Anti-Taaffe rebellion

Opposition inside Socialist Party

Harry Paterson has become something of a cause célèbre in and around the Socialist Party. He was expelled by order of Peter Taaffe supposedly for bringing the 'party' into disrepute. In fact, he was bureaucratically witch-hunted for his political views, not least as presented in his document, 'For democratic centralism', which was banned from the Members Bulletin (see Weekly Worker March 23). He spoke to Mark Fischer

Obviously, I am appealing against my expulsion. Ken Smith has written to me informing me that - despite the suspicioun that I am a member of another (unnamed) party - the leadership is granting me the right to appeal. I hope SPers flood the centre with demands that not only am I reinstated, but that those who have led our organisation to such a shameful state - centrally, Peter Taaffe - are themselves in the dock. As a long-standing member, it grieves me to see what has happened to a once proud working class organisation.

I initially joined the Labour Party in the late 1980s. Militant were active in my branch. It became apparent very quickly that the Labour Party was simply not an effective vehicle for socialist change: it didn't even talk politics. The Militant comrades I came across contrasted very favourably with the run-of-the-mill Labourites. I quickly became a sympathiser of the organisation. I was buying the paper on a regular basis. I subsequently found out that I went through a pretty standard contact process.

I was actually a Labour councillor at the time. Ironically, quite a rightwing one really. If fact, at one early stage I actually wanted to jail the leading Militant supporter in my branch for not paying his poll tax! I was attracted via the paper and I initially made the overtures to them about a contact discussion. They were not keen. Basically because this comrade had reported my rightwing ways to the regional committee. It is delicious to be called an "ultra-left" nowadays by these same people.

I eventually joined. I thought Militant was different to the rest of the left. Its approach contrasted with what I perceived as the hysteria of other left groups around at the time. The Socialist Workers Party and other groups seemed to me at the time quite ultra-left, out of step with the movement, as I understood it. Militant seemed viable, I suppose.

There was a deeply held belief among the comrades that I knew in Militant that some of the ideas that we publicly defended - the possibility of peaceful revolution and so on - were only advanced because if we put our full programme over without any 'diplomacy' we would be hounded out and expelled from Labour. As everything depended on us staying in at all costs, waiting for the 'objective process' to land victory into our laps, we had to tone it down. It was seen by comrades like myself as a ruse, a 'clever' tactic. This method was given theoretical justification by Peter Taaffe and Ted Grant.

I was genuinely of the opinion that we were actually revolutionaries. It lent the whole organisation a certain cachet, a sort of underground élan. We were revolutionaries, but deep underground in hostile territory. In its own way, this probably helped ensure that there were so few splits during those years from the Militant. We had a sneering attitude to the rest of the left about this, a big feeling of superiority.

The success of Militant seemed to me concrete proof of the correctness of the ideas. I was a loyal and convinced Militant member!

My confidence was pretty misplaced as it turned out. Post-1992 and the open turn, it has been a pretty relentless decline. I did support the open turn and still think I was right to do so. But once we had detached ourselves from the 'host organism', as it were, we were in trouble. But at the time, there was really no choice.

Quite apart from the pressure from Kinnock's witch-hunt, we had tens of thousands of people up and down the country pressing us hard to go independent, to make the break from Labour. Our comrades were very frustrated. Here was this large constituency for left, socialist ideas outside the Labour Party and we were trapped. Yes, I wholeheartedly supported the open turn.

With hindsight, it was clear that this was an untheorised move by the leadership. Essentially what guided it was the attitude - 'let's jump before we are pushed'.

I started having doubts about the leadership and our direction pretty quickly after we jumped. But because of the way we had been schooled, it was not natural to voice these doubts. Rather, you tended to internalise them. You thought: 'Well, we have a proven leadership and a correct programme. It must be me that is missing something'. The name change debate brought it all out.

On the one hand, we were told that with the open turn we could present ourselves as what we were at long last, as revolutionaries. Then, when we discussed the name change, it was clear that the SP leadership perceived of forming the core of some reformist party. The justification for dropping the name 'Militant' was incredible - that it was associated with violence, even with revolution. This was an important catalyst for me.

It became increasingly difficult to square what was happening in the world with our perspectives. The key question was the USSR. We were promised there was no chance of a return to capitalism, this was a "chimera". That one development - the counterrevolution - caused me to re-evaluate not simply my organisation, but Trotskyism as a whole. It was not the political revolution; it was a counterrevolution.

In the three years up to 1999, I had developed serious differences. It seemed to me that the biggest obstacle to correcting the things that I perceived to be wrong was the restrictive internal regime. It simply was not acceptable to raise substantial differences, serious left criticisms. The facade of democracy that the SP has is very much a managed democracy. Only certain things may be said, only certain ideas may be challenged: differences with the leadership are acceptable if they are of nuance and shade. Anything more substantial and you are on your way out - Taaffe runs a sect, in other words.

Having said that, I was stunned that the leadership did not even make an attempt to answer the politics of my document, For democratic centralism. As I was finishing it off, Hannah Sell, the national activities organiser, had even told me that they were holding over a Members Bulletin for it. I anticipated some very heavy polemical flak - but no. What have these hacks done?

Banned it from the Member Bulletin. Banned it from being privately circulated in the organisation. Banned me from defending its ideas publicly. Refused - even once - to discuss any of the political ideas contained in it. Seriously, I have not had one political criticism of the document. I have simply been told - without any reasons given - that the ideas it defends are "anti-SP", "hostile" and "crap".

Even now, I challenge a representative of the leadership to debate democratic centralism with me. I was told as I dotted the i's and crossed the t's that Peter Taaffe considered himself a bit of a 'killer' on the subject and was looking forward to getting his teeth into me. Perhaps he's forgotten what glass he has left them in. Even now, I challenge him - or if he hasn't the guts any more - any member of this leadership to debate me in a public forum on democratic centralism, or to have an exchange in the press of the revolutionary left. I know they won't respond because they have already shown themselves bankrupt politically.

This Taaffe-Mullins leadership has forfeited the right to represent our party. Such is the state they are in, they can only mislead. The London Socialist Alliance is perhaps the starkest, most shameful example of this so far. They reduced our party to a laughing stock, not only in London but everywhere. This cannot be tolerated any longer by the comrades who have fought so long and hard to built this organisation. Our membership is plummeting (despite 'dumbing' down our minimal requirements massively) and is thoroughly disorientated politically. The main job of fulltimers and loyalists seems to be to act as chaperones to new recruits, to make sure that they are not exposed to other ideas, perhaps - horror of horrors! - revolutionary ideas.

The executive committee is supposed to subordinate to the national committee. In reality the power relations are the other way round. It operates as a bureaucratic clique. There is no chance of a 'peaceful', reformist road to replace the SP leadership: they have to be overthrown by a rank and file revolt.

And - at last - there are some encouraging signs that it is starting to happen. When the Weekly Worker got hold of my document and printed it, I expected a low key response. After my 'Open letter to Ian Page' - again, printed in the Weekly Worker - I had three or four new comrades contacting me every day for the best part of a fortnight. There is clearly a large, latent opposition in the SP. Encouragingly, long-standing cadre are now standing up and saying - 'enough is enough'.

This is good, The opposition has to be bold, or it is simply doomed. I understand that last year a scaffold opposition group in London collapsed after one front page article in the Weekly Worker sketchily described their activities. This is hopeless. The opposition has to have guts. And in contrast to Taaffe and his clique, we have to be open with our politics (obviously comrades' individual identities are another thing). If we criticise the bureaucratic clique at the head of our party for acting as conspirators and having contempt for openness, then no left opposition is going to win by acting in the same way. What's the point of a silent opposition? How does its fight help the rest of the wider movement that we are all part of?

So, far from the opposition this time round being worried about some article in the Weekly Worker, it should use this paper to further its battle. It should use other papers in our movement. It must not be scared of publicity. Publicity is oxygen for our type of politics.

I would say that all dissidents in the SP have to 'come out'. This rebellion takes place in the context of movement and change on the left in general. The LSA showed that. The days of bureaucratic leaderships in our movement are numbered.