Britain - The Scottish Socialist Party - from an electoralist scratch to the danger of reformist gangrene

Sep-Oct 2000

For the revolutionary Left worldwide, the most vital problem remains unresolved - the building of the revolutionary party that the working class will need in order to overthrow the capitalist system. To date, none of the many existing revolutionary tendencies - and this includes our own - can claim any decisive breakthrough, or even significant progress, in this direction. They remain in most cases isolated from the working class and in any case without any real influence in its struggles.

In Britain, over the past two decades, various attempts have been made by revolutionary groups to implement policies aimed, in their view, at addressing this problem. These attempts generally involved a detour via some sort of "broader" (i.e. non - revolutionary) organisation in which the possibilities of openly defending a revolutionary policy, let alone putting it into practice, were at best limited. Most of these attempts were discussed in detail in past issues of Class Struggle as they were being made. To cut a long story short, let us say that even when these attempts did not result in more losses than gains for the groups involved, they did not allow them to increase significantly their influence in the working class. And in any case, when gains were made, there was no evidence that these gains (or even better ones) could not have been made by organising independently on the basis of the revolutionary programme, instead of accepting the political censorship resulting from self- imposed immersion into a "broader" organisation.

The present article is devoted to discussing another such attempt, the launch of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), which is generally considered in British Left circles as the most successful attempt to date by revolutionaries to break free from their political isolation and lack of influence. Indeed, it should be recalled, that the SSP came into existence in 1998 as a result of a policy carried out over a number of years by Scottish Militant Labour, a group which considered itself part of the Trotskyist tradition, and whose activists still remain the driving force within the SSP today.

The balance-sheet of entryism

Before examining the case of the SSP itself, it is necessary to put the process which led to its launch into its proper context. And ironically, despite the SSP's dogged stand in favour of Scottish independence, this process was part and parcel of the evolution of the British Left over the past two decades, and more specifically of the Militant tendency.

It must be recalled first that throughout the 1980s, the majority of British revolutionary groups were immersed to various degrees in the Labour party. For most of these groups this was only a temporary tactic. But one of them, the then Militant, had never even existed outside Labour's ranks. Militant argued that under its leadership, the Labour party could "carry through its historical task, the socialist transformation of British society" - which amounted to claiming that Labour's old machinery could, after three-quarters of a century of deep integration into the apparatus of the capitalists' state, be turned into a revolutionary party!

By the beginning of the 1990s, the entrist Left found itself trapped between the need to take its distances from Labour's accelerating Thatcherite drift and the increasingly effective witch- hunt carried out by the party leadership against any form of organised opposition. The entrists were marginalised and more often than not weeded out of the positions they had won in the previous period, without being able to win much backing within the party's ranks. As a result, most of these groups abandoned entryism - or at least they shifted the main thrust of their activity outside of Labour. This was the time (1992) when a majority of Militant decided to come out of the Labour party to form an independent organisation for the first time in its history, initially in Scotland (where Scottish Militant Labour was launched) and then in the rest of Britain (under the name of Militant Labour).

All in all, in return for all these years spent toeing the line of the Labour party's bureaucratic rule book, the entrist groups had not only failed to increase significantly their active membership, but some had actually lost part of it to the Labour party. For most of these groups the balance-sheet of this detour through the Labour party was one of failure.

The only exception to this seemed to be Militant itself, who came out of the Labour party with sizeable forces, despite the fact that some of its members chose to resign rather than leave the party. But, significantly, as the advocates of the setting up of an independent organisation pointed out in the internal discussion which preceded the launch of Militant Labour, during the course of 1991, most of Militant's recent recruitment had been the result of its open activity outside the Labour party (and in fact openly against its policy) - namely in the fight against the poll tax, an activity which Militant could have carried out in the same way as an independent organisation, but without having to face the constant pressures and harassment of the Labour machinery.

Of course, Militant had its own reasons to remain within the Labour party up to 1991: unlike most of the other Left groups, and despite the suspensions and expulsions it had already experienced in the mid-1980s, the group still had two MPs (Dave Nellist in Coventry and Terry Fields in Liverpool) and a number of seats on several Labour councils, particularly in Liverpool and Glasgow and it was fighting hard to hold on to these positions. However, 1991 seemed to have marked a turning point from this point of view, following the deselection of both Militant MPs and the expulsion of all its members on the Liverpool City Council. It was the loss of most of its elected positions which led Militant to stand independent candidates against Labour in 1991, thereby launching itself to all intents and purposes as an independent organisation, even before it formally left the Labour party.

However, it seems that these comrades had some illusions as to their own electoral influence against Labour. So the score achieved by Militant's candidate (under the Real Labour ticket) Lesley Mahmood in the Liverpool-Walton by-election in the Summer of 1991 (6.6% against Peter Kilfoyle's 54%) caused some disillusion and many arguments within the organisation. But this was only the beginning. In the following period, it became clear that without the Labour party ticket, Militant Labour's electoral support was bound to shrink to very modest levels despite the credit its activists had won through the fight against the poll-tax. This situation was to fuel Militant's subsequent on- going search for electoral credibility, in order to regain at least some of the elected positions it had won under the Labour party banner.

The "Scottish turn" to reformism

While the witch-hunt in Liverpool was the trigger which eventually pushed Militant out of the Labour party, the driving force behind this turn was its Scottish organisation (which is why this move became known as the "Scottish turn") which submitted a proposal to this end in April 1991. The reasoning of the Scottish advocates of the "Scottish turn" is worth examining more closely since it provides the beginning of a thread leading directly to today's SSP.

The analysis that these activists made of the evolution of the Labour party was summarised as follows in a discussion document entitled "Scotland: Perspectives and Tasks": "In Scotland as in most of the rest of Britain, the Labour left has been reduced to a handful of isolated individuals for the present.(..) The demise of left reformism and Stalinism has opened up, for the present, a gaping vacuum, enabling the forces of Marxism to play a leading role in events as they unfold in Britain."

So the purpose of the "Scottish Turn" was to allow "the forces of Marxism" (i.e. Militant in its usual coded language) to fill the "gaping vacuum" left by "the demise of left reformism and Stalinism". However this document stopped short of explaining how a revolutionary tendency could fill the gap left by the demise of two reformist currents. Surely this would have required a degree of radicalisation pulling a significant section of the working class away from reformism? But since there was no sign of such a radicalisation - and the subsequent further drop in militancy confirmed this - this could only mean that the advocates of the "Scottish turn" were not just proposing to occupy the space left by left-reformism and Stalinism, but also to put on their reformist clothes.

In fact this document gave further indications along these lines. Thus it went on to recall the influence won in Scotland by the Communist Party as a result of its role in the 1972 and 1974 miners' strikes and, putting this development in parallel with the role played by Militant in the fight against the poll- tax, the document added: "today it is our tendency which is poised to make a great leap forward.(..) If we are to extract maximum advantage of the new situation, an open turn is now imperative."

So the (relative) rise of influence of the Communist Party in the 1970s was suggested as a blueprint for the proposed open organisation. There were a number of obvious objections to this. There was, for instance, a big difference between the high level of militancy of the early 1970s and the general despondency caused by unemployment in the early 1990s. Besides, the Communist Party's Scottish working class base in 1974 had been significantly larger than Militant's was in 1991. But more importantly, nothing was said about the real nature of the CP's influence - i.e. that this influence was not only based on a reformist policy but also that it became increasingly reliant on the CP's integration into the union machineries thanks to its unbending endorsement of the austerity policies enforced by the Labour governments of the time. Hardly a commendable blueprint for a revolutionary tendency! But then what was probably attractive to the authors of this document in the CP's blueprint was precisely the positions it managed to gain at the top of the unions. They only "forgot" that there is a price attached to such gains - to be acceptable to the union bureaucracy.

A shameful adaptation to nationalism

The advocates of the "Scottish turn" then went on to develop the idea that a particular situation was created in Scotland due to the "national question". Once Labour gets into office, and given the Scottish National Party's policy of trying to outflank Labour on its left, argued the same document, "it is the SNP which will be the main beneficiary of the inevitable disillusionment with the Labour government.(..) It is nationalism which will pose the greatest danger for the labour movement in the future.(..) The formation of an open organisation of Marxism could act as a powerful pole of attraction to SNP supporters, and even members, who are not dyed-in-the-wool nationalists, but who see in the SNP the only real, organised alternative to Labour. This would be particularly the case with the youth.(..) It is the development of a powerful Marxist movement in Scotland, with a fighting revolutionary programme and a sensitive policy on the national question which will act as a counter-weight to the appeal of nationalism."

It was true that the SNP and its crass nationalism had never been more successful in electoral terms than under Labour governments, when they came to be seen as the only means available to vote against Labour's austerity without voting for the traditional right-wing parties. But to draw from this the conclusion that nationalism was the "greatest danger for the labour movement in the future" was probably a bit far-fetched. Leaving this point aside, one could only agree with the need for an organisation capable of "acting as a counter-weight to nationalism." But what "sensitive policy on the national question" was this organisation to have? Surely, it flowed from the logic of this document that this policy had to involve a bold exposure of Scottish Nationalism as the reactionary instrument of an aspiring Scottish middle-class seeking positions at the top table and a diversion which can only weaken the unity of the working class in the fight for its class interests. However, this document stopped short of spelling out what it meant by "sensitive policy", apparently because there was no consensus on this issue among the Scottish activists who had submitted it. But in fact, the contradictions in the proposed approach to Scottish nationalism were already clear enough: wasn't the mere fact of proposing a separate organisation for Scotland, thereby splitting an organisation which had always existed so far on a British scale, already a significant concession to nationalism?

Eventually, this "sensitive policy" was outlined in another discussion document, produced a few months later by the majority of Militant's leadership. It read: "Our position is clear. We support the call for a Scottish assembly with full economic power and support the right to self-determination, ultimately separation, if the overwhelming majority are in favour of it. However we do not advocate separation.(..) We are implacably opposed to nationalism and are against the splitting of the labour movement on nationalist lines." - but, curiously enough, not against the splitting of Militant on nationalist lines!

This so-called "sensitive policy" was in fact a classic example of preaching one thing and doing the opposite. How could an organisation be "implacably opposed to nationalism" and "act as a counter-weight to nationalism", while supporting the call for a Scottish assembly - an institution which, under the pretext of taking care of Scottish "national interests", would only be yet another instrument for British capital (Scottish or English made no difference!) to turn the screw of profit on the Scottish working class? Why was it so difficult for such an organisation to say that it was already enough to have one parasitic state and its Parliament in Britain, not to add yet another in Scotland?

But probably, in the eyes of those who wrote these documents, a "sensitive policy" was above all one which did not go against the nationalist prejudices of the SNP supporters and members that the "Scottish turn" targeted as potential recruits! Having emptied their staunch internationalist statements of any concrete substance, they were really out to build a Scottish nationalist organisation, even if it was with a "left" slant.

From SML to the SSP

From the point of view of the aims set out in the discussion documents quoted above, Scottish Militant Labour (SML), the new Scottish organisation which came out of the "Scottish turn", was initially relatively successful. Just three months after its launch, SML's leading figure in Glasgow, Tommy Sheridan, who was then doing a six- month sentence in jail for leading a demonstration against a warrant sale, won 19% of the vote in the general election in Glasgow-Pollock. The following month, in the local election, Sheridan and three of his comrades were elected onto the Glasgow council.

These results were largely due to the role played by SML members in the anti-poll tax struggle. But after the replacement of the poll tax with the council tax, this struggle was bound to become increasingly a rearguard battle to defend the last defaulters. Moreover, the Tories had been re-elected in the 1992 general election contrary to SML's hopes, thereby adding to the general gloom among workers. SML's plans for fast growth had to be postponed. In fact, SML remained largely a Glasgow-based organisation with no means of building up the electoral influence it had hoped for.

At the end of 1995, SML's expectations (and that of its sister organisation in England, Militant Labour) were revived by Arthur Scargill's plan to launch a new party to the left of Labour - what was to become today's Socialist Labour Party (SLP). Like a large part of the Left, they began to dream of the emergence of a sizeable new party which would offer them the same advantages as the Labour party did in the 1980s. Advances were made to Scargill along those lines. However, in the run-up to the SLP's formal launch, it soon became obvious that it would not provide SML with an acceptable framework. First, because Scargill was not prepared to make any allowance to Scottish nationalism by granting some autonomy to a Scottish SLP - which was entirely unacceptable for SML given its wooing of nationalism. Second, because Scargill made it clear that he would set the rules himself, keep his party strictly under his personal control and would not allow any organised faction within its ranks.

Once the SLP ceased to be considered as an option, not just by SML but by most of the Left in Scotland, due to its disregard for "Scottishness", SML moved fast to set up an electoral coalition in advance of the coming local and general elections. Hence, in April 1996, the Scottish Socialist Alliance (SSA) was formally launched. Its convenor, Alan Green, described it in a newspaper article as the "result of years of patient discussion, joint campaigning and emerging unity among significant sections of the Labour left, left nationalists, SML, environmentalists, trade unionists, anti-motorway protesters and animal rights activists". On paper at least, the SSA was not supposed to be just an electoral alliance. According to Green, it would "participate in trade union, direct action and electoral struggles". But in the same article, Green let the cat out of the bag by explaining: "What has brought such a large spectrum of the Scottish Left together? The prospect of the Tories being removed from office and the creation of a Scottish Parliament elected by proportional representation has highlighted the advantages of left unity. Even the Scottish media has recognised that there is space in Scotland for the left to win through PR elections.".

Behind the wrapping, therefore, the SSA was indeed set up in order to allow the Left to make the best of the expected introduction of proportional representation in the Scottish Parliament promised by Blair. It was nothing but an electoral front entirely designed to broaden its appeal as widely as possible. Its constitution stated that any group agreeing with its "Aims and Objectives" and its constitution could apply for affiliation: "political group, trade union at any level, environmental group, tenants' organisation, community group, anti-nuclear group, civil rights organisation, animal rights organisation, anti-racist organisation, international solidarity campaign, etc.." In fact the SSA was built to appeal to such a large spectrum of currents and political shades that its programme could only be limited to a catalogue of demands designed to satisfy everyone's hobby horses, without defining the means to impose any of these demands - particularly not those concerning the working class, since the concept of the class struggle did not go down very well with many animal rights supporters, greens, etc.. As to the reference to socialism included in the SSA's name, it could only be token - just as token as the reference to "socialist values" in the mouths of Labour party grandees.

In short, despite the fact that SML, a group still claiming to be Trotskyist, made up the overwhelming majority of its active membership, the SSA was merely a reformist electoral front. And it was a very far cry from the "powerful Marxist movement in Scotland, with a fighting revolutionary programme" advocated by the supporters of the "Scottish turn" in 1991.

In any case, it was on these very same foundations, as the political continuation of the SSA, that the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) held its founding conference in February 1999, just in time to be able to stand candidates in the May 1999 Scottish parliamentary election.

A mini Labour party mark II

The SSA's transformation from an alliance into a party has not really change its organisational nature. The SSP remains a collection of disparate currents, just as the SSA was, with the addition of some personalities who crossed over from the Labour party and the SNP. So the SSP has retained the SSA's way of operating by adopting the well-proven Labour-type of party structures - with members and affiliated organisations. In practice, it can therefore effectively remain a loose alliance between organisations which want to retain a degree of independence, while at the same time recruiting new members directly to the organisation.

In fact the SSP goes much further in copying the structures of the Labour party. Thus the single paragraph of its constitution which deals with the operation of its branches reads: "Branches should aim to meet fortnightly but meet at least monthly and aim to organise activities (e.g. further meetings, stalls, leafleting, etc..) at least on a fortnightly basis." while SSP members are "encouraged" but not actually required to participate in branch meetings let alone in activities. The result may not be as bad as the traditional record of attendance, dullness and passivity of Labour party branches. Especially as the SSP does at least put a relative emphasis on raising the party's public profile through stalls and public meetings (although the "aim to organise" sets this as a low priority), something which the Labour party has long ceased to do. Nevertheless, this does mean that, like in the Labour party, the main role assigned to SSP branches is to maintain just enough contact between members to enable the party leadership to mobilise them when need be, rather than to ensure day-to-day interventions in the struggles of the working class.

Indeed such an orientation towards the working class and its struggles would require more frequent meetings (events do not usually wait for party meetings) and a much higher emphasis on members being involved in the party's branch meetings and activities. It would also require, in particular, regular discussions in the branches about the members' involvement in the day-to-day struggles in the workplaces, what policy to adopt with respect to these struggles and how the branch membership can best assist those directly involved on a political and practical level. It would also require that members working in the same workplaces should be organised together so as to facilitate their collective intervention at workplace level - something which is made nigh impossible by the geographical branches adopted by the SSP. Short of such practices, the SSP may well become an efficient electoral machine, like the Labour party, but certainly not a militant organisation aiming to intervene in, let alone initiate, the struggles of the working class.

But the SSP does not seem too keen on its branches getting involved in systematic workplace intervention, or even in discussing their members' activities in their respective unions. Probably a systematic policy of intervention by SSP members in workplaces, whether within the union structures or directed at the workforce at large, would not go down too well with union officials, thereby undermining the chances of the same union officials making the largely token gesture of affiliating their branches to the SSP.

The SSP does, however, pay lip service to these struggles. In one of its documents it describes itself as a "party born in struggle (which) continues in the fight for justice and equality for the working class. We believe there is a need to forcibly return Socialism back on to the political agenda. Elections can only be a complement to the class struggle, not a substitute." At face value, this emphasis on the importance of the class struggle as opposed to the ballot box would seem quite promising. However, this favourable impression is immediately negated by the next sentence in the same document: "but from Shettleston to the Shetlands we intend to give Scottish voters the opportunity to vote for clear socialist policies and a chance to influence the future of the working classes at home and internationally." Quite apart from the grandiose tone, since when have voters been able to "influence the future of the working classes at home"(let alone internationally) with a ballot paper? It is hard to think of a cruder display of electoralist delusion.

Socialism or parliament?

But what does the SSP mean by returning "socialism back onto the political agenda"? Given the SSP's electoral orientation, a look at its election manifesto for the 1999 Scottish election - published under the very Blairite-sounding title "a socialist vision for a New Scotland" - should provide some clues.

Socialism, as we understand it, involves the prospect of the working class building a new society by overthrowing the rule of capital. Admittedly it would make no sense to seek a vote for a revolution or for socialism in the Scottish parliamentary election. But surely an organisation which really aims to bring "socialism back onto the political agenda" would try to use the electoral platform to express the preoccupations of working people and the jobless and the need to fight for a programme of demands that can resolve the most urgent problems they have to face. Yet the SSP's manifesto has nothing to do with such a programme. Its only section dealing with workers' conditions is called "Industry and training", as if the SSP was wary of putting off middle-class voters by acknowledging that there is such a thing as the specific interest of the working class. And this section contains only four of the SSP's "100 steps towards a socialist Scotland", two of which are in fact demands made on behalf of the trade-union machineries - thereby showing the preoccupations of ordinary workers are certainly not very high on the SSP's agenda!

Other than that, this manifesto is, just as the old SSA programme, a catalogue of demands including everything but the kitchen sink - with even some reactionary demands like "the banning of animal testing for cosmetic and medical research", which shows how far the SSP is prepared to go in order to woo animal rights supporters. Other demands sound very "radical". For instance, one argues for "the taking over of the assets - including factories, offices and equipment - without compensation, of multinational companies which pull out of Scotland to seek cheaper labour and bigger profits elsewhere." But no mention is made of the profitable companies which are seeking cheap labour in Scotland and cutting jobs there in order to make even bigger profits - like Royal Bank of Scotland, Corus, British Telecom, BAe, to mention just a few - and this despite the fact that these companies are responsible for the bulk of redundancies in Scotland. Presumably the SSP felt that targeting such companies which fuel the gravy train of the Scottish middle-class, would not go down so well among the Scottish nationalists.

But the most striking aspect of this manifesto is that it shows how the SSP is placing itself entirely within the framework of the Scottish parliamentary institution. On the one hand this manifesto says that "we do not pretend that the manifesto could be implemented in full without an almighty political battle with Westminster and Scottish big business establishment. But make no mistake the Scottish Socialist Party is prepared to engage in such a battle." But on the other hand it argues that: "All the policies contained within this manifesto are compatible with the powers invested in the Scottish parliament". In fact it goes much further than that by calling for a long list of additional rights for the Scottish Parliament, as if more powers for the aspiring Edinburgh politicians could mean better conditions for working people and the jobless in Scotland. In fact it gives away the SSP's real agenda by pointing out that "because of the new electoral system - and especially given the likelihood of a hung parliament - the Scottish Socialist Party could potentially hold the balance of power in Holyrood.(..) Any bartering that we undertake will not be for ministerial positions, but for radical socialist measures to redress some of the injustices and inequalities in our society." So, for all its talk about an "almighty political struggle", the real battlefield for the SSP turns out to be Holyrood. And the only "political battle" it really proposes to use to get its "radical socialist measures" onto the agenda is by "bartering" with the Scottish executive!

So if the SSP is planning to put "socialism" back on the agenda, it is at best in the form of a cleaner, more radical- sounding version of "Old" Labour's parliamentary "socialism", adorned with nationalist paraphernalia - nothing to do in any case with Marx's socialism!

Tartan reformism

The SSP's nationalist stand is indeed unambiguous. Its constitution says, for instance, that "the SSP will campaign for an independent socialist Scotland with the aim of establishing a Scottish socialist republic in a broader alliance of democratic socialist states." One can only wonder which "socialist states" are referred to here. Maybe Cuba is one of them, judging from the fact that its ambassador was a guest of honour of the SSP's last conference. In which case, this speaks volumes once again about the SSP's idea of socialism. In any case, Scottish nationalism has clearly taken its toll. The distance covered from SML's half-veiled concessions to nationalism in 1992 to this openly nationalist statement, shows how far the nationalist drift has gone.

The insertion of the word socialist' in the phrase "independent socialist Scotland" does not make an inch of difference. Socialism was never thought of by Marx or any of his successors as a social organisation that could come into existence within the confines of one country, let alone of a country like Scotland with its small population of five million. It took first the reformist degeneration of the 2nd International and subsequently the degeneration of the Soviet Union under Stalin, to popularise such a crass travesty of socialism. Such distortions of Marxism were fought relentlessly first by the left-wing of the 2nd International, represented by Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, and then by the Trotskyist movement from the 1920s - i.e. the political tradition from which the activists who form the core leadership of today's SSP originate. That the SSP should go down this road shows, in and of itself, how far the political choices made by these activists, from their entryism in the Labour party to the setting up of the SSP, has taken them - very far indeed from their own tradition and political principles and straight into nationalism.

Moreover the SSP's brand of nationalism is just as permeated with reformism as the rest of its policies. For all its talk about a "socialist Scotland" it actually states in its constitution that "the SSP is for a sovereign Scottish Parliament which has the right to decide which powers to retain in Scotland and to determine its relationship with the rest of Britain and the Europe." In other words, SSP's idea of independence is actually one decreed by the Scottish Parliament! But such respect for the Scottish Parliament only reflects the objectives that the SSP has chosen. It makes no secret that it aims at replacing the SNP on the Scottish political scene, by making a takeover bid for its constituency - not on the basis of a "socialist" programme but on the basis of the mixture of populist nationalism and middle-class reformism which are the main characteristics of the SNP.

Hence the constant parallel drawn by the SSP between its own progress and that of the SNP in its early years. For instance, Socialist Voice, the SSP's monthly, explains (September 8th): "A gauge of the impact of the SSP is the decision by the National Council to stand, finance permitting, in all 72 Scottish constituencies in the coming general election. For a party which has existed for less than two years, this is a monumental achievement. It stands in striking contrast to the earlier history of the SNP, which was only able to stand in two seats in the 1951 general election, 17 years after the party was launched."

Hence also the SSP's policy of claiming to put the SNP "on the spot". Thus, in a high-profile interview published by the Observer (August 13th) Tommy Sheridan claimed that on the basis of the present opinion polls, the SSP could win 8 to 10 seats in the next Scottish Parliament election. And he added: "The SNP, I think, will gain and Labour will lose, the Liberal Democrats will lose. You might have the SNP then looking to form an administration with some of the smaller parties. If that happened, then our demand would be that our redistributive policies are on the agenda. That's a price the SNP would have to pay. Whether they'd be willing to pay it, I don't know, but we wouldn't be easy negotiators. We're not after power for power's sake." Sheridan knows very well that for a party like the SNP, which is first of all accountable to capitalist interests, there can be no question of accepting the "tax the rich" redistributive policies argued by the SSP in its present election platform, not even for the sake of forming a Scottish government. Yet, he does not exclude the possibility of negotiating about the SSP's participation in a government coalition led by the SNP, meaning that there may be something to negotiate after all. What would it really take then for the SSP to agree to board the SNP's gravy train? A few grandiose but token promises? One can only wonder.

The SSP and the problem of the revolutionary party

The Left has acclaimed the SSP as a success, mainly due to its election results - Tommy Sheridan's election to the Scottish Parliament last year, thanks to the introduction of proportional representation, followed by some modest but not insignificant results in by-elections (for instance 9.7% in Hamilton South or 4.2% in Ayr).

In terms of membership, however, the SSP seems to have been less successful. It claims to have over 2000 members in more than 40 branches, but its own activists reckon that probably no more than a quarter of these members are active. This still makes up a sizeable organisation given Scotland's small population, but by far not the "mass force for socialism in Scotland" which Socialist Voice editor Alan McCombes was predicting in a left newspaper following Sheridan's election last year. Nor has the SSP emerged as a leading force in any significant working class struggle in Scotland so far. Its main activity outside elections remains focused, like that of most of the revolutionary Left, on single-issue campaigns which are more or less relevant to the working class and mostly restricted to a small milieu - like its campaign for the abolition of section 28 or in favour of the legalisation of cannabis.

But more important is the basis on which the SSP has been built. As was illustrated above, beyond its "radical" rhetoric the policy of the SSP is merely that of a nationalist and a reformist organisation. Such is the outcome of eight years of activity on the part of the Trotskyist activists who left the Labour party to form SML back in 1992. These comrades could have used the credit they had won in the anti-poll tax struggle to build a revolutionary organisation. But instead, they used this credit to build a reformist one.

This may have no consequences if the influence of the SSP remains what it is today. But if it does develop, as its instigators obviously hope, it will only provide reformism with a new lifeline, at a time when the reformism of the Labour party is reaching an unprecedented level of discredit, due to Blair's policy in government. In that case, a generation of revolutionaries will have squandered the political credit they had won for their ideas in Scotland's working class only to end up revamping the image of reformism! And worst of all, it may well be then, that, given Scotland's circumstances, in particular the depth of the crisis affecting the working class, this generation of activists will have missed an opportunity to build a genuine revolutionary internationalist organisation enjoying at least as much support as the SSP.

Most of the Scottish Left has now joined the SSP, as individuals basis, as organised tendencies or as affiliated organisations. According to the SSP, even the SWP - which was the only remaining significant left group outside the SSP - has now opened negotiations for its Scottish members to be admitted into the SSP in one form or another. In the rest of Britain, the SSP's relative successes have enthused so many people in Left quarters, that it is often referred to as a "model of unity" among the Left and a demonstration of what this unity could achieve in the rest of Britain - a demonstration which is only measured in electoral terms, as if this could be the only, or even a decisive measure for revolutionaries.

But should unity, and what is more, unity for the sake of winning seats in councils or parliaments, be achieved at the cost of dumping the revolutionary programme altogether, as is the case of the Left inside the SSP in Scotland, or, even worse, as was the case last May in London, when the London Socialist Alliance "united" with Livingstone (who did not want to have anything to do with such an "alliance") to support his candidacy for mayor? In what way can this kind of unity bring the Left closer to the emergence of a revolutionary party in Scotland or elsewhere? This is the question that the Left has to answer.

The fact that most revolutionary groups in Scotland are now immersed in the SSP does not mean that these groups can use the relative influence of the SSP to defend the revolutionary programme. It only means that the SSP can now use these comrades' energy to raise the profile of its national-reformist policies. Just as a political adventurer and reformist like Livingstone was able to use the Left to bolster illusions about himself in May, while the LSA was putting up its "Vote Ken" posters and certainly gaining no credit for its own ideas in return.

But is the role of revolutionaries to help in revamping reformism when, due to political and economic circumstances, it exposes its real nature as an agent of capital in front of the working class, as it does today? Surely not! On the contrary, it is in such circumstances that revolutionaries have an opportunity - and a duty - to win credit for their programme by having a policy aimed at defending it as clearly and openly as possible in opposition to the discredited reformist machineries.

Such a policy is incompatible with the kind of reformist common denominator on which the SSP, the LSA and similar "unity" operations are based, under the misconceived pretext of "broadening" their appeal. On the contrary, it requires that it is stated clearly that the working class should expect nothing from the parliamentary system of the capitalists and rely only on its own forces and struggles. It also requires the drawing of a clear line between the interests of the working class, as the only force capable of representing the interests of society as a whole, and the interests of capital. Finally this policy requires that revolutionaries should advocate the need and prepare the ground, for the future struggles of the working class, by popularising a programme of objectives for these struggles which marks a clear break from reformism and offers solutions to the main problems experienced by the working class, whether it be unemployment, increased exploitation, the running down of public services, etc..

The implementation of such a policy may require that revolutionaries have to go against the stream in certain milieus, particularly among the middle class, students and other sections of the population which are more receptive to the present reactionary drift in society. They may be against the stream as well among activists in the reformist machineries. But they will not be against the stream among rank-and-file workers if they make it their duty to express their preoccupations. The credit that revolutionaries will win amongst workers for their programme and their organisations may not be translated into short-term gains - whether in terms of membership or votes. But this credit will be indispensable if today's revolutionary movement is to play any role in the future struggles of the working class and, therefore, in the emergence of tomorrow's revolutionary party.

17 September 2000