We cannot replace New Labour by becoming old Labour

Over recent months Weekly Worker reporters and correspondents have repeatedly shown how the Socialist Alliance majority - in particular the Socialist Workers Party - have fallen in behind the separatist agenda of Scottish and Welsh left nationalists. Whereas our main enemy is tightly, effectively and malevolently organised across the whole of the United Kingdom state, we have irresponsibly divided and thereby weakened our fragile and meagre forces. A self-inflicted disunity that will do more than rob us of an all-Britain joint political broadcast. The wound runs far deeper...

Over recent months Weekly Worker reporters and correspondents have repeatedly shown how the Socialist Alliance majority - in particular the Socialist Workers Party - have fallen in behind the separatist agenda of Scottish and Welsh left nationalists. Whereas our main enemy is tightly, effectively and malevolently organised across the whole of the United Kingdom state, we have irresponsibly divided and thereby weakened our fragile and meagre forces. A self-inflicted disunity that will do more than rob us of an all-Britain joint political broadcast.

The wound runs far deeper. The Scottish Socialist Party is hurtling towards a governmental deal with the thoroughly bourgeois and reactionary Scottish National Party in 2003. SSP leader Alan McCombes promises to "collaborate" with an SNP minority government; he specifically cites "legislation for a referendum" on independence (Frontline March). A crossing of class lines originally floated last year by Tommy Sheridan MSP in the Scottish edition of The Observer. Evidently the socialism of Alan McCombes, Tommy Sheridan, Frances Curren, Richie Venton et al is nowadays more a combination of Eduard Bernstein and Joseph Pilsudski than Leon Trotsky and Ted Grant.

The CPGB unreservedly condemns all such pan-nationalism. For us the guiding principle is achieving working class unity, a process of becoming, synonymous with winning working class hegemony over all democratic issues and cases of injustice. So the goal of communists is not to weaken the UK state by hiving off eight percent of its population in Scotland. The working class movement must set its sights higher, on the destruction of the UK state - using the most revolutionary means objective circumstances permit - and cementing the voluntary union of the peoples of this island of Great Britain through a federal republic.

Tormented by our unremitting polemics on this subject, left nationalists run for cover into banal stupidly. Many refuse to recognise the elementary fact that national self-determination can be exercised in favour of unity. It is as if their brains have been hard-wired.

Again in a ludicrous attempt at self-defence left nationalists rant and rave about the CPGB's purported red, white and blue loyalty to Britain. Some even believe they can stop us dead with our party title: i.e., Communist Party of Great Britain. Sad. Yes, it is true that territorially Great Britain is our immediate sphere of activity (the same could apply to the United Kingdom). But the state of Great Britain is also our main, immediate, enemy.

The same went for Rosa Luxemburg and Leo Jogiches and their Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania. Suffice to say, they were neither royalists nor patriots. Like us their flag was red. Let left nationalists also ponder this. The CPGB is committed to sweeping away the European Union of the commission and council of minister and replacing it with a fully democratic, federal, Europe. Does that make us Europhiles? No. The starting point of authentic communists is not nationality, but proletarian internationalism and the interests of the universal revolution. We really can imagine a world without countries.

How do our allies in the Socialist Alliance respond to the SSP's overt left nationalism and imminent class collaborationism? In a word - regrettably.

Chris Bambery and the SWP employ an oft-repeated stock formulation. The break-up of Britain - and by implication the historically constituted working class - is "no problem". What a pity they do not trenchantly stand by the "We oppose everything which turns workers from one country against those from other countries" formulation (Socialist Worker 'Where we stand').

Peter Taaffe's Socialist Party in England and Wales adopts an equally agnostic attitude. The only break-up that appears to bother comrade Taaffe is the one between his Committee for a Workers' International and the International Socialist Movement of comrades McCombes and Sheridan.

Others positively connive with separatism. Alan Thornett of the International Socialist Group would gleefully welcome the formation of an independent kingdom of Scotland. It would constitute some kind of perverse "step forward". Remember Yugoslavia?

Though not going that far - yet - the SWP has uncritically promoted the McCombes and Sheridan book Imagine. Obviously there is an element of Machiavellian cynicism here. The SWP still pursues an unrequited courtship of the SSP. At Bookmarks' promotional meeting, however, comrade Louise Christian - SA candidate in Hornsey and Wood Green - actually described their national socialist tract as "the best exposition of socialism there ever is" (Weekly Worker March 1).

What about Wales? The comrades in the Welsh Socialist Alliance have virtually been abandoned. Cymru Goch might be sulking on the margins, but, in view of the stand-off between the SWP and SPEW, localism is rapidly filling the political void. In certain quarters one can already hear whispers of a Welsh Socialist Party modelled on the SSP. Hardly surprising, given that our Socialist Alliance bars all Welsh organisations from membership. A synergy with left nationalism born of an inverted English chauvinism.

But there is a stronger connection. Both the SWP and left nationalism have a common methodological root: namely, tailing spontaneity. At first sight the statement might appear bizarre. After all on the one hand the SWP insist week after week that, "At most parliamentary activity can be used to make propaganda against the present system"; and that, "A socialist revolution cannot survive in isolation" ('Where we stand'). The awful fate of Stalin's USSR is, of course, waved aloft as a clincher.

On the other hand comrades McCombes and Sheridan solemnly swear that their long and winding road of parliamentary wheeler-dealing will soon arrive at the promised land - a "thriving, blossoming socialist democracy" in Scotland which will provide the whole world with "inspiration" (A McCombes, T Sheridan Imagine Edinburgh 2000, p189). The underlying method is to follow the unstoppable rising curve of nationalism. Incidentally only a narrow-minded economist would deny or downplay the national question in Scotland or the need for a democratic solution.

Yet comrades McCombes and Sheridan extrapolate convenient opinion polls of under-25s to the point of absurdity. Supposedly the break-up of Britain is not an open-ended matter to be decided by class interest and active struggle, but exists as a definite fixture in the future. It is in other words a foregone conclusion. Evolutionary nationalism!

Nevertheless a connection there is. SSP left nationalists and the SWP merely bow before different aspects, or manifestations, of spontaneity. Look at SWP practice and what do you find? Proclamations about fidelity to revolution prove to be about sustaining the belief system of what remains a confessional sect. When it comes to the 'grubby business' of contesting elections, the SWP comrades are interested in votes for their own sake, just like any conventional electoralist machine. Instead of revolutionary propaganda the SWP collapses into old Labourism.

For example, the debate on the minimum wage in Haringey Socialist Alliance. Comrade Tina Becker for the CPGB proposed £8.57 as an hourly rate, or a £300 minimum for a 35-hour maximum working week. This is not a figure plucked out of thin air, or a leftist attempt to outbid others. We calculate that £300 is the barest minimum required to physically and culturally reproduce a worker in today's Britain. Think about it. Could you live and replace yourself as a human being on anything less?

To demand £4.61 (SWP), £5 (SPEW) or £7 (AWL and Workers Power) is therefore to argue for wages below the level of subsistence. Take Weyman Bennett, SWP member and our prospective candidate for Tottenham. He did not want to put forward demands that might seem "too radical" in the eyes of union branches and regions that are beginning to support the Socialist Alliance (Weekly Worker March 1). Comrade Bennett is on a very slippery slope to who knows where.

Unfortunately the above incident is quoted because it is typical. Witness exactly the same old Labour electoralism galloping across the board. Defence spending, the police, immigration controls, campaigning against the monarchy, etc. Except in the anti-capitalist milieu - Seattle, Prague, Nice, - where the SWP adapts to anarchism, the comrades are determined not to appear "too radical".

Chris Harman gives trawling for "more votes" a rather thin theoretical veneer. Apparently the SWP no longer views standing in elections "simply" as a means "of making propaganda", because the number of votes "affects" people's "willingness to fight" (Socialist Worker February 24). So instead of deriving strength from convincing masses of people of the principles of socialism the SWP have chosen the line of least resistance.

Whereas the SSP seeks to ride nationalism, the SWP is convinced that the Socialist Alliance can replace New Labour more or less by becoming old Labour. By definition both forms of tailing spontaneity sacrifice working class independence.

For decades the SWP haughtily denounced fielding candidates as electoralism pure and simple. They were wrong. Their impotent ultra-leftist pose not only implicitly dismissed the historically significant role of Bolshevik deputies in the tsarist duma, the brilliant use made of parliament by Marxists such as August Bebel, Wilhelm Liebknecht, and Shapurji Saklatvala, and the agreement by Lenin's Comintern that communist parties were obliged to try and get MPs if conditions allowed. More than that, the SWP light-mindedly abrogated politics to the Labour Party.

Refusing to fight elections went hand in hand with auto-Labourism. The standard refrain was "Vote Labour, but ..." The "but" alluded to the working class upping the economic struggle against the employer and government vis-à -vis restrictions on, or relations to, trade unionism. Having taken the step from a Tory to a Labour parliamentary majority, the workers are energised and soon come up against the nature of the system and open to political conclusions... or so the stageist theory goes.

From this angle it becomes clear why the SWP, unable to withstand the spontaneity of economism, is unable to withstand the spontaneity of SSP left nationalism.

The Socialist Alliance should never turn its back on the economic struggles of the working class. However, if we are to raise the working class to the level of a class for itself - i.e., a hegemonic class ready for state power - it is necessary to recognise the limitations of trade unionism. Battles around economic issues often take workers to the point where they confront the government's attitude towards them as trade unionists. But little more.

As a result, no matter how comrades ingeniously attempt to equate economic and political struggles, the workers remain a lower class of wage slaves. No matter how militantly fought, their wage and other economic engagements never attain the level of political - Marxist - consciousness.

Famously Lenin expressed the view in What is to be done? that it was impossible to develop class political consciousness from within the workers' economic struggles. By this he meant starting from or prioritising economic struggles. Class consciousness "can be brought to the workers only from without: that is, only from outside the economic struggle, from outside the sphere of relations between workers and employers" (VI Lenin CW Vol. 5, Moscow 1977, p422). He was right. Class political consciousness is only obtainable in the sphere of relations between all classes and strata and the state and the government.

It is exactly with this in mind that the CPGB wants the Socialist Alliance to prioritise political questions in the forthcoming general election, as opposed to narrow economics and trade unionism - which is, when all things are said and done, the bourgeois politics of the working class. Together we must take the lead against the New Labour government and the UK monarchy system and fight to unleash the floodtide of extreme democracy. That way, and only that way, can the dream of socialism come to be a living reality.

Jack Conrad