Sectarian hypocrisy

Harry Paterson, who is in the process of being expelled from the Socialist Party, condemns the SP's counterposing of its 'new mass workers' party' to the reality of the Socialist Alliance

The Socialist Alliance represents an exciting opportunity for the revolutionary left. Post-Coventry the will to put flesh on the SA's bones has hardened, as reports from up and down the country indicate an enthusiastic and determined approach on the part of many comrades.

For the Socialist Party, however, the gulf between, on the one hand, its declared perspectives, the 'new mass workers' party', and, on the other, the reality of the organisation's day-to-day relationship to the Socialist Alliance is widening. The pressure on an already fragile, semi-theorised politics is growing. As we approach the general election, the SP is going to have to resolve these contradictions if it is not to emerge seriously, possibly terminally, damaged.

Given the SP's adherence to the 'new mass workers' party' and the consistent acts of sectarian sabotage taking place in Socialist Alliances up and down the country it is worthwhile examining in some detail how one relates to the other. How, if at all, general secretary Peter Taaffe and the leadership see the alliances fitting into their schema. It is also important in the light of this to assist in every way those comrades who are attempting to positively resolve the contradictions that threaten to overwhelm their beleaguered organisation.

The 1999 conference of the SP saw the leadership win support for its 'Resolution on a new mass workers' party'. Although this formulation had been raised previously and to all intents and purposes accepted by the rank and file, this was the first time that it had been formally articulated and officially adopted by the party. The term had first seen the light of day as part of our reaction to the formation of the Socialist Labour Party and cropped up again during the controversial name change debate a couple of years later.

On one level there is of course absolutely nothing objectively wrong with such a perspective. In fact its formulation was a positive development insofar as it overtly, for the first time, recognised that Labour was a block on the development of independent, revolutionary class politics. To this we could also add that, as SP comrades are fond of pointing out, the socialist alliances originated with Taaffe's organisation. However, they are usually less ready to admit that the SAs were formed to counter the influence of Scargill's SLP and soon after their birth were for the most part either run on an extremely low level or closed down completely.

Alas, as countless SA activists the length and breadth of the country can testify, the SP's actual practice bears no relation to its claimed desire to build a new formation to the left of Labour. In truth, the 'new mass workers' party' perspective had little to do with the interests of our class and everything to do with providing a justification for jettisoning a decades-old attachment to Labour as the 'party of the class'. Thus the abrupt change from auto-Labourism to the demonising of New Labour because of its "transformation into a bourgeois party". It had little, if anything, to do with serving the objective needs of our class and everything to do with serving the immediate needs of a much weakened post-Militant SP. (Looking back on Taaffe's grand designs during the name change debate - "There is no reason why we cannot build a small mass party numbering tens of thousands in the next two, three or four years" - I am reminded of David Jason's tragic-comic masterpiece, as Del Boy Trotter: "This time next year, Rodders, we'll be millionaires.")

As the talmudic "40 years of work" entryist project was relentlessly pursued to its ultimate demise at the hands of an increasingly rightist Labour leadership, it was logically only a matter of time before we arrived at a theoretical impasse. As socialists were ruthlessly purged, the stupidity of insisting that Labour remained a conduit for socialism - even if this had seemed feasible during the heyday of the Militant Tendency - became obvious even to the most obtuse.

What though to take its place? And what of the rest of the left? After all, most groups have their own variation on a theme: the Socialist Workers Party and its "united front", the Alliance for Workers' Liberty and its "Labour Representation Committee", and so on. Surely there is sufficient common ground among these varied perspectives to enable us to build a formidable opposition to Blair and at least to lay the basis for a "new mass workers' party"? Apparently not, as far as the SP leadership is concerned. It is then worthwhile examining the schema in some detail.

Revealingly the 1999 resolution reads: "Conference reaffirms that the call for a new mass workers' party poses primarily a propaganda task at this stage. Conference totally rejects the idea that if we put more effort into the task of building a workers' party then such a party would begin to materialise or a significant basis would be laid for such a party at this stage. It is events, events, events in the main, together with our agitation, propaganda and work within the working class and their organisations, which will lay the basis for the emergence of such a party at some stage in the future."

So straightaway we see that for Peter Taaffe the idea that a new political formation of our class can be something that we can consciously work towards today, in conjunction with other revolutionary currents, is anathema. Here we can also see the traditional tailing behind of the spontaneous movements of the class that has characterised the SP in its current manifestation. "Events", we are told, will be the decisive factor in forging a new, independent class force. The living reality of the Socialist Alliance easily exposes the leadership's criminal underestimation of the role of active intervention.

Of course the idea of a genuine regroupment and convergence of the existing revolutionary left is something that fills Taaffe with dread. Hence the consistent and repeated attempts to sabotage the potential embryo of this process in the shape of the Socialist Alliance. Indeed for the leadership the coming together of the revolutionary left does not even represent a "genuine alliance", let alone the seeds of a new workers' organisation.

Of course no one would dispute that without an upturn in the class struggle, and the entry of fresh forces, no real party - i.e., a part of the working class - is possible. But the Socialist Party uses this reality as a fig leaf to conceal its sectarian contempt for any moves towards left unity. Much better to tail existing community and single-issue campaigns and claim they are "not ready" for such moves. And this, of course, is really where we see the substance of the 'new mass workers' party' perspective: the creation of a reformist body within which the SP itself will constitute the 'revolutionary' wing.

Returning to the resolution, we can clearly see the intended character of Taaffe's new formation. Paragraph 32 reads: "But at this stage greater weight must be given - greater than that devoted to the idea of a new mass workers' party - to the task of building our party. There is not an element of sectarianism in this [perish the thought!]. As we have pointed out in the British [English and Welsh, surely, comrades?] perspectives document, a new formation amongst the working class in Britain will probably not take off unless there is a strong Marxist core which, in the main, will constitute our party. Therefore any slackening or weakening or diverting of our limited resources and energies towards other tasks and away from the building of the party undermines the medium- and long-term tasks, one of which is the creation of a mass workers' party."

Peter Taaffe, in his now infamous Socialism Today article, 'Ken Livingstone and a new mass workers' party', spelled out his position on the alliances and their relationship to the SP's perspective: "Following this, the Socialist Party supported the idea of Socialist Alliances in England and Wales. This was the application of the traditional Marxist tactic of the united front in the electoral field. To be precise, it involved an element of the united front. The united front usually involves unity in action of mass organisations or sizeable forces of the working class on a common, minimum programme" (Socialism Today April 2000).

Let us leave aside comrade Taaffe's mangling of Trotsky's conception of the united front - a misunderstanding, incidentally, he shares with the SWP. But did the possibility of the Socialist Alliance constituting the nucleus of a new mass workers' party never occur to him? Actually, it did. We are told a little later in the same article that the Socialist Alliance has failed to take off because of the sectarianism of its other components. Thus we read: "The throwing back of consciousness and the weakening of the left in the 1990s meant that the Socialist Alliances could only involve small forces. Indeed, in Scotland, England and Wales, the Socialist Party constituted the largest and most decisive section of the Socialist Alliances. It was an open question, given the sectarian, petty bourgeois character of most of the other groups involved, whether they could grow and develop or, as was most likely, be bypassed and replaced by more representative working class bodies."

Notwithstanding the token nod in the direction of the 'objective situation', it is clear what Taaffe means by this. If the SP cannot control the alliances then it will rubbish them and/or try to wreck them. This is borne out every week by the disgraceful practices of their comrades up and down the country. Recent events in Lewisham provide a classic example of the SP's current spoiling tactics. Keep your plans for the council by-election quiet, then spring your Socialist Alternative candidate on an unsuspecting alliance as a fait accompli. Truly disgraceful sectarianism.

To be fair, the SP gave the rest of the left a clear enough warning of how it can be expected to behave with the announcement that it will stand 18 candidates in the general election. Take it or leave it. According to Hannah Sell, they "want" to stand as Socialist Alliance - but woe betide those in other groups who think that a little comradely negotiation would be in order. In that case the SP will turn on its heels, mount its own Socialist Alternative campaign and shake its head sadly at the sectarianism of others that has forced it to take this regrettable step. It is difficult to understate the hypocrisy of the SP leadership.

So what then should be the attitude of revolutionaries towards the Socialist Alliance? Take a long, hard and, above all, honest look at the state of the existing revolutionary left and the answer is obvious. The left has been chronically divided, plagued by sectarianism and hampered by an energy-sapping economism. To this we could add the unthinking tailism of spontaneous movements of the class. The cancer of economism is truly alive and thriving. That some groups dismiss the struggle for party, and express disdain for ideological and theoretical clarity, in favour of the spontaneous 'class struggle', is a sad indictment of our movement. Giving the fight for higher wages and better funding for the NHS a political coloration - as though in and of themselves they open up the road to socialism - is not revolutionary politics. The battle for hegemony of Marxist ideas, on the other hand, is the class struggle. Trade union work is a question of tactics, not the 'to die for' principle it is perceived as by most of the left.

This, then, is where we can see the potential power of the Socialist Alliance. As the walled off revolutionaries of yesterday begin to interact and debate the way forward, the leaderships of the sects are struggling to maintain a reverential attitude from their faithful to the ossified dogma that has for too long passed as theory. Comrades are talking to each other, in some cases for the first time ever. We can well imagine the terror of the bureaucrats.

Our task, surely, is the unification of all conscious revolutionaries in a single, genuinely democratic centralist party. Through an ongoing process of ideological and theoretical struggle we can fight for a revolutionary programme and proceed to arm our class for the battles that lie ahead. The Socialist Alliance must mark the start of that process.