Contrasting the cases of Lawrie Coombs and Tommy Sheridan is a revealing exercise.
Despite his 15 years as a root and branch Militant/Socialist Party man, Lawrie Coombs is now excluded from the ranks of the SP. The comrade committed the heinous crime of penning a few letters and SA reports for the Weekly Worker, then sealed his fate by requesting the SP open up its press in a letter supporting my appeal against expulsion. True to form, SP bureaucrats trotted out the familiar, repellent line: public criticism is a crime and a perfectly valid reason for exclusion. I was found guilty of the same offence.
Simultaneously with the action against comrade Coombs we heard that the International Socialist Movement, the largest organised faction in the Scottish Socialist Party, had, at last, announced its divorce from the Committee for a Workers' International - the SP's 'international'. Moreover, the January 26 issue of The Socialist had the SP leadership taking the almost unheard of step of featuring in its pages an - admittedly truncated - open polemic, in the shape of a sharp exchange between Tommy Sheridan of the SSP and Peter Taaffe, SP general secretary and CWI numero uno.
Comrade Sheridan complains bitterly that the CWI has "committed a cardinal sin within the socialist movement" through issuing a press statement on the split: "You have put our disagreements into the hands of the anti-working class, anti-democratic and anti-socialist press and media."
I suppose for most of the left discussing your differences in public is a "cardinal sin". Minorities within the 'party' are either expected to keep their views to themselves or at best limit the airing of their disagreements with the leadership to closed meetings or the pages of internal bulletins. A monolithic facade of 'unity' must always be presented. The public expression of differences supposedly portrays weakness to those outside your ranks and, worse, serves only to 'confuse workers'. That, at least, is how much of the left have chosen to interpret the Leninist organisational principle of democratic centralism.
In reality of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Democratic centralism - genuine Leninist democratic centralism, that is - while imposing on minorities the duty to abide by democratically agreed decisions, provides also for the fullest public criticism. The party should allow access to its public press for dissenting views as a matter of course. If a particular submission is considered unsuitable, then the author must have the right to publish it themselves - even in the capitalist press. Only in this way can we correct our mistakes and arrive at the truth.
But comrade Sheridan takes the distortion of Leninist principle to new extremes: not only is openness ruled out for disagreements within the party, but it cannot be contemplated even when comrades go their separate ways. Taaffe tears his argument apart, pointing out how Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky were not afraid to use bourgeois publications where necessary. He reminds us that Sheridan himself has a weekly column in the "anti-socialist press": i.e., the Daily Record. Taaffe concludes that it is perfectly acceptable to "tell the truth in relation to working class struggle" and to "make constructive and fraternal criticisms".
All very well, Peter, but that is hardly consistent with your practice within the Socialist Party and the CWI. What about Lawrie Coombs? What about my own "constructive and fraternal criticisms" of your regime, contained in my document, 'For democratic centralism'? You not only banned its circulation, but had me expelled after it appeared in the Weekly Worker. I was, in effect, removed from the SP simply for expressing a different view - it was published in another left paper, not the "anti-socialist press".
So comrade Taaffe's comments in reply to Sheridan are an example of rank hypocrisy. On the other hand, though, they are a clear sign that the centrifugal tensions within the SP are making themselves felt. That the comrade should resort to open polemic - while excluding others who choose, or are forced, to take up the exact same weapon - is conclusive proof that he is losing his grip. The Scottish comrades have a well-honed publicity machine at their disposal. Taaffe shutting up Tommy Sheridan MSP is an impossibility. And other socialists up and down these isles are hearing without any difficulty the Scottish version of events. So SPers everywhere are asking questions. The unease is palpable.
With a traditionally conspiratorial attitude to politics, Taaffe is ill equipped for open and principled polemic. And, of course, the man fears it and usually avoids it like the plague. However, politics which cannot survive the cut and thrust of interaction with other ideas are incapable of sustaining the organisation that espouses them.
The SP's non-participation in the Socialist Alliance. Saturday's day of action against rail privatisation provides us with an illustration. For example, in Brixton the SP snubbed the alliance to conduct its own agitation - on the same theme. In Hackney the campaign was dismissed as a Socialist Workers Party front, while the SP chose to highlight council cuts instead. Meanwhile, in Nottingham a healthy SP contingent rubbed shoulders with the SWP in the freezing cold to participate diligently in the alliance campaign. Unsurprisingly, but no less significantly, Coventry - councillor Dave Nellist's stomping ground - also featured a healthy SP presence on the SA action.
The Socialist Alliance is where the battle for the hearts and minds of the SP rank and file will continue to be fought. Previously posing as the defender of local alliances, the SP has in reality denied those self-same alliances any say in the selection of their general election candidates. In constituencies where it intended to stand itself, it simply announced that its comrades would contest and claimed the SA mantle. The touching concern of the SP for the rights of the grassroots in the alliances is now revealed as nothing but a cover for a contemptible disdain for working class democracy.
Taaffe's hypocrisy is not a sign of strength. On the contrary, it points to profound theoretical weakness.