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Race, Class and the Bloc Vote

Black Liberation and the SLP Black Section

At the second SLP congress the SLP black section was ‘deleted’ by the bureaucratic and fraudulent use of a 3000 bloc vote from one affiliated organisation, the North West, Cheshire and Cumbria Miners’ Association (NWCCMA), an organisation of retired and ex-miners. This undemocratic use of a bloc vote to abolish the black section caused uproar at the congress and throughout the party as it was against the clear wishes of the majority of delegates and SLP members.

While this debate on the existence of the black section was not a key political question compared with other issues on the conference agenda, it does raise the question of how a working class party should organise to fight racism and ensure that black workers are an integral part of the struggle for working class power. The debacle at the congress on this question also illustrates the sorry state the SLP is now in.

Special oppression and the SLP

Workers organisations such as trade unions and social democratic parties are dominated by a labour aristocracy – a social layer between the bosses and the workers – whose material interests are different from all sections of the working class. Such people are represented by the old Labour Party leadership, the so-called traditionalists in New Labour, and by the trade union bureaucracy. They are usually at best blind, if not plain hostile, to those who face special oppression in capitalist society.

Capitalism is inherently oppressive, a society based on economic scarcity, class divided so the working class gets less. Within this class-based society some people face extra or special oppression due to their sex, race, nationality etc. If the working class is to overthrow the bosses and rule society then it needs a leadership, a programme and a party that can overcome sectional interests and be the tribune of all the oppressed. Thus Marxists support the right of black people to form caucuses within their trade unions or mass workers’ parties to raise their profile and concerns to other workers. Generally the labour aristocrats are hostile because such campaigns challenge them. Remember it was the traitor Neil Kinnock who shut down the Labour Party Black Section, the Labour Party Young Socialists, and expelled Militant from the old Labour Party!

The SLP was a long overdue political break to the left from Labour and we would have expected it to approach the question of special oppression in a qualitatively better way than the old Labour Party, with a more socialist attitude towards the oppressed, women and youth. In May 1997 the party correctly stood against Blair’s New Labour with over 60 candidates on a manifesto of policies that resisted the bosses’ offensive, and gave voters the chance to vote for independent working class candidates. Of these candidates 21% were black or Asian and two of the best results were in London constituencies with large black communities.

However, problems were apparent from the beginning. The anti-racist policy, while well meaning, was weak in many ways, such as the proposal to establish an ‘anti-racist’ immigration policy. This provoked heated debate and the closest challenge to the leadership’s programme at the founding congress (see ‘Socialist Internationalism or National Chauvinism?’ MB no. 3, August 1997). It seemed that the very establishment of a black section was supposed to be enough, without serious consideration of the programmatic connection between class and racial oppression.

In the lead up to the second congress it became clear that there were divisions in the leadership on this question. On the one hand there was the motion proposed by the black section itself, a virtually meaningless condemnation of racism and a call for the need to fight it, with almost no substance whatsoever. On the other was a motion from Ealing Southall CSLP which stated: ‘Congress is of the view that the existence of a Black Section is incompatible with Clause IV (13) of the Constitution in that their existence effectively perpetuates discrimination. Congress therefore agrees to delete from the Constitution all references to a Black Section.’

The arguments . . . For

The black section was the power base of comrades like Roshan Dadoo and Trevor Wongsam, who are connected politically with NEC members Patrick Sikorski, Carolyn Sikorski and Brian Heron (a group sometimes known as FISC). Their background in and around the United Secretariat tendency leads to seeing autonomous organisation of the oppressed as a political principle, which has more to do with 1960s style New Leftism than with Marxism.

Well, almost a question of principle. ‘Principle’ on Saturday as they resigned their candidacies for the NEC in protest when the above motion was passed. Not so on Sunday when most of them came crawling back.

They produced a special SLP National Black Section Bulletin for the congress because they felt their black section was under attack, ‘because black self organisation has become a very specific target’. Its question and answer format was a polemic against critics on the NEC and throughout the party. They correctly argued that racism pervades all classes in society, and needs to be defeated in the working class, and that it was a party body to further the aims of the SLP in a specific and essential area, the black communities.

However, they then went on to state that if the black section was abolished this would be ‘a grave defeat for the party. It would signify that racism was active in the SLP.... that the party was not capable of leading the working class to power in a multi-racial society. It would be a signal to the black community and the black press that the SLP is just another white left group that cannot take the question of race seriously.’ In the present situation in the SLP, with the attack being led by a prominent black activist acting in accord with his own (ill-advised) ideological principles this is an outrageous assertion that amounts to little more than race-baiting, based on the logic: if you oppose us, you must be racist!

. . . Against

Speaking for the Ealing Southall motion was Harpal Brar, editor of the paper Lalkar, which reports as follows: ‘Harpal Brar argued that provision for black sections in the SLP Constitution was wrong in theory, harmful in practice and undemocratic in its operation.... The Constitution could not, he argued, provide for black sections while at the same time denying the same right to other ethnic minorities such as the Irish, the Cypriots, the Turks ... its underlying assumption is that only black people can be trusted to look after the interests of black proletarians.’ He goes on to state that the black section only had four people at its 1996 meeting, and only six at its August 1997 meeting, and ‘that these four or six people had the constitutional right to “elect” two persons to the NEC’. ‘Don’t insult me by voting for me because I am black. I am not a black communist; I am a communist, who incidentally happens to be black.’

. . . Unclear

Comrade John Hendy (QC) introducing the constitutional amendments debate on behalf of the NEC, recommended rejecting the proposed abolition of the black section because it ‘would send out the wrong signals’. However it became clear that this dispute was about far more than the black section itself, and reflected a power struggle within the NEC. Unfortunately comrade Scargill excels at bureaucratic manoeuvring and backstabbing and it is difficult to fathom his motivation, or even his views on this question.

As the 3000 bloc vote (which on every other question had gone along with the NEC recommendation) voted for Brar’s motion, it seems that this was a defeat for Scargill. After all, we all know the close eye that Scargill keeps on the constitution and would hardly expect that the black section would have got into it in the first place if Arthur hadn’t wanted it there! But the day after the vote he turned on his fellow NEC members who had withdrawn, mocking them that the abolition of the black section was no great loss, and angrily dismissing their charges of racism.

But why should Scargill suddenly support Harpal Brar and back him abolishing the black section? Comrade Scargill is nothing if not pragmatic. If you had to weigh up Harpal Brar and the FISC/Imran Khan in terms of usefulness, people, money etc., you would probably come down on the side of Brar. Harpal Brar is a leader of the Indian Workers Association (GB), a mass organisation with considerable influence in the Asian/black communities. Brar is also a hardline Stalinist and could be an alternative political advisor for Scargill, instead of the FISCites. Brar was on Scargill’s recommended slate, and with the help of the infamous 3000 votes was elected to the NEC. So there is now a fanatical Stalinist on the NEC, a fan of the North Korean bureaucracy, Viktor Anpliov’s CWP of Russia and Castro. Better or worse than the whinging Pabloites?

These divisions between the leadership go much deeper than the political arguments aired at the congress. They illustrate a poverty of programme among the leadership as a whole, maintained by submitting to Scargill on all essential questions. While the leadership accepts that Scargill has this right to impose his view on the party no matter what, any opposition they profess counts for nothing, and the party itself has no chance of developing.

. . . Marxist

In our ‘Marxist Bulletin voting guide’, distributed at the congress, we urged delegates to vote against this constitutional amendment, but warned: ‘While there are legitimate concerns that questions of racial oppression could be sidelined into being the work of only one section of the party, the section can also play a useful role of highlighting these questions and attracting more black comrades to the party. The difference lies in the implementation.’ (MB no. 5, December 1997)

Behind Brar’s speech is an ideology which starts from the correct premise that class is the fundamental division in capitalist society, but leads towards the false conclusion that questions such as racial and sexual oppression should only be addressed ‘after the revolution’. In contrast, Marxists believe that these are fundamental questions which need to be an integral part of the struggle for working class power.

Marxists support the right of any members of a workers’ party to combine together to increase visibility and to fight oppression. However, it is not the job of black members to fight racism, nor women members to fight sexism, but the job of the whole party. The major division in society is class, and the working class is the potential motor force for the advance to socialism. Therefore we want to build the greatest unity amongst all sections of the working class. For the working class to become a class for itself, to take control of society, it must overcome its divisions and become the tribune of all the oppressed. Marxists recognise special oppression, and seek to ally the fight of the oppressed to the social power of the working class. The working class needs Marxist leadership and a party armed with a Marxist programme to take state power away from the capitalist class, to establish a workers’ state.