is a long job too.

You were the convenor of Greenwich Socialist Alliance, so obviously you are in favour of the socialist alliances.

Yes, I think it's a great advance. It's good that people from various organisations and various traditions, some of which have been quite hostile to each other, are managing to work together. If you can broaden that out so that it takes in not only people you could describe as left reformists and Marxists, but also people who have been influenced by green and libertarian socialist politics, then that could be a great step forward.

It could also begin to break the political mould - challenging the long hegemony that Labourism has had over the working class - and begin to lay the foundations for a very new and exciting politics.

I believe you wanted to see a common campaign between the London Socialist Alliance and the Green Party in the London assembly elections.

Yes, we put forward a motion at the annual general meeting of the London Federation of Green Parties, that we should open up discussions about electoral pacts between the Green Party and the Socialist Alliance, but unfortunately it was defeated - I think it was about two to one against.

As the Green candidate for Lewisham and Greenwich, you are now standing against Ian Page. How do you feel about that?

Well, I don't feel good about it. On a personal level I quite like Ian, who has a very good track record as a local councillor and campaigner. On the political level the big problem is that you could well find that with rival candidates and rival lists we could end up with no seats at all - not to mention the £1,000 deposit, which has come out of the pockets of a lot of people who don't have much money.

Ian has said that he would like a situation where socialists could do more work with greens. But unfortunately we couldn't do it in this election. Of course, although elections are important, they're not the be-all-and-end-all of everything, so perhaps we can get together over the post-election period. The best outcome of the GLA elections for me - apart from Ken being mayor, which would drive Blair and Millbank into a frenzy - would be if the LSA and the Green Party got one or two seats each.

Robin Harper and Tommy Sheridan seem to be able to work together quite successfully in the Scottish parliament - they even get arrested together on anti-Trident demonstrations. Why not in London? That could really bring greens and socialists closer together.

Presumably you are advocating a vote for the Green Party for the PR seats?

Yes, I'd be a strange Green Party candidate if I didn't. In this election it's too late to avoid splitting the vote. But in the future the way it has to be done is from the bottom up. This could come about through people in the localities, in the workplaces, working together on common campaigns, as we have to some extent in the past. That involves a learning process, where people get to know about each other's politics.

Unfortunately the left in this country tend not to actually work together and just fill up their papers with polemics against each other in the form of long-range sniping.

With the Socialist Workers Party on board we have a more than realistic chance of winning seats. You very much regret standing against Ian Page and the LSA, yet, as one of the founding members of the socialist alliance, far from throwing your hat in with the LSA, you are in effect sabotaging it.

You could say the same thing about the Communist Party of Britain and the Socialist Labour Party.

I do say the same. They've been invited to join a common list, but have refused to take part.

But it's not just a problem for the greens.

The non-socialist greens see themselves as the answer and see no point in an electoral alliance. But you say you are a revolutionary socialist and are a supporter of the socialist alliances.

One reason I stood was that people in the socialist alliances said there were not enough lefts on the Green list. Also, when I was selected as the Green Party candidate, I didn't then know whether or not the Socialist Alliance was going to stand at all - either in Greenwich and Lewisham or in London.

The Socialist Alliance is still mainly confined to groups and individuals who have come out of a particular tradition - which, for want of a better word, you could describe as Leninist or Bolshevik. You would probably disagree, but I think it needs to be a lot broader than that, taking in people from other traditions as well. Some of the people who need to be taken on board are the greens. If socialists in the Green Party organise themselves more and - dare one say it? - do a bit of factionalising, then I think we can extend our influence.

What I would like to see is something very much like the Green Left in the Netherlands or the Red Green Alternative in Denmark, which has very specific eco-socialist politics. The formation of such a party in Britain would be a two-way street: it would mean the existing left taking on board more green policies and recognising the centrality of the environment; at the same time greens must come to realise that the only solution to the environmental crisis is to get rid of the social, political and economic system that creates it.

But would such an organisation be capable of leading the violent overthrow of capitalism?

Yes, it could act as a focal point.

Wouldn't such a party have to be based on democratic centralism?

It would have to be very highly organised, obviously. Democratic centralism has always worked out as being an awful lot of centralism and very little democracy. The practice has negated the theory. Whether that can be overcome in the future I don't know. What I would see initially is something very democratic and decentralised, allowing a multiplicity of groupings and tendencies. Once you get into a revolutionary situation, it's a very different ball game: you do need tighter organisation and strict discipline - particularly if you're faced with a war situation, which may or may not happen. I personally would like to see a peaceful transition to socialism. Violence is not an end in itself. However, it may well prove necessary.

The thing is, how do you get from here to there? What is the process of transforming one reality into another?

We actually think it is a good thing that the socialist alliances contain non-revolutionary socialists and green socialists like yourself. But we make no secret of the fact that what we need is a Communist Party based on democratic centralism. This has nothing to do with the bureaucratic centralism practised in the past. For that to happen we need to convince people who are at present on the reformist left or in the green movement of the necessity of organising in such a way. I see the socialist alliances as one step along that road.

Yet it seems that some people are unable to achieve even the minimum discipline of uniting electorally on a common slate. I think you should not only welcome the development of the socialist alliances, but be with the London Socialist Alliance in this election.

It's an unfortunate occurrence. It didn't work out in the way I would have hoped. One of the reasons - and I have to take responsibility for this - is that the left in the Green Party wasn't organised in the vociferous, up-front way it should have been. We need to act as a tighter body to inject some socialist politics into the Green Party. Whether that means the Green Party would actually become socialist or the anti-socialists would turf us out remains to be seen.