SWP set to join Scottish rivals

The Socialist Workers Party's annual 'Marxism' meeting is a forum where policy changes are sometimes announced, discussed or confirmed. This year was no different. Scottish members met on Saturday July 8 to consider their attitude to the Scottish Socialist Party. Smoke signals coming from the meeting seem to confirm that the SWP is intending to join the SSP, as the Weekly Worker had previously been suggesting.

The Scottish members we spoke to were generally in favour of this move. It was the entry of the SWP into the electoral field which seems to have changed the political psychology. In Scotland, standing candidates was viewed as a positive experience which had galvanised the party and brought it into closer contact with the working class. Even the modest votes had not put the comrades off. On the contrary, it had confirmed the need for more consistent activity that could be linked to electoral work.

One note of caution seemed to be a reluctance to have to sell the SSP paper, Scottish Socialist Voice. But SWP members comforted themselves with the observation that SSP members do not tend to sell it themselves. In any case it would become a different paper if SWP members were writing and debating in its pages.

We raised the question of one of the central demands of the SSP programme - the call for an "independent socialist Scotland". SWP members did not see this as a major stumbling block. Certainly it would not be such a problem as to prevent them joining. The problem would come when the SWP sought to define its own position. The traditional view has been liberal and tailist, with a tendency to follow public opinion. If the Scottish people want separation then they can have it. But that still does not answer the question about what the SWP is in favour of now. Does it have any democratic demands to put forward itself? This point has not yet lodged in the minds of members.

This move will have major implications for the SWP and for the rest of the left. But it seems unlikely that the decision will be confirmed until this year's SWP conference, which is usually held in October or November. Nevertheless 'Marxism 2000' seems to have given the move towards the SSP some momentum.

The SWP is in reality joining the anti-poll tax party, headed by the most famous anti-poll tax rebel in Scotland. It is significant that it is the SWP joining the SSP, and not the other way round. At last the SWP has nearly caught up politically with the movement which evolved from that struggle over a decade ago. Now it has to move in advance and actually lead. This will be impossible unless the SWP learns the lessons of where it went wrong and how these mistakes must be corrected.

The anti-poll tax movement showed up the real weaknesses of SWP politics. It showed that the SWP was unable to connect with and raise the movement to a higher level of revolutionary and democratic politics. The fight against the poll tax must be linked to the general struggle for democracy. The poll tax movement gave an impetus to democratic aspirations and demands. It was this popular feeling for political change in Scotland that Labour sought to channel towards devolution and the SNP towards independence. The Marxist answer of revolutionary democrats is a republican parliament as part of a wider federal republic.

Ten years ago we in the Revolutionary Democratic Group said: "The poll tax is part of a strategy for extending bureaucratic control. It is about restricting the ability of local people, especially working class people, to influence local affairs. In doing so the burden is to be shifted more squarely onto people with lower incomes. The poll tax is not just about the redistribution of the tax burden; it is about the redistribution of power. Hence the struggle against the poll tax must be part of a general struggle for democracy, for people to have power at local and national level" (Republican Marxist Bulletin No3, January 1990).

The fight against the poll tax had an obvious 'Scottish' dimension. A vindictive Thatcher forced the poll tax on Scotland. The Tories had no mandate for the new tax, even less so in anti-Tory Scotland. So Scotland was first in line for punishment and the first to launch a mass campaign of civil disobedience. It should have been clear that for Marxists it was necessary to take on not only the Tories, but also the Labour leadership, who would do everything to sabotage and destroy an illegal movement.

The spontaneous politics of the anti-poll tax movement was anti-Thatcherism. The 'natural' answer was a Labour government that would introduce a Scottish parliament loyal to the British crown. But Marxism should challenge the 'natural' answers and show a democratic way forward - neither devolution nor independence. The anti-poll tax movement was a movement that could come to express popular democratic and republican aspirations. But that required agitation by revolutionary republicans. A republican anti-poll tax movement would have provided an even better base for the entry of the left into mass electoral politics.

On the face of it, in terms of size and organisation, the SWP was the best placed to lead an anti-poll tax movement in Scotland. Yet the organisation, lacking a united front perspective and suffering from a 'downturn', performed second best to Militant (forerunner of the Socialist Party). Did the SWP use the opportunity to raise its policy on democracy and the national question? No - the policy remained firmly locked away. The SWP raised politics to the 'heights' of anti-Thatcherism. Look, declared the SWP to a startled population, the anti-poll tax movement means we need to get rid of Thatcher as well. And the obvious logic of this was simple. Kick the Tories out and vote Labour with no illusions.

Let us examine why the SWP is joining Tommy Sheridan's party and not the other way round. In January 1989, SWP members in Glasgow were told by the leadership that, "It did not matter whether comrades paid their poll tax or not, since non-payment was an irrelevance and a diversion" (Internal Bulletin No3, 1989). As a consequence, many SWP members paid their poll tax, "and now feel guilty and full of doubt as to how to respond in the present phase of the campaign".

This document, written by Glasgow SWP members, details the mistakes, confusion and demoralisation that arose. They explain that, "One of the major causes of disorientation in the district has been the experience of the poll tax campaign." They go on to say that, "With few exceptions we have consistently failed to connect with the most important and most sustained political campaign that Scotland has seen in decades."

The comrades say that, "The general position of the party was to argue correctly [sic] that only industrial action and involvement of the labour movement could defeat the poll tax." But by viewing the poll tax purely in terms of trade unionism and strikes the SWP fell into a sectarian trap. Its position was counterpoised to the community campaigns which led it to stand outside the movement. Militant was free to run a reformist political campaign. This connected to its political demands - to bring about a Labour government, with its well known slogan of the time - 'Labour to power on a socialist programme'.

The SWP's syndicalism placed it in an inferior strategic position to Militant. Given these errors of strategy, the SWP as usual adapted itself to the spontaneous ups and downs of the campaign. The SWP was never fully involved and always stood ready to pull out at a moment's notice. Having first isolated itself from the movement, the Glasgow comrades say, "A national circular (October 1988) rightly instructed us to change position and involve ourselves in the campaign."

Hardly had the new line got going, than in January 1989 it changed again and the brakes were applied. Comrades were told by the leadership that the movement was now definitely "in decline" and little could be expected from it. Comrade Bambery, for example, was adamant that, "There is nothing left in the poll tax for us." Yet no sooner had these words passed comrade Bambery's lips than 15,000 people marched past bewildered Socialist Worker sellers in Glasgow and not long afterwards 25,000 marched in Edinburgh.

Then in May 1989 there was yet another line change. Paul McGarr's Socialist Worker article in September of that year completed the change, when he noted that "community campaigns can often achieve victories". The Glasgow comrades commented that this was "the polar opposite of the position on which the entire intervention of the Glasgow district in particular and Scottish branches in general was based."

If we are to learn anything from this debacle, it is that the SWP's syndicalist politics was found wanting. Now the SWP is prepared to run 'community' campaigns at election time. It is a huge step forward. But how much real progress has been made? The SWP still has no democratic, political and constitutional answers.

But this story did not begin in 1998 or 1988. We should step back a further 10 years to the devolution debate of 1979. Here we can find the SWP's tendency to ignore political and constitutional questions and instead adopt the politics of liberalism and syndicalism.

Devolution - a Scottish parliament under the crown - is a liberal policy, whose roots are found in Gladstonian home rule. In the 1970s this was the basis for the policies of the Heath and Callaghan governments. The right wing of the bourgeoisie, classically represented by Thatcher, was dead against any kind of devolution. It believed that devolution threatened the union and would only encourage Scottish and Welsh nationalism.

The SWP saw no further than Callaghan's referendum, where it would have to say 'yes', 'no' or abstain over what Labour had on offer. The SWP should have developed an independent position by applying the Marxist theory of the state to the historically given conditions in the United Kingdom. Conditions, it should be remembered, where there was a mass republican movement already struggling in Ireland. Only in 1980 did the SWP's Republican Faction begin to do that, in critically assessing the party's failure.

But in 1978 the party did no more than consider the options offered by the bourgeoisie, in isolation from the class struggle. The 'noes' won the vote at SWP conference in 1978. This was much to the embarrassment of the central committee, which wanted to line up with the 'yes' camp. So the party fell behind the Tories, and Labour unionists like Tam Dalyell, in calling for a 'no' vote. The Tories were able to mobilise sufficient 'no' votes in the referendum to launch a parliamentary assault on Callaghan's Devolution Bill. This was duly defeated. The government fell and this provided the launch pad for Thatcher's election victory.

The fact that the SWP lined up with Thatcher in 1979 is something that members either do not know about or would rather forget. But it was the result of an economistic (i.e. reformist) politics, which began from the assumption that purely political matters are not that important when compared to 'class struggle' - conceived in economic and trade union terms. If political matters are not that important, it is easy to fall in behind the options laid down by the British ruling class.

In the mid-1980s, under the prompting of Alex Callinicos, the SWP reviewed its performance and recognised that voting 'no' had been a mistake. In future the SWP would vote 'yes' to devolution and line the party up with the left or liberal wing of the bourgeoisie, backed by the trade union bureaucracy. No sooner had this new policy been passed than it was mothballed and placed in a dark cupboard. It would not see the light of day until Tony Blair turned up. When Blair offered the Scottish people a rigged referendum for a dodgy royal parliament, the SWP could only meekly fall in behind it.

Its policy on the question had no relevance at the time of the anti-poll tax movement. The SWP was not fighting for a programme that included this policy on devolution. It was not raised in the anti-poll tax movement. No, the SWP's devolution policy was simply a crass piece of political opportunism to cover their own arses in case someone asked them an awkward question.

The fight against the poll tax paved the way for the breakaway of Scottish Militant Labour, the Scottish Socialist Alliance, the Blair government, Scottish devolution, and now the SSP. At last the SWP seems about to catch up with the anti-poll tax party. It has taken it long enough. But the real question is whether it has learnt anything on the way.

The SWP continued to follow the politics of Labourism through the last election and the referendum for a Scottish parliament. It still has no independent politics on the question of national democracy. The SWP is still hoping for a rising level of strikes - not to give impetus and add force to the democratic movement, but to drag it back down to purely wage demands. This is the kind of syndicalist politics displayed by the SWP in 1988-9. It is the kind of politics that SWP members feel safe and comfortable with.

The SWP members we spoke to at 'Marxism' were opposed to Scottish nationalism and Scottish independence. Yet their approach to politics meant that they do not consider the issue important. They have not worked out any real position which is strong enough to stand against the tide of public opinion. The answer they give to the national question is that if the Scottish people want independence they can have it.

The policy of an independent socialist Scotland is unlikely to keep the SWP out. However, it should pose some problems when it is in. When last weekend I asked Willie Black, a prominent SWP comrade in Scotland, whether the organisation would consider taking up the demand for a federal republic, his off-the-cuff response was instead for a workers' republic. This might seem odd for a party that backed Labour at the last election and then voted in favour for a Scottish parliament under the British crown. Will it now put on a left face to cover its failed policy by telling us that only a workers' republic is acceptable?

The SWP will be unable to relate to the real politics of the day if it continues with the dualism of political demands that are too low one minute and then too high the next.

Dave Craig (RDG)