From poll tax glory to sectarian oblivion

Why has the Socialist Party in England and Wales lost 95% of its membership? Why has Scotland declared UDI and the Liverpool organisation liquidated itself? Why is the SP behaving in such an irrational and self-destructive manner towards the Socialist Alliance? Harry Paterson, who is currently appealing against his expulsion from the Socialist Party, looks at the reasons behind the SP's crisis

In some ways the crisis gripping the Socialist Party is repeated in just about every other group on the left at the present time. There is a certain cultural commonality. However, in our particular case there are specific reasons for the extreme form that the crisis has taken.

Now, before dealing more specifically with the nature of that crisis and what it means - not just for the SP, but for the class and for the rest of the left - it would be pertinent to outline the scale of our decline, not just in terms of membership, but more importantly in terms of political authority and general influence amongst the class.

Comrades may be aware that the paper of the forerunner of the Socialist Party, Militant, was initially published in 1964, and at that time the grouping, originating in Liverpool, had a core of only six people. From that period until about 1975, the growth of Militant was steady, but relatively slow. So much so that by the time of the great industrial unrest and the union struggles of the 1970s, the Militant Tendency was still numerically and in terms of its political influence very much the younger brother to some of the other left groups.

But once the growth on Merseyside started to occur in the early 1980s, that seemed to have the kind of effect made by a pebble in water. Events in Merseyside heartened comrades in all parts of the country, and the influence spread proportionately. That is when we saw the massive growth of Militant, and at its height, in 1988, it had 10,000 subscription-paying members. That is not SWP-style hyperbole: it was a concrete figure. These were people who would be paying subs on a regular basis, usually by standing order, and attending at least one branch meeting and one sale a week. These were the requirements of membership. I am talking about the organisational requirements of membership at that time as opposed to the political ones, which is a separate subject.

In an article that appeared in the Weekly Worker on January 7 1999, Peter Manson referred to the scale of the decline since those days. He says the SP had 8,000 members at its height. Today, he says, there are fewer than 500, "mostly inactive". That last figure is probably pretty accurate. But now membership figures are locked up tight. The only people who have access to them are national committee members. Even full-timers are not allowed to know how many members the organisation has nationally. The reason for that is obvious. The drop in membership has been so catastrophic that the national committee clearly reckons that, were the national membership, such as it is, to have this information, the damage to morale would be significant.

It would be too simplistic to say that the problem with the Socialist Party is that it has not got a revolutionary programme or does not practise genuine democratic centralism. Both of those are true, but that is not the direct reason for its current situation. The very thing that has brought the Socialist Party to today's low point actually appeared as its strength in the 80s, a period where the class seemed to be in upsurge. Unlike some of the Trotskyist groupings clustered in and around the Fourth International that used to make almost a fetish of tendencies, factions and so on, we always quite prided ourselves on the fact that we had no need for and no truck with this kind of 'splittism', and 'pedantry', whereby the revolutionary party - which is of course how we all saw ourselves at the time - would need to sit around pontificating on finer points of theory. We had quite a contemptuous attitude towards theory.

So policy was formulated at the top, by Peter Taaffe and Ted Grant, and would filter its way down through the full-timers to the branches. They would fix the general parameters of debate. Comrades would raise differences of shade and of nuance, but nothing more substantial. You could meet comrades from a different part of the country that you had never met before, and within five minutes of talking to them you would know they were a member of Militant. We had stock phrases, we had our own jargon. Crick, in his book Militant, notes that this common culture, at its most ludicrous, even took the form whereby a minority of comrades, in order to emphasise supposed proletarian credentials, would try and speak with a horrible amalgam accent which was a cross between East End London and Merseyside.

We used to make a virtue of the fact that we could publish a Members Bulletin, which contains articles from a dozen or so different comrades, not all of whom are on the leadership. This has been used to refute accusations that we do not have debate and are not democratic. But its contents are anodyne, without substance or theoretical meat that would stretch comrades.

In my document, 'For democratic centralism', which was published in the Weekly Worker (March 23), I refer to the split with Ted Grant. The leadership polemicised with him in the pages of The Guardian. They exchanged correspondence that was never distributed amongst the wider membership, and it was not until many years later that a record of the dispute was officially published. There were two leadership factions involved in a political battle, but the members were not even spectators. You cannot intervene in a debate when you do not even know it is going on. There is no thorough working out of differences. You cannot learn from the sharp clash of ideas unless it is out in the open. You cannot even have an input into the direction of the organisation to which you are paying a tenth of your wages.

The only criticisms acceptable to the leadership are those made from the right. If you are prepared to do that, as the Pakistani comrades did, the leadership will honour you with substantial polemics, spanning a period of months and running to many pages and a great deal of ink and paper, and try to convince you of the error of your ways. If you are polemicising from the right they feel they are occupying the high ground.

But for those of us that wanted to raise principled left criticisms, this is of course where we really see the essence of the leadership's degeneracy and its bureaucratic practice. For my own part, I remember writing to Peter Taaffe some years ago regarding a pamphlet he had written, Stalinism in crisis, which gives you a unique insight into the mind of one of our organisation's leading 'Marxists'.

The particular line that caused me some problems, bearing in mind that this was written in 1987, was where comrade Taaffe says: "In Russia and in eastern Europe, a pro-capitalist wing of the bureaucracy exists. It is a minority, and there is no possibility of a return to capitalism." So he was wrong - that is not a problem. However, I wrote to the general secretary in 1993 saying that the "return to capitalism" had clearly happened, and that I was rather thrown by this, as I had been when I first read it.

The general secretary did not reply in writing - that is a particular hallmark of the leadership of the Socialist Party: never to commit anything like an admission to the record. What he did was have a word with the East Midlands region full-timer and ask the comrade to explain to me that if I went back and read all the material then I would see that the statement is not actually wrong. They told me I was not thinking dialectically. I wanted to understand where we were going wrong or what I had not grasped. I was promised a discussion with a couple of leading full-timers to convince me of the error of my ways, but this never occurred.

This is a good example of the regime I have come from - or have just been thrust out of, I should say. Certain areas of party business are seen as the definite province of a select group of people. Finance, for example, is handled by a very small, self-contained group on the national committee. Although financial documents are issued every year at congress, this is purely to allow accounts to be rubber-stamped. I remember a comrade raising a query at one congress which touched a raw nerve because of the hidden dispute with the Merseyside comrades: the print shop, the accusations of financial irregularities, etc. When this comrade asked a perfectly innocent question about why this particular balance did not add up, he was approached by the leadership's apparatchiks and effectively gagged.

The problem that we have, the reason that such events are liable to occur, is that when you have a politics that is so fragile, that has no flexibility, you need a mechanism in place to maintain the level of cohesiveness that we clearly enjoyed up to and including the poll tax campaign. As a result the Socialist Party has become so bureaucratised that there are literally bits dropping off all over the place.

Our politics - the line - is handed down to us from on high. When we were recruiting hand over fist, packing out Wembley Conference Centre and raising £50,000 a time, then the politics seemed to have a viability and a resonance, which provided us with an armour-plated defence against the realities of the outside world. But when things start to go wrong, there will inevitably be a balloon-popping crisis amongst the more thinking layer of the cadre.

However, it would be ludicrous to assume that an organisation which enjoyed such levels of success was controlled by a bunch of idiots; clearly that cannot be so. In the Socialist Party today there are working class leaders of some competence, of some influence and of some standing in their communities. For everything I say about Peter Taaffe's politics, the man has been around, running an organisation, long enough to at least have some idea of how to control it. But cracks are starting to appear all over the place.

The leadership had no problem justifying its bureaucratic regime. For example, in the induction of new comrades, recruits are given some choice readings from Peter Taaffe. He explains that a revolutionary party must organise in a way that is democratic, but disciplined at all times. And the essence of democracy is mechanically and clumsily contrasted with the essence of centralism.

So Peter Taaffe, in his 'ground-breaking' treatise on the operation of democratic centralism, states that whenever there is an upsurge in the class struggle, or where everything is going well, then of course we can have lots of debate and everything is fine (an incredible irony here is that the piece was actually a veiled polemic directed at the Merseyside dissidents. I well recall comrades scratching their heads, wondering why such a document appeared when it did). But when you are being attacked by your enemies - and it is interesting and significant that the enemies referred to, at least in the mind of my region's full-timer, were not the capitalists, the Conservative Party or New Labour, but the Socialist Workers Party, the Communist Party of Great Britain, the Alliance for Workers' Liberty - then we can have no public dissent at all. So if we were to have a public meeting, comrades would be briefed that we have a line. If anybody contradicts that in public then they will be bounced.

That was one of the reasons why the organisation enjoyed such consistency and was not prone to splits: this weakness was at certain times its strength. If comrades are convinced of a certain ideal, if they believe that the proof of the pudding is in the eating - we are recruiting, we are gaining political influence, we are getting councillors and MPs elected, while the SWP is just standing on the sidelines waving their placards - then there is no great difficulty in policing comrades theoretically, because they are not even particularly interested in discussing the critical theory. The line is set and it is providing concrete results. But when the objective circumstances are not favourable for an organisation functioning in the way the SP does, then it starts falling apart. This is the direct cause of the decline.

So this is why I believe - and Peter Manson touches on this briefly in his article - the crisis in the Socialist Party is making itself felt most markedly in those areas where it was previously strongest. For example, Liverpool was the jewel in the crown. There was a whole book by Taaffe devoted just to the developments of the organisation in Liverpool, culminating in the struggle around the city council.

Once Liverpool had gone, Scotland essentially was all that Taaffe had left. And here, Taaffe is caught in a cleft stick. Scotland is a pain in the arse that he would love to be shot of, but cannot afford to. The esteem and respect that leading comrades in the Scottish Socialist Party enjoy in their communities - not least Tommy Sheridan despite the numerous differences I would have with his politics - is something that Taaffe just cannot afford to dismiss lightly. It is possibly the most valuable remaining commodity that the CWI has left. Of course, what has been interesting and amusing has been to watch how the Scottish comrades have desperately tried to get out, and in doing so have clutched at absolutely any kind of avenue of escape. Let's not have a CWI speaker at the SSP conference - yes, that will do. What we have got here is a bunch of unruly schoolchildren insulting the head, and desperately hoping that they are going to get expelled.

Because of the way that comrades are educated inside the Socialist Party, we are not trained to think independently over a wide intellectual terrain. Comrades are only expected to learn certain core notions. So when you have doubts, when you have problems, when comrades arrive at what they feel is going to be a theoretical disagreement with the leadership, your first response is to think, 'Damn, I've missed something.' And what tends to happen is that people can only formulate rightist answers.

Take Dave Cotterill of the Merseyside Socialists. He disputes the claim that the objective situation, the level of strikes, the collapse of Stalinism, the complete throwback of the working class, are reasons for our decline. The decline of the Socialist Party and by extension, he says, the British left, and its inertia and complete failure to move forward, is because we still cling to this outmoded method of organisation: democratic centralism.

Taaffe and co insist that in the post-Stalinist world we have got to avoid anything that smacks of authoritarianism, Stalinism and so on. That is why we cannot refer to our mode of organisation as democratic centralism: we have to call it 'democratic unity'. That is enforced rigidly and ironically I have seen comrades soundly admonished in front of cadre for daring to use the wrong term. Of course in reality the SP's bureaucratic centralism bears no relation to Leninist forms of organisation - no matter what name you give it. But Cotterill has taken this bureaucratic method and thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

To take another example, comrades may remember that Nick Wrack once edited The Socialist. Nick resigned, and his resignation statement was printed in the Weekly Worker. I recently had a conversation with a comrade close to Nick. From this it seems that Nick bears the kind of marks common to all people who have left the Socialist Party on his type of trajectory. He thinks the regime is not the problem per se. The problem is the whole concept of revolutionary organisation. The Merseyside Socialists, and so many other right dissidents inside the Socialist Party and Militant before them, have equated our regime with what they believe is Leninist organisation.

Similarly, there is the viewpoint that holds that the only way that we can now get the ear of the class and proceed to grow is by dumbing down to such a level as to make ourselves almost indistinguishable from the most backward elements. For example I turned up at a public meeting in Leicester last September, I think it was. In discussion with some Leicester comrades I was appalled to learn that a recent, and typical, branch discussion amongst seasoned cadre, with five newcomers was, 'Do we need trade unions?' I was told the reason for this was that some of the new comrades were anti-trade union, so we had to ease these people in. Incredible.

On another occasion I have seen a comrade in the middle of a lead-off at a branch meeting being interrupted and actually ticked off for daring to use a word like 'Stalinism', because 18- or 19-year-olds who were attending for the first time would not have a clue what he was talking about. We have got to get away from all this.

But in a way this is why the Socialist Party is still managing to stumble on. It produces a pretty substantial paper in comparison with the rest of the left: it has 12 pages, it is reasonably well produced, it is obviously still selling sufficient copies to keep the organisation afloat. If you look at the fighting fund column, people are still raising, by comparison with the rest of the left, healthy sums of money. They are still enjoying in key areas of the country quite a high level of support. Even in places like Liverpool, where almost the entire organisation debunked to the Merseyside Socialists, those few remaining loyalists like Pete Glover and Roger Bannister are still looked upon by the wider community with a level of respect.

That is why some comrades can convince themselves there is no crisis. But what we see in the SP, the British section of the Committee for a Workers International, is something which comrades who read the Weekly Worker will know has affected all sections. We see exactly the same process taking place throughout the CWI. The Pakistani comrades raised more and more antagonistic criticisms from a rightist trajectory and were eventually expelled once a loyalist section had been cohered to carry on the franchise. The former US minority took the method we had all been trained in to its limits: the complete submerging of any defining revolutionary characteristics within the most spontaneous elements of the class. These comrades had a protracted battle of over a year before they were finally, disgracefully, expelled. We saw the same process with the section in Berlin, the same process with the section in Sweden, and there are now rumours about the Australian section.

The crisis in the Socialist Party can be linked to a wider crisis of Trotskyism. Speaking as somebody who has come from that tradition, I would suggest that possibly one of the biggest disservices that was ever done to Trotsky was the creation of 'Trotskyism'. This relates to Militant's Labourism. Our equivalent of Trotsky's famous 'French turn' was to submerge ourselves in deep entryist work inside the Labour Party. What we did with Trotsky, like just about every Trotskyist group has done, is take a particular frozen moment in time and attempt to faithfully replicate those conditions in totally different circumstances.

We would adapt ourselves to the milieu in which we were working and take on the characteristics of the new environment. In that sense we were the 'chameleon tendency'. According to the mechanical perspectives developed by Taaffe and Grant to justify our work in the Labour Party, as the class struggle rose even the most backward workers would automatically turn to what they see as their organisations - the trade unions and Labour. The Labour Party would be flooded with militant workers, the Labour left would become huge, completely swamping the right, and Militant would emerge and lead the way to revolution.

Ray Apps put the flesh on the bones in a celebrated phrase at congress in 1993 when he stated: "The road to the British revolution lies through the Labour Party." (Perhaps not surprisingly, you will not find any reference to this remark in the subsequent Members Bulletin.) This perspective was so mechanical that we absolutely ruled out the possibility of any kind of revolutionary upsurge taking place, independently, outside of, or excluding the Labour Party.

Although the intention was to win Labour workers to revolution, it eventually became clear that the reverse was happening. When we detached ourselves from that host organism, the effects of institutionalisation were unmistakable. There were a lot of comrades wandering around outside the Labour Party post-1992 like ex-cons, not knowing what to do.

It was as though we were only able to define ourselves in terms of our relationship to the "mass party of the class", as we had viewed Labour for that entire period of 40 years. The whole point of Taaffe's 'new mass workers' party' is that it is intended to be another such host organism. Marx talked about history repeating itself first as tragedy and then as farce.

Of course, the SP organisation could continue in this way for some considerable time. But it could also implode at any minute. There is no means of resolving political differences. There can be no hammering out of a correct programme. And that is why they got it so wrong during the Greater London Authority elections. The leaders of Militant always tried to isolate the membership from other left groups. In order to try to keep the faithful on board we were told: 'Don't talk to them: they are just sects.' But our comrades are now out there in the big wide world, where competition is tough. Taaffe seems incapable of genuinely uniting with the left in the Socialist Alliance.

When Peter Taaffe formulated the position of a new mass workers' party, this untheorised slogan was not a move towards genuine left unity, but a direct reaction to the fact that we were being expelled from Labour. All our sources of revenue, of recruits, of influence, all the routes into the class that we had previously enjoyed were drying up, and we needed something to take its place - and quick. Taaffe came up with the idea of the mass workers' party, where he could position his sect as the 'Marxist' core, or the 'revolutionary' wing.

For people like me, who have been members for a decade or more, during the days when we thought we were the revolutionary organisation in Britain, the 'open turn' came as a shock. Suddenly, we discovered that we were reformists. It literally fell from the sky for a number of us: despite all the lip service that we pay to being a "Marxist" organisation, we are a reformist party. The 'open turn' and the name change were moves which helped open my eyes. The shock is all the greater when you realise that what we have got here is not just a mistaken term or a mistaken tactic: we have got a political catastrophe.

We had noticed that there were things creeping into the 'What we stand for' column in our paper that had not been there previously. For example, the number one demand had previously been for the nationalisation of the top 250 monopolies. As the 1990s went on, all of a sudden, overnight, without any kind of discussion, that was changed to "Renationalise the privatised utilities under working class control". We used to say, and it was sprinkled throughout our material, "We stand for revolutionary change and the reorganisation of society along socialist lines." The word 'revolutionary' had to disappear obviously, in the new revamped The Socialist, and the column now simply says that we campaign for a socialist society that will meets the needs of all.

The point I am making is, from 1988 to 1992, while the party was growing, while it was functioning vibrantly, while we were getting Tommy Sheridan elected and while Thatcher, we thought, was shaking in her boots at the tumultuous events on Merseyside, these issues were never even raised.

I believe that a really healthy revival of a genuine left current within the Socialist Party will be impossible without a serious upsurge in the class struggle, and an injection of fresh blood. The old guard are unlikely to change: they can only behave in a conditioned, almost reflex, fashion. At the same time, the middle layer of cadre, which would once have filled branch secretaries' positions and so on, has now almost completely gone, and has been replaced by the "post-Stalinist generation", as Taaffe referred to them: young people of 17 to 22. They are being fed a diet of sub-reformist economism to a level that makes me blanch. There are no avenues for these people to become self-activating revolutionaries: there are no arenas in which they can exchange ideas and openly question.

In my opinion, the general election is going to make or break the Socialist Party in terms of any remaining influence that it has got. There is going to be a viable left alternative to Blair. Fifty or 100 candidates will be great, preferably linking up with the Scottish comrades as well. If that happens, where will that leave the SP? We could well get a repeat of the lamentable role Taaffe played in the London Socialist Alliance, and we know that cost quite a few long-time members. The noises the leadership is making at the moment, in terms of its approach and orientation towards the rest of the Socialist Alliance, makes it increasingly doubtful that it can come out at the other side of the general election with any kind of viability.

If the kind of sectarian stance we saw during the GLA campaign is replicated throughout the country, it could trigger the Socialist Party's final slide into micro-sect status, along with Gerry Healey's old Workers Revolutionary Party, Scargill's Socialist Labour Party, etc. The organisation does already have all the hallmarks of a sect. However, I would perhaps shy away from absolutely describing it as such, because there are still, in certain parts of the country, quite strong organic links with sections of the class, most notably Coventry.

In this current period, when the SP is staying at arm's length as the rest of the left cements some kind of principled unity, it is difficult to see how the SP is going to survive without ousting Taaffe and his whole leadership clique. Discontent amongst the regional barons is palpable. The most likely outcome is that Taaffe's sectarian approach towards the Socialist Alliance will cause another split.

For example, Dave Nellist's actions, orientation and tone from at least the GLA elections up to now have been nothing less than a calculated snub to Peter Taaffe. It may not appear that way to people who are not looking particularly closely, but, given the etiquette of the Socialist Party, that is exactly what it is. Nellist is, I believe, a principled man and he also has a base in the class. But he is steering a very difficult line at present - so much so that he is in danger of losing himself unless he breaks publicly with Taaffe and challenges for leadership.

My personal assessment is that Dave Nellist is playing a waiting game. Nellist has his base in Coventry, but the rest of the organisation is heading for the rocks. Yet he is in the same boat, albeit not on the bridge. Where does someone like that, who has dedicated a large part of his life to building the organisation, take his talent and his commitment? I believe Dave Nellist is aware of the danger but has not yet summoned up the courage to stage his mutiny - wider developments will surely play a crucial role.

The entire problem is of course programmatic in essence. But of course the fundamental question must be, for those of us that are interested in the Socialist Party and the role it could still have, how can we resolve the crisis positively? It is the same programmatic crisis that has engulfed the entire revolutionary left. That is why the Socialist Party's left opposition, grouping members and ex-members, has now started to publish. The reason we have come together is that we feel that the first place for comrades to fight is within their own organisation.


Militant Left Opposition is essentially an attempt at reclaiming the positive aspects of our tradition. The Militant Tendency, and the Socialist Party for a very short period in its initial infancy, has been the only left current since the 'official' CPGB that has had a genuinely mass base in sections of the class, with organic proletarian leaders. That is something those of us who have founded this opposition are instinctively aware of. We need to theorise it, however. We have concentrated on the negative, but we need to claim for ourselves the positive as well.

I do not think for a second that producing Militant Left Opposition is the whole answer - not by any means. But, in a small way, a flag has been planted. If the phone calls and e-mails received by the opposition are anything to go by, it is clear that the GLA debacle has got a whole layer of previously jaded and cynical Socialist Party members rethinking fundamental questions about the class, the party, the leadership, programme, democratic centralism, and so on. Even if that is all we can achieve, then I believe that it will have been worthwhile.

What is vital for the opposition is to base ourselves on a commitment to the Socialist Alliance. I think we need principled unity, presenting a challenge to Blair. But the most useful role is to try to learn on behalf of the whole left from the crisis that has engulfed the Socialist Party. This in turn opens up the whole question of the type of organisation we need: what should be its programme, how should it function, what will be its internal life?

I believed the answers are to be found in authentic Leninism. Answers that absolutely terrify Taaffe and his lieutenants.