Nationalism versus Marxism

The Campaign for a Marxist Party held its first Glasgow public meeting on Saturday February 3. It took the form of a debate entitled 'The way forward for the left', featuring Hillel Ticktin for the CMP; Jack Ferguson of the Scottish Socialist Party's executive committee; Gordon Morgan, national treasurer of Solidarity; and Yassamine Mather of the Hands Off the People of Iran campaign. Peter Kennedy reports

Yassamine Mather was the first speaker. She began by urging everyone to join HOPI with its twin slogans, 'Against war on Iran' and 'No to the islamic republic regime'.

Over the last few weeks the threat of an attack on Iran by the US has increased, she noted. Although there are reports of hidden negotiations between the Iranian and US elites, the situation is grave. The economic sanctions imposed by US imperialism in December 2006 are affecting the poor, while the threat of attack is being used by the islamic republic as an opportunity to intensify the repression of workers and the left in Iran.

Socialists need to take a principled stand when calling for 'Hands off Iran', said comrade Mather, by making it clear that they stand with Iranian workers and students against both US imperialism and the islamic republic. Iranian workers are very class-conscious and therefore aware that islamic fundamentalism means corruption, dictatorship and repression. They are also aware that capitalist reforms are not the answer but part of the problem, and that islam is nothing but a haven for their own oppression.

The anti-war movement in the west should be clearly opposing any appeasement of the islamic republic, concluded comrade Mather. We must be clear in our opposition - against US imperialism, against the islamic dictatorship - and for workers' unity. Populism and appeasement is currently rife among the left and must be countered.

New situation

Next to speak was Hillel Ticktin of the Campaign for a Marxist Party. He began by outlining the new situation since the fall of Stalinism in the Soviet Union. For the first time there is the possibility of a genuine socialist party, he believed. Stalinism was an oppressive, unviable historical abortion and supporters of it were not of the left. The authentic left were physically annihilated and ideologically marginalised by Stalinism. However, Stalinism is now at an end - its collapse is the collapse of the main obstacle to the emergence of a genuine socialist alternative.

The emergence of the Scottish Socialist Party was a step forward initially, said comrade Ticktin, because it gave voice to socialist aspirations. However its recent fall was no accident and resulted from its undemocratic nature, relying as it does on "supreme leaders" in a "permanent central committee". Of course leaders emerge on the left, but they should not remain or expect to remain permanent fixtures. The key has to be democratic accountability, control from below on the basis of genuine debate.

If there is no debate, then this needs to be addressed. One should expect disagreements and differences on the left because we are set on fundamental social change and there will inevitably be dispute over the strategy needed to achieve it. However, debate has to be based on trust if it is not to lead to split after split, and this trust must be based on unity of aim: an advance towards socialism. So debate - yes; but splits - no.

Unity of aim should prevent splits and provide the basis for open and honest debate over strategy, continued comrade Ticktin. The aim is socialism and nothing short of it. One party, whether in Britain as a whole or Europe, can work on the basis of trust in socialism as the aim, and open debate as to strategy to achieve this aim.

Any unity based on nationalism is an alien unity. A unity between classes is not possible. Nationalist movements have failed and they bring ruin to the working class. In much of Africa the populations are now far worse off than they were under colonialism, thanks to nationalism. The ordinary person is now in a much worse state in South Africa. The same applies elsewhere, from Quebec to Cuba.

The shift of the SSP towards nationalism is one very big reason for its recent failure to advance and its split. One can never unite the oppressed and exploited on the basis of nationalism, which has nothing to offer the working class. The move towards nationalism is a movement against socialism. When John Maclean called for an independent socialist Scotland the working class were in the vanguard, but this is not the case today.

A Marxist party must be formed on the basis of the greatest possible unity, said Hillel. It needs to be a large and extensive party able to integrate the forces of the working class. Because Stalinism has collapsed and some left groups are moving to the right, the way is clear to develop that party. The Socialist Workers Party, for example, is calling for unity with islamic fundamentalism, stands alongside reactionary groups and is "no longer on the left".

Over the decades isolation has bred desperation, populism and reaction among the left, culminating in a movement away from genuine Marxism. We need to found something new, although the form this will take is as yet unclear. As Trotsky argued, new tasks in a new era require a new form of party to match that era. The aim is clear: socialism with no intermediate stages. And the party must be democratically run, top to bottom. Democracy is more than formal voting and must be based on genuine debate and action from below.

The time is now right to form a Marxist party, concluded comrade Ticktin.

Marxism 'secondary'

The third platform speaker was Gordon Morgan, Solidarity's treasurer, who began by agreeing with "most of what Hillel has to say about the negative impact of Stalinism on the left and the need for Marxism". He was initially against the SSP split, but the new formation, Solidarity, did occasion genuine debate about the form of the party.

At its recent one-day conference three positions were outlined: for a broad socialist, electoral party fighting on a range of fronts, including trade union struggles, anti-war and anti-racism; a party of the 'movements', more federal in structure; and a centralist party with a central committee structure. Solidarity members voted for an electoral party committed to a range of movements, said comrade Morgan.

Solidarity is different from the SSP, he claimed. It is less centralised and oriented more towards trade union disputes and struggles. Groups like the SWP are free to sell their papers and raise initiatives within Solidarity. There is generally a more open policy formation, encompassing 37 policy groups over matters such as economics, health, social policy, etc. There is more ground-level activity and the executive is open to criticism from below, with no subjects off the agenda. The split was a tragedy because election prospects will suffer. Solidarity and the SSP will now stand against each other.

In the opinion of comrade Morgan the present period "does not require a revolutionary party": only when there is a revolutionary situation will such a party be necessary. Today we need a broad party instead, a party linked to the working class and other movements. Reforms are the principal aim and will raise class-consciousness. It is "more practical" to build a party to the left of the Labour Party, firmly against privatisation.

The collapse of Stalinism creates opportunities, but this is not the right time to build ideologically. In places such as Bolivia perhaps, but in the advanced nations this is "not an option"; reforms are crucial to create a consensus amongst movements and unify their demands. The state has the ability to disrupt the movements, but it is not all-powerful.

The role of Marxism is important, asserted the comrade, but Marxism must be "secondary" to a broader, reformist campaign. We need to organise both locally and globally and recent internet technology now makes this increasingly possible.

Practical issues

The final platform speaker was Jack Ferguson, a member of the SSP executive. The SSP's priority, he said, is to struggle for reforms, address "practical issues", such as poverty and unemployment, and take part in community struggles. "Bigger questions" have not been a major focus for the SSP. Right now it is concentrating on fighting the upcoming elections: "This is life and death to us." What is the SSP trying to achieve? He assured the audience that "We do want to advance Marxist thought." However, the immediate aim is practical engagement in day-to-day struggles against poverty and social inequality. The aim is to build hegemony for socialist ideas within groups who are oppressed.

Marxists must engage with this practice, he concluded. In comrade Ferguson's opinion the SSP is carrying out what Marxists should be doing: raising awareness of struggles, disputes and campaigns - the SSP is a campaigning party. People are suspicious of Marxist ideology. Marxist education is "important", but must come second to practice.

Speakers from the floor criticised the approach of both the SSP and Solidarity. Marxists are for reforms, but are also aware how reforms can obstruct socialism, said one. What the SSP and Solidarity are putting forward is in fact a social democratic platform. Another noted that, while both declared for Marxism, they were "more concerned with splits on the basis that they are the best party". We need Marxist education, but we need to build some lasting basis for unity too.

Social democracy

Another comrade was "pessimistic" about the prospects for both the SSP and Solidarity. The SSP promises to be a broad, inclusive party, but it looks more like a mixture of Stalinism and social democracy. Marxism receives short shrift within the SSP - it is seen as surplus to the main requirement of 'winning reforms' and contesting elections. In other words, the SSP treats Marxist ideas instrumentally at best.

The comrade declared the need to be "politically hard on Stalinism" and recognised the need for journals such as Critique that analyse situations honestly. However, Marxism is more than this. It is also about fighting those in power in order to win people to our side and this means Marxists having a visible presence at demos and campaigns. "I'm all for a Marxist party," concluded the comrade, "but one that is grounded in the practice of day-to-day working class struggles."

An ex-member of the SSP found comrade Ticktin's argument for a Marxist party "appealing", but wondered whether it would be "dominated by London" - at least the SSP is "based in Scotland". However, a CMP supporter retorted that there is "no evidence" that the working class would support independence for Scotland. The issue of independence has created the situation in which the Scottish working class is "more backward" than the rest of the working class in Britain.

The same comrade described the left's reformism as "useless". The left itself is a barrier - it carries the banner of social democracy, which is tied to the imperialist state. Any popularity the SSP or Solidarity may have is based on ignorance of Marxist ideas within the left. The working class were in retreat when the SSP came into being and what we need today is a Marxist programme, so that we do have "something worthwhile to discuss with people".

Another speaker thought that Stalinism was now more, not less, dominant. In the 1980s the SWP would argue, 'Neither Washington nor Moscow'. Now you find the SWP are at the fore of the anti-imperialist, pro-islam struggle! In the 1980s class politics was openly discussed, now it is not. Class struggle as a basis for change was an issue for debate in the 1980s: now it is ignored for 'community-based' politics, said the comrade.

Social workers?

Replying to the debate, Hillel Ticktin reminded comrades of one of the main changes in capitalism since the 19th century: from the 1970s finance capitalism has been in the ascendancy, which means social democracy has no further role to play. Fundamental reforms are "difficult, if not impossible" for capitalism to concede and the system is becoming "more vicious".

Marxists are not social workers, continued comrade Ticktin. To struggle for higher wages or to stop redundancies are indeed laudable, but the aim of Marxism is to transform working class consciousness, to explain where the attacks are coming from and why, and explain the nature of exploitation and oppression. Our job is to identify the enemy and play a role in the overthrow of capitalism. The key is not to reform capitalism, but to put an end to it.

Involvement in day-to-day struggles is necessary, but is not an end in itself, nor is it the most crucial task of Marxism: "Look at all the 'action' over the past 70 years - where did it get us? It brought social democracy and Stalinism!" In order to understand the realities of capitalism the development of education and Marxist theory is crucial and the building of a Marxist party is vital, because nothing short of socialist advance will do in the present climate.

A Marxist party is required as a catalyst to unify the left and organise the working class in the struggle to overthrow capitalism, declared the comrade. However, the form of the party will not be the same as it was in Russia in 1917. Capitalism is even more decadent than in Lenin's day and a different form of capitalism requires a different form of Marxist party.

The only way forward is a broadly based party, democratic from top to bottom, concluded comrade Ticktin. It must be "open to debates on strategy, but united by trust derived from the common aim - to overthrow capitalism".

Gordon Morgan began his reply by once again stating his agreement with Hillel: we need to develop theory and the party "cannot be based on the Leninist model". However, what we do now is "crucial". We have to fight where we are. In Scotland this means we fight for independence. While there is "limited scope for economic reforms", according to the comrade, "there is greater scope for democratic reforms". Any socialist party would have to operate "within the boundaries of one state", although socialist parties at sub-European level need to build common alliances with each other. Socialism in one country is "viable", asserted comrade Morgan, because nationalism had changed: cultural differences are real and a "basis for defining socialist politics".

Jack Ferguson was another to state his agreement with the proposal that "We need more education". However, the purpose of reforms is educational too. Reforms, or the struggle for them, bring people closer to the socialist movement and raise consciousness.

However, there is "still a way to go" and we still have difficulty bringing Marxist ideas into working class struggles. "I'm not comfortable with my own grasp of Marxism to relay this to people, so I tend to emphasise the struggle."