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Opportunity Squandered

Setback in the fight for a revolutionary workers’ party

The Socialist Labour Party has been a contradictory and diverse formation ever since its beginnings. In the early months of 1996 a wide spectrum of the left, seeking an alternative to the ever rightward moving Labour Party, responded to Arthur Scargill’s call for a working class party that would really answer the needs of the working class.

The initial pronouncements of Scargill and other leading figures were far from perfect. The programme of the founding leadership stayed firmly within the bounds of old Labour left social-democracy, with a touch of the old CP’s ‘British Road to Socialism’. But Scargill, known for his leadership of the historic miners’ strike and for his denunciation of the pro-capitalist Polish Solidarnosc, also talked, with rhetorical flourish, of the need for ‘revolutionary’ policies, of destroying capitalism and creating socialism. Initial programmatic statements raised demands which could fundamentally only be achieved under socialism – and the struggle for which would lead in that direction.

It was a historic opportunity for the British workers’ movement. Thousands of comrades responded. The necessity for socialism, and for a party committed to it, had been asserted. But a fundamental question was posed: How do we get there?

Subsequent events have proven the leadership, and the party as a whole, to be incapable of answering that question or even seeing it as worth much discussion. The trend has been in this direction for quite some time, but the December congress crystallised this failure to respond to the crying question of our time.

The congress marked a consolidation of the party around the reformist programme of the Scargill leadership, and an endorsement of this programme by the majority of delegates. A political victory for the leadership – but not achieved in a very political manner. The bureaucratic methods of the leadership in dealing with opposition (as outlined in previous issues of the Marxist Bulletin) were clearly in action and also effectively endorsed by a majority of the delegates. It became clear that those who argued for different perspectives for the party were not only hindered from putting forward their views effectively, but even if they convinced the majority of party members of an alternative perspective, the structures and practice of the party serves to prevent any alternative leadership, strategy or programme.

If these things are not even possible, the party will never be able to present itself as a serious alternative to Blairism. The leadership of the party must be held personally responsible for this failure, primarily those seen running the show from the platform: Arthur Scargill, Nell Myers, John Hendy, Frank Cave and Patrick Sikorski.

The congress marked a substantial turning point in the evolution of the party. Those who took the formation of the SLP seriously must also seriously examine this development.

So, what went wrong?

The congress began with formal challenges to the ruling out of order of many constitutional amendments on various spurious technical grounds. A Marxist Bulletin supporter also attempted to move an emergency motion calling for a special congress on the constitution as it was clear it could not be properly discussed at this congress. We were told that the lack of a real discussion on the constitution – ever – was ‘not an emergency’. The chair ruled that all these points would be decided in a vote on the report of the conference arrangement committee. This report included the long awaited disciplinary procedure which effectively placed all discipline in the hands of the General Secretary. This lengthy document was adopted by the NEC in September but only given to delegates to read on arrival at the congress! The vote did endorse the report, but with approximately a third of delegates voting against.

It was a significant moment. The majority of delegates endorsed a procedure in which the party’s constitution and operating practices become the exclusive property of the leadership and are not open to discussion by the membership. A significant minority expressed opposition, not to minor points of policy or organisation, but to the entire constitutional framework put forward by the leadership.

Policy discussion then began in what appeared to be a fairly democratic way – until it was discovered that there was one voting card for an affiliated trade union with 3000 votes. With only just over 1000 total votes for delegates from CSLPs this meant that whichever way the three delegates from this one union voted on any question the outcome would be settled. While this delighted some of the more mindless Stalinist delegates it made the political discussion and debate virtually meaningless.

The various components of the left and democratic opposition in the SLP came close to a walkout over this farce. Over 70 delegates and observers attended a meeting late on Saturday afternoon hosted by the Marxist Bulletin and the Democratic Platform to discuss the proceedings of the conference and what kind of party the SLP should be. This meeting produced a statement for distribution on the Sunday morning condemning the undemocratic farce that the congress had become:

A Message to SLP Members

The SLP Congress has been seen to be a complete travesty of democracy.

In the absence of a membership report, news leaked out from those recording the votes that one organisation had a block of 3000 votes, a majority of over two-thirds of those to be cast. This meant that debate was meaningless. This one organisation was ensured that its point of view would prevail, regardless of the view of the majority of delegates. A clear example of this was the vote to dissolve Black Sections.

The Congress has been denied the right to ratify the constitution or propose an alternative.

The Congress was presented with a complaints/ disciplinary procedure only when delegates arrived. Delegates did not have the chance to properly read it and yet were expected to vote in what is an act of faith in the NEC.

The method of the leadership is a sectarian and profoundly undemocratic one. It is taking the organisation down the road of becoming a political sect, dominated by the General Secretary, in a way parallel with Blair and New Labour.

The tragedy of this is that the ‘honeymoon’ period of the Government is beginning to crack. If the SLP were to be developed as a forum for unifying all those who are opposed to the political direction of the Government, and an organiser of struggle against it, it could quickly develop into a party of some tens of thousands.

Fifty-seven delegates and observes present at the Congress on Saturday 13th December convey to the membership of the SLP our complete opposition to the actions and methods of the leadership which is destroying the possibility of the SLP growing and becoming a real alternative to New Labour.

The primacy of programme

Even more disturbing than the bureaucratic rigging of the conference was the political consolidation of the SLP around a reformist programme. Any motions which challenged the programme of the leadership were either conclusively defeated, or the movers meekly submitted to a request to remit (i.e., bury) the motion. In some cases motions fell because the movers saw little point in exposing them to a farcical voting procedure and were absent from the hall.

In the special congress issue of the Marxist Bulletin, we raised a fundamental question: ‘While many motions and amendments seem to be merely tinkering with policy, there is a thread underlying this agenda: Can we as a party address the question of state power?’

This congress has answered us: No. The official positions of the SLP on the question of which class should rule society are at best deeply confused and at worst openly supportive of parliamentarianism and continued rule of the bourgeoisie – albeit in a nicer way. Throughout the policies runs a deep-seated and deeply mistaken assumption that health, housing, education, childcare, wages and working conditions can be fundamentally improved without challenging the nature of the state. With no programme for revolutionary change, any extra-parliamentary action will be channelled into reformist politics. The speeches about getting rid of capitalism have no programmatic connection to the day to day campaigning, and without this they will never be anything but speeches.

The potential for a real break with the deep-seated Labourism that infects so much of the ‘socialist’ movement in Britain has been fundamentally damaged.

In the fight to build a real workers party that can achieve power for the working class, the crucial question is that of programme. However ‘mass’ the party becomes, however many new recruits, however many trade union affiliations, however many elections won, such a party will achieve nothing but minor tinkering with capitalism unless it has a strategy capable of achieving revolutionary change.

The SLP has many members who sincerely want to struggle for socialism and to discuss strategies that can succeed in bringing it about, but it is now clear that this will not be possible within the current framework of the party. These comrades will increasingly see the need to work with others outside as well as inside the SLP in order to move towards the kind of workers party we need.

Party factions clear at last

Arthur Scargill was unquestionably the key figure at this congress, confirming the impressions of many that this is ‘Arthur’s party’. He gave keynote speeches, left the stage to take the microphone at moments when even his supporters were unsure which way to vote and, crucially, launched into long uplifting speeches at the times when the conference seemed most likely to lose its equilibrium. It was Arthur doing what he does best – but he is treading an extremely risky road. The weaknesses in his uneasy coalition of support were readily apparent, from the over-eagerness of some to support the Morning Star, to the resignation and subsequent retraction of several erstwhile allies over the disbanding of the black section.

The exposure of the 3000 votes saw cracks appear in the most loyal ranks of the ‘Scargillite’ tendency. Even some of those personally closest to Scargill are deeply disturbed at the use of this crude bludgeon. Many of Scargill’s supporters who have recently left the Labour Party would also have been concerned by his increasing reliance on Stalinist groupings as the congress wore on, not to mention organisational methods they thought they had left behind in New Labour! These methods of one-man-rule allow for little life or initiative in the party and damage prospects for growth.

One of the tendencies to do best at the congress was the supporters of the journal Lalkar, a publication which espouses openly Stalinist politics. Apart from the leadership turning a blind eye to party members selling this ‘separate propaganda’, this tendency saw its leader Harpal Brar elected to the NEC and winning a decisive vote on the question of removing the black section. It became clear during the day that this is a tendency which Scargill is increasingly looking to for support – this does not bode well for the future of the SLP.

The supporters of the Economic & Philosophical Science Review and their leader Royston Bull were vocal in their role as most loyal witchhunters. For those of us who remember the early days of the SLP when the EPSR supporters called themselves democratic oppositionists, their current role only serves to expose their complete absence of political principles. However with Bull being well beaten into third place in the election for vice president, it is clear that this nasty little grouping, known for publishing homophobic literature, has no real base of support.

A question of principle?

One of the most interesting events at the congress was the resignation of seven NEC candidates, including vice president Pat Sikorski, over the decision to disband the black section. All except the two black section representatives then staged a humiliating retraction the next day, despite the question which their spokesman Brian Heron described as one of central principle (the black section) still not being changed. What price petty political power for these comrades? Clearly not political principles!

These comrades formerly (and briefly) called themselves the Fourth International Supporters Caucus (FISC) and have a background in the United Secretariat (USec) tendency. Their denials of an organised group ring remarkably hollow after their clearly co-ordinated actions at the conference, a group with a common background and a clear leadership taking common decisions. If they no longer wish to be called the FISC then we will have to come up with a new name for them based on their performance at the congress – we suggest the Tendency of Opportunists Without Principles (TOWP).

These comrades have from the beginning played a role of loyal left cover for the Scargill leadership – a practice completely in accord with their USec past. This so-called Trotskyist tendency has in fact been anything but, subsuming itself to whatever ‘mass’ politics is on the agenda. In private Heron et al talk left to deflect critics of party policy, but in public not a word against the leadership passes their lips. This tendency cannot be seen as a credible alternative to the Scargill leadership. Their idea is that once Scargill has built the mass party then their own more radical politics can rise to the surface, but we’re not holding our breath.

Critics from the left

A special Marxist Bulletin was produced for the conference, with a voting guide and the election statement of five candidates standing for the NEC on the basis of the ‘Marxist Programme for the SLP’. These candidates received respectable minority votes, with Alan Gibson polling second of four in the vice president election. Marxist Bulletin supporters were visible at the conference, arguing for our politics and protesting against the bureaucratic way the conference was being run.

Aside from the Marxist Bulletin candidates, only one other comrade stood for the leadership of the party on an openly stated political programme – Chris Jones, as yet the only public face of a newly declared tendency, the SLP Republicans. These comrades advocate a stagist strategy which poses the setting up of a bourgeois federal republic as the necessary next step on the road to socialism.

While we disagree with the comrade on several questions of programme, he stood out for even having one! Unlike virtually all of the rest of the so-called SLP ‘left’, the SLP Republicans are committed to political clarification in deed as well as words. We look forward to working with these comrades to facilitate the political discussion and clarification so missing from the SLP.

However, there are real problems with the approach taken by these comrades, illustrated by the fact they spent nearly two years in the party before declaring this tendency. During the history of the SLP they have been involved with first the Revolutionary Platform and, following that, the Campaign for a Democratic SLP. Both were eclectic blocs with whoever was willing at the time, based on very little agreement – even, in the case of the CDSLP, with open supporters of Blair’s Labour Party (see over) – and neither gained much support or respect in the party. Indicative of this approach is comrade Jones’s confusing stance of standing for both the SLP Republicans and the Democratic Platform, a group which pushed the issue of ‘democracy’ rather than programme as the crucial qualification for leadership of the party.

The Democratic Platform did well in the NEC elections, but those voting for them had little information about their programmatic views and where they differed from each other. Their election statement focused only on the need for a more democratic internal regime for the SLP. Some of these comrades support and publish the SLP journal Socialist Perspectives, which again focuses mainly on ‘democracy’ issues.

Action? Or inaction?

The supporters of Socialist Labour Action turned up at the congress with a new issue of their journal. These comrades have been effectively absent from the SLP for many months now and appeared to have virtually no support from any of the congress attendees. This lack of support from SLP members is hardly surprising given that the SLA has openly declared itself to be in political solidarity with the Workers Power grouping. Workers Power called for a vote to Blair’s New Labour against the SLP at the general election and have for most of the SLP’s existence described it as a dead Stalinist sect, denying the importance and potential that the break from the Labour Party represented. Workers Power’s abject capitulation to Labourism is shown by their continued support for voting Labour in by-elections since the May general election.

As well as this lack of a programmatic stance, these comrades played an unfortunately sectarian role at the congress. Despite our criticism of their approach, we recognised the important of the democratic questions they raised for the party at this juncture, and called for a vote to Democratic Platform comrades in our conference Marxist Bulletin. But these comrades’ programme and vision for the SLP did not go much further than ‘democracy’. They are hostile to the Marxist Bulletin’s open fight to win the SLP to a revolutionary programme, linking immediate demands concretely with the need for the working class to seize state power and smash the existing state. These comrades seek a softer perspective, they desire an all-inclusive mish-mash, a ‘democratic’ party based on political toleration of reformism, and are to a greater or lesser extent repelled by our attempt to polarise the party along programmatic lines.

Thus most of them refused to vote for Marxist Bulletin comrades standing for the trade union positions on the NEC. If the basis of their votes for the NEC really was just more democracy in the SLP then there could have been no reason for this refusal to vote for our comrades. (See MB no. 5 for background to this dispute, an exchange with the SLP Republicans. Although the outcome of the congress has since impelled the SLP Republicans to part company with the Socialist Perspectives grouping, before the congress they were part of the same block and attempted to justify this perspective in print.)

Your workers’ party or my workers’ party?

Since the congress the majority of these comrades have decided to leave the party and form yet another vague grouping, adopting the Socialist Perspectives name, with no real programmatic basis other than the call to build a workers’ party. Programme (or programmes) will doubtless develop, but we do not expect it to be revolutionary. These comrades hold better positions than the Scargill leadership on such questions as Europe and opposition to all the British state’s immigration controls. But, more importantly in the current context, although the casual conference observer would not see much sign of their views on this question, they hold in common a position of softness on the Blairite Labour Party. Socialist Perspectives was launched on the basis of a statement by party members who believed that the SLP should advocate a vote for the Labour Party in the general election in those constituencies where we were not standing – a position the Marxist Bulletin has long opposed and which the leadership avoided ever taking a real position on. Some of these comrades have mooted the possibility of rejoining the Labour Party. Others are engaged in discussions, presumably with the aim of securing ‘unity’ at some near juncture, with organisations like the fractured Workers International League that advocated a vote to Labour, even against the SLP, over most of the country in the 1997 election.

As New Labour readily demonstrates its willingness to live up to its bourgeois principles, recent months have seen many other calls for a new working class party. Left wing MEPs Ken Coates and Hugh Kerr, possibly to be followed by others from Labour’s Strasbourg delegation, have broken away and are hinting at new formations, Hugh Kerr announcing his intended candidacy for the Scottish Socialist Alliance. The Socialist Alliance is raising its head south of the border and is being launched in London in early February. There is a potential for one or more of these to develop, riding on growing dissatisfaction with New Labour and, it must be said, Socialist Labour. In Scotland, the Socialist Alliance is well ahead of the SLP in terms of popular support and has the potential to grow in England as well. It is still early days in the formation of these organisations, but one thing is clear – militants in the SLP need to work with the Socialist Alliances and other socialist groupings in common action, discussion and political debate.

The list of organisations that call for the building of a new socialist party is growing. The main sponsor of the Socialist Alliances is the Socialist Party (formerly Militant Labour), an organisation which once buried itself in the Labour Party but now declares Labour to be a thoroughly capitalist party and calls for a new socialist formation.

A new group containing prominent former members of both Socialist Labour and the Socialist Party was seen selling the first issue of its journal outside the SLP congress. Socialist Democracy calls for a bringing together of the ‘scattered fragments of the socialist and Marxist left ... in the fight for a new socialist party’ and sings the praises of ‘parties of refoundation’ such as the Italian Refondazione Comunista.

What the Marxist Bulletin has in common with these organisations is advocacy of a party that can fight for the working class. But we believe none of them have a strategy capable of achieving it. To build such a party necessitates a break with reformism, which will otherwise seek to suppress the would-be revolutionary wing of such a party, as the experience of the SLP shows. These groupings, no matter how subjectively revolutionary, who pose as a strategic necessity (as opposed to a mere episode) the co-existence of revolutionaries and reformists in a single party, ultimately undermine their own subjective revolutionism and lay the basis for their own displacement, either politically or physically, by a new reformist bureaucracy.

A slightly different approach is taken by the CPGB, publishers of the Weekly Worker. While supporting the foundation of the SLP and participating in the Socialist Alliances, they call for the ‘reforging of the Communist Party of Great Britain’. But even this is based not on political programme but on self-definition of those involved as ‘communists’ or ‘revolutionaries’. This project fails to recognise the decisive importance of the world-historic betrayals of Stalinist parties like the CPGB, dating back to the 1930s, that transformed such parties into irreformable defenders of the world capitalist order. The CPGB show a fundamental failure to know when to break from a corrupt political framework – as illustrated by their recent call for members of the Labour party to retain their membership and fight from inside!

The potential that the SLP represented was due to a political split from Labour and its anti-working class politics. It is only by breaking decisively with Labourism and Stalinism that the working class can move forward.

The lesson of the SLP remains – the best of intentions are of no use without a programme which not only calls for socialism but which has a method of bringing us from the struggles of today towards working class victory. We must work in a variety of ways with others of different views in order to reach this aim, but the fight for this programme cannot be postponed till an organisation reaches a certain size. The party that can lead the working class to power will only be formed on the basis of programmatic struggle – and only if that struggle is decided in favour of revolutionary politics will the party truly serve the class it purports to represent.

A new orientation

The consolidation of the SLP around a reformist programme and a bureaucratic leadership that is clearly committed to denying the membership any opportunity to change that programme has forced those who support the Marxist Bulletin to re-evaluate our orientation.

We have previously criticised party members who sought to take all internal debates outside the party, and we stand by that criticism. In the early days of the party, while its nature was still contradictory and partly unformed, it was crucial to give it the space to grow as an organisation. External attacks (often from pro-Blairite ‘revolutionaries’), under the guise of internal opposition, only lessened the possibilities of it developing into a serious mass working class socialist alternative to the openly pro-capitalist New Labour Party.

But times have changed. The congress endorsement of the Scargill leadership and its reformist politics and undemocratic internal regime have caused a fundamental shift in the nature of the SLP and therefore a change in the relationship revolutionaries should have towards it. There are many committed and principled militant socialists in the SLP and we look forward to continued work with them. But during this work we must convince them that the current leadership and the existing structure of the party must be replaced with a fundamentally healthier revolutionary working class party if those currently in the SLP are to play any positive part in the future of the British and international working class.

This betrayal by the leadership has resulted in a situation where it is not the case that all who seek to struggle for a real alternative to New Labour will necessarily join the SLP. Marxist Bulletin supporters will therefore also look for opportunities to engage other forces in joint work and discussions. We will seek to salvage the political potential the SLP represented and cultivate a political culture in which the correct political programme for a revolutionary mass workers’ party can be openly fought for. From this issue onwards, the Marxist Bulletin will be made available to these wider layers of the workers’ movement.