The growth and paradoxes of left nationalism

As its 5th annual conference held over February 22-23 amply shows, the Scottish Socialist Party is a highly paradoxical formation. There are many lessons - positive and negative. On the one hand, there is confidence and the welcome signs of a budding partyist culture. Both the established leadership and the bulk of the membership have a clear sense of purpose. There is a palpable air of moving forward: the upcoming Holyrood elections in May will see a "further significant breakthrough", predicts national secretary Allan Green, and perhaps the return of between four and eight MSPs. Internal democracy, factions and debate, albeit cribbed and cramped, are still regarded as the norm, not a threat. The half a dozen or so platforms and tendencies are treated with toleration (though comrade Green undoubtedly keeps the Socialist Worker platform on a tight rein). As a concomitant, most platforms, official and unofficial, identify with the whole to one degree or another. On the other hand, the main defining aim is separatism and achieving an "independent socialist Scotland". At best that means weakening the United Kingdom state: hiving off a tranche of territory and some eight percent of the overall population. Meantime the fight to overthrow the UK state is fragmented and workers' unity undermined. Put another way, the SSP cannot be properly defined as socialist. It is left nationalist programmatically and has an impoverished theory which goes with and informs those shallow, failed politics. Nationalism, left reformism and militant trade unionism become the basis for recruitment and become common sense, along with the special pleadings, quotas, prejudices and norms associated with municipal socialism. Neither Scottish Socialist Voice nor any other SSP publication carries anything which could seriously be called socialist education: elections become important in themselves, not snapshots indicating the readiness of the working class to make revolution; parliamentary candidates and executive committee places are divided 50-50 between males and females; conference contributions are limited to five minutes; and speakers are told to "avoid negative personal references about other delegates" (standing orders). In other words conditions are designed to achieve unity not around the highest theory, but the lowest common denominator. Nevertheless despite these evident drawbacks the SSP stands in marked contrast to the Socialist Alliance in England and Wales. Meeting in Glasgow, in a packed Mitchell Theatre, the 250 conference delegates represented some 3,000 members organised in over 70 branches. Seven years ago there were less than 500 members and only a handful of branches. Obviously, unlike a becalmed Socialist Alliance in England and Wales, the SSP is on a steep growth curve. The SSP's success lies not in objective circumstances alone. Strikes, mass demonstrations, demoralisation with New Labour move according to broadly the same rhythm as England and Wales. Eg, the all-Britain firefighters' dispute is no more militant or solid in Scotland. Nor does Glasgow's February 15 90,000 anti-war turnout leave London and its two million in the shade. The main thing that distinguishes Scotland is its leadership. From the beginning the core group around Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes - forged in the heat of the anti-poll tax movement and now organised under the International Socialist Movement banner - put the SSP at the centre of their work. The Scottish Socialist Alliance set the scene. Full-timers and resources were transferred to the SSP when it was formed. Scottish Militant Labour gave way to Scottish Socialist Voice and searching for a much wider audience. In 2001 the final split came with Peter Taaffe's Committee for a Workers' International. Though still dominating the executive politically, the image projected by the Sheridan-McCombes group proved inspiring for a layer of others. Breaking from the sterile tradition of sect-building allowed them to gather up behind them talented individuals and smaller factions - significant at first not because of numbers, but the unity of different viewpoints under one roof. After Allan Green, former MEP Hugh Kerr, Rosie Kane and the Red Republicans came a whole swathe of recruits from a wide variety of leftish backgrounds, as well as those new to politics. In 1999 comrade Sheridan was elected to the Holyrood parliament. Opinion polls regularly put the SSP at between five and eight percent. Such has been the overall dynamism that not only did the CWI rump feel compelled to stay - despite the 'one member, one vote' constitution, which allegedly forced their comrades in England to leave the SA - but the Socialist Workers Party felt compelled to join. Meanwhile, secure in its position, the ISM at its last conference saw proposals tabled to wind up the platform. The Glasgow conference featured six main themes of debate: the 2003 elections and manifesto; SSP constitutional amendments; the anti-war movement; campaigning; policy; and external relations. Though the proportional weight of the platforms has declined markedly with the influx of hundreds of recruits, most of the debates had definite factional origins or purchase. Hence amendment 1 to the executive committee's draft manifesto from Cathcart branch quite clearly began life in the bowels of the CWI. The target was equally clear. The Sheridan-McCombes leadership hold up the examples of Denmark and Norway as small countries that can buck the global trend and tax the rich, invest in public services, etc. The CWI comrades pose as an alternative their "global movement to eradicate capitalism" and establishing a "socialist confederation" of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Democratic politics as the bridge to socialism seems to completely elude them. Opposition to left nationalism is also totally undermined by actually wanting to see separation under socialism - why not centralisation? Though the amendment was lost by a clear margin, the CWI has managed to constitute itself a viable and coherent opposition on a whole range of issues ... and is prepared to cooperate with others. Moreover on occasion the CWI has openly and defiantly broken the agreed guidelines prohibiting the public sales of factional literature. Despite that one CWI speaker after another stressed their support for the SSP. The comrades want to be seen as a loyal opposition. The SW platform makes an odd contrast. Everyone knows what the comrades really think, everyone knows that they frequently break the guidelines prohibiting the public sale of factional literature, everyone knows they are playing a waiting game ... and yet, though fooling no one, the SW platform kept quiet on a whole range of issues to the point of not even registering an abstention. Hence when it came to the CWI and the eccentric, left nationalist Republican Communist Network revisiting the ban on selling factional literature - constitutional amendments H2 and I2 - they kept diplomatically and dishonestly mum. That despite impassioned appeals and barbs directed at them by Harvey Duke, Mary Ward, Sandy McBurney, Angela Paton and others. It was Alan McCombes who picked up the gauntlet. Without such guidelines there would be no weekly Scottish Socialist Voice. Yes, the guidelines had been broken, not least by the CWI. But no witch-hunt had ensued - a hostage to fortune nevertheless. Eddie Truman spoke from the intolerant viewpoint of extreme left nationalism. SSP members should confine themselves to SSP propaganda. Graham Cee also supported the official line and got a resounding cheer for his demagogic mockery of the left in England and Wales. Minorities are not being suppressed. However, if factional rights were given no boundaries, the danger was that things would revert to the chaos that once prevailed ... if you want that, "go to London", where a dozen or more groups routinely compete with each other. The SW platform displayed the same opportunism and dishonesty over Scottish independence. Motion 14 "reaffirms" the "key strategic objective" of Scottish independence. Comrade Sandy McBurney - Workers Unity - took issue with putting this at the "centre" of SSP "campaigning work" - the cutting edge should be on internationalism, the huge anti-war movement and the fight for an all-Britain party. Yet the SW platform opted for invisibility. They neither voted for. Nor did they vote against. Nor did the comrades deign to register an abstention. Put another way, though they claim to stand in the heroic tradition of Leon Trotsky and his uncompromising fight against socialism in one country, in today's conditions, where they can have a real effect rather than safely bask in reflected glory, the SW platform conciliate with and accommodate to left nationalism. Despite putting up a generally miserable performance, the SW platform did make a stand on three question: the US-UK war drive, trade union funds and Israel/Palestine. On the war on Iraq the SW platform wanted to water down or remove SSP condemnations of the Saddam Hussein regime and the terrorism of political islam. The violence of the "oppressed" cannot be equated to the violence of the "oppressors", they insisted. As if al Qa'eda and the Ba'ath regime in Baghdad represented the oppressed. Showing that a certain rapprochement has taken place between the ISM and the CWI, delegates were presented with a composited substantive motion from the executive and the CWI platform. Allan Green spoke for the executive and Phil Stott seconded his "socialist programme" for the CWI. The SW platform's Mike Gonzales argued that the main enemy was at home - "US imperialism and its supporters" in the UK - forgetting, of course, the fight of communists and democrats in Iraq. When its position was put to conference, the SW platform found itself isolated, getting no more than 15% of the votes. The same pattern was repeated over trade unions. On behalf of the executive Richie Venton put forward a line reminiscent of 'third period' Stalinism. Tactics could be deployed, but New Labour was now irredeemably a capitalist party no different from the Tories and Lib Dems. The idea that the Labour Party can be reclaimed "is based on the false assumption that democratic structures remain" (motion 28). The strategy which flows from this assessment is 'Make the break': ie, encouraging trade unions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party and "building support for a socialist alternative" - specifically the SSP. This motion was overwhelmingly carried. However, motion 29 - from Pollokshaws Road branch - had an altogether different emphasis. Dave Sherry - SW platform - made an awful speech. Though he maintained that motion 29 was simply a complement to motion 28, this is not actually true - "we fight for the democratisation of the political fund", states the motion, not the "break". Motion 28 also championed rank and file organisation, as opposed to trusting in officialdom. In contrast to comrade Venton's 'Make the break', motion 29 is far superior. Nevertheless it attracted no more than 20% of the votes. On Israel/Palestine there were three basic positions. One, the SWP's demand to abolish Israel because it is inherently racist and pro-imperialist. Two, the CWI's recognition of the Israeli Jewish nation and a two-socialist-state solution. Three, the executive-ISM motion supporting the declared aims of the Intifada and two democratic states: ie, the withdrawal of Israeli troops back to pre-1967 borders and the right of refugees to return and a "Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with west Jerusalem as its capital". This being an interim measure towards the "long-term solution" of a "secular, democratic and socialist state" (motion 22). The SW platform, having won the executive-ISM to a single Palestinian state solution a couple of years back, now finds that its former allies have rethought. This is not surprising. The PLO long ago abandoned the pseudo-radical demand to abolish Israel. The creation of Israel was based on an historic crime perpetrated against the Palestinians, but an Israeli nation is now an undeniable and established fact. Moreover, advocating a one-state solution in Israel/Palestine hardly squares with the SSP's position in Britain: ie, a two-state solution when national antagonism between the English and Scots is far from being intense, violent or bloody - except when there were Wembley internationals. Keef Tomkinson - the SSP's youth and student coordinator - made a hash of his opening contribution in moving motion 23. He did not appear to have mastered the subject and altogether cut a poor figure. Jo Harvey and especially Keith Baldassara - housing spokesperson and one of Tommy Sheridan's full-time workers - did much better. Donny Gluckstein counter-attacked for the SW platform. Israel could not be reformed. Zionism is exclusivist and Palestinians must have the right to return to where they originated, not just to a truncated Palestinian state. Allan Armstrong - RCN leader - forcefully agreed. Socialists and communists cannot support religious or ethnically based states - as if anyone on the left were advocating any such thing. By definition a secular and democratic Israel - just like a secular and democratic Palestine - would include within its borders any number of minorities, not least Palestinian muslims and christians, who must be accorded full democratic rights. Harvey Duke, speaking for the CWI, mocked the SW platform to good effect. They neither understand the necessity of recognising the national rights of Israeli Jews to form a state where they constitute a clear majority ... nor, he pointedly added, the fight for an "independent socialist Scotland". Without respecting the rights of both Palestinians and Israeli Jews national antagonism can only continue to poison relations between the two peoples and become ever more bitter and intractable. The vote, when it came, was the only one over the whole conference weekend narrow enough to need a count. Nevertheless, motion 23 romped home by a clear margin of 141 votes to 85. In other words the CWI, plus the SW platform, plus most of the other minority dissenters together accounted for less than 40% of delegates, whereas the ISM and its co-thinkers and close allies commanded more than 60%. Either way, my overall assessment of the factional battles was as follows. There appears to be a very limited rapprochement going on between the ISM and the CWI. Both of these factions had what might be called a good conference. The ISM is the undisputed leadership faction. The CWI might now be called the official opposition. On the other hand the SW platform did badly and saw itself soundly beaten, not to say humiliated, on the few issues where it decided to make a stand. The ultra-nationalists and proto-green factions hardly showed at all and the RCN, Solidarity and Workers Unity platforms found themselves ever more marginal. The RCN - which now publishes a half-syndicalist, half-eccentric journal Emancipation and Liberation - has completely gone over to nationalism. Motion 30 - sponsored by the RCN and the Midlothian branch and instantly remitted to the executive - praises Scotland for taking the "lead" and calls, bizarrely in the name of "socialist unity", for "SSP-type" parties in England, Wales and Ireland. Presumably, once founded, these separate national parties can jointly campaign around asylum-seekers, against privatisation, etc. Other issues taken up by the RCN verge towards the off-beam. A few examples will suffice. The automatic right of regional organisers to be on the SSP's executive was propounded - an anarchist, not a communist, principle. The unworkable, and again anarchistic, demand, that SSP conferences vote on all motions - even after one has been agreed and stands in flat contradiction to the others that follow. The comrades even renewed their call for SSP MSPs to refuse to swear the oath of allegiance to the monarch and to all intents and purposes boycott the Holyrood parliament. Thankfully conference overwhelmingly voted down all such nonsense. A very significant vote - which cut across the standard factional lines - concerned the SSP and coalitions. Kelvin branch submitted - and won - a very pertinent motion reaffirming as "policy" the bar on SSP MSPs entering a coalition administration led by any of the "four main pro-capitalist parties" or propping up any such government through a pact or a historical compromise, etc. Measures will be voted upon solely by their merits. And, though the relevant motion was lost by about two to one, the deeply held democratic spirit of the rank and file expressed itself in the debate around the pay of SSP MSPs. The executive proposes that their MSPs should keep around £24,600 of their £45,000 annual salary. The balance being handed over to party coffers. This is reckoned to be the average skilled worker's wage - calculated on the basis of official statistics and the earnings of professional, technical and administrative workers. A minority wanted to bring this down to £21,000 - which is the average wage. While it is quite right to put in place measures which keep MEPs, MPs, MSPs, etc in touch with the problems and lifestyle of those who elect them, socialists and communists have no wish to see their comrades scrimping and scraping on the subsistence line - they often live far below that as political full-timers. The formulation of the 1871 Paris Commune remains correct ... and Tommy Sheridan should not be criticised for buying an Edinburgh house. Certainly by only taking just over half of their pay cheque for personal use SSP MSPs distinguish themselves from the fat cats and careerists in New Labour, the SNP, the Lib Dems and the Conservative Party. Jack Conrad