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Stalinism: Rising from the grave?

An edited version of a talk given by Christoph Lenk to a meeting
of SLP members in November, organised by the Marxist Bulletin

Stalinism as a historical phenomenon was the form reaction took after the 1917 October revolution. It was more than the dictatorial rule of one man, Joseph Stalin. Stalin was the representative of a whole social layer, the bureaucracy that arose in struggle against the democratic rule of the working- class. Leon Trotsky, leader of the revolutionary Red Army, analysed the consequences of the Stalinist triumph in the USSR as follows:

‘Stalinism re-established the most offensive forms of privileges, imbued inequality with a provocative character, strangled mass self-activity under police absolutism, transformed administration into a monopoly of the Kremlin oligarchy and regenerated the fetishism of power in forms that the absolute monarchy dared not dream of.’
(Their Morals and Ours, 1939)

The collapse of the so-called ‘socialist’ states in Eastern Europe discredited the ‘theory’ of ‘Socialism in one country’ beyond repair, or so everyone assumed at the time. In Britain, where Stalinist parties have been relatively weak in comparison to other West European states, there was little left to collapse. The question of what kind of party we need arose again. With the development of the Labour Party to the right, an answer to this question became ever more urgent. This was the context in which the formation of the SLP took place. An increasing number of workers turned their backs on both Stalinism and (New) Labourism and our party presented a badly-needed alternative.

An honest assessment

Eighteen months after the founding conference, however, the party is alarmingly weak, organisationally as well as politically. Many good militants who joined in a wave of enthusiasm have become inactive or dropped out completely. We have to honestly ask ourselves why this could happen. In order to do this we have to look at some key political questions and how the party has responded to them.

A crucial test of our party was the General Election. While the actual result of more than 50,000 votes was rather encouraging, there was a lack of preparation, coherence and leadership. Confusion did not only exist among the rank-and-file but included and was increased by the NEC. The question that divided the party was whether the SLP should call for a vote to the Labour Party in those constituencies where we did not stand a candidate. While Arthur Scargill correctly argued against any votes to the Labour traitors, Patrick Sikorski was in favour of giving critical support to them. However, even Arthur Scargill got all soft when faced with the question of whether we should stand against Ken Livingstone, declaring that we had ‘never intended’ to.

In the end the membership was left to believe that we definitely do not want to stand against ‘left-wing’ Labour candidates. It is worth noting that our party was unable to produce an election statement in our paper that was clear as to how our supporters should vote where we did not stand. For a party that has the declared aim to replace the Labour Party as the party of the working masses this is rather an omission.

Another sad part of the election campaign was the undemocratic way in which the NEC imposed candidates on CSLPs. In Newbury, for example, Arthur Scargill imposed the candidate Katrina Howse against the explicit wishes of members in the area. The result proved the members right. Comrade Howse got the lowest number of votes of all SLP candidates. In the case of Harlow CSLP the secretary only found out that there was an SLP candidate in the constituency when he received a phone call from the local media asking him if he could arrange for an interview with the candidate! In the end the ‘candidate’ never materialised, but the then secretary of Harlow CSLP was so outraged about the fact that the NEC attempted to stand candidates without any consultation with the CSLP that he resigned from the party. The above are clear indications that the party leadership did not have the guts to stand against the ‘Labour left’ and that they deem it unnecessary to let the membership decide anything of importance.

One of the most important questions facing the European working-class is that of European Monetary Union/European Union. Unfortunately, our party has adopted an essentially nationalist line on this. The call for an immediate withdrawal from the EU assumes that an isolated British capitalism would be less reactionary and effectively superior to a united European capitalist system. But can we really believe that British capitalism would suddenly stop attacking the working class, end unemployment and establish equal rights for women and minorities? Those who believe that ‘their’ capitalist state is better than that of their European neighbours are leading the workers into a nationalist dead end. We must reject the Maastricht plan for a European imperialist super-state and the nationalists’ alternative that offers an autarchic, protectionist Britain. If we do not adopt an internationalist approach, we could easily find ourselves in a bloc with the Conservative Party when the referendum on entry into the EMU takes place. We should call for united workers’ struggle across national borders as the first step towards the establishment of a Socialist Federation of Europe.

An interesting insight into the limitations of our current policies offers the question of British militarism. A prominent demand in SLP policy documents is for scrapping of the Trident nuclear missiles. Together with this goes the demand for a drastic cut in the military budget. The reasoning is that the saved money could be spent in a more useful way elsewhere. While there is some truth in this, it displays a dangerous belief in the British state itself. It seems as if the Trident missiles are ‘bad’ weapons that we do not want while the more conventional means of mass murder are acceptable to us – if only we spent a bit less money on them. The argument for a partial cut in the military budget implies that we want to keep the existing military machinery intact. Thus the question of militarism is reduced to a question of unnecessary state expenses. The very existence of the capitalist war machinery, which is one of the bosses’ main tools of maintaining order, is nowhere questioned. Socialists should be clear though that the existing capitalist military machinery will have to be destroyed and replaced by a workers’ militia if we want to establish socialism.

The transition to socialism

The task of establishing socialism is frequently mentioned in our publications and there can be no doubt that members genuinely want to struggle for it. However, there is no hint in our policy as to how exactly we prepare the transition to socialism and what means are necessary in order to destroy the rule of the bourgeoisie. It appears that we should simply support workers in struggle and show solidarity and then, through some unknown process, we will eventually have socialism. Therefore it is not surprising that socialism features in our press as some mystic thing in the distant future, something we refer to out of habit but with no bearing on our immediate actions. This is a serious theoretical weakness of the SLP. (Since this is not the place for a detailed outline of our view on this we would like to refer our readers to ‘A Marxist Programme for the Socialist Labour Party’). One thing, however, is certain. There is no parliamentary way to socialism, as the tragic example of Chile has proved. If our party is serious about the fight for socialism, we must be prepared for a violent response from the bourgeoisie. Socialism will not be achieved by strikes and demonstrations alone. The attempt of the working-class to take power will prompt all reactionary elements in society to fight back. Therefore we must not shy away from the consequences of our demands. The fight for socialism will culminate in a civil war along class lines. Those who are not prepared for it had better stay at home.

The programmatic weaknesses considered above show the influence of social democratic and Stalinist reformism. The creation and implementation of the constitution, however, have all the traces of the Stalinist method of ‘party building’. The constitution was drawn up in a back room and its rigid, undemocratic character played the main role in the decision of the Militant Tendency (now Socialist Party), who were involved in initial talks with Scargill, Sikorski & co., not to join the project of the SLP. The preliminary leadership prevented the founding conference from even having a vote on its own constitution. Therefore our party set out with a constitution that was imposed on us! Of course, this did not prevent the NEC from using it whenever it deemed it expedient.

According to the constitution, the NEC has the right to expel members from the party, but the members are denied the right to appeal against this decision at the congress. Even though the NEC has made frequent use of this ‘right’, they still claim that no one has been expelled. The official ‘SLP speak’ describes those individuals as ‘voided’, meaning they have never been members in the first place. Many of the expelled comrades never received an explanation as to what the specific reasons for ‘voiding’ were, but in a typically Stalinist fashion of re-writing history we are informed that they have never been members. The omnipotence of the NEC is further highlighted by the fact that the majority of constitutional amendments submitted to congress were ruled out of order. In several cases the reason given for this is that the amendment contradicts the constitution! The message from the NEC is clear: The membership has no right to decide what constitution our party should have. Even before the congress proceedings have begun, the undemocratic nature of it is thereby revealed.

This is not very surprising in view of the fact that leading members such as Arthur Scargill and Bob Crow come from the Communist Party. Arthur Scargill’s dictum is ‘My decisions must not be questioned’. Those who do are accused of being more interested in ‘internecine warfare’ than building the party, i.e. they are singled out as anti-party elements in order to isolate them. The other wing of the leadership is respresented by Brian Heron, Carolyn Sikorski and Patrick Sikorski who come from the pseudo-Trotskyist tradition of the United Secretariat. They have internalised the practice of the late Ernest Mandel who saw the main task of his organisation to pressurise social democracy into implementing reforms of the capitalist system. This in turn was a modification of the original theory of Michel Pablo who wanted small revolutionary organisations to dissolve into the Stalinist parties – in order to pressurise them to adopt a more left-wing approach and eventually carry out a social revolution. Both variants of this concept have failed miserably but Heron/Sikorski are continuing this practice today – don’t criticise your bloc partners, wait till the time is right, don’t rock the boat, wait, wait, wait. In this context, they are quite prepared to see the opposition gagged, which is particularly cynical since they enjoyed factional rights while still in the United Secretariat.

On the regional and local level the central leadership is backed up by a variety of Stalinists with truly bizarre politics, such as individuals from the Stalin Society and supporters of the Economic & Philosophical Science Review, Lalkar and Red Youth. Other members of the party include people who subject other members to verbal abuse, and even instances of violence against other socialists have occurred. All appeals to the NEC to take action against those elements have been greeted with denial of reality or complete silence from the leadership of our party. These individuals are protected by the NEC because they are ‘loyal to the party’.

In contrast to this, the NEC suspended the Stockport and Vauxhall CSLPs over alleged breaches of the constitution. They have subsequently been re-organised with the exclusion of oppositionists and the leadership has been placed into the hands of supporters of the EPSR magazine, notorious for its Stalinist policies and homophobic propaganda. Comrades who set up the Campaign for a Democratic SLP (CDSLP) were issued with a statement from the NEC which threatened them with expulsion if they continued with their campaign. While the supporters of this bulletin disagreed with the tactics employed by the CDSLP, we defended their right to meet together and recognised the threat that the NEC’s attitude posed to all comrades who happened to differ with the leadership. Since then a number of the comrades involved have either been expelled or have left the party in disgust. All this has weakened the party, not, as the NEC and EPSR supporters claim, strengthened it.

Reversing the trends

Over 15 CSLPs and at least 70 individual comrades, who disagreed with the CDSLP’s tactics, have signed a statement calling for more party democracy. The general secretary refused to circulate this statement among party members and in a letter of reply advised those comrades who disagreed with the party’s position on Europe to leave the SLP. Yet again, the NEC prefers bullying tactics over honest debate. Several comrades on the editorial board of the Marxist Bulletin recently received a letter from Arthur Scargill in which he claimed that the publication of our bulletin was against the constitution. We disagree with the assertion and will continue to publish. Without workers democracy there can be no socialist party, and without a socialist party leading the working-class there will not be a successful workers’ revolution. The practices of the NEC over the last 18 months have only served to strengthen the bureaucratic control over the party. It intends to silence the opposition, and largely keeps the membership ignorant about internal developments. The aim seems to be to have what can only be described as an obedient membership, who simply carry out instructions. Instead, many rank and file members, frustrated by their isolation and lack of information or opportunities to contribute, are simply dropping out. This is not the way to build a revolutionary party, it is the recipe for a lifeless and powerless party.

It is no wonder that the above is also reflected in the way Socialist News is produced. There is no proper editorial board and comrades involved in the editing and production of the paper have been appointed by the NEC rather than elected by the members. In addition to this, the long-promised internal discussion bulletin has still not been launched, but if members express their views through other internal SLP bulletins they are told that this is against the constitution.

Stalinist policies are increasingly becoming part of SLP publications. Issue 8 of our paper carried an article which endorsed the massacre of Tiananmen Square (see our response) and the following issue had several articles that approved of other Stalinist actions and views in the past. These comrades are allowed to use Socialist News as a forum for their rotten politics while left oppositionists have their articles either edited, i.e. censored, or they are not published at all. Therefore it is no coincidence that there is a motion on the conference agenda that seeks a closer collaboration of the SLP with the Morning Star, a paper backed by the ‘soft’ Stalinist Communist Party of Britain.

If these trends are not reversed at the congress and if the leadership is not replaced by socialists who are in favour of democratic debate, joint work with other socialist organisations and bold revolutionary action, our party is in danger of becoming the fourth biggest – Stalinist – party in Britain.