frontline 16.

Carrying forward socialist politics in Scotland

Gerry Cairns is a leading member of the Scottish Republican Socialist Movement platform within the SSP. Here he gives a response to the debate on the way forward for the SSP.

The birth of the Scottish Socialist Party represented a massive regroupment of left forces in this country. There were many reasons for this, which has been well documented in this very magazine.

One reason, however, has often been overlooked. For decades there was no strong, indigenous left wing party in Scotland. Socialist organisations – from the Labour and Communist parties through to the far left – were organised on a British basis. They adhered in differing ways to what the CP called the ‘British road to socialism.’ Any deviation from this road was a nationalist diversion. 300 years of culture and history were suppressed for the greater good of the ‘British working class.’

Now it is true that Scottish workers are tied by a thousand threads to their comrades in England and internationally. However there have been indigenous struggles, national and local issues/causes as well as the national question itself, which has not gone away. The British road to socialism has been exposed as a dead end. Its adherents became so many ginger groups for Her Majesty’s Labour Party. Many socialists were conned with the notion that Labour had ‘organic links’ with the working class.

There were others who argued what is now the SSP line. The Scottish Republican Socialist Party (SRSP) had an influence beyond our small numbers. The left nationalist Liberation magazine was moderately influential. There was also the short-lived namesake of today’s party back in the early eighties who did some good work and printed Socialist Scotland. Such small groups inherited a tradition that went back to John MacLean’s Scottish Workers’ Republican Party: a tradition that was Scottish and internationalist, socialist and republican and saw no contradiction. As the SWRP manifesto put it:

“Scotland for the Scottish workers, the world for the world’s workers!”

British socialism is dead!

It is no accident that the popularity of the SSP is rooted in its class politics, its base in our communities as well as the re-groupment arising from the fragmentation of the old British left and the avenues that opened up for left wing supporters of independence.

There is now a case for a second re-groupment, which is in part due to some of the failings of the Party. For all our electoral success and the impact of our policies and campaigns there have been real issues that are hindering the further progress of our party.

The Party’s vision of an independent, socialist Scotland is fast becoming a pipe dream. There is no doubting that the vast majority of Party members are in support but the Party, with the exception of certain individuals, are not campaigning for it. The rub for many members of the Party is that to campaign for socialist independence – this side of socialism – is to campaign for independence. Independence is not a priority for many of our candidates in this election even though it will feature prominently in the SSP’s Westminster manifesto. The Voice, for all its many qualities, gives only token support for independence. If you don’t campaign for something, if you don’t argue the case passionately, then you are as well giving up the pretence.

This is not another issue within the Party. It is our raison d’etre: socialism, independence, and internationalism.

Socialist Vision

Indeed, the Party’s socialism faces the same fate. What is our socialist vision? The platforms are just as guilty on this front as the Party. We have been afflicted with the scourge of many a left wing organisation – what the ideologues used to call ‘economism.’ The issues and campaigns (which have been tremendously successful and cannot be criticised in themselves) have unfortunately become an end in themselves. Working class people may applaud our stand on the war or on workplace struggles yet be moved no further toward socialism. Local government workers may win their dispute, British troops may be withdrawn from Iraq and we would rightly hail these as victories but, again, we will not necessarily be nearer socialism.

The Party always link our struggles with socialist change although we fear that Party members may have differing definitions of what that means and how it will happen. Socialism is becoming an abstract concept in the SSP. This side of socialism, it is understandable that we get embroiled in day-to-day struggles. This situation can be reversed both through realignment of forces within the Party and through increased political education. But we do have to reverse it.

Such thoughts are not meant as an outright critique of the Party. They are an argument for realigning politics within the Party. This raises questions. What form should this realignment take? We have the example of RESPECT in England that in our view has been a backward step for the English left. There is a proposal for a new Marxist platform within the SSP, which is being driven by the ISM platform. What would this platform hope to achieve? All platforms have to bear in mind the non-platform members of the Party and understand their cynicism toward the aims of all platforms. Any realignment must take cognisance of this without diluting the political contribution that platforms make.

National Questions

Any new platform must address the above issues. The national question must be at the heart of any grouping but not in the tokenistic way that we are accustomed to. We have to raise the stakes: campaign openly for an independent, socialist Scotland/Scottish Socialist Republic. Make it at the heart of every campaign, every stall, and any future publication. This side of socialism we must discuss the ways in which we can challenge the British State – the tactics we can use to make independence happen. This does not mean, as our opponents will claim, that we drop everything else to focus on a ‘nationalist’ campaign for independence. It does mean that if we are serious about an independent, socialist Scotland then we have to discuss how we are going to bring it about and that means campaigning for, working for, arguing for independence and socialism – and we’ll take whichever comes first while struggling for both.

This activity exposes our opponents within the Party, who will pay lip service while doing nothing to bring our Party’s vision about. Pluralism is a noble concept that is being abused within the Party by members who are opposed to what the Party is about. You see if you oppose an independent, socialist Scotland (overtly or covertly) and still believe in the unity of the British working class then you are waiting for the day of the return of a united, British left wing party. You cannot be working to advance the SSP other than as a prelude to a new BSP – and bring our party and its project down.

First Principles

The SRSM believe that a new, Marxist platform must argue for the Party to return to the first principles of socialism. It would be pointless to produce a textbook definition for Party members. By all means we can and should discuss the finer points of Marxism. A better avenue would be to inculcate socialist politics at every branch and stall. As above, it means raising our game. We are good on the protest, the challenge to the capitalist system but how will it get us to its replacement? What will our socialist society, our socialist republic, be like?

We need to discuss our internationalism and make it more practical? How do we support other class and national liberation struggles? What can we do in Scotland? Anti-imperialism is not just for far away lands. To break up the British State is anti- imperialist. The struggle in the six counties of Ireland is not some tribal conflict but a struggle against imperialism.

As a mild criticism of some of our comrades who are looking at socialist regroupment, the ISM does not mention Scotland in their aims or objectives. The RCN have a list of aims and objectives that are republican and communist. Where? How? A British federal republic? If we do not mention Scotland for fear of being branded nationalist, how can our internationalism be genuine or practical? It may as well be inter-planetary than international.

Our Marxism must avoid the old failings of sloganeering and cliché. We must explore and develop the link with questions of identity and culture. The relationship between class and feminism, nationality, race, sexuality. Our socialism will speak with many tongues. We must lose our own Scottish cringe that relegates our own language, history and culture way down the pecking order while challenging the other Scotland of sectarianism, militarism and big business.

These thoughts are offered as a contribution to the debate. They are not exhaustive. The politics, ethos, name of any new platform must say what it means and mean what it says. We do take a sense of pride that the SRSM name sums up what we are about. We will be pleased to be part of any realignment of the left in this country that does likewise.

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