Imagine no nationalism
The crippling national divisions amongst the British left were highlighted at last week's London launch of Imagine, the recently published book by the Scottish Socialist Party's Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes.
To make our movement effective, the situation is crying out for a single, all-Britain, revolutionary party that alone can not only halt the assault on working class organisation, rights, conditions and ideas, but begin a counter-offensive that will challenge the hegemony of the ruling class.
The February 23 rally in central London, organised by the SSP and London Socialist Alliance and addressed by the two authors, could have been used to begin a joint mobilisation of left forces in Scotland and England - in the short term to mount a united general election campaign and in the long term to forge a powerful unity capable of taking on the UK state itself.
Superficially the meeting, attended by around 250 comrades, mostly from the Socialist Workers Party, appeared to promote unity. After all, here were the two main left groupings north and south of the border coming together to condemn capitalism in the name of socialism and international solidarity. But we need action, not just fine words. Comrades Sheridan and McCombes, far from advocating the necessary organisational forms, consciously oppose them. They insist that the divisions must not only remain, but become permanent.
Worse still, they want to break up the historically constituted British working class through their central demand: an "independent socialist Scotland".
Shamefully, the SWP, having decided correctly that it must attempt to join forces with the SSP in Scotland, is keeping a diplomatic silence on the SSP's increasingly overt nationalism - apart from the occasional aside from its leaders about the policy of Scottish independence being "no problem".
The result is that sections of the SWP rank and file appear to be moving beyond neutrality on the question, towards a positive endorsement of separatism - at least if the reaction to some of the statements from comrade Sheridan at the rally is anything to go by.
The audience was treated to uncritical, not to say glowing, recommendations of Imagine as a universal socialist treatise - despite the assertion by comrade Sheridan that the book was "specifically trying to address the ideas of an independent socialist Scotland". Louise Christian, Socialist Alliance candidate for Hornsey and Wood Green, declared: "Imagine is the best exposition of socialism there ever is." The fourth platform speaker, John Pilger, called it "one of the best common sense books on socialism I've read". It was, however, "quite profound in a way".
According to comrade Sheridan, the profundity is all down to Alan McCombes, since Tommy modestly confessed that comrade McCombes, the editor of Scottish Socialist Voice, had written "99%" of Imagine. His 'co-author' was the "foremost socialist theoretician" in Scotland, said comrade Sheridan. Clearly the Glasgow MSP's own grasp of theory, despite his considerable powers of oratory, is not so deep. For example, in the context of future SSP electoral success, he stated: "When we win a majority, we will immediately set about dismantling the state and the market." A kind of instant - reformist - communism in one country, it seems.
As is usual on these SWP-run occasions, there was time for only the minimum of debate. However, one of the early speakers from the floor, John McKee of Workers Power, managed to show the false England-Scotland 'unity' that was on display from the platform in its true light. How come, he asked, the role of Welsh and English workers in the fight for socialism in these islands is not mentioned in Imagine? The only way to achieve socialism, continued the comrade, was a "united struggle that smashes the British state", not one that divides it through a separatist fight for independence.
This really threw the cat among the pigeons and brought an immediate furious response from two Scottish left nationalists. According to one, "Any socialist would welcome the break-up of the British state." True to form, SWP comrades who intervened completely ignored this central question and blithely came out with the usual platitudes. Weyman Bennett decided to talk about police racism, while Candy Udwin stuck to safe SWP optimism: the "tide is turning" in favour of socialism, she said.
But the two main speakers, in their replies, did not avoid the issue. Comrade McCombes in his initial remarks had talked of the growing tolerance of the left: we have our differences and there are "discussions to be had", he said. We need a "friendly dialogue" over the attitude socialists should have "towards, for example, Scottish independence", which he described as a "contentious" issue.
Responding to comrade McKee, he explained that he "did not want to be a nationalist" when he wrote Imagine. The book was aimed at the people of Scotland, which is why it concentrated on Scotland itself. It did, however, mention English struggles, so comrade McKee's criticism was "a little bit unfair". While Imagine calls for an "independent socialist Scotland", it also challenges anti-English ideas.
Comrade McCombes concluded by declaring that the SSP wanted to "replace global capitalism with global socialism". But you have to "start from where people are" - and in the case of Scotland that means backing independence, obviously. Apart from the global struggle, "There is a local struggle as well. It begins in your own community."
Comrade Sheridan was perhaps a little more apologetic: The call for an "independent socialist Scotland" was not nationalist, he said, adding, with breathtaking sang froid, that it was "not about separation". The rather contorted justification for this seemingly impossible paradox was this: "When we deliver the break-up of the British state, that will be a massive fillip to socialists in England and Wales and throughout the world." Therefore it will be a blow struck for internationalism. Disturbingly this brought enthusiastic applause from several SWPers.
But the SWP leadership seems oblivious to the dangers thrown up by its opportunism. On the one hand, it effortlessly reaches an accommodation with nationalism. On the other, it equally easily slips into left reformism.
Convinced that it must provide a comfortable home in the Socialist Alliance for disillusioned Labourites, it is at pains to repress any revolutionism on its own part. So at the rally, alongside two left nationalists, we had ex-Labour supporters that perfectly fitted the bill in John Pilger and Louise Christian. It is of course perfectly principled to engage both nationalists and reformists in debate, but on this occasion the 'dialogue' was rather one-sided.
Comrade Christian told us that she had been a member of the Labour Party for 20 years and had stood for parliament as a Labour candidate in 1987: "I stayed in as long as I could." But now, "A whole lot of Tories have infiltrated the Labour Party and taken it over." Now she had indeed found a haven in the SA (she did not mention her brief flirtation with Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party).
Similarly comrade Pilger talked of the need to "end the emotional and political blackmail exercised by the Labour Party", which, he agreed, was 'no longer' a party of the working class: "It all ended, for me anyway, with Kinnock." Comrade Pilger expressed his enthusiastic support for "direct action". This, combined with voting socialist, was "the answer", he said.
Comrade Sheridan joined in the nostalgia - but the Labour Party was "finished as a vehicle for change", he stated. And now, "We have the task of rebuilding vehicles that can unite men and women the length and breadth of this country" (clearly he forgot he was addressing a meeting south of the border). Comrade Sheridan, like a true centrist, mouthed phrases about fighting the "class war". This involved not only contesting elections, but, concurring with comrade Pilger, the use of "direct action". An example of this was, he explained, getting yourself arrested alongside men of the cloth outside the Faslane submarine base.
Half a dozen members of the Socialist Party attended, and Bob Labi, the Committee for a Workers' International representative at last month's SSP conference, warned the SSP comrades against being "dizzy with success". He spoke, rather cryptically, of the "need to understand the past", implying that Imagine did not do so. I am sure that most of those present had no idea what he was getting at. Like the SWP, the SP has "no problem" with the nationalism of Sheridan, McCombes et al. But splitting from the CWI - well, that is unforgivable.
Almost £800 was raised in a collection for general election funds - the SP comrades pointedly refused to contribute. They may be standing as Socialist Alliance, but in reality they will be mounting their own, totally separate, campaign.
This, and the differences over Scottish independence seemed to pass Louise Christian by. In her closing remarks she said that it was "absolutely fantastic" that everyone agrees with everyone else and we are not attacking one another. It is indeed highly positive that, at long last, the left is taking steps towards unity with the creation of the SA. But if this unity is to last, if it is to take deep roots, to evolve into a democratic and centralist party, then we must have our disagreements out in the open.
And crucially, if we are to take on and defeat our common enemy, that unity must embrace the entire left - in Scotland, Wales and England - around a common revolutionary programme.