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Open Letter to SLP Marxist Bulletin

Dear comrades,

For a democratic Socialist Labour Party

I was most disappointed, upon arriving at the conference of the Campaign for a Democratic SLP on 14th June 1997, to receive the SLP Marxist Bulletin leaflet entitled ‘Don’t support this anti-SLP lash up’. The leaflet was thrust into my hand by your representative, immediately after I had received, from NEC member Terry Dunn, the ‘Message to Members from the NEC’, which threatened that any member attending the conference, or any other meeting intended to discuss changes to the Party constitution, would ‘be acting in violation of the Party’s Constitution and will be dealt with accordingly’. The circumstances of the distribution of your leaflet; its emotive and quite unjustified title; and its seriously flawed and mischievous content; all serve to strengthen the anti-democratic witch hunt being conducted by the SLP leadership, and to weaken the fight against their shameful and destructive actions.

As a co-sponsor of the CDSLP conference, and as a victim of the witch hunt, who is fighting for unconditional reinstatement, I deeply resent your false and unsubstantiated assertion that the formation of the CDSLP is ‘effectively a call to split and form another organisation’. I note that you do concede, ‘No doubt the participants in this meeting sincerely want to build Socialist Labour into a genuinely democratic mass working class party, open to revolutionary ideas’. Your implication, therefore, is clear – that sincere SLP democrats are being misled by the organisers of the CDSLP conference; by the alleged architects of the ‘anti-SLP lash up’. It thus becomes equally clear just who is engaging in splitting tactics – yourselves in the SLP Marxist Bulletin!

The leaflet publicising the CDSLP founding conference emphatically belies your sulky sniping:– ‘The potential for socialist change is enormous. But we must have full democracy and openness of ideas in our new party to build the party our class needs. Workers organisations need democracy like we need the air we breathe. We must be able to speak and organise openly in the party in order to build the discipline to strike with one fist against our common enemy. We must fight for a party to which all partisans of the working class will rally. Then the SLP will become the mass party of the working class in Britain’, (emphasis added). How is this the language of a call to split and form another organisation? The leaflet advertising the North West meeting on 17th May, called to build for the national launch meeting of the CDSLP, was equally explicit: – ‘We say, "Join the Socialist Labour Party and FIGHT!"’, (emphasis in original, excerpt quoted being a reprise of the main title of the leaflet). ‘.... to the trade unions – don’t wait to be dumped by Blair – affiliate now to the SLP!’, (whole sentence emphasised in original). ‘With the SLP, workers can once again have a party which fights for the working class and against the bosses’ (emphasis added).

Your leaflet goes on to attack the appearance on the agenda of the CDSLP conference, of a motion proposing the launching of ‘an open publication to campaign for democracy in the SLP and socialism in the working class movement’. You suggest that this proposal is ‘not calculated to build the strength of the SLP by fighting for more democracy, a better programme, and better practice, but simply a general discussion of undefined "socialism" in the labour movement as a whole, combined with public attack on the practices of the SLP’. Whatever cynical ‘calculations’ you might want to ascribe to the propose of this resolution, the fact is that – after a thorough and detailed discussion – the resolution was adopted by your allegedly naive ‘participants’ in the conference, by a large majority. The idea thus became the property of your ‘sincere (builders of) Socialist Labour into a genuinely democratic mass working class party, open to revolutionary ideas’. A provisional editorial board of five was elected by the conference, every one of those being from a different political background. Moreover, the CDSLP is calling upon party branches to sponsor the publication, up on doing which they will obtain a seat on the editorial board. When will the election of the editorial board of the Marxist Bulletin be taking place, by the way? Incidentally, the Socialist Labour Action comrades, whom your leaflet describes as ‘one of the main sponsors’ of the CDSLP founding conference, and as leaders of the CDSLP, abstained on the resolution to launch the open publication. They will presumably not be participating in the production and building of the paper, but – like yourselves with the Marxist Bulletin – they will favour continuing exclusive promotion of their own Socialist Labour Action. And yet you feel able to state, ‘CDSLP initiators are, at best, sectarian and, at worst, stand in clear opposition to the party’. This observation, which is manifestly negated by the facts, is typical of the strange inversions that run throughout the Marxist Bulletin leaflet. Anther example is your assertion that the CDSLP publication will ‘(publicly) attack ... the practices of the SLP’. In fact, the democracy campaign, will be attacking the malpractices of the SLP leadership (including the unelected ones). In doing so, it will indeed be ‘calculated to build the strength of the SLP by fighting for more democracy, a better programme, and better practice’. The malpractices of Scargill & co. are not the ‘practices of the SLP’, and it is certainly the former which is reducing the strength of the party.

You scoff at the idea that the CDSLP open publications will promote ‘a general discussion of undefined ‘socialism’ in the labour movement’. But such a discussion – into which all ‘definitions’ of socialism can be introduced, including your own – is just what is needed in order to build the democratic strength of the SLP. If a campaign for proletarian democracy is not to embark upon a discussion of all ideas about socialism which exist in the working class, then it is not going to succeed in winning clarification of the way forward for the class, and in building the type of party we need in order to take that route forward. We have to practice democracy as well as advocate it.

You then attack the inclusion on the CDSLP conference agenda, of a motion advocating that branches concentrate their fire, with respect to resolutions for Party Congress, on an amendment to the draft constitution which would remove the debarment on affiliation of socialist and progressive organisations, and which would delete the clause used by the witch hunters to denounce and expel revolutionaries. You suggest that the appearance of this motion ‘makes things even more clear’. Makeswhat even more clear? Presumably your thesis that the CDSLP is an anti-SLP lash up. Once more you are long on assertion and short on elucidation. You state that the concentration on the bans and proscriptions issue ‘raises strong doubts about whether the CDSLP is serious about trying to change the rules and policies of the party’ and that ‘the CDSLP is advocating that party members censor themselves and do not take up this opportunity to move resolutions on questions of policy’. The resolution – which was overwhelmingly carried by the CDSLP conference – is not a new idea. It was being discussed a year ago in the Revolutionary Platform. Unfortunately, the Marxist Bulletin comrades declined to participate in the Revolutionary Platform discussions (at a time when even Roy Bull’s EPSR were taking party in the discussions, and supporting the prioritisation of the need to overturn the bans and proscriptions). Those discussions were precisely concentrating on the task of ‘achieving ... an organisational framework in which political struggle can take place’, something which your leaflet now agrees is the key to winning the fight for a genuinely democratic SLP, which is in turn required in order to realise the potential of the SLP to lead to a mass revolutionary party of the British working class. Your abstention from the RP forum weakened the forces in the SLP which would agree with the perspective set out in my preceding sentence. Others stayed away too – the ‘Swindon group’, and the initiators of the SLP Left Network, for example. This separatism continues with the formation of the Marxist Bulletin supported alternative SLP democracy campaign, the ‘Statement to the NEC and SLP Members on the question of Party Democracy’. The facts are self evident. The revolutionary and democratic forces in the SLP are divided and therefore weak.

In the current witch hunting climate, any revolutionary, or democrat, can instantly be rubbed out by the bureaucracy, by means of a letter of the type received by myself and comrade Barry Biddulph. Branches opposing such attacks can be shut down, as in the case of Vauxhall, with their whole membership being expelled. A serious threat has now been made by Scargill to those in the party who disagree with the NEC’s European policy, that they either accept the fait accompli as unchangeable policy, ‘in line with the Constitution’, or they get out of the Party. It is facile of Marxist Bulletin to suggest that branches be left to do their own thing and use their single Congress motions to intervene in a host of policy discussions, or to propose more minor constitutional amendments. This approach is like advising sheep to peacefully roam and graze, whilst a pack of wolves is picking them off. Unless the two democracy campaigns unite, and unless Marxist Bulletin abandons the policy of pointing out to the wolves other sheep who are not only fatter, but who insult wolves, then the fight to achieve the organisational framework in which political struggle can take place is lost. This is the reason why branches must concentrate on the CDSLP model constitutional amendment on affiliation and membership.

Weekly Worker (3 July 1997) has done a service to all SLP democracy campaigners by publishing Scargill’s vicious reply to MB’s preferred ‘Statement to the NEC and SLP members on the question of Party Democracy’. The supposedly ‘legitimate’ democracy campaign, which was not to be regarded as an anti-SLP lash-up, now stands denounced by Scargill as an attempt to undermine the constitution, structure, and organisation of the Party. Scargill perceives no dichotomy between so called ‘loyal’ and ‘internal’ democracy campaigns, and ‘open’, ‘before the class’ campaigns. They are one and the same thing to him – opposition which must be smashed. I hope Marxist Bulletin comrades, along with your co-thinkers in Swindon and all points West, and the Left Network minority, are now doing some serious rethinking about your shunning of the CDSLP (not to mention MB’s denouncing of it). We have to unite, comrades. Let’s have your revised thoughts for publication in ‘Socialist Labour Democracy’.

Yours in comradeship,

John Pearson
Member no. 523 (voided)

We welcome comrade Pearson’s letter to the SLP Marxist Bulletin. However, we find ourselves in disagreement with its content. We would like to reply to several issues raised and assertions made by the comrade.

The first point that needs to be clarified is the assertion that the leaflet issued by us for the conference of the Campaign for a Democratic SLP on 14 June 1997 served ‘to strengthen the anti-democratic witch-hunt’. We fail to understand how our statement, that expresses our differences with the CDSLP, can do this. If comrade Pearson wants to see a democratic SLP, he should be glad to find people who argue their view of how this can best be achieved. This was the aim of our statement and we stand by it.

Furthermore he argues that our opposition to ‘this anti-SLP lash-up’, and the fact that we did not participate in it, amounts to ‘splitting tactics’. This misses the point because we have never been part of the CDSLP, hence we can hardly split it. But, comrade Pearson would argue, we are splitting the SLP ‘democrats’. There seems to be a peculiar point of view in existence which sees us as joining, not Socialist Labour itself, but an ill-defined grouping called, variously ‘SLP left’, ‘SLP democrats’ or ‘SLP revolutionaries’. It is this kind of approach which leads to ‘splitting tactics’ and to arguing for a publication which is essentially outside the party and indeed in some aspects opposed to it.

No, comrade, we joined the Socialist Labour Party – recognising its potential, and its weaknesses, and the wide range of political ideas held by its membership. Certainly we have more agreement with some members than others. This is only to be expected. But political differences within the party are far from a simple division between left and right, particularly in the early stages of the party. We support the establishment of groupings within the party based on political views and of discussion on all issues between groups and individual members. We also believe there is a place for campaigns on single issues which bring together comrades of divergent views on other questions. The problem with the CDSLP is that it is not sure which of the above it wants to be, and thus makes it very difficult to do either. We want no part of that.

According to CDSLP logic, if you argue that there is a lack of democracy in the party you must support their campaign and take a seat on the editorial board of a publication outside the SLP – otherwise you become part of the witch-hunters. This vindicates our assessment that the formation of the CDSLP is effectively a call to split and all the quotes from CDSLP literature cannot cover up this fact.

It must be pointed out that this ultimatum by the CDSLP that all join their campaign and adopt their tactics is made in the circumstances of the abject failure of their project. How many branches have endorsed their campaign, elected CDSLP supporters as delegates, or passed the CDSLP motion? And, three months after their founding conference, we are yet to see a copy of Socialist Labour Democrat.

This approach of issuing an ultimatum to members of a political party is reminiscent of the fatal tactics of the Stalinist Comintern. It assumes that if you ignore the relationship between the leadership and the rank-and-file, but offer the latter another organisation, the members will automatically turn their back on their existing leaders. In the SLP context Pearson implements this tactics by saying that the ‘malpractices of Scargill & co. are not the "practices of the SLP"’. He might think that the real SLP is an SLP without Arthur Scargill, but this in itself will hardly induce members to try to move beyond Scargill’s bureaucratic and reformist politics, because the CDSLP’s alternative is a publication not only without Scargill but without a party and any kind of political direction.

The political bankruptcy of the CDSLP is revealed when comrade Pearson scolds the supporters of the Marxist Bulletin for not participating in the earlier discussions then organised under the banner of the Revolutionary Platform. He reminds us that then ‘even Roy Bull’s EPSR were taking part in the discussions’. The EPSR journal is notorious for its homophobic rantings and members of the group have supported undemocratic expulsions, including that of comrade Pearson himself. The Revolutionary Platform was an ill-defined catch-all grouping which sought to bring together as many people as possible (even those with views as poisonous as the EPSR) without having a clearly defined basis of agreement. Such a grouping was clearly unstable and the collapse of this rotten bloc confirms our decision to stay away from it.

Even without the EPSR, the CDSLP is extremely unstable and contradictory. Pearson’s argument that the CDSLP is supportive of the party is greatly weakened by the involvement of Socialist Labour Action (SLA) comrades who (protestations to the contrary notwithstanding) have clearly been involved in the CDSLP from the beginning. We have previously criticised those members of our party who called for a vote to New Labour where we were unable to stand candidates. But SLA moved softness on Labour into a competely different league. Actually crossing the rubicon to become outright opponents of the SLP, they declared themselves (after the election) to be supporters of an organisation, Workers Power, that openly campaigned for New Labour candidates against the SLP over most of the country.

Despite the CDSLP’s claim to contain many points of view, internal arguments over the right approach to the Labour Party have lead to the very divisions with SLA that Pearson writes of. His claim that they will not be involved in the new journal because they distanced themselves from the decisions at one CDSLP meeting may or may not be the case. But SLA is not the sole problem. Rather it is the very nature of the CDSLP which is at fault. If it is not SLA comrades who take advantage of this opportunity to attack the party then it will be someone else.

Our prime error, according to comrade Pearson, seems to be our intention to move motions on Socialist Labour policies, and not just on the constitution, at the congress in December. Comrade Pearson is so astonished about this intention that he has to use allegorical formulations to convey his interpretation of this position: ‘It is like advising sheep to peacefully roam and graze, whilst a pack of wolves is picking them off.’ Unlike comrade Pearson we do not think of SLP members as sheep, nor for that matter do we see the CDSLP as the protecting shepherd. A democratic constitution is vital, but it is only a means to an end. Democracy within a political organisation only exists to facilitate the development of a revolutionary programme.

The comrades of the Marxist Bulletin have been at the forefront of the fight for democracy. At the same time we have also contributed to the wider debates on programme. We note that the bulk of the participants in the CDSLP, and its predecessors such as the Revolutionary Platform, have concentrated almost exclusively on organisational questions.

The supporters of the SLP Marxist Bulletin will continue to fight for a revolutionary perspective for our party. At the same time we will work together with other comrades to establish a democratic framework for the party. We are confident that many comrades who do not support the CDSLP have a better understanding of ‘unity’ than comrade Pearson imagines. We therefore call on the members of the CDSLP to break with their current confused method and join the political debates now taking place within the party as a whole.