Socialism 2003: Invisible ghosts from the past

Is the Socialist Party living in the past? Phil Kent sees evidence that it is

The trouble I had with the Socialist Party weekend school was that I left not knowing what the organisation really believes. However, I suspect this reflected the SP’s own confusion.

For example, there were several references to the glory days of Liverpool council and the poll tax campaign, but, beyond saying how right Militant had been in those struggles, nobody offered any explanation as to why these events led eventually to defeat and fragmentation.

Take Scotland. Of course lessons were learnt from struggles like the poll tax - principally by the likes of Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes, who ended up splitting from the SP’s Committee for a Workers’ International over the setting up of the Scottish Socialist Party. The comrades from the CWI rump in Scotland also learnt lessons, in that they swallowed their pride at being defeated by their erstwhile comrades and joined the SSP as left critics.

Phil Stott of CWI Scotland explained how the comrades have campaigned to extend SSP democracy, especially regarding the right to sell factional literature at SSP events (outside the agreed guidelines, but tolerated by the leadership faction). The CWI opposes the majority’s slide away from a “consistent socialist programme” - defined, it has to be said, around the view that socialism essentially equals nationalisation. One SP speaker from the floor during the session on Scotland attacked the SSP. Its refusal to fix a definite number of companies to be nationalised has been targeted by SP leaders. Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes know that taking hold of the Scottish branch of a transnational giant could simply lead to it being lopped off and left to die. The SP describe this as being no more than an accommodation with capitalism.

Leaving aside the question of whether capitalism in Scotland is really ‘Scottish’ and can be separated from British or global capitalism, the SP implies that socialism can be delivered top-down through the existing state, rather than as an act of self-liberation of the working class itself. These kinds of questions hang around in the shadows like ghosts, unaddressed and invisible.

The confusion is compounded when you consider the SP walkout from the Socialist Alliance, after its bureaucratic-anarchistic proposals for the structure of the SA were rejected in December 2001. Yet the CWI Scotland has not threatened the SSP with similar ultimatums. Apparently this is because every situation is different, so what you do in one country (Scotland) has no necessary consequences for any other (eg, England). This is just self-serving twaddle.

Yet the SP proudly announces that the CWI organises in 38 countries on the basis of a common working class programme. And that programme requires a mass working class party. In Scotland CWI comrades are engaged in a project that, despite the SSP’s nationalist deformations, has, through left unity, attempted to bring that about, but in the other 37 countries they seem to be waiting for capitalist crisis to throw the workers into spontaneous revolt and only at that point can the CWI intervene with its correct, transitional programme and save the world.

There may be some who are striving for answers to all these and many other questions, but the school’s format was inadequate for the task. They need a school that lasts longer than just a few hours in total, with more time allowed for discussion, and sessions where the best theoreticians can debate the issues in depth. The SP culture is also too inward-looking. They need to look outside their own ranks in order to engage with different points of view.