Expelled for speaking out

Harry Paterson, a long-standing member of the Socialist Party/Militant, has had his appeal against expulsion turned down. He spoke to Peter Manson of the Weekly Worker

How did you come to join and how long were you a member?

Initially I came across the Militant Tendency in my constituency Labour Party in the late 1980s. I was a councillor - quite an erratic left-leaning one. I'd known one or two Militant comrades in my CLP and voted with them on certain issues.

One day I was sitting in a pub, reading a copy of Militant. I was spotted by a group of British National Party members, who recognised me as a left Labour councillor and made it clear they would 'do me outside'. There were five of them. I rang up Steve Glass of the local Militant branch and within half an hour about 12 Militant comrades turned up and quickly saw off the fascists. I was impressed. Here was a serious organisation.

After that I worked with Militant, in particular in their campaign against the BNP, when we effectively drove them out of the local area. I grew very close and eventually joined the tendency in 1990.

What positions did you hold?

I have been paper organiser and fighting fund organiser and then branch secretary - an important position in the SP, just below the 'rank' of full-timer. I also sat on the East Midlands regional committee for about a year.

What was your attitude to being a member?

I was absolutely loyal. But that was almost invariably the case during that period. The fragmentation that occurred later was delayed by the focus around our Labour Party work. Our campaigns were very, very effective. Take our anti-fascist work, for example. Rather than waving placards in ineffective demonstrations, as the SWP tended to do in those days, we would actually go into the estates and confront the fascists where they were building support.

In Hucknall one of our comrades was secretary of the anti-poll tax campaign and was targeted by the fascists. They beat him up and threw bricks through his window, in the room where his young baby was sleeping. We decided enough was enough. We had heard the BNP was going to be returning for a second go, but, rather than confronting them on our own, we went round all the local pubs, appealing for support. One pub was owned by an ex-miner, who called for quiet to allow our comrade to make a speech.

As a result the local branch managed to mobilise a number of people on the streets. One local paper gave a figure of 150! The fascists were cornered and the police had to come and rescue them. As they drove them away the local people formed a chicken run. They were banging on the police van, trying to get at the fascists.

Then there was the anti-poll tax campaign itself. It was huge in my area. Militant mobilised people on many occasions to prevent the bailiffs seizing people's property. This physical approach was connected to and strengthened the political campaign for non-payment.

There was a very definite emphasis on involving the class. In a way, that was ironic, because even then Militant considered that any serious discussion of politics was not the province of the class. Disagreements must be kept hidden.

So when did you start to question this internal regime?

For a long time I thought things were going very well. I enthusiastically supported the 'open turn', after we were forced out of the Labour Party. Inside Labour we never for a moment thought we were reformists - we had to say things we didn't quite believe to avoid expulsion, or so we thought. So I felt that the open turn would actually give us a new lease of life. It would open up a new golden age for the tendency - one that would eclipse all the successes of the 80s, when we had 10,000 members. We would be able to 'come out' as revolutionaries.

With hindsight we can see that the open turn marked the start of the rapid decline. Ted Grant had a point when he said the new policy was neither fish nor fowl. We were no longer in Labour, but we couldn't grow outside it. And it soon became clear that we had not changed Labour: it had changed us.

When we started to lose members, the leadership held up the 'objective conditions', the collapse of Stalinism, etc. In fact that is very much the hallmark of the organisation: when we met with success, it was due to our correct policy; but now when we suffer reverses, they are either denied or, if they are admitted, the party itself can take no responsibility. This trait became ever more apparent with the open turn.

For me the first concrete sign that all was not well came with the restoration of capitalism in the USSR. Peter Taaffe had said that such a thing was impossible, a political revolution against the bureaucracy was all he could countenance, so obviously we needed to work out where we had gone wrong. We needed to open up debate and discuss our mistakes. But when I wrote to Taaffe as general secretary, he simply refused to enter into any kind of discussion.

Because I point to our mistakes, I am told I have a 'sneering' attitude towards the party. This is untrue. There is no shame in making mistakes. But this complete inability to recognise and correct your mistakes is shameful. Our culture leads to a kind of dual thinking. On the one hand there is the party line and on the other your own thoughts, which tell you the party isn't right. For the individuals concerned and the party itself it is only a matter of time before the two clash and there is a crisis.

How did this develop in your case?

Well, the USSR was only the start. There was open conflict around the name change debate. At that time I was in a minority in my branch, alongside, ironically, the people who ended up witch-hunting me. From the outset the leadership set up straw men to rubbish the opposition, hoping to avoid a damaging schism like over Ted Grant.

It was becoming increasingly difficult to square the belief that we were revolutionary with our actual practice. The name change appeared to be an open admission that all the shifting alterations in terminology, the attempt to be more 'acceptable', were no accident. And Taaffe's "small mass party" was lunacy - it was an attempt to jump over the objective conditions.

There was also the problem that, by calling ourselves the Socialist Party, we seemed to be suggesting that our previous position of fighting for a "mass socialist party" had been achieved. In recognition of this Taaffe came up with the idea that we should say that the aim was a "mass workers' party" to avoid confusion.

The debate around the name change was the only one I can remember involving large numbers of comrades. It was particularly controversial, but apart from the Bulaitis-Hearse faction there was very little theoretical explanation in the perspectives adopted by either side. The Bulaitis-Hearse opposition document defined democratic centralism in a broadly similar manner to myself. I supported them for that reason. Sad to see their liquidationist conclusions.

Given my own experience later when I wrote a critical document, For democratic centralism, it makes me wonder whether other debates had been suppressed. But most individuals wouldn't think of submitting their criticisms to the Members Bulletin. With hindsight, I shouldn't have written directly to Taaffe about his USSR statement. It would have been better to have tried to begin the debate in the Members Bulletin.

What happened when you wrote 'For democratic centralism'?

I had been having political disagreements with my branch for some time. But when I finally articulated my thoughts in that document, it was incredible. The leadership said it was "destructive and negative" and "alien to the traditions" of our tendency. 'We will not respond to you,' they said. 'You are banned from circulating it.'

Because several of the positions in For democratic centralism were clearly similar to those long expressed in the Weekly Worker, the leadership used the allegation that I was a 'CPGB collaborator' as a smokescreen. Yet, even according to our own constitution, it was illegal to suppress my document. I wrote to the Appeals Committee, asking it to investigate. The leadership countered by moving NC member Pete Watson against me; he alleged that I was collaborating with the CPGB. By insisting that this was dealt with first, the leadership was able to avoid answering the political criticisms contained in my document.

It is important to understand the chronology: I requested that my appeal against the suppression of my document was conducted. But the branch took the decision to investigate my alleged links with the Weekly Worker. I was accused of writing as Pat Strong, Jack Conrad, Mark Fischer, Terry Fenton and anyone else who had ventured their opinion on the Socialist Party in the Weekly Worker. How could I defend myself against accusations of being effectively the entire CPGB Provisional Central Committee?

Of course it was and is true that some of the ideas I was articulating were similar to those in the Weekly Worker, but ideas do not belong to one organisation. They ought to be accepted or rejected according to whether the politics behind them are sound - in that way there is a healthy basis for unity amongst current left forces. But for Taaffe and his apparatchiks the similarity was enough to prove 'disloyalty' or covert membership of the CPGB. They seemed to find it absolutely inconceivable that you could express the same idea as another group and not be a member.

Then there was the distribution of For democratic centralism. I had already sent it to some comrades before the ban and it was soon circulating throughout the party. Apparently when Phil Hearse and John Bulaitis left, they took an old subscription list for Socialism Today with them, and comrades on this list were sent a copy. Then For democratic centralism appeared in the Weekly Worker and of course this was used as further 'proof' of my covert membership of the CPGB.

I actually don't think it is a crime to circulate your views. I fully intended to distribute the document - which I had spent so long in writing and was convinced was correct - if the Appeals Committee had ruled against me, as was more than likely.

Ironically I was myself accused of contravening democratic centralism. The EC was quite open about it - for them democratic centralism (or 'democratic unity', to use the 'acceptable' SP terminology) means you must never criticise the party or its leadership in public. In October 1999 I attended the conference of the short-lived Socialist Network, launched in Liverpool by mainly former (but some current) Socialist Party comrades. The bulk of my intervention from the floor was to criticise the comrades for walking out of the party. But I also drew the distinction between genuine democratic centralism and the actual practice of the SP. Irrespective of the fact that I was advocating continued membership, I was charged with criticising the party in public.

But the leadership are eager to gloss over Lenin's own views on democratic centralism, which actually stand in complete contradistinction to the SP's distorted understanding of Leninist organisation. What it calls 'democratic unity' is actually 'bureaucratic centralism'.

What happened at your appeal?

It was heard on November 11 by a specifically constituted appeals board, consisting of Geoff Jones (chair), Julia Leonard and Clare Bradley. It began with a statement from Gary Freeman, on behalf of the Nottingham branch, justifying my expulsion. Mark Skilton, another member of my branch and a member of the East Midlands regional executive, spoke on my behalf. He has consistently and vigorously defended my right to publish.

I objected to the fact that, one year after the process had started, I still had had no written confirmation of the expulsion I was appealing against, and no access to the minutes of the November 1999 EC meeting, where my document had been discussed. And I hadn't received a written report from the branch on their reasons for expelling me. Obviously the absence of these documents made my defence a bit difficult.

I was presented with circumstantial evidence claiming to link me with Weekly Worker writers, although the comrades freely admitted they couldn't prove their allegations. In Pete Watson's words, the real problem was my idea of democratic centralism, which he interpreted as, "You can say anything, to anyone, at any time you want."

Despite the caricature, this comment gets to the heart of the matter. For the Socialist Party, ideas - especially minority ideas - are most emphatically not the province of the class, or even our own members. So the truth is out. The party now seems quite happy to condemn my belief that political questions ought to be openly discussed.

Geoff Jones has now written to confirm the board's decision. He is promising a written report which he hopes to produce within two weeks. I will be very interested in seeing it. If they try to justify their actions politically, then I'll be able to respond politically, and I would welcome that. But it could well turn out to be another attempt to smear me - although I'd be delighted if I was wrong.

How do you see things unfolding now?

Personally, I will consider whether to appeal to conference. I will remain involved with the comrades around Militant Left Opposition. But the members are going to have to start speaking out. What we need is an active rebellion. I have had numerous messages of support, but almost all have asked me to keep it to myself. Very few have written expressing their views to the appeals board - Lawrie Coombs of Teeside SP being a principled exception. Most people seem reluctant and afraid to voice their support openly.

On a more general level, the Socialist Alliance is clearly the place to be active in, and we have a relatively healthy SA in Nottingham. Obviously in the long term I need to be a member of an organisation, and Weekly Worker readers will be familiar with my view that conscious revolutionaries should be united in a single democratic centralist party. The Socialist Alliance must mark the start of the process to build such an organisation. We need to completely ditch the whole rotten, conspiratorial, anti-democratic set of practices that we all - whatever our organisations - have been involved in.

As for the Socialist Party, its crisis can be resolved in one of two ways. Either it can continue along its present path, shunning unity and open debate. That way will lead to its final slide to the status of a microsect. Or it can embrace the ideas that I, among others, have defended, and join the fight for ongoing, deepening unity.