frontline 16.

SSP at the Crossroads?

A contribution to the debate on Marxism and the way forward for the SSP from the Republican Communist Network, one of the founding platforms of the SSP and publishers of the journal Emancipation and Liberation.

With success comes new problems

The Republican Communist Network (RCN) would like to thank the ISM and the editors of Frontline for inviting us to make this contribution to the ongoing debate concerning the current political direction of the SSP and the need for a wider marxist pole of attraction within our party.

The growth and consequent wider impact, first of the Scottish Socialist Alliance (SSA), then of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), has undoubtedly been the most encouraging political development for the Left within these islands for some time. Crucial to all this has been the way in which the SSP has developed. We can take pride in being members of the most democratic and comradely organisation to have been seen on the Left. This took undoubted struggle and much soul-searching but the SSP has succeeded in uniting more of the Left than has been achieved before. Genuine democracy and socialist unity go hand in hand.

However, success has come at a cost. This has been brought home to all SSP members as a consequence of Tommy Sheridan’s resignation as national convener last November. This event has resulted in both an internal party crisis and a denting of our credibility in the wider world.

The keenly contested national convenor’s election highlights an underlying political division. This has been partly disguised by misguided attempts to portray the issue as pro- or anti-Tommy, or by understandable attempts, in the light of hostile media coverage, to minimise the real political differences between those supporting either Colin Fox or Alan McCombes for the party’s new convenor.

The RCN believes our party is beginning to show the first signs of a parliament-focussed, bureaucratic politics, which could threaten the emergence of a class struggle-based, socialist party. The SSP has been slow to recognise the problems emerging from our parliamentary success. Being an MSP confers considerable prestige and influence upon whoever holds office. Newer or less politically-experienced members can look to such figures to provide all the answers.

However, parliament also imposes its own pressures and priorities upon its office-holders. SSP members have been bemused by the media ‘Hollywoodisation’ of Tommy and Gayle; annoyed by the petty personal attacks on our representatives, particularly by New Labour’s MSP’s; concerned by the toll the pressures are having on our comrades; and sympathised with Frances Curran’s article in The Herald outlining the high personal costs, particularly for women, of participating in such an artificial arena.

Even the excellent party policy of ‘a workers’ MP on a worker’s wage’ is not sufficient to withstand such external pressures. One of the best features of this year’s conference was the heartfelt appeal by Carolyn Leckie and Frances Curran to win the delegates’ support for measures to increase membership control both of our representatives and the public funds at ‘their’ disposal.

Challenging the emergence of bureaucratic populism

However, despite this move to buttress our defences, parliamentary pressure still appears to have deflected principled socialist work in this arena. There has been Tommy’s call for mandatory three year sentences for knife-carriers, political sympathy for Fathers for Justice, the intervention to prevent Natwest bankers, implicated in the Enron scandal, from being extradited to Texas and Colin’s photo-call alongside Tories opposed to congestion charges in Edinburgh! This currying favour with non-working class forces is known as populism. Even when this populism takes the apparent form of bowing to the needs of our “natural constituency” - the working class - it comes from the politics of atomisation and despair not solidarity and class confidence.

The dangers from creeping ‘parliamentarianism’ could also be reinforced by our successes in that other important arena - winning trade union support and affiliation. The fact that more union officials are questioning the link with New Labour and forming an ‘awkward squad’ is not enough. Every union needs to be thoroughly democratised and brought under the control of the rank and file. It is encouraging that the more principled Left officials, such as Mark Serwotka in the PCS and Matt Wrack in the FBU, have won their respective union elections by campaigning for and agreeing to accept a worker’s wage. We need to ensure that the SSP constitution makes such a position mandatory for any trade union official joining our party.

There is another problem, however, which could result from increased parliamentary and trade union bureaucratic pressures. The clamour for the appearance of ever wider, but ever more shallow, opinion poll and electoral support, leads to the danger of more populist appeals and the further dilution of socialist principles and avoidance of unpopular (in the eyes of the media) actions.

No doubt the ISM platform saw the existence of an SSP leadership, schooled in marxism, as forming a defence against such pressures. However, as the convener’s election highlighted, the latent division between bureaucratic populist and democratic socialist politics has partly emerged within the ISM’s own ranks. The ISM’s call for debate and discussion reflects a self-awareness of this problem.

Alan McCombes raised an important democratic demand in the election. He said that all SSP officials, including regional organisers, should continue to be elected to the party’s Executive and Council, like any other member; whereas Colin supports them holding such office as of right. If parliamentary (and trade union official) representatives continue to increase their political weight within the party, and local organisers cease to be elected to decision-making posts by the rank and file members, there is a danger they will reinforce a growing party bureaucracy. They will then increasingly become the conduit for taking parliament-based politics to the members, rather than transmitting member’s extra-parliamentary campaigns and concerns to our representatives in parliament and the trade unions.

The need to defend socialist unity and the platforms

However, there is a further problem which the RCN wishes to raise. Any slippage towards populist politics will likely be accompanied by a call to end ‘false divisions’ and to end the role of platforms within the party. Such calls are most dangerous when made by individuals who have their own well-entrenched and influential positions, which render ‘unnecessary’ any need of their own to be a platform member. Populist allusions to “internal divisions” and “constant politicking” putting off wider public support, or, even more insidiously, to preventing us winning prominent Labour, SNP or trade union official backing, needs to be vigorously challenged.

The right to form open, democratic platforms must be defended, especially when the consequence, for any party, of their demise is inevitably rule by a dominant bureaucratic, but publicly undeclared, ‘leadership faction’. The current socialist unity, which has been hard-won within the SSP, has been achieved largely through our internal democracy, including the constitutional role given to platforms. Banning platforms would not make them go away; they would take disguised forms, increasing suspicion and intolerance within the party.

Yet it would be naive to pretend that there haven’t been actions taken by or methods resorted to by current SSP platforms which have alienated members. When platforms put forward their own politics the purpose should not be for narrow sectarian advantage but to encourage genuine wider debate, enhance the party’s position, increase working class solidarity and strengthen the forces needed to achieve socialism. Platforms need to apply the highest democratic standards, and show respect and comradeship towards others.

The ISM has had its own bruising encounters with its former CWI comrades which have led some to doubt the need for disciplined platforms. We in RCN (Scotland) have had similar experiences within the former RCN (Britain). However, as a result, our belief in the importance of open democratic methods and genuine comradely relations has been reinforced. We are not a democratic centralist organisation, but we do take majority votes, which then become our public positions. However, any member retains the right to advocate their own position in their own name.

Now that the ISM is actively discussing the formation of a wider marxist pole of attraction within the SSP, we think they should consider such democratic organising principles. A new organisation can not be declared or built overnight. It took several years, from the tentative beginnings of the SSA to the formation of the SSP, before much debate and shared work allowed such unity to emerge as a process. Hopefully the confidence and trust already gained could accelerate the process of forming a new marxist pole of attraction within our party.

Some political proposals for a new marxist pole of attraction

What would be the political basis for such a pole of attraction? First, we need to organise the democratic socialist forces in the party to combat any growing bureaucratic populism. Hopefully, this means winning the whole party, including those who, at present, are just showing the initial signs of slippage. However, unless the democratic socialist forces are organised within our party, then growing bureaucratic populism will triumph by another process - the erosion of principle by the drip, drip, drip of parliamentary and trade union routinism, bureaucratic practice and cynical manoeuvring to gain temporary tactical advantage.

We need to actively defend both the achievements of socialist unity and platform rights against any attempt to undermine these. SSP members may get annoyed by the sometimes sectarian methods of the CWI and SW platforms. They often appear to want to subordinate our broader and politically more successful organisation to the interests of the much narrower, sect-based ‘international’ CWI, or the all-Britain SWP. However, slow though the process may be, the effect of open and genuine debate and warm comradely relations within the SSP, will leave its marks, if not on some of the case-hardened hacks, then on their other members. And yes, we have heard some good inspiring contributions from CWI and SW members at conferences, as well as seen their good work done on campaigns on the ground. Socialist unity remains a precious asset and the SSP’s main strength.

Populism takes much of its inspiration from outside the organised working class. In the past, whole swathes of the Left wallowed in British left unionist politics. Nowadays, another form of populism has emerged - which is to tail-end the SNP. When, in August 2003, the SSP declared for a Scottish Independence Convention, there was a decided ambiguity as to what was being proposed. Were we to wait for the SNP to declare its interest and hand over the leadership to them? Was the model to be the old 1980’s Scottish Constitutional Convention, formed from the ‘great and the good’ who ignored the massive anti-poll tax protest and initiated the milk-and-water Scottish devolution settlement of 1998?

Was the SSP aiming initially, along with the SNP, merely for ‘independence under the Crown’? Then most of the anti-democratic institutions inherited from the current British state would be preserved, but given a good lick of ‘tartan’ paint in a new ‘Scottish Free State’. Then, a confident ‘independence’-winning SNP could hand over Scottish workers to the tender mercies of the global corporations in their new saltire-adorned tax havens. Meanwhile, the Left would come under ferocious attack from the remaining largely unreformed state machinery, justified by an SNP Executive with hyped-up nationalist rhetoric.

The importance of democratic republicanism and international socialism

The Calton Hill Declaration and demonstration last October 9th showed there was another possibility. That is to organise on democratic republican lines. The UK state’s political strength lies in its Crown Powers, the hidden state within a state. These provide the British ruling class with the mechanism, when needed, to pursue imperial wars and suppress domestic opposition without any democratic sanction.

Anti-imperialism and republicanism have strong support in Scotland. This should form the political basis for a Scottish Independence Convention, drawing on much wider cultural, community, trade union and political forces. The RCN very much welcomes the support given by members of the ISM at the SSP conference for our successful proposals along these lines. The answer to bureaucratic British unionism and saltire-waving Scottish nationalism lies in republican democracy - the road advocated by James Connolly and John Maclean.

The SSP needs to pursue a strategy of ‘internationalism from below’, involving overtures to and shared campaigns with socialists, especially republican socialists, in England, Wales and Ireland. The SSP has the political credibility to take such an initiative. It would also counter those bureaucratic ‘internationalists’ from the British unionist Left, such as George Galloway. Their ‘offers’ of all-British unity, within their very undemocratic centralised organisations, only promote greater disunity.

Last, but certainly not least, February 15th 2003 marked the emergence of the largest internationally organised demonstration ever seen on this planet. The possibilities of making a reality of the slogan, ‘Another World Is Possible’, were tantalisingly glimpsed. The SSP needs to raise its profile in the European Anti-Capitalist Left. In particular, we need international socialist organisation to counter the moves being made, at the behest of the Euro-corporations, to create a stronger European imperialist state.

Some suggestions to further advance a marxist pole of attraction in the SSP

Despite our small size, the RCN has had a real impact on the SSP, particularly in the defence and advance of democratic principles in the party constitution and in promoting the cause of democratic republicanism. Some of this has been done through open political debate. Our republicanism has also caught the mood of the times and had its own impact upon wider SSP politics. These two methods are important ways we would see any new Marxist pole of attraction making its influence felt too.

How do we start to bring the forces together which could lead to a wider marxist pole of attraction within the SSP? The ISM and Frontline initiative is the first step. Next we propose that a national or series of joint regional day-schools (involving others as well) should be organised. There should be both political and/or educational sessions with topics agreed by the participating organisations and individuals. The RCN would also very much welcome an ISM reply to this contribution, which we would publish in the next Emancipation and Liberation.