Marginal left

Leaving aside the odd politics of Ian Donovan’s article on the Northern Irish assembly elections, his comments on the left in that part of the world are a little misleading.

The Socialist Party did not stand in West Belfast: it stood in South Belfast, as well as in East Belfast. More importantly, in his comments on the marginal nature of the Socialist Party in the north, Ian seems less than aware that the entire left is marginal there in electoral terms. All left candidates for the assembly - whether from the Socialist Party, the Workers Party or the Socialist Environmental Alliance - got similar votes, with the solitary exception of Eamonn McCann’s personal vote in Derry. That it is difficult to swim against the sectarian tide at an election in the north should come as a surprise to nobody.

The strength of the Socialist Party in Northern Ireland is in the trade union movement. SP members played a leading role in the biggest industrial dispute the north has seen for a decade, that of the term-time workers. Victory in that dispute laid the basis for a strong left in the north’s biggest trade union, NIPSA. Apart from the half-dozen Socialist Party activists on the NIPSA executive, including its president, SP members sit on the executives of a number of other unions, including the FBU and INTO.

The youth wing of the Socialist Party, Socialist Youth, was central to the organisation of the impressive waves of school student walkouts that swept the north during the war on Iraq. In addition, the SP is trying to lay the foundations for a campaign of mass non-payment to challenge the planned introduction of water charges.

The Socialist Party remains a small organisation in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately the entire left remains small. Nevertheless, the SP and the left in general has been able to have an impact on events from time to time. The question is, how do we go about changing that general marginality?

The welcome victory of an anti-hospital cuts candidate in West Tyrone goes some way to showing us all that it is possible for common working class interests to draw people together across the sectarian divide.

Marginal left
Marginal left

Unity Coalition

I note with interest the column that argued for the expulsion of your comrade (now ex-comrade, I presume) John Pearson. On the evidence provided it seems an open and shut case.

However, in relation to this affair there has been a claim made on the UK Left Network email list that there had been no organised discussion within the CPGB on the question of the ‘Unity Coalition’ prior to the announcement by Jack Conrad in the previous week’s issue, committing your organisation to the ‘action’ of joining this coalition (Party notes’, November 27).

This lack of discussion has not been disputed by CPGB members and supporters on the UKLN list; instead they have attempted to defend it by saying that leaderships have the responsibility to take such organisational decisions. This is of course a general truth of communist organisation, but this responsibility of leadership is to do with when there is no time to have a full discussion or when there has been prior discussion on the political question the action refers to that makes the political framework for making the decision clear.

This is clearly not the case with the Unity Coalition and Jack Conrad’s diktat would seem an example of the worst kind of anti-democratic bureaucratism that the CPGB proclaims so loudly against. How do you justify this lack of democratic discussion in your own organisation?

Regarding the substantive issue of the Unity Coalition, I read the interview with George Galloway and reports on the ‘Crossroads’ meetings. I agree with your correspondent Ananda Samaddar that “we do not want to be involved in yet another attempt at cross-class popular frontism”.

However, I note that Mark Fischer somehow managed to avoid asking Galloway any kind of question relating to this. Many on the left, including apparently some CPGB members, have described the Unity Coalition as class collaborationist in its political appetites. Surely a simple question asking for clarity would have been in order - eg, ‘George, there are some on the left who describe the coalition as class collaborationist. Can you reassure our readers that this is not the case and instead that the coalition will have an open and active pro-working class orientation?’

The absence of such a question may of course have simply been an oversight. But, following a similar ‘oversight’ by Jack Conrad when announcing the decision to join the coalition, I think it is more to do with the CPGB leadership trying to avoid this political problem by painting the Unity Coalition as more leftwing than it actually is, to help justify joining it.

Unity Coalition
Unity Coalition


After my observations of the behaviour of Leninist sects, the expulsion of John Pearson should come as no surprise to me by now. What did come as a surprise, however, was the abuse that Jack Conrad dished out to the man.

Your proclaimed ‘openness’ is no excuse for humiliating somebody publicly in that manner, whatever he did to break the rules of your organisation. What is most offensive is the way you describe him as being “politically backward”. Translated into everyday talk, you are basically saying that the man is stupid because he disagrees with your mode of conduct. Your call for him to subject himself to self-criticism and to “make a pledge to mend his ways” can only be described as Maoist.

I am no Leninist, so I would therefore not join any group that uses such terminology as you do. But your claims to tolerate diversity of opinion ring rather hollow when you call those who disagree with you “backward”: ie, intellectually challenged. By these standards this term would apply to the masses who you claim to champion, the masses who have no interest in your politics whatsoever (and, to be frank, I cannot say I blame them). Such an insult is not to be taken lightly.

I was for a brief period a member of a small grouplet that you describe as being “bureaucratic”. That charge may not be without foundation, but if members were expelled they were not humiliated and called names in the publication of the outfit. I think my former comrades were somewhat more respectful than you are when it comes to such matters and did not resort to washing their dirty linen in public. They did not hold public lectures in order to humiliate renegade members, as you have done for the last two years with comrade Pearson.

Thankfully I did not witness either of these spectacles, but I was informed of them.

I have been told before (on your letters page and elsewhere) that my critique of hierarchical Leninism is ‘offensive’ to its supporters. I find your ill-informed criticisms of any politics that contradict your own to be highly offensive for that matter - as I do the slur on “anarcho-bureaucracy”, whatever the hell that is, along with your running down and belittling the efforts of Ukrainian peasants to take charge of their own lives (the recent debate on Makhno).

I find it offensive to be labelled as politically backward, and I am sure so do many other people who are not what you would describe as ‘class-conscious trade unionists’. Cut out your pretentious (and, dare I say, ungentlemanly?) patronising and get more in touch with the class you claim to fight for.



So John Pearson is supposedly guilty of violating party discipline. Jack Conrad’s article is high on ad hominem attacks and quotes from Party rules, but fails to address the subtleties of the case or suggest any positive way to proceed for John or other party members who find themselves in such a position (‘Party notes’, December 4).

Jack raises several questions over whether John was actually mandated by Stockport Socialist Alliance for the November 8 meeting. However, Jack presses the point further and says that “... authentic communists ... always put the discipline of their Party above that of other organisations ... including that august body, Stockport SA.”

This leaves us in no doubt that CPGB members are expected to break any commitment to a local SA and to represent the views of the CPGB only. In light of this it is hard to see how any SA can trust any CPGB member to act as its delegate. CPGB members have two options: they could tell their local SA that they will act as their delegate (and represent the SA’s views) but then vote according to the wishes of the CPGB; or they could of course refuse to act as delegates unless the local SA share views on all relevant issues exactly in line with CPGB policy.

Surely in neither of these scenarios would our hypothetical CPGB member be “behaving in a democratic and co-operative manner”, as required by the SA constitution’? The CPGB have been at the forefront of those arguing for the SA to become more party-like and even to become a democratic centralist organisation itself. How is this to be achieved if constituent parties encourage their members to contravene the SA’s rules and ridicule democratic processes in local alliances as irrelevant?


SSP or Labour

I am delighted that Vince Mills has no intention of taking legal action against Hugh Kerr and I am sorry if my letter implied he did (December 4). Vince will have to admit, though, that the phrase “legal consequences” was his. It would undoubtedly improve the tenor of this debate if Vince stopped accusing Hugh Kerr of lying when Hugh is only reporting what John McAllion told several hundred participants at the closing rally of Socialism 2003.

As for the charge that I have misrepresented Vince’s view that the Scottish Socialist Party prioritises campaign work to the detriment of theory, I am left perplexed.

Happily, I am able to agree wholeheartedly with Vince on the important point that a powerful movement is needed to win the struggle for socialist transformation. Exactly. That is why I believe it is crucial, in the face of the neoliberal takeover of the Labour Party, for socialists to organise independently. Note that I am not dismissing all socialist activity in the Labour Party throughout its 100-year history.

What are some of the prerequisites for building a mass movement for socialism in Britain? First, socialists must participate, as an organised force seeking to link immediate struggles with the need for a new society, in a wide range of trade union and social campaigns. Second, theory and the whole gamut of policy issues must be developed. Third, socialists should seize all opportunities, including the electoral platform, to make the case for a different set of social and economic priorities to those of New Labour.

Immersion in the current profoundly anti-socialist Labour Party places severe constraints on rising to each of these challenges. Individual members of the Labour Party can and do get involved in a range of campaigns. But it is rare for the Labour left to make an organised intervention in campaigns outside the Labour Party - again, Labour Against the War is a welcome exception. The total lack of involvement by the Labour left in campaigns against the privatisation of Glasgow’s secondary schools and the transfer of Glasgow’s council housing to an unrepresentative quango illustrates the point.

After all, how could the councillors of the Campaign for Socialism rebel on these issues when they knew the price would be their removal from the Labour Party’s list of approved candidates? And too many of the Labour left’s efforts, perhaps of necessity, are preoccupied with manoeuvring (and, these days, usually failing) to get individuals elected to internal Labour Party positions and to pursuing motions through undemocratic party structures. And too little time is devoted to tackling longer-term strategic and theoretical issues.

Of course, any work by the CFS in this field is to be welcomed. As for elections, what can members of the Labour left do but show their face on a minimal number of occasions and keep their heads down for the rest of the election campaign, while various brands of neoliberalism hog the limited democratic space allowed us in a capitalist society? Many I know in Scotland then use their ballot secretly to back the SSP.

Above all, how are we to win to socialism the hundreds of thousands of young people and those of all ages who are disillusioned with capitalism and looking for a way to make a difference? Very few are going to see a Labour Party led by the likes of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown (intent, as they are, on overturning many of those gains won under previous Labour governments) as a vehicle for challenging the global neoliberal offensive. What the SSP demonstrates is that by building democratic and pluralist party structures, sinking roots in working class communities and campaigning with a certain chutzpah, socialists can make progress outside the confines of the Labour Party. Vince asks what the SSP has delivered for the working class.

Well, placing socialism back on the political agenda strikes me as a fairly major achievement. And, even with just one MSP, the SSP was able to use its toe-hold in the last Scottish parliament to get rid of warrant sales, and to build broad coalitions of support for free and healthy school meals and an equitable system of local authority taxation that may yet bear fruit. Now with six MSPs, the SSP will make a bigger impact - it is a pity that Vince repeats the favourite Labour sneer about the SSP being a one-man band. Vince mentions the three-year period when the first Wilson government abolished prescription charges. Colin Fox of the SSP is preparing a bill to restore free prescriptions and to bring the pharmaceutical industry under social ownership. New Labour will mobilise to defeat it, but the SSP is setting about changing the terms of the political debate.

It is in this context that the fact that John McAllion is close to quitting the Labour Party, that George Galloway is participating in launching a new political venture of the left, that trade unions are debating their links with the Labour Party and that the RMT in Scotland is moving to back the SSP are surely much more significant developments than Vince is prepared to concede. A sea-change in socialist politics in Britain is underway. The SSP will be an important component of the new socialist landscape. I see no reason why those socialists remaining in the Labour Party should not engage with the exciting opportunities that are opening up.

SSP or Labour
SSP or Labour