Vote Socialist Party, but...

Despite the chasm between its revolutionist theory and reformist practice, Ian Mahoney calls for a critical vote for the SP in the May 4 local elections in England and Wales

We would suggest to SPers - particular the younger comrades who have joined the organisation over the last few years (a positive development, we believe) - that they ask themselves a very basic question. Why do Marxists actually stand in elections in the first place?

For Engels, one of the important roles of electoral contests was the opportunities they afforded the communists for agitation, to put us and our ideas "in touch with the mass of people". They are therefore a gauge of the revolutionary maturity of our class. If our votes are high, this should spur us on to what Engels dubbed the "decisive battle"; if two voters and a dog support us, we need patience. In Engels's own elegant words, therefore, contesting elections "accurately informs us concerning our own strength and that of all hostile parties, and thereby provides us with a measure of proportion for our action second to none, safeguarding us from untimely timidity as much as from untimely foolhardiness" (K Marx, F Engels Selected works 1968, pp659-60).

In truth, however, elections can only be used as a political "measure of proportion" if the Marxists actually stand as Marxists - the revolutionary maturity of our class can hardly be gauged if it is asked to give its support to a reformist platform. And it is clear that that is what the SP does - as opposed to what is claims in its pamphlets and educational material.

For an example of this classic opportunist method of divorcing theory and practice, take this passage from the SP's Introducing Marxism pack, presumably put together primarily for the aforementioned new recruits. In this, we read in the section titled 'Welfare and warfare: how the state works', authored by Ken Smith and William Marshall: "The core of the state, the part which [the ruling class] falls back on to ensure its rule when all else fails, is the repressive apparatus - the police, the army, the courts and the various intelligence agencies like MI5" (p3).

Then there is: "Lenin points out that Marxist revolutionaries, as opposed to reformists, say that the existing bourgeois state cannot be seized ready-made and used in the interests of the working class. It must be broken up, smashed and replaced by a new workers' state" (p12).

All true, but a tad difficult to square not simply with the SP/Militant's historical practice, but also with the unambiguous statements to the contrary by leading figures such as Peter Taaffe. Here is a section from the organisation's important 1990 pamphlet Militant: what we stand for, which tells a rather different story from the seemingly orthodox stance on the state above. In this, socialism was infamously envisaged as being a product of "an Enabling Bill in parliament", with the "precedent" cited of the Tories' rescue of Rolls Royce in 1971 and the "rushed" entry in the European Community in 1972 (p40).

Far from the revolutionary initiative of the working masses being directed to 'smashing' the bourgeois state and - in the process - creating organs of a new, proletarian state, the workers themselves are assigned only a subsidiary, supportive role in this utopian schema. "We have stressed," then Militant leader Rod Sewell assured us, "that a socialist Britain can be accomplished through parliament backed by the mobilised power of the labour movement outside" (Our emphasis Militant International Review No33, autumn 1986, p9).

These sort of statements were no aberration. This idea was a consistent theme of the public statements of Militant/SP, despite claims that internal documents contained more lurid revolutionary rhetoric. For instance, in the 2002 pamphlet by leading SPer Hannah Sell, Socialism in the 21st century - the way forward for anti-capitalism, the example of Chile was cited, where the left reformist government was overthrown in a bloody coup. Hannah's answer was that ""¦ this resistance could be nullified by mobilising the mass of working class people in support of a socialist government "¦ A socialist government could only defend itself if it mobilised the active support of the working class" (our emphasis p11).

In other words, 'Vote for us and we'll set you free - we'll give you a shout if your help is needed.'

Instructively, comrade Sell's pamphlet lauded the "battle of Liverpool city council" - led by the SP in its Militant incarnation - a model of the type of working class struggle that opens the road to socialist advance (p75).

In Liverpool, we are told, the monuments to the leadership of the movement by socialists "still stand in bricks and mortar". "Some of main achievements" of the council are given - 5,000 new council houses built, "all with front and back gardens and their own private entrance"; six new nurseries opened and 500 extra education staff employed; six new sports centres; 800 extra council workers employed and 16,489 jobs created by the house-building programme (p76).

In other words, typical left social democratic measures carried out from above by a council on behalf of the working class. Real revolutionaries do not measure their successes in "bricks and mortar", but in the enhanced fighting ability of our class, the politicisation of its organisations and its level of consciousness. Judged by these - genuinely Marxist - criteria, Militant-SP's leadership of Liverpool council was a failure.

On one level, the fact that an apparently Marxist position on the state appears in a public document produced by the SP - its Introducing Marxism pack - could be taken as a step to the left. The point, however, is whether this formal understanding is actually married with the day-to-day practice of the organisation; how, for example, it finds a reflection in the manifesto that its 19 candidates will are standing on in these local elections.

But here we see the real, operative public programme of the SP, as opposed to the formal revolutionism of its educational materials. Essentially, it consists of a series of overwhelmingly (largely supportable) economic demands, supplemented by abstract calls for 'socialism'. As an example, we are told that "[The SP is] involved in hundreds of campaigns up and down the country, including the fight against privatisation, for better pay, to stop council house sell-offs, for free education, against the war in Iraq and to stop the pollution of our environment. As well as these day-to-day struggles, we also fight for socialist change" (our emphasis - all manifesto quotes from www.socialistparty.org.uk/Manifesto.htm).

Effectively, there is no logically unfolding connection between the SP's campaigning work in all these fields and the ultimate aim of 'socialism'. The question of the state and how it is overthrown, how we actually get that "socialist change", is a good example of the problem.

In its Introducing Marxism pack, the SP tells it new comrades that, while it "[demands] the total abolition of the secret police - MI5 and the special branch", it rejects "simple demands for the abolition of the police and army", as this "would be out of line with the consciousness of many amongst the advanced layers" (p12). In fact, the demand for abolition of MI5 does not appear in the manifesto either - the unfortunate truth is that the vast majority of working class people would not immediately support such a demand, particular in the context of today's 'war on terror'. So it is simply not mentioned. On the regular police, in the time-honoured tradition of left reformists everywhere, it advocates "community control of the police to ensure they work with and implement the policing priorities advocated by the communities".

In its introductory pack, the SP also talks of the need "to try to split the forces of the state" and that "in the confrontation between the rival powers of the working class and the bourgeoisie, the force used by the ruling class can only be minimised by a mass, well organised and determined movement of the working class". In the past, this confident and strong movement was organised in the form of soviets or councils, and this is one of the explanations for the fact that "only 40 people were killed" in the Russian Revolution.

Of course, any discussion of the Russian experience is problematic for the SP. This is a tradition it lays claim to. Yet the glaring discrepancy between how the Bolsheviks approached the class and the centrist obfuscation of the Taaffe group jars horribly. For example, when she discusses the degeneration of the USSR in her Socialism "¦ pamphlet, comrade Sell tells us that Lenin "laid out four safeguards to protect a fledgling workers' state" from bureaucratic distortion, including "no standing army or police force, but the armed people" (p69).

This grossly distorts the truth by omitting to tell readers that the Bolsheviks did not propose to arm the working class only after such a workers' state was established. The call for the dissolution of the army and the arming of the people was part of the minimum programme of Lenin's party - ie, those demands realisable under capitalism. At moments of heightened class struggle, the Bolsheviks actively agitated for workers' defence militias against the tsarist state forces. As Lenin put it, "To arm the people with a sense of the burning necessity to arm is the constant, common duty of the [communists] always and everywhere "¦ Wherever there are oppressed classes struggling against exploitation, the doctrine of the socialist, from the very start, and in the first place, arms them with a sense of the burning necessity to arm "¦" (VI Lenin CW Vol 9, Moscow 1977, p432).

Using the same method, the Bolsheviks stood by the basic socialist principle of 'not a penny, not a person' for the armed forces of the enemy class. In miserable contrast, the SP calls for a "drastic cut in military spending" - that is, not so many people, not so much money to be made available to the military might of the bourgeois army (p87).

This is not some obtuse question of esoteric theory. The forces of the state will not be split and dispersed unless our class shows it has prepared seriously for the confrontation, unless it is shows it is able to militarily defend its right to make a revolution. Thus, Marxists must actually take every real opportunity to urge our class to train itself in these matters.

In contrast, when it has been put to the test on these questions in situations where it mattered - such as the miners' Great Strike of 1984-85 or the poll tax riot of 1990 - the Militant/SP group either preached syrupy pacifism to our class or, in 1990, actually deserted the field of battle and blamed the poll tax violence on "anarchists and lunatics" (see Jack Conrad Which Road? p225).

In closing, I should emphasise that I am not criticising the SP comrades for failing to cram blood-curdling calls for the insurrection and blueprints for home-made bombs into their local election manifesto. What is being highlighted is the SP's general method. This question of the attitude of revolutionaries to the state is such an instructive example precisely because the consequences of getting it wrong are so dire.

While the final aim of 'socialism' is spoken of in glowing terms, the daily practice of the group - the operative content of its political programme - is left reformism. And - as Rosa Luxemburg identified - reformist and revolutionary politics are not two different paths to the same destination. They are different paths because they end in different places - revolution or counterrevolution.

So we urge our readers: vote Socialist Party but