Which party building model for SA?

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In the early days of the Socialist Alliance (SA), the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) was our inspiration. The example it provided was one we sought to emulate. Not only had it achieved a remarkable 6 MSPs (Member of the Scottish Parliament), it had united 95% of the left in Scotland. Its advance at that time seemed to be firmly set — it was going places, and it was providing an example to the left internationally. It was a shining light to the then inchoate Australian Socialist Alliance. But then it collapsed.

Later, after many twists and turns of the French left, the historically impressive Revolutionary Communist League (LCR), boosted by a substantial upsurge of radical left politics, embarked on a new course — the establishment of the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA). The LCR had such hopes for the NPA that it dissolved itself entirely into the new formation, and the new body quickly reached a significant membership of around 9000. The then existing Democratic Socialist Perspective (DSP) largely drew on this experience to motivate amongst its members the benefits of merging into such new broad left formations. But then it collapsed.

First we said that the SSP was our model that we should look to follow. Then when it collapsed, we said it was not our model. Then we said that the NPA was the model we should be following. Then when it collapsed, we said it was not our model. There seems to be a certain pattern developing. Support and highlight and proclaim to the heavens the virtue of building either a broad or not explicitly socialist party. Then when it implodes, deny all history by claiming that we never supported such a venture. Comrades, what is going on here?

The central lesson we have to learn, it seems, is not so much that building a broad party is an incorrect tactic, or one that is fraught with so many difficulties and obstacles that it is not worth attempting. Rather, the lesson we have to learn seems to be that a Marxist party or tendency within a broad party must be sure, beyond a shadow of doubt, that the new formation will be able to continue the work of building a Marxist/Leninist party, and will be able to transmit the organisational and political heritage of Marxist/Leninist practice to the new generations entering the party. It is not that we must stay attached to old party building models, to old programs, to old practices. These elements can be changed or adjusted to suit the party building model which the party judges to be the most appropriate at the time. What cannot be changed or adjusted is the adherence to Marxist and Leninist practice. Marxism is not something that can be temporarily abandoned, and picked up again at a later stage. It must be continuously studied and practiced.

Granted, there are scarcely any parties which could have sustained the epic tragedy of the destruction wrought by Tommy Sheridan and his opportunist supporters in the CWI (Committee for a Workers International) and the SWP (Socialist Workers Party) platforms in the SSP. It is difficult to comment with authority from the other side of the planet, but it does appear that the immense profile that Sheridan had built in Scotland eventually went to his head, and he sought to use this to his own advantage, rather than that of the party. The CWI and SWP platforms jumped at this opportunity to help dismantle what they claimed to support — a united socialist party for all of Scotland. The story from the perspective of the SSP is told in Alan McCombes’ book released last year — Downfall. (1)

What happened though, to the Marxist current that both McCombes and Sheridan were members of within the SSP? The ISM (International Socialist Movement) was one of the largest platforms in the SSP, but then after the initial shock of the Sheridan case being dragged through the courts, the ISM chose to dissolve into the SSP in 2006. Five years later, the SSP is struggling to survive. It has to be admitted as well, that the breakaway Solidarity organisation was set up in competition by Sheridan and his supporters. But why dissolve the ISM at that time?

The following quote is from an interview that Alan McCombes conducted in the early 2000s;

“In the meantime the ISM exists to maintain within the SSP the best traditions of the old Scottish Militant Labour organisation, which was the major driving force behind the formation first of the SSA, then of the SSP. It also exists as an educational forum to discuss political ideas in far greater depth than they can be discussed at this stage in the branches of the SSP, which, as a campaigning party, necessarily concentrates more of its attention on the immediate political questions that face working class people in Scotland rather than on in-depth theory and ideology.”(2)

In a sketchy outline, parallels can be drawn with the current situation in SA. Except, that SA has no platforms or tendencies (with the exception of the newly formed Red Eureka Tendency — RET). In this context, the broad and pluralist SSP “concentrates more of its attention on the immediate political questions that face working class people……than on in-depth theory and ideology”. The parallels of the SSP as a broad coalition and SA as a broad coalition are striking. The SSP and SA, in the formats of a broad coalition, “concentrates…its attention …on the immediate political questions … [rather than] … in-depth theory and ideology”. Perhaps this is to a certain extent necessary, for it is much easier and much more likely that various socialist parties will agree on the type of political action that should be taken over a basic political question, than on the differing theories and ideologies they hold as core beliefs. It is acknowledged that left unity has little chance of succeeding if first we had to wait until all the theoretical and ideological differences amongst the left were resolved, before practical collaboration could be attempted.

While recognising this necessity to focus on common activity in order to lay initial groundwork for left unity, one almost inevitable result is an overemphasis on the day to day practice of the broad left formation. Of course the day to day activity of a political party, as well as a broad left coalition, is very important and must be maintained. The immediate political problems facing the working class must be paid utmost attention, and immediate, practical responses from a socialist party are required. The construction of a socialist, i.e. Marxist, party, however, cannot sustain itself by restricting or reducing itself to this activity. It is difficult, but the same amount of attention must be paid by a socialist party to the “in-depth theory and ideology” to which McCombes refers. Extremely important is not only theory and ideology itself, but the theoretical and ideological development of party members — which is a large part of the cadreisation of members.

The trouble with broad left coalitions in general, and SA in particular, is that the theoretical and ideological development of members is extremely difficult to ensure. This is the case for two reasons. Firstly, the basis for the formation of the coalition — agreement on practical political action — has to be maintained. Hence, the activity of the broad left coalition will always emphasise practical action amongst all members. It is obliged to do this, for without practical political action taken in concert, there is no basis for the existence of the broad left coalition, and thus the broad left coalition could be wound up if no joint activity took place. Secondly, and this reason flows as a consequence of the first, is that joint theoretical and ideological education and development of party members cannot take place, due to the broad nature of the coalition. There is no united theoretical or ideological outlook, as all left parties have divergent views on these important questions. In the case of SA, with no organised Marxist currents within (with the exception of the very new RET), SA as a whole has no unifying theories or ideologies. So practical work is repeatedly emphasised, and ideological work is constantly downgraded. It is not that SA members are opposed to ideology or theory, it is just that to protect SA as an entity, there is no other choice.

The broad left coalition party building method, despite the implosions of the SSP and the NPA, can be successful. But it will only be successful in building a broad left coalition. It will not be successful in building a socialist or Marxist revolutionary workers’ party. In fact, it is not designed to do this, despite the protestations of its advocates. The politics of the broad left coalition have to remain broad to keep it intact. Any ideological push in one direction could undermine the coalition, so any such efforts are actively fought. “We are not a Marxist party” — this familiar refrain is used against any SA member who merely mentions Marxism in relation to SA’s current party building method. Yet, here lies the problem in toto. SA is not a Marxist party, and there are no Marxist currents within SA — with the exception of the RET. The swearing off of Marxism, while remaining loyal to generally left wing politics, can have only one outcome — the adoption of liberalism. This is automatic despite all the good intentions in the world. Broad left coalition advocates often swear blind that they are Marxist revolutionaries — and we have no reason not to believe them — as individuals. But in the case of SA, they are not building a Marxist party, nor a Marxist current or platform or tendency within a broader formation. From where in this instance, we must ask, does their Marxism emerge?

The spectacular collapse of the NPA in France is the example we in SA should pay the closest attention to. The actions of the LCR, which, when the opportunity arose, chose to pack it all in and build a broad, not exclusively socialist party — were the principal motivator of the former DSP’s decision to entirely dissolve into the broad, and in hindsight we should say, not exclusively socialist, SA. This fact is something that we cannot run away from. I am as guilty as the next member, I might add. I voted for the dissolution (despite my concerns that a whole host of political positions would be lost), and agreed to carry it out. At that stage, the ramifications of a full dissolution of a Marxist tendency into an un-Marxist broad formation were not clear, and perhaps could not be seen by anyone at that time. Two years later, and the devastating consequences for SA are perhaps only just beginning to emerge.

Again, it is difficult to comment with any authority on events on the other side of the world, and one which is not part of the Anglophone world either. Nonetheless, it seems clear that building a not exclusively Marxist anti-capitalist party was able to draw in thousands of new members, at least initially. Yet the basis on which they were drawn in was anti-capitalism, not necessarily socialism, and certainly not Marxism. Hence, these thousands of new members appeared to have illusions that serious inroads into the mainstream political arena in France could be achieved. This largely took the form of electoral expectations. Many of these new members had come into contact with the NPA via its coverage in the mainstream media, rather than from involvement in the unions or social movements. (3) Understandably, the concept of running in elections as a building the party perspective, rather than a winning elections perspective, was foreign to members who entered the party from these backgrounds. It seems that as soon as the big bourgeois electoral gains were not achieved, there was no longer a basis for such members to remain in the party. Hence, they chose to walk.

The decline in NPA membership was precipitous. From around 9000 down to 2000 within two years. Some in SA attempt to explain it in terms of the problems encountered in how to relate to the wishy-washy Left Front, which would not guarantee that it would not cooperate with the neoliberal Socialist Party when forming government. This approach confuses a symptom with the cause, and as such it misses the point. There were issues over how to relate to the Left Front due to the fact that the NPA was trying to juggle all kinds of anti-capitalists in the one party, without an explicitly socialist current being dominant. Hence, half the party wanted to continue to orient to the Left Front regardless of its orient to the capitalist Socialist Party, and half the party wanted to strike out on their own and leave the Left Front to its own devices. A compromise was struck, which satisfied almost no one, and the party as a whole went down the gurgler.

Do we in SA have to wait for a third broad left coalition to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions before we start drawing out some lessons? It would seem that one of the primary lessons is that a combination of socialists with those that are not yet ready to be socialists is a recipe for a huge split when push comes to shove where vital issues confronting the working class are confronted. Either there is a split scenario, with many members walking out of the door, or there is an SA type scenario. The SA scenario is that the broad left coalition holds together, but the Marxist revolutionaries have to adapt to the quite un-Marxist positions of the liberals (and the other shades of liberalism) within the organisation — even if the Marxists outnumber the liberals by a ratio of 10:1. Then also a truly bizarre process takes place — a liberal position is put forward by SA, while at the same time SA tries to assure its members that the liberal position is actually Marxist. Liberalism and Marxism are compatible, in this world view. In fact, liberalism is Marxism, according to this formulation.

The RET, for its part, is extremely concerned at such developments within SA. It is attempting to ensure that Marxism is the dominant theory and political practice within SA, so that there is no possibility that SA will ever again adopt liberal positions. We don’t claim to be the only Marxists, or to have the only true interpretation of Marxism — far from it. All we are saying is that this is our interpretation, and we would be happy to discuss, debate and work with other Marxist currents within SA. Left to its own devices, however, we don’t believe that SA, in its current broad coalition form, can produce or develop Marxism while building a non-Marxist organisation. Who is correct? We entrust politics to be the judge.

Downfall: The Tommy Sheridan Story, Alan McCombes, Birlinn, 326pp, 2011.