The right to say what is

Communists have fiercely opposed the Scottish Socialist Party's complete surrender to nationalism, writes Peter Manson. We are equally opposed to the SSP's intolerance - shared with much of the left - of anything resembling sharply expressed polemic

The Scottish Socialist Party is undoubtedly a party of left nationalism, not working class socialism. Its separatist call for an "independent socialist Scotland" and the illusion of socialism in one country has in practice been dropped in favour of the even more blatant anti-working class demand for independence in the here and now - to be achieved through an alliance with the petty bourgeois Scottish National Party. In parallel to its support for the SNP link-up through an Independence Convention and a referendum for separation, the SSP declares its complete and utter rejection of organisational unity based on the working class across Scotland, Wales and England. Thus an all-Britain socialist party is absurdly dismissed as a device to tie the Scottish working class to the United Kingdom state: instead of a single working class party capable of striking as a fist against that state, the SSP leadership insists on the need for sectional parties based on the three royal territories. The job of socialists, we are told, is not to unite in order to smash the UK state, but to disunite: we should launch separate sallies against it in order to weaken it by breaking it up. Unfortunately, the internal opposition to this disastrous line is pitifully disorganised and ineffective. The Workers Unity platform seems incapable of getting its act together even to the extent of putting a motion to the SSP's annual conference, let alone mounting a sustained campaign for working class internationalism. By the day, the ultra-nationalists within the SSP are gaining in confidence, attempting to force the pace so as to take the party even further away from working class politics and spread their insidious, separatist poison more widely. The ultras around the Scottish Republican Socialist Movement attempted to commit the February annual conference to a boycott of the coming general election, on the grounds that any such 'Brit' poll was illegitimate in Scotland. This move, in the shape of a 'replace all' amendment to the SSP's general election manifesto, was ruled out of order - a decision that was overwhelmingly upheld by conference. But that has not stopped leading ultra Kevin Williamson coming out openly for a "principled boycott" of the general election. Williamson is what passes for a celebrity in SSP circles. He was the SSP's drugs spokesperson and still has a regular column in Scottish Socialist Voice, the SSP weekly. He founded and runs Rebel Ink, which first published Irving Welsh. Socially he mixes with the more interesting range of Scottish musicians, actors and writers. Politically, however, having been wrapped up in the old Militant in the 1980s, he slowly drifted towards ultra-nationalism. Today he is closely aligned with the SRSM, although not a member. Williamson has become his own opposite. Once he casually dismissed the national question as irrelevant. Now he has embraced the SRSM's Britophobia with the passion of a convert. Everything British is to be opposed "¦ to the point of absurdity. That includes the British general election. Indeed Williamson has made it abundantly clear on the SSP's email discussion list that his "boycott" will extend to the SSP itself. Even to vote SSP - something that we in the 'Brit left' are recommending - would apparently legitimise the UK state in the eyes of the Scottish masses. I do not know whether Williamson's nationalist individualism drives him to deduct VAT and other taxes paid to the British exchequer from every purchase he makes, but I do know that he is refusing to lift a finger to help the SSP general election campaign - and implying that everybody should follow his lead. Any principled party (which, of course, the SSP is not) would not only permanently spike Williamson's SSV column, but immediately take steps to have him expelled for in effect advocating the wrecking of the SSP's main political action at this time. But there seems to have been no sense of outrage amongst members at Williamson's openly expressed contempt for democratically agreed decisions. Instead, such is the degree of nationalist sentiment that, not only are his anarcho calls for sabotage tolerated, but disciplinary action has been taken against a comrade who raised an objection! An occasional writer for this paper, Tom Delargy, forcefully condemned Williamson on the 'SSP Debate' email list: "Having been resoundingly rejected, like the scab he is, he crosses our democratically imposed picket lines. His objection to the so-called centralist left is that we insist that democratic decisions are important. He only obeys them if he wins the vote. In this respect he is a petty bourgeois anarchist/liberal. He definitely is no socialist" (March 21). Quite right. And indeed Williamson has on at least one occasion championed the views of Bakunin, as against those of Marx. But Eddie Truman, the list moderator (who just happens to be an SRSM member, as well as the SSP's full-time press secretary), thought otherwise: "I've said before that this list will not be used as a means of trading insults. Tom, your reference to Kevin 'like the scab he is' is completely out of order and has now resulted in your posts being placed under moderation. I am minded to completely remove you from the list, as your posts are almost exclusively negative and aimed at baiting Kevin, but I'll take account of other list members' views on this" (March 21). The only other view expressed on the matter was that of a Socialist Worker platform member, who backed Truman's anti-democratic stance. Clearly poor Kevin must not be 'baited', although it is perfectly all right to come down like a ton of bricks on an anti-nationalist comrade like Tom Delargy. Comrade Delargy, who recently resigned from the Workers Unity platform (foolishly, in my view), responded himself with a direct challenge to Truman: "I support the SSP standing in the election (regardless of the merits or otherwise of individual candidates), and you deny me the opportunity to challenge your mate's anti-socialist drivel before party members on this internal list. Your pal, Kevin, continues to campaign against the party at the general election, and he gets defended by you! What a surprise. You, Mr Truman, are as unfit to be the party's press secretary (or moderator of this list) as Kevin is to have a weekly column in the party's paper. Or John Patrick is to be a party spokesperson" (March 23). The reference to Patrick - another ultra-nat, who speaks for the SSP on 'animal rights' - is apt, since earlier he had called comrade Delargy a "British arsehole" for opposing the drive to independence (in certain SSP circles to be dubbed "British" is considered much more of an insult than to be called an "arsehole"). This comment elicited only the mildest of rebukes from Truman - and certainly not the threat to place Patrick under moderation. But comrade Delargy's mailing was the last one he was permitted to make, for it was followed immediately by a brief posting from Truman: "I approved this message so that comrades can see for themselves what is not acceptable on the list. Tom has now been removed" (March 23). Note that Truman felt not the slightest need to justify himself. What exactly was so "unacceptable" about Delargy's remarks? Is the phrase "anti-socialist drivel" considered 'unparliamentary language'? Is the mere suggestion that Truman is rather less than impartial 'improper'? List members were not told. Disgracefully, not one comrade raised an objection to the appalling high-handed treatment meted out to Tom Delargy. No Workers Unity comrade came out in his defence - even though, quite clearly, any one of them could fall foul of the next arbitrary ruling. Comrade Delargy's departure from WU is no excuse; neither is the fact that sometimes he sees a conspiracy when there is none. To defend the rights of one is to defend the rights of all. In the words of Rosa Luxemburg, "Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently. Not because of any fanatical concept of justice, but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when freedom becomes a special privilege" (www.marxists.org/archive/luxem-burg). But it might be argued that it was not a comrade's "right to think differently" that was being curtailed, but the way in which he was expressing his right. There exists on the left the equivalent of bourgeois 'political correctness' (or parliamentary etiquette), when it comes to polemic. Many uphold what they describe as the 'norms of comradely debate', where it is just not on to employ certain words or phrases - irrespective of whether or not they happen to be accurate. Surely it is pertinent to ask whether or not Williamson is behaving like a "scab". If we are not permitted to use the word, how are we to oppose scabbing when it occurs? This is not a new argument. By a happy coincidence, Lenin strongly criticised those who would prevent us from using that same expression: "To discuss complaints or accusations on this plane would be the same as if we were to condemn the word 'strike-breaker' as being impermissible, without going to the essence of the question of whether the behaviour of the person concerned was actually that of a strike-breaker or not" (VI Lenin CW Vol 12, Moscow 1977, p429). But to be sidetracked in such a way is to play into the hands of rightwing bureaucrats like Truman, who never fail to abuse their power in a one-sided way. For example, when Williamson himself writes, in reply to an opponent, "Trying to enter a constructive dialogue on this with someone as wilfully ignorant and politically dishonest as yourself is a complete waste of time ... You remind me of the sheep in Animal Farm who try to chant down opposition by bleating their dogmatic slogans as loud as possible", for some strange reason, Truman does not consider that to be "trading insults" at all (March 20). In fact he makes no comment. No doubt he considers it perfectly reasonable for Williamson to be allowed to make his point in this way, since he happens to agree with it. Actually it is vital that every comrade is able to say what he or she thinks, without worrying about contravening some heavily weighted (and usually extremely vague) rule. If a comrade is being "wilfully ignorant" or "politically dishonest", then no-one should be afraid of saying so. Of course, Lenin was himself condemned on numerous occasions for being rude and 'uncomradely' in his choice of language. By another coincidence, an example of Lenin's abrasiveness was posted on the 'SSP Debate' list on March 21 in the shape of his article, 'The attitude of the workers' party to religion', in which phrases like "a piece of stupidity" and "dilettantes or ignoramuses" were freely used. These were actually extremely mild insults by Lenin's standards, but perhaps Truman will now insist that quotations from Lenin are henceforth "placed under moderation". In fact the Eddie Trumans of Lenin's day certainly tried to censor him. By contrast, we say there should be no constraints on the use of insulting language in debate amongst comrades. Sometimes a provocatively phrased barb can bring home the truth much more clearly than mincing one's words. And, of course, getting to the truth is the whole purpose of polemic. see also Communists and open polemic In the context of the SSP and the censorship of unacceptable views Ian Mahoney contrasts the big brother approach of Eddie Truman with that of the CPGB with its Leninist tradition of polemical exchange