ISM political committee reply to the factional document and platform

Part Two

Reformist tendencies in SSP?

The minority faction we believe approaches the SSP with a defeatist mentality. It conjures up spectres of “reformist tendencies” which are pure imagination.

The comrades state explicitly that there “is a significant left reformist tendency within the SSP”. The evidence provided to justify this remarkable statement is that the SSP candidate in the Ayr by election was endorsed by ex-Labour MEPs Alex Smith and Henry McCubbin.

The comrades have got the argument mixed up: had the SSP been supporting them, standing on their programme, then the comrades may have some cause for concern. But they were supporting the SSP, on our programme.

Rather than the SSP making concessions to reformism, we have here an example of reformists supporting a working class socialist party with a strong revolutionary core in its leadership.

That is a big step forward for these individuals – but it does not alter the character of the SSP one iota. The comrades “evidence” is even further undermined by the fact that neither Alex Smith nor Henry McCubbin have even joined the SSP at this stage. Ironically, the reason they give for refusing to join is that it is “hard left” and not sufficiently “broad”!

This argument, which cites the support of two ex-Labour Euro MPs for the SSP as evidence of the SSP’s reformism, is quite absurd. It illustrates once again that the comrades are unaware of the history of their own organisation.

When Alan McCombes stood in a high profile regional council by election in Govan in 1992 under the banner of SML he was supported by the former Labour MP for Govan, Andy McMahon, whose background was in the Communist Party.

Unlike Henry McCubbin and Alex Smith, Andy even went on to join SML. He spoke at SML public meetings, calling not only for people to vote for SML but for people to join. Reports of his joining and the meetings he spoke at were carried in the Militant and in internal Militant circulars without a shred of criticism. Does this mean that there was a significant Stalinist/reformist trend within SML?

If there is now “significant reformist tendencies” within the SSP then why were there no resolutions presenting a reformist alternative at the SSP conference - especially given that the SSP constitution allows each branch to submit one ‘minority resolution’ to ensure that all shades of opinion are heard at the conference? Why was there no concerted reformist opposition to our political position on the floor of conference? Where was this reformist trend? Hiding in the coffee bar?

Of course, there are individual members of the SSP who have reformist ideas. That is completely different from suggesting that “there is a significant left reformist tendency within the SSP”.

In an article in the Scottish Socialist Voice at the time of the initial launch of the SSP, Philip wrote: “All socialists in Scotland, irrespective of their party political allegiance should now consider joining us in building the Scottish Socialist Party. Whatever your traditions or views, if you are prepared to fight the chaos of the free market and help promote the ideas of socialism, you will, be welcome in the new party.”

As these points illustrate neither Philip, nor anyone else, expected that the new party would only attract ready made revolutionaries. Any party which grows in such a rapid fashion, from a few hundred to a few thousand members (and it should be remembered that pro rata to the population the SSP is the equivalent of a 20,000 strong party in England and Wales), no matter its ideological starting point, will attract a whole range of people not just with reformist ideas, but with sexist, homophobic, xenophobic and all sorts of other prejudices.

The vast bulk of the membership of the SSP are not ex-Labour or ex-SNP activists. For every SSP recruit from the Labour Party or the SNP, there have has been another 10 or 20 who were not previously active politically.

If you were to ask all 2,000 members of the SSP if they regarded themselves as revolutionaries most would probably say that they don’t know. They may not define themselves as revolutionaries at this stage; but neither would they say they were opposed to revolution. Most people joining the SSP are working class socialists who are wide open to discussion on how exactly socialism will be achieved.

The reason many do not yet define themselves as revolutionaries is because they are not at this stage forced to decide exactly where they stand on questions such as parliament and the state, which in turn is a reflection of the wider objective situation, the low level of class struggle, etc.

The development of a movement such as the miners strike in 1984-85 which brought a key section of the working class into direct collision with the state allowed many of these questions to surface in a more concrete fashion than was the case before this struggle developed. The miners and their families quickly grasped an understanding of the nature of the capitalist state, not by reading Lenin, but in the course of the struggle itself. If the SSP had been launched under these conditions, there would already be a more clear cut consciousness and a more developed programmatic position on the role of the state,

Unfortunately, the comrades approach the characterisation of the SSP and its membership not in a dialectical fashion, but in a metaphysical fashion.

Formal logic, which breaks down everything into fixed categories was a big step forward in its time and can be a useful rough and ready day-to-day method of thought. For example, in the world of natural science it is important to distinguish and categorise different species. Rather than lumping all four-legged animals into a single category, naturalists began to separate and differentiate between dogs, horses, cats etc and award them the appropriate labels.

But formal logic has its limitations. For example, there are hundreds of different breeds of dogs. One breed can turn into another. One species can turn into another.

Dialectical analysis is a much more sophisticated method of thought which goes beyond the simple labelling of things into rigidly defined categories. Especially when it comes to analysing complex political processes, simply pigeon-holing people into crude categories is not good enough. People’s ideas change and develop, especially when they begin to become active in politics.

Today’s so called “reformists” can be tomorrow’s revolutionaries. Equally, some of today’s so-called “revolutionaries” can be tomorrow’s reformists and even reactionaries. In the long term, how individuals organisations and parties will develop will be determined by events. But in the short-to-medium term the conscious intervention of Marxist forces in a party like the SSP, provided it is carried in an open, non-sectarian, and constructive fashion, can be decisive in shaping people’s political outlook.
Already in the first year or so of the SSP’s existence, the intervention of SML (now ISM) has had a profound impact on the political understanding of the active membership of the SSP.

It is without foundation to suggest that the SSP has become “broader” politically. Indeed, the position of the SP/CWI leadership was constructed to ensure that if the SSP failed to develop, they could claim that they were right in predicting that there were no forces to justify the launch of the party; while on the other hand, if the SSP did develop and grow, they could claim that they were right all along: what was being proposed was ‘a broad party’. Heads, we win, tails you lose.

In fact the estimation of the CWI/SP leadership was doubly wrong. Their repeated insistence that no new forces would be attracted to the SSP has proven to be a spectacular misjudgement. At the same time, the numerical growth and geographical expansion of the SSP has been accompanied by a strengthening of the influence and authority of Marxism within the party. Largely as a result of the role of the ISM, the SSP has a more developed, coherent and potentially revolutionary set of policies than when it was founded.

The only organised opposition we face in the SSP at this point in time is not from any imaginary reformist current, but from ideas that we could characterise as ultra-left (i.e. that run too far ahead of consciousness; that pose socialist and revolutionary ideas in a way that tends to alienate rather than attract ordinary working class people).

If anything, the general membership of the SSP is probably at a much higher level of political consciousness about the tasks that lie ahead than the membership of the old Militant Tendency when we operated within the Labour Party.

In the mid 1980s in particular, many workers joined Militant under the impression that it was the left wing of the Labour Party. This impression was if anything reinforced by aspects of the Militant programme at that stage - for example the insistence that the nationalisation of the top 200 monopolies could be achieved by a Labour government introducing an enabling act through parliament. (“Militant has put forward the demand for nationalisation of the 200 monopolies, including the banks and insurance companies, with minimum compensation on the basis of proven need. At the same time the monarchy and the House of Lords should be abolished…These measures would be carried through in Parliament by means of an Enabling Bill.” – Militant: What We Stand For by Peter Taaffe December 1981).

If at the recent SSP conference the leadership had put forward a resolution which contained such a clause, there would have been mutiny among the rank and file - and not just from the RCN, but from ISM members and non-aligned members.

Reformist ideology

However, over and above the issue of whether a significant reformist tendency exists today is the comrades' affirmation that reformist trends will exist in the future. This perspective can be discussed on its merits, but there is behind it another idea which is thoroughly false. That is that reformist consciousness is a necessary stage which the working class has to go through. "The ideas of left reformism are an inevitable stage in the consciousness of a big section of the working class" (Reply to "Marxism in the New Millennium").

This idea is often repeated as if it were a truism. However it is not a scientific approach to try and impose such "inevitable stages" on the development of working-class consciousness. Reformist ideas, like any other ideas, have material roots. Like any other ideological or political phenomenon, reformism arose in certain historical circumstances and its origins and subsequent evolution must be understood in relation to economic, social and political developments.

Reformism, which has many variants, can be defined as the idea that socialism can be achieved via an accumulation of reforms, usually through the conquest of a parliamentary majority. Such ideas developed in the 25 years before the First World War (earlier in Britain, see Engels’ writings on the question). They flowed from the strength and wealth of first of all British capitalism and then other imperialisms, which enabled them to grant concessions to the working class.

Reformism was much weaker in the inter-war period, when capitalism was unable to grant concessions and on the contrary had to savagely attack the working class. Indeed in this period not only could capitalism not afford reforms but it could not even afford bourgeois democracy. In 1939 of the major European powers only France and Britain were still democracies.

Revolution was on the agenda on several occasions in several countries. "The masses again and again enter the road of revolution. But each time they are blocked by their own conservative bureaucratic machines", wrote Trotsky in 1938. Were they blocked by the need to go through a stage of reformist consciousness? In 1936 French workers voted for the Popular Front .But what did they do then? Wait for the new government to bring in reforms ? No, they occupied the factories, prompting Trotsky to declare: "The French revolution has begun". Precisely, they "entered the road of revolution".

What stopped the revolution from being victorious in France in 1936 and also in Spain was not the fact that the masses had to go through a stage of reformism. It was above all the role of the Communist Parties (only secondarily of the Social Democracy) which were able to play this role because the workers saw them as revolutionary parties, followed them as revolutionary parties and accepted their explanation that the time was not yet ripe for revolution.

Again in the 1944-47 period, before the stabilisation of capitalism and the post-war boom, socialist revolution was possible in the short term in at least France, Italy and Greece and in each case was blocked by the role of the Communist Parties. Again in 1968-75, (and we can now see that it was for the last time), the Communist Parties were able to block the danger of revolution in France, Italy, Spain and Portugal because large sections of the working class followed them in the belief that they were revolutionary parties.

The working class does of course pass through periods when its consciousness is reformist. But it also passes through stages when it is ready to take the road of revolution, and the passage from one to the other can take place with lightning speed, as in France in 1968. We should avoid like the plague trying to impose preconceived "stages" on to a living and volatile reality.

The conditions for reformist illusions existed during the post war boom, but since the mid 1970’s we are operating in a dramatically different climate which involves capitalism red in tooth and claw waging war against the working class and its organisations. In the pamphlet on globalisation and new technology (in reply to a statement from Merseyside), Peter Taaffe repeatedly approvingly quotes the left bourgeois economist, John Gray, in his book False Dawn: Delusions in Global Capitalism. But Gray, a fierce critic of unregulated free market capitalism, also makes the point that “Social democracy has been removed from the agenda of history.” He argues that “many of the changes produced, accelerated or reinforced by New Right policies are irreversible…Those who imagine that there can be a return to the ‘normal politics’ of post-war economic management are deluding themselves and others…Global mobility of capitalism has made the central policies of European social democracy unworkable.”

Of course that does not exhaust the question. Particularly in Britain, where the workers’ movement has always been dominated by reformism, reformist illusions can arise again. In a context of economic crisis and big class struggles various political forces will undertake to propose reformist solutions in order to defend the system. But since the situation of capitalism rules out any stable reformist solution, such forces will not be on firm ground. One of the key factors in such a situation will be the strength of those forces which are seeking not to reform capitalism but to overthrow it.

The problem is not whether those joining the SSP today have some reformist ideas in their heads: the problem is what kind of party they come into. As the Swedish section of the CWI wrote in 1996 ("The crisis of capitalism and the question of a new workers’ party"):

"A new workers’ party will not mean the re-establishment of Social Democracy. Even if reformist ideas, probably expressed in the form of 'real social democracy predominate in the first stages, this will be on an entirely different basis from the past. The only way to defend even the old reforms is through militant struggle and the socialist transformation of society".

Note that the comrades ay “even if” not “when” reformist ideas predominate in the first stage. That was written in relation to the perspective of a new workers’ party in Sweden that didn't yet exist, and unfortunately still doesn't. But it is entirely applicable to our own situation today. The SSP is precisely committed to "militant struggle and the socialist transformation of society".

If that is the kind of party we build and if we simultaneously through the ISM build a Marxist core and systematically take the ideas of Marxism into the party, then the SSP will be a very infertile terrain for reformist ideas. There will even be a context in which those who do join wanting to "defend the old reforms" can be convinced that it can only be done by breaking with capitalism in a revolutionary way.

Serious reformist trends are more likely to develop in the Labour Party, the SNP and the unions and around individuals like Ken Livingstone in London rather than within the SSP. But reformism will exert a pressure on the SSP from the outside. This would be the case even if the SSP was a 22-carat revolutionary party, even if it was affiliated to the CWI.

For as the SSP grows, becomes a force in Parliament and in local councils, the pressures on it to be "realistic" will grow. That is what happened to social democracy before the First World War, though in an altogether different phase of capitalist development. We will come under pressure to co-operate with other parties to get things done, to get concrete results. Sometimes we will do so, as Tommy has quite correctly collaborated with Alex Neil and John McAllion on the warrant sales bill.

We will have to learn to know when and how to engage in limited actions with people who are reformists without subordinating our political line to theirs, or give critical support to measures proposed by others which are insufficient but which are of some help to the working class.

No doubt sometimes we will make mistakes under pressure. We may be confronted by these kinds of problems sooner than we think. Those are the real reformist pressures that we will have to confront, and there is no revolutionary magic charm to ward them off. The only way to prepare for such a situation is to politically develop the SSP as a whole and to use the ISM as a lever to do that.

SSP programme

The faction comrades make the preposterous claim that the Scottish section has “abandoned the historic programme of Marxism.” The comrades also state that “the overall programme of the SSP is not and cannot be a revolutionary programme.” This is a dogmatic assertion which flies in the face of history. The reality is that the comrades have swallowed, hook, line and sinker the sterile argument presented by the British EC during the debate on whether to launch the SSP.

The SP EC then solemnly insisted that the only revolutionary programme was “a body of ideas based on the first four congresses of the Communist International, the founding documents of the Fourth International and the accumulated experience off the CWI”. (Letter from SP EC to SML EC April 1998)

This of course rules out a priori any possibility of the SSP ever developing a revolutionary programme. No-one has seriously suggested that the SSP should formally adopt the statutes of the first four congresses of the Communist International, or the programme of the Fourt

h International. For that matter, how many members, even leaders of the sections of the CWI are familiar with these documents?
A programme, as Leon Trotsky once pointed out, is not formulated for discussion groups, but for the broad mass of the working class. The SSP programme has not been modified to accommodate some mythical “reformist tendency” but is designed to appeal to the working class right now.

Could anyone seriously argue that if millions of Scottish workers were to be mobilised behind the programme of the SSP, which includes democratic public ownership of the financial institutions, the oil industry, land, construction, energy, large scale industry; redistribution of wealth including a maximum income differential of ten to one; and workers control of industry that would not have revolutionary implications?

It is true that the SSP programme does not deal in detail with the task of the transition from capitalism to a workers state and how exactly that will be achieved. At this stage, given the level of struggle, political consciousness and so on, to formulate such policies in any detail at SSP conferences would be to run too far ahead of events. These debates will develop naturally as the class struggle itself intensifies.

In a polemical pamphlet directed against the Socialist Workers Party in Ireland, Peter Hadden makes some pertinent points. He quotes the SWP’s programme which states “The present system cannot be reformed out of existence. Parliament cannot be used to end the system. The courts, army and police are there to defend the interests of the capitalist class, not to run society in a neutral fashion. To destroy capitalism, workers need to smash the state, and create a workers state based on workers councils.” Peter Hadden retorts: “This is true, but it is a theoretical position, not a programme. Under today’s conditions your call for the smashing of the state and workers councils, when not even the faintest outline of these exist in reality, is abstract propaganda, ultra left musing, nothing more, nothing less.”

In the same pamphlet, Peter later states: “This programme is modest – for a decent standard of living to be guaranteed for all – but the fight to achieve it raises the question of where the resources to meet these needs will come from. This inability of the market to deliver poses the need for an alternative, for public ownership of the wealth-producing industries so that additional wealth can be generated to cater for human need. That is why this programme is ‘transitional’ – the struggle to achieve these demands brings the working class up against the limitations of capitalism, or in Trotsky’s words, to the doorstep of the socialist revolution.”

We agree – and that is exactly the way in which the SSP programme has been formulated. That is not to suggest that the SSP programme is fully rounded-out. This is a brand new party which is in the process of development. Programme and ideology takes shape over many years and are developed not just in resolutions and conferences, but in the white hot furnace of class struggle itself.
A genuinely revolutionary programme for the 21st century will not be a regurgitation of statements drawn up at specific periods in history such as the programme of the Comintern or the Fourth International. We would suggest it would encompass the following points:

1) A clear statement in favour of socialism which clarifies that our aim is not to humanise or improve capitalism but to replace it with a new social and economic system.

2) An understanding that socialism is not simply counterposed in an abstract way to capitalism but is presented concretely, transitionally by relating the struggle for socialism to the day to day problems that working class people face.

3) An understanding that capitalism cannot be reformed out of existence or smuggled in through parliament but that it can only be achieved by the mass action of the working class, which in turn has to create its own forms of organisation in the course of the struggle which will become the embryo of a new form of state. That does not mean that we do not take full advantage of capitalist democratic institutions, we obviously do. It simply means that in the final analysis we subordinate the struggle inside these institutions to the struggle outside.

4) A preparedness to fight and struggle to defend and improve the day-today conditions of working class people. To fight for reforms does not make you a reformist. It all depends within what overall framework the reforms are fought for. In fact it is no accident that today the wing of the workers’ movement which has traditionally been called reformist, with a few honourable exceptions, no longer fights for reforms.

5) A striving to unify the working class, to overcome divisions within it and to maintain its class independence and clear demarcation from all bourgeois parties. In the struggles of today and tomorrow, our aim is to unify the working class to defend and advance its own class interests.

6) A defence of the principles of socialist democracy. We are for the self-organisation of working people, whether in the workplace or in the communities, for them to democratically take charge of their own struggles and their own lives. Within that framework we defend the right of all currents of opinion to be expressed. Based on historical experience, we seek to counteract bureaucratic tendencies by the widest possible democracy and by strict refusal of material privileges. We apply this within our own parties.

7) A recognition of the importance of internationalism. We stress the international nature of the struggle and our solidarity with all workers in struggle anywhere and all peoples oppressed by imperialism. We see the highest point of internationalism as the building of a workers’ International.

8) A preparedness to take up those questions that have arisen in the course of the 20th century that do not directly flow from the economic exploitation of the working class. Issues such as the oppression of women, national oppression, racism, homophobia, and the environment have assumed greater importance not just in the struggle to overthrow capitalism but in the way we conceive socialism. These questions therefore form an essential part of a socialist programme today.

If we look at the programme of the SSP in the light of these points, we can see that a number of them have already been adopted. There is no objective reason why we cannot continue to make the programme of the SSP evolve. It is therefore wrong for the comrades of the faction to say that "the overall programme of the SSP, while clearly an explicit socialist one, is not and cannot be a revolutionary or transitional programme" (our emphasis). Simply, we have to make the party's programme evolve in line with the political situation and the concrete experience of the party and not to force things along artificially.

It is incumbent on the comrades of the faction not to simply state baldly that the SSP is a non-revolutionary party, but to explain in what way the programme of the SSP is insufficient for the tasks of today and to propose ways of improving it.
For example it is certainly true that the SSP does not have a position on the revolutionary destruction of the bourgeois state. How can we pose this question concretely today?

The answer is that we cannot. We can do two things: educate the party to have no reliance on the state and educate the cadres of the party as to the nature of the capitalist state, the inevitable resistance of the ruling classes and the need for the working class to create its own alternative state. That is precisely one of the roles of the ISM, not just on this question but on others: to provide the theoretical grounding which underlies the programme.

Of course, in order to have a serious discussion on the programme of the SSP it would be necessary to abandon the methods of the present campaign in the CWI of what could be politely called disinformation concerning the economic programme of the SSP.

The Scottish economy

As already explained, the statement on the Scottish economy which was accepted unanimously by the SSP conference calls for sweeping social/public ownership of finance, large scale industry, construction, energy and land under democratic control and management.

We were therefore astounded to learn that sections of the international were told that the SSP opposed the nationalisation of the North Sea oil companies (which in fact is one of the central demands of the SSP which has been highlighted in election material as well as in the party programme).

We also hear reports that “the SSP has a limited nationalisation programme” and - from a member of the IS at the women’s school in Cologne - “the Scottish comrades have illusions in multinational capitalism.” These statements are quite frankly grotesque falsifications which have nothing in common with the traditions of genuine Marxism.

The basis for these ludicrous allegations is that the original draft included a section on call centres and branch assembly plants for products originating outside of Scotland. The draft pointed out that it “may not be practical in the short term at least to take these into public ownership.” But that “we would, nonetheless, enforce certain basic standards of wages and conditions, including a £7 an hour minimum wage; trade union rights; a 35 hour week moving towards a four day week; and workers control.”

We went on to state that those companies who attempted to pull out to seek more profitable environments would forfeit their assets without compensation and would be forced to pay the equivalent of three years wages in redundancy to each worker made redundant.

Prior to the conference, Philip sent an email to Alan suggesting that “The question of not nationalising ‘branch assembly plants’ or call centres maybe needs more discussion.” Fair enough. In discussions that involved Philip, and other Dundee comrades there was agreement that we should remit this point for further discussion, but that it was a tactical question.

There was no question of denouncing this statement as in any way reformist. So why do the comrades now say that this shows “how rapidly the economic programme of the SSP could move in a reformist direction”. Why does it show that?

The companies involved actually employ a tiny fraction of the Scottish workforce – around three per cent. But there are localised concentrations of call centres and electronic plants that are part of a chain of production stretching across various countries. How do we explain our programme to workers in these areas?

For Scotland’s 30,000 call centre workers – who are almost all employed by external employers to answer phones and deal with enquiries – what do we say we will do in power? Nationalise their call centre which may, for example, deal with enquiries for a mobile phone company or software company based outside Scotland?

But the company will simply change its number, will be the reply. Therefore what we are proposing is to nationalise banks of silent telephones. How do we win call centre workers to the banner of socialist change - that is the question that is posed. Exactly the same points apply to some branch assembly plant.

At the ISM conference, Tony Saunois and Hannah Sell said we would issue an international appeal for the working class across the world to follow suit and take over multinationals. Of course we would do that. But the suggestion that the working class internationally will rise up simultaneously against capitalism is to substitute naïve idealism for a concrete and rigorous analysis of the class struggle and an honest perspective of how it is likely to unfold.

Our slogan in favour of an independent socialist Scotland precisely flows from our understanding that the international struggle will not unfold uniformly and simultaneously. There are huge variations from one country in conditions, traditions, the state of the workers’ movement, the level of consciousness of socialism etc.

To pretend that the Scottish Socialist Party could simply issue an appeal to workers in Silicon Valley, California, for example, and wait for them to seize their companies can only disorientate, miseducate and disarm the working class in Scotland.

What we are fighting for in Scotland is a transitional state in which for a temporary period the economy will not be fully socialised because it is impossible to create a fully socialised economy in a small country like Scotland.

In the meantime how do we galvanise support for socialism within that section of the working class who work in call centres or branch assemble plants? Although a small minority of the overall workforce, there are huge concentrations of these type of workforces in certain regions such as West Lothian, Inverclyde, parts of Lanarkshire and to some extent Glasgow where there is a burgeoning call centre industry. Answer their fears with visionary references to world revolution is not a serious programme for mobilising workers behind our banner.

In any case, the hysteria that has been whipped up on this issue by the CWI/SP leadership is dishonest. These issues are not entirely new. In the early 1980s, the Marxist economist and member of Militant, Andrew Glynn wrote a pamphlet, (probably the best selling pamphlet ever produced by Militant) entitled ‘Capitalist Crisis – Tribune’s Alternative Strategy or Socialist Plan’.

In the final chapter, What a Socialist Plan Could Achieve he argues for the nationalisation of the top 200 monopolies and states: “26 of the top 200 companies are foreign owned – depending on the particular situation it might be expedient to leave some of them unnationalised, but the nationalisation of others would probably be indispensable.” (Our emphasis).

Those of is who were around at that time have racked our memories, but cannot recall an international campaign within the CWI to denounce Andrew Glyn as a reformist, let alone a defender of multinational capitalism.

In Scotland the SSP is a serious factor in politics. Academics have been commissioned by serious TV current affairs programmes to scrutinise our manifesto and to cost it in detail. Workers and trade unionists are increasingly demanding to know exactly what policies we will implement in power. As a result, we have to go much further in developing our programme than simply recite a few slogans about nationalising the top 150 monopolies.

In fact, we believe that the What We Stand For programme of the Socialist Party of England and Wales as spelled out in The Socialist newspaper every week is totally inadequate to deal with the developing political situation.

There is, for example no reference whatsoever to the national question, one of the key features of British politics in the 21st century. Instead, The Socialist calls for public ownership of the top 150 monopolies, presumably on an all Britain-basis, because it does not raise elsewhere the revolutionary demand for the break up of the British state and the establishment of a socialist Scotland, a socialist Wales, a socialist Ireland and a socialist England, within a wider European socialist alliance.

The failure of the Socialist Party of England and Wales to deal with the national question is in our opinion an astonishing omission given the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly and the rising national consciousness and support for independence in both countries. This is an issue that we would like to debate elsewhere, not with the faction in Scotland who we understand support our analysis on this issue, but with the leadership of the Socialist Party of England and Wales.

In the meantime we will simply make the point that the demand for the nationalisation of the top 150 British monopolies would leave most of the Scottish economy in private hands. Only one Scottish company, Scottish Power, and a couple of Scottish banks, the Royal Bank of Scotland and the Bank of Scotland, would be taken into public ownership.

Only some North Sea Oil companies would be nationalised. There is no reference either to land ownership in the What We Stand For programme of the SP – a key question in Scotland. As applied to Scotland, the What We Stand For programme outlined every week in The Socialist is actually a timid, reformist, left social democratic programme. In contrast, the programme of the SSP confronts all of the major power structures in Scotland and is 1000 times more revolutionary in content.

At the SSP conference the proposal for a Scottish Service Tax was agreed unanimously and welcomed enthusiastically by all trends within the party. There was not so much as a hint of criticism from any of the comrades who have signed the factional statement -- before during or after the conference- that they had any criticisms of this policy.

Once again, we suspect that the leadership of the faction has succumbed to pressure from the CWI/SP leadership who now seem obsessed with “proving” that the SSP is in the process of degenerating into a reformist party. According to an editorial in the paper of the Socialist Party, The Socialist (14 April), the Scottish Service Tax “is in effect a mildly redistributive, reformist measure.”

This editorial was dishonest because it failed to explain that the Scottish Service Tax is a specific policy which we are fighting for within the Scottish Parliament which does not have the powers to impose a general wealth tax or take industry and finance into public ownership, the measures which The Socialist counterpose to the Scottish Service Tax.

The Scottish Parliament does have the power to change local authority funding; this policy is a specific demand which we are placing on the parliament.

Do the comrades seriously suggest that within bodies with limited powers such as the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, he London Assembly and local councils that we should confine ourselves to general propaganda for socialism and ignore the fight for specific policies which would improve the lives of the working class? This is not a secondary point; it is fundamental to the type of parties and organisations that we are trying to build.

At the most recent SSP National Council meeting, when we specifically answered this criticism in advance of the discussion, not one person argued against our assessment of the importance of launching a campaign on this issue. RCN members rightly made the point that revolutionaries have to be seen to be fighting for reforms. The ISM comrade from Dundee who is also a signatory to the factional statement did not attempt to defend the position of either The Socialist or the statement of the minority faction.

The comrades are becoming hopelessly confused between reformism and the fight for reforms. Let’s be clear on this point: any revolutionary who refuses to fight for reforms is not a revolutionary. The difference between revolutionaries and reformists is not that revolutionaries don’t fight for reforms; it is that revolutionaries don’t confine themselves to fighting for reforms.

In fact, revolutionaries are the strongest and most committed fighters for reforms. If we were to stand aloof from the fight for reforms then we would have no credibility to raise our general socialist vision. By fighting for and achieving reforms, we will be in a much stronger position to convince working class people to join the longer term fight for socialism.

What else was the fight to overthrow the Poll Tax but a fight for a reform under capitalism? What was the fight to restore free education, which was given massive and uncritical coverage in The Socialist, but a fight for a reform under capitalism? We do not recall The Socialist dismissing the demand for the abolition of tuition fees as a mild, reformist measure.

The Dundee comrades have put resources into campaigning for the repeal of Clause 28, the legislation introduced by Thatcher banning the promotion of homosexuality in schools. We wholeheartedly agree with campaigning on that issue – but this is indeed a mild reform supported by New Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP, and big sections of the media.

In contrast, when Tommy spoke in favour of the Scottish Service Tax at a recent session of the Scottish Parliament there was furious opposition , not just from the Tories, but from the Lib Dems and New Labour who denounced it as “too radical”. New Labour has even produced its own briefing document attacking the idea of the Scottish Service Tax, claiming that it “will drive business out of Scotland”. The SNP also criticised the proposal, albeit in a more restrained fashion.

Yet the faction statement says: “on the economy and the approach to the Scottish Service Tax we see an increasing tendency to reinforce reformist ideas within the SSP i.e. the idea that significant and lasting reforms can be achieved within the framework of capitalism or on a Scottish basis alone.”

What does this mean? The comrades really do have to be more specific rather than indulge in innuendo. What evidence do the comrades have that “there has been a tendency to reinforce reformist ideas”? They provide no evidence because there is no evidence.
Let’s spell out what the statement on the Scottish Service Tax agreed at the SSP conference actually says right from the start: “Such grotesque disparities of wealth cannot be rectified within the existing political, economic and constitutional framework. The Scottish Parliament has no serious fiscal or economic powers. It does, however, have control over local government taxation. While fighting for radical socialist change nationally and globally, the SSP will also campaign for the Scottish Parliament to use its limited powers to begin to challenge inequality.”

In moving the statement at the conference, Alan McCombes repeatedly emphasised that this was not a blueprint for socialism, that it was a limited measure, but that it was achievable within the framework of the limited powers allocated to the Scottish Parliament. We also pointed out that it would be opposed tooth and nail by big business and the rich. Of course it is a partial measure that will not eradicate poverty or inequality, as the policy statement itself stresses. But it does open up in a concrete way, the whole question of wealth redistribution and exposes the big parties in Scotland who can’t evade this issue by claiming they don’t have the powers to act.
Why do the comrades now, after agreeing without a word of dissent to the statement at the SSP conference, then at further meetings - including a subsequent SSP executive attended by Philip which discussed fully the campaign around the Scottish Service Tax - do the comrades now come forward in writing with an insinuation that there is some hidden reformist agenda being smuggled into the SSP?

The comrades are hopelessly muddled on this issue. They state in SSP Conference Review that “in general we would not oppose such a tax reform but it would be largely ineffective in combating poverty and deprivation.” They then say that “the demand will be fiercely resisted by the political establishment who will not want the idea even of a limited wealth redistribution to become something that the parliament gets an appetite for.” But if it was such a mild and ineffective reformist measure, why should there be resistance?

The reason it will be resisted is because it would represent the beginning of a turning of the tide. A victory for the working class on this issue would pave the way for further struggles and further victories and would begin to alter the balance of forces. Which is precisely why we should be promoting and fighting for this demand.

The comrades then say : “We have always argued that these sort of tax-reforms – which in the past were the demands of the reformist left – had to be linked to the nationalisation of wealth, the banks, business etc.”

This seemingly radical-sounding formulation is actually conservative to the core. What it says, in reality, is: “There’s no point in fighting for the Scottish Parliament to use its powers to challenge the wealth of the rich because they will resist it. So let’s just confine ourselves to abstract propaganda in favour of socialism.”

Such arguments stray dangerously close to the approach of the fundamentalist sect, the Socialist Party of Great Britain which used to oppose strikes for higher wages because they did not challenge the system of exploitation.

Far from defending a revolutionary position, as the faction comrades and the CWI/SP leadership like to portray themselves, they are actually promoting a form of resolutionary socialism. This passive, academic approach would be disastrous if adopted by the SSP, and flies in the face of the fighting, combative tradition of our organisation in Scotland.

We are all in favour of anti-capitalist, pro-socialist propaganda. We are currently working on a book which will advance in a popular form the case for the socialist transformation of society in Scotland and internationally. But we do not counterpose that to the fight for day-to-day reforms and improvements, or suggest that these have to wait until sometime in the mists of future when socialism is posed.

The comrades state that under the Scottish Service Tax low paid workers would only benefit by a maximum of £15 a week. We can hardly believe that this argument is seriously being raised. Under the Poll Tax, workers were asked to pay £6 to £8 a week (depending on their local authority area). Even allowing for inflation this is still less than £15 a week. Yet the Poll Tax sparked off the biggest mass movements seen in Britain for generations and toppled Margaret Thatcher.

Let’s look it another way. Fifteen pounds a week is 50 per cent more than the Scottish Local Government Staff pay claim submitted by Unison this year on behalf of low paid workers. The Unison claim is for an increase of 5 per cent or £500 a year (i.e. £10 a week). For low paid workers, £15 a week represents a substantial improvement in living standards.

The comrades also seem to be hinting that the rich will find ways around paying extra taxation, including moving across the border. This is the same argument that was put to us by a journalist with links to New Labour – that there would be an exodus of the rich from Scotland. But you cannot have it both ways. If this is only a “mildly redistributive reformist measure” why should wealthy individuals uproot themselves and families and go to live in England or abroad?

Maybe Brian Soutar, with hundreds of millions of pounds of personal wealth will move out of Scotland because he faces a bill for an extra £87,000. Maybe – but unfortunately, highly unlikely.

On this issue, the comrades zigzag from one extreme to another without any sense of balance or proportion. The Scottish Service Tax would in effect increase the top rate of taxation from 40 per cent to 52 per cent. This would be resisted ferociously by the rich. But if implemented, they would till be paying much lower rates of taxation than was the case before Thatcher came to power.

On the other hand, it would be equally wrong to play down the significance of such a measure. The comrades say “it is incomparable to the transfer of wealth to the social wage of the working class in the 60s and 70s through the NHS, the modern welfare state and free education.”

That is indisputable – but that was then and this is now. Context is everything. The last 20 years has been a period of vicious counter-reforms. Internationally the rich have waged war against the poor with little or no resistance from the workers organisations.
If a measure such as this were to be implemented by the Scottish Parliament as a result of a campaign of mass action by the SSP, it would mark a significant turning of the tide, a key psychological victory and would have profound repercussions outside of Scotland, not least in England and Wales.

Of course it would not eradicate poverty and inequality, as the SSP statement makes clear. But it would precipitate an important shift in the balance of class forces in Scotland.

Is such a victory possible? From where we stand today, that may seem unlikely. On the other hand who could have imagined when the SSP was set up that within 18 months, the new party would have succeeded in scrapping warrant sales and poindings – which has been Labour’s policy for 100 years. The reason for that was not just because of the eloquence and skill of our parliamentary representative and his assistants, but because of the electoral success of the SSP in working class areas and the fear that has instilled into Labour backbenchers.

If there was a massive campaign in favour of redistributing wealth in the run up to the 2003 elections; if the SSP succeeded in gaining a large group of MSPs and councillors; if there was a hung parliament; and especially if all this was set against a background of a recession and swingeing central government cuts in local authority funding, it is not ruled out that mass pressure including a council tax non-payment campaign could lead to a victory.

Even if we do not ultimately succeed with this campaign, the fact that we are seen to be prepared to fight for practical, short term improvements in the living standards and conditions of the working class will assist us build support for our longer term vision of an independent socialist Scotland. Revolutionaries have always put forward immediate demands and slogans around which the working class can be mobilised. Take the struggle of Liverpool City Council under the leadership of Militant in the 1980s. The main demand which mobilised the entire city, including a one day general strike was “Return the £30 million stolen from Liverpool by Thatcher”.
In the book The Rise of Militant, Peter Taaffe approvingly quotes the Militant of 16/4/84: “The council was only asking for £30 million from the Government’s contingency funds. In the recent budget the Tories had given £35 million to 650,000 already earning £150,000 a year” .

The Scottish Service Tax would involve removing around £250 million from those earning over £70,000, which would then be redistributed to those on low incomes. Again, even allowing for inflation, the Scottish Service Tax involves a battle for much more resources – and from a much narrower strata of the population because it would be confined to Scotland – than was demanded by Liverpool City Council.

Did the Liverpool struggle pose the question of the socialist transformation of society? Of course not. In fact, it was conceded by a Tory government under pressure from a mass movement in Liverpool. So was this a mildly reformist demand? Were we sowing reformist illusions that if only Liverpool could get back the £30 million the problems of the working class would be solved?
As part of the campaign comrades did raise the idea of the need for socialism - but they did so in a very general way. Ninety per cent of the material produced concentrated on conditions in Liverpool and the need to win £30 million from the Thatcher government. The climbdown of the Tories on this issue was a huge victory. And it revealed that reforms can be won under capitalism if they are fought for in a militant fashion.

Moreover, because of the conditions at that stage, the leaders of this struggle in the form of Derek Hatton and Tony Mulhearn and others did not proclaim themselves to be members of a revolutionary organisation – indeed they denied it.

And because of the orientation at that time to the Labour Party the entire struggle and our strategy was carried out in the name of the District Labour Party and the Council Labour Group (where only 13 out of the 47 councillors were members of Militant).

The council won a 95per cent victory. Isn’t it ironic that at the time the Socialist Worker described it as a “sell-out”.

The victory wasn’t revolutionary enough for them. We would ask the comrades to ponder these points carefully.

Part Three


Index of debate documents