Socialist Labour endorses personality cult

The SLP's most celebrated dissident voice reports on the November 2-3 congress

The Socialist Labour Party's 5th Congress, held in London's Conway Hall, saw the ultra-Stalinites - whose alliance with newly re-elected president Arthur Scargill has become increasingly uneasy over recent months - gain substantial ground. Aided by the fact that every member was invited to attend (in effect given delegate status), in circumstances where SLP membership as a whole continues to decline, hard-line worshippers of JV Stalin accounted for more than half of the 130 or so who turned up. As a result, they were able to win a narrow majority on the national executive committee. Although it would be wrong to say that the Scargill-Stalinite alliance is now at an end, the internal tensions between the various forces mean that things are likely to become more and more fraught. The dwindling numbers of old Labourites, Scargillite trade unionists, single-issue campaigners and more moderate ex-'official communists' have been expressing their displeasure at what they see as a takeover of the party and forced Scargill to attempt to create some distance between himself and the ultra-Stalinites. These tensions burst into the open over the weekend. They resulted in Scargill's first ever defeat on congress floor in the six-and-a-half-year history of the SLP. This came - symbolically - in a debate on North Korea. John McLeod of Brighton Pavilion Constituency Socialist Labour Party moved a motion opposing US actions against the 'Democratic People's Republic', the first four paragraphs of which were by and large supportable by any socialist or anti-imperialist. The final paragraph, however, called for the continued fostering of "good relations with the Workers' Party of Korea" and the DPRK - the hereditary dictatorship over the proletariat founded by Kim Il Sung and now headed by his son Kim Jong Il. An amendment from Crawley CSLP sought to delete this paragraph. While expressing solidarity with the "people of the DPRK in their heroic struggle against US imperialism", it denounced the "cult of personality" and "extreme veneration" of the monarchical regime as "irrational". Karl Stewart stated that he fully supported "people's Korea", but "the idea that one individual should be deified is at odds with our principles". Harpal Brar, a prominent figure in the Stalin Society and Indian Workers Association, editor of Lalkar and de facto leader of the SLP ultra-Stalinites, strode to the microphone. The amendment, he said, was an "abstract and idealist" distraction. It was permissible to advise the North Korean 'comrades' - in private - that "there are certain things that do not go down well in our country", but there should be no question of telling them what to do or openly criticising them. The role of individual leaders is important, he continued - for example, everybody knows that the SLP would not exist but for one man. Just as Brar supports Scargill and recognises his contribution to the cause of the working class, so it is with Kim Il Sung: "I salute him. I call him Great Leader." Then it was the turn of Scargill himself. Whereas up to this point he had, whenever he considered it necessary, directed comrades uncertain how to vote by announcing from the platform the NEC recommendation at the end of each debate, on this occasion for dramatic effect he came down to the floor - to be introduced as the "delegate from Barnsley Central" by chair Linda Muir. "I support the amendment," he declared. "Not that long ago, we supported Brezhnev and Gorbachev, who sold out the Russian Revolution." Kim Il Sung "spent millions of dollars on a birthday party" for his son, while the North Korean "people were starving". He concluded: "I don't support the cult of personality - whether it's Joseph Stalin, Kim Il Sung or Arthur Scargill." This tactical stroke of intervening during the debate instead of at the end did not turn out too well for Arthur. He was followed by two speakers who spoke against him in vehement terms. Blanch Carpenter was outraged by this "ultimate insult to the Korean people. Our general secretary has the nerve to criticise Kim Il Sung" - who was "not a normal person", but the creator of the Juche concept. Comrade Carpenter recounted how she had recently spoken with the survivors of the North Korean football team in Middlesbrough - scene of their victory over Italy in the 1996 World Cup. When the Great Leader had asked them to try and win a couple of games, they told her they had wept. Replying to the debate, comrade McLeod - who, together with Carpenter, had been a member of the SLP delegation to North Korea last year - decried the opposition to the cult of personality as "cultural imperialism". Didn't comrades realise that "honouring the dead" and treating them as though they were still alive was a Korean tradition? Besides, when Stalin was condemned in the same terms, the "real target was Lenin". Incredibly, these two speeches were enough to carry the day: the amendment was defeated - in the face of Scargill's strongly expressed support - by around two to one. But why did Scargill not call for a card vote? That would have allowed him to use his sledgehammer 'reserve power' in the shape of the 3,000 block votes of the North West, Cheshire and Cumbria Miners Association - a phantom grouping which purports to be an 'affiliated trade union'. Afterwards a more cynical comrade suggested to me that this first ever defeat gave Scargill the best of both worlds: on the one hand he was seen to oppose the 'cult of personality'; on the other he could continue to exercise it with the blessing of congress. I think it rather more likely that he was so taken aback, he did not think of calling for a count until it was too late. But the following day he decided enough was enough. This time when congress insisted on defying him over a couple of what appeared to be uncontroversial motions on housing the Great Leader acted. A third motion on the subject - in the name of Barnsley Central itself - called for a million homes per year to be built for five years. Unsurprisingly this found favour with the outgoing NEC, which asked for the others to be remitted. Normally, in SLP land, this is the signal for the movers to submit quietly, but on this occasion they did no such thing. Hornsey and Wood Green wanted Socialist Labour to affiliate to the Defend Council Housing Campaign and set up an NEC housing committee - it was a "scandal" there was not one already, according to Steve Cooke, who did not see why the NEC could not accept his motion. In another unusual turn, Scargill's most loyal devotee, Nell Myers, who was stepping down both from the executive and as editor of Socialist News, publicly contradicted Scargill's "distorted comments" about an NEC committee which, he had claimed, already dealt with housing. Card trick This seemed to seal it for the delegates, who overwhelmingly ignored the president's wishes and voted in the first motion. A furious Scargill rose again to point out that "members of the NEC who agreed unanimously on a recommendation are now voting the opposite way". This showed a lack of discipline and any recurrence would be punished by a card vote. Sure enough, within seconds he was carrying out his threat after a show of hands gave a clear majority to Liverpool West Derby's passionate but rambling motion. In his earlier advice Scargill had said that the mover, Kai Andersen, had made an "excellent contribution", but he was not actually calling on the SLP to do anything. Agreed, so what did it matter if the motion was carried? For Scargill that was not the point. He had to reassert his authority - this he duly achieved by the NWCCMA's 3,000 votes. For the motion: 135; against: 3,082 (ordinary delegates had between one and 10 votes each, depending on their constituency membership). You could almost see the scales falling away from the eyes of several more naive comrades at this shocking - and pointless - exercise of the Great Leader's personal power. The card votes of the constituency delegates had been swamped by those of Paul Hardman, Scargill's creature and tame official of the North West retired miners. The 'members' of this organisation - consisting mostly of people who know nothing of what is being done on their behalf, who have never heard of the SLP or who in some cases are dead - had their votes cast in an even more blatantly rigged way in the elections for officers. At the last two congresses - in 1998 and 1999, before the change to triennial gatherings - the NWCCMA had abstained in some such contests, but now it seemed Stalinite Zane Carpenter might actually have majority support amongst delegates in the contest for general secretary. So, quite unashamedly, comrade Hardman voted 3,000 times "¦ for himself. As it turned out, this was unnecessary, since his total was 3,160, as against 127 for comrade Carpenter. Linda Muir defeated Harpal Brar by an almost identical margin in the election for vice-president, while Scargill himself was, of course, unopposed as president. The NWCCMA - aided by one other 'affiliated trade union', Sheffield Ucatt 1st Branch, with its handful of votes - decides who the seven members representing the NEC's trade union section will be (Scargill claims that there are a further 500 'affiliated members', but their union or unions have never been identified and their votes have never been cast at congress). Predictably, Scargillites are always elected for these seven places - although this year one went to Amanda Rose, who is close to both Brar and Scargill. Three years ago Mick Rix (Aslef president), Bob Crow (RMT general secretary) and Joe Marino (Bakers Union general secretary) were elected in this way. Now they have all left the party and we have only Scargillite nonentities. However, in the constituency section, Scargill has much less influence, and this year the Stalinites almost swept the board. Apart, that is, from peacenik Katrina Howse, who actually topped the poll. Two members of the Rule clan - Ella and Carlos - are additional Stalinite NEC members. They represent the tiny women's and youth sections respectively, both of which are controlled by the Brarites. Backing terror The tensions between the two main SLP forces first appeared during the debate on a composite motion that condemned the 'war on terror' in legalistic, reformist terms and called for affiliation at all levels of the party to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The Stalinites did not actually oppose this composite, but certainly made clear their differences with the Scargillites. Giles Shorter of Wansdyke declared that "all forms of anti-imperialist resistance are themselves principled" - including the September 11 outrage, obviously. Ranjeet Brar (son of Harpal) said that while he was not opposed to joining the CND, we should remember it is a bourgeois organisation and that there is a difference between nuclear weapons held by the imperialists and those held by socialist countries (like North Korea, he meant). Comrade Brar junior then went on to bring up the fact that there had been "a lot of discussion on the executive" (he was the outgoing youth section representative) about September 11. Actually there had been a deep split over whether or not the suicide attack on the World Trade Center ought to have been condemned. According to Brar the "balance" of discussion on the NEC - whose subsequent statement did condemn the attack - had favoured the approach he outlined: ie, that muslims, for example, "will find a way to fight back" against US imperialism and it is "not our job to go around condemning them as terrorists". Scargill said that Brar's speech was "deplorable. We do condemn whoever was responsible" for the attack on the WTC. However, Scargill himself has signed up to a full-blown conspiracy theory. As he states in the executive report to congress, "No-one to this day has provided any evidence or proof to establish what really happened, and who was responsible." The report continues: ""¦ how is it possible for four planes to be hijacked in the course of one morning "¦ without the most sophisticated military nation on earth sending one plane into the air to intercept "¦? "."¦ It would, of course, not be the first time that a country had seen some of its most prestigious buildings blown up or burnt down as that country's government sought to create a climate which would enable it to invade others, subjugate populations and install compliant governments. We must not forget that it was the Nazis who burnt down their own parliament building, the Reichstag, in the 1930s "¦" Scargill went on to assert from the platform: "To say that there is a difference between nuclear weapons possessed by a capitalist country and a socialist country is absolute hypocrisy." Socialist Labour is against nuclear weapons, full stop. However, since none of these fundamental differences were mentioned in the wording of the motion, both sides could go ahead and vote for it, and it was carried without opposition. But the same debate was raging again a few minutes later - this time on a motion on Palestine. Comrade Shorter insisted that the SLP ought to differentiate between imperialist and 'socialist' nuclear weapons, and compared Scargill's position to Gorbachev's hankering after classless 'human values'. Despite the fact that the motion on Palestine noted that ""¦ the future progress of human society is best served by setbacks and defeats for the warmongers "¦" - Shorter's coded way of signalling his welcome for September 11 - it was not opposed by the NEC and Scargill remained in his seat. This leads me to wonder whether he actually agreed with the sentiment - if you believe, as he does, that it was actually the US regime itself that attacked not only the WTC but its own military HQ, then it follows that there is no problem in condemning the perpetrators. The motion also hailed the "new and daring forms of struggle" adopted by the Palestinians. This was challenged by speakers from the floor who wondered whether this was another code for fundamentalist suicide bombs. They were not wrong. But the executive had recommended support and this disgraceful motion was carried by a large majority. As I say, there is a great deal of disquiet among some of the more apolitical Scargill fans at the increasing prominence of the Stalinites. Two older comrades from Greater Manchester, Bill Henderson from Wythenshawe and George Thorne from Stockport, each produced their own leaflet for congress. Comrade Thorne starts by bemoaning the fact that, "The dream we had in 1996 of becoming a large party has almost faded away." He goes on to place some of the blame for this on the Brar wing: "leading members of the educational committee [ie, comrade Brar himself] believe in a party discipline based on the Stalin regime. Stalin imposed a system based on fear and repression in the Soviet Union for the duration of his long, evil regime." Comrade Thorne ends with the call to "Build a mass, working class party alternative to the Labour Party", which means: "Stop all this talk of being a Marxist-Leninist party; abandon all talk of the Soviet Union." And, far from flying off to North Korea or Yugoslavia, the SLP should "Make progress on the domestic front before we become involved in international affairs." In similar vein, comrade Henderson complains about the "strong bias towards what purports to be a Marxist analysis of the current international political situation" at SLP schools. "No mention is made of the role of the people of the UK; little mention is made of building a mass membership of the Socialist Labour Party." Brar replied to these moans from the congress floor. Reporting from the education committee, in a speech which for the most part was actually a passionate and articulate denunciation of the iniquities of bourgeois 'education', Harpal ended by calling on comrades to educate themselves: "Learn Marxism. Don't spout rubbish to the working class." He implored the authors of the leaflets: "Do not denounce our own working class gains. Do not denounce the USSR." This was too much for Katrina Howse and Brian Gibson, the latter being an old Scargill supporter who was stepping down from the NEC. From the floor comrade Howse called on Brar to wind up, since congress time was running out. And the chair, comrade Muir, joined in, asking him to stop speaking. Brar insisted on finishing his report, saying he was fed up of comrade Howse's "hysterical" interventions - presumably a reference to the conduct of the NEC, to which comrade Howse has been coopted since October 2000. As he had done several times before, Scargill 'overruled' the chair and, with a gesture of resignation, signalled that Brar should continue. Hatred of SA While the divisions between the two principal SLP forces are becoming clearer by the day, there is one area over which they are unanimous - and that is their hatred of the Socialist Alliance. Of course the reasons for this are totally different. For the Brarites the SA is nothing but a collection of "despicable counterrevolutionary Trotskyites" whose opposition to regimes like those of Kim Jong Il place them squarely in the imperialist camp. For Scargill though, the SA is a spectre which hangs over his own party. The prospect of an inclusive left unity where genuine democracy reigns is an anathema, since it threatens his own ambition - however remote that now must seem, even for him - to head a working class party as its labour dictator. Thus page after page of his report is dedicated to doing down the alliance - not very successfully, it must be said. In his opening speech he made it clear that even to advocate cooperation with the SA is illegitimate for SLP members: "Those who support the idea of a Socialist Alliance shouldn't be a member of our party." He recalled how he told leading SA figures in Rimini earlier this year (at the conference of Rifondazione Comunista) that "it would all end in tears - and it has: I notice the chair has resigned". Hmm. Part and parcel of this anti-SA theme is Scargill's continual need to pretend that the SLP has more members and gets more votes in elections than the alliance. However, for the first time, the SLP president did not claim that membership had increased over the previous three years. He was pleased to announce that it had "remained steady despite all the difficulties" at "over 2,500. In 1999 it was said to be 2,514. If attendance and voting at congress is anything to go by, membership has further declined - but not by a great deal. According to my calculations, the voting for constituency NEC members reveals that the CSLP 'delegates' 'represented' around 280 SLP members, as opposed to about 290 in 1999. However, the decline is probably disguised to a certain extent by the fact that in 2002 every member could attend and any individual who turned up could cast the votes of paper members who happened to live in the same constituency. The first comrade from a particular CSLP to arrive was given the voting cards for their branch. Previously only properly accredited delegates were entitled to vote. Taking that into account, the number of real, paid up members has very likely fallen just below 400 for the first time - Scargill's figures are, of course, arrived at simply by adding up the numbers of those who have ever applied to join, deducting only those who formally resign or are known to have died. As comrade Thorne illustrated in his leaflet, nobody is fooled by this any more. Harvey Rabbit It is gratifying to note that my Weekly Worker column is so widely read by SLP members - not least by Scargill himself. On a couple of occasions he referred to Simon Harvey from the platform as "Brer Rabbit, Harvey Rabbit or whatever he's called". On the first of these he was speaking of the current True spies television series: "If there isn't a member of the CIA or MI5 in this room today, I will be bitterly disappointed. You can stop writing under the name of Brer Rabbit - we know who you are."