Donnie Nicolson, ISM platform member and SSY Organiser, contributes to the debate in a personal capacity.
The RCN article in March’s Frontline was very welcome in that it identified and clearly described many dangers facing the SSP, and competently argued the case for a new ‘Marxist pole of attraction’ within the party.
The purpose of my article is to try to address the most fundamental, pressing question for all socialists in Scotland: how do we advance the working-class movement, and how do we organise against the dangers of parliamentarism and populism; namely; how do we take the SSP forward into a new era of dynamism and success?
As discussion and debate around this subject has gone on, it has become clear that there is significant agreement amongst comrades on what the problems are, and – crucially – what the way forward is. The RCN article explored in depth the problem of ‘Bureaucratic Populism’. This has been a creeping problem, and it didn’t come from nowhere. Had the party membership been on the ball a bit more, we could have predicted it and nipped it in the bud, but in the excitement and momentum of electoral success, it was almost unheard of to criticise the leadership.
A look at the role of the SSP sheds some light on this.
The origins of the SSP
By combining radical anti-capitalist policies with a credible political force, the SSP successfully attracted the most progressive, radical layers of workers and youth in Scotland. For the first time, the anti-capitalist left was united and going places. Climaxing in 2003, we reached an average electoral support of 7% nationally, and up to 28% in some parts of Glasgow. We were playing an ebullient leading role in the anti-war and anti-capitalist movements. SSP street stalls in communities across the country were buzzing, and our new team of MSPs stormed into Holyrood in a tour de force of anti-establishment politics.
However, once the radical workers were won over, and the socialist activists united in a single body, the party’s support hit a ceiling. What should we do next? How do we gain more support? We were faced with two options:
1. Popularise our program, and campaign on less-radical lines in order to attract less-radical workers or
2. Agitate among these workers to radicalise them.
This dichotomy faced us from May 2003, but we failed to realise it. In effect, we did neither of these things. Instead, we kept plugging away at our now-tired campaigns, while party morale slipped.
One turning point came in 2004, when leading ISM members were behind a move to woo Campbell Martin, a renegade SNP MSP, to our party membership, via some subtle tweaking of our bedrock worker’s wage policy. None of the justification that was given for this proposal eased the minds of many ISM activists, and we were extremely worried that if this rule was bent once, it could be broken in the future.
Myself and others could scarcely believe that comrades whom we had trusted and admired were behind such a dreadful error. But such errors are the natural consequence of over-focussing on Holyrood.
If we are going to attract Campbell Martin, why not just sign up Margo McDonald and Dennis Canavan too? We could have a left wing parliamentary dream team, and forget about party activists and all those boring meetings; let the media do our canvassing for us…
We argued that under no circumstances must the worker’s wage principle be tampered with, and in any case, recruiting MSPs from other parties is a path littered with dangers. Campbell Martin’s record in the following year has borne that out; a number of pamphlets that he has produced show him to be a non-socialist, and his voting record is poor.
Had the leadership of the party had their way, we would have sacrificed our principles for an extra MSP who would have been a liability at best. One positive to come out of this, was that the party grassroots mobilised against the EC and defeated it, and more importantly, convinced several EC members including Alan McCombes of our position.
The RCN rightly condemns the disappointing comments and actions from the party leadership – which have not helped to boost morale – including Tommy’s repeated calls for stiffer mandatory sentencing for knife carriers, and Colin’s unfortunate photocall with David McLetchie
Also alarming was Tommy’s call for convenorship elections to be on the basis of ‘one member, one vote’ in the future, saying that the omission of this in the past had been an ‘oversight’. The continued Posh n Becks -style dramatisation of Tommy’s family life in the media is as depressing as it is puerile and anti-political. This is not the way a revolutionary leader of the working class should behave.
This is not mere parliamentarism. Alongside it is a dangerous parallel of personality politics, a kind of mirror-image of the bourgeois parties.
Before Lula was elected as President of Brazil, he was canonised by left-wing activists and PT members who hung portraits of him in their houses, and identified the whole movement with him. There was not sufficient understanding in their party of the dangers of idolizing leaders, and as a result, the socialist movement in Brazil has been shattered and demoralised following Lula’s capitulation to the IMF and imperialism.
We should pay heed to such lessons. There is a way out of the stagnancy that our party suffers from, but it will require a culture change in the party, and everyone has a part to play in this. The danger is now that as the RCN article says, the party leadership bows under parliamentary pressure and tends towards populism.
But what the article didn’t say is how tentatively these actions have been criticised. The leadership of our party is rarely given thorough criticism. When the leadership is questioned or criticised at National Councils and Conferences, the only robust Marxist criticism of the party regularly comes from the CWI platform. Many party activists are suspicious of CWI politics because they tend to be linked to their own agendas, and can sound stuffy and pretentious.
We can change this by systematically highlighting and criticising every occurrence of populism or reformism in a fraternal but robust way. In this way, SSP activists can demand more control over every aspect of our party.
The task of Revolutionaries
Revolutionaries face a dual task in a party like the SSP. We must, first and foremost, promote the SSP amongst our class, and become the radical, active and dynamic face of the party. But we must also work hard inside the party, in its branches, structures and networks, to revolutionise those party members who have not yet arrived at a Marxist conclusion.
Young comrades who are attracted to the party’s radical stance have little or no access to the kind of political education which older comrades benefited from. This has to change. If party structures are not sufficiently strong to give SSY members a grounding in Marxism, then individual comrades must take it upon themselves to do so.
The RCN article also calls for day schools and educationals to take place more often; I support that call. The SSP has huge shortcomings in the subject of members’ education. But again, if the party is not organising these events, we must make more noise about it.
This ties in with the problem of trade union affiliation. Why doesn’t the party organise regional day-schools on the subject of rail privatisation, using Alan McCombes’ excellent pamphlet as reading material, and invite all local RMT members to attend?
That would be a great way of introducing them to our party and our ideas, and introducing party members to an organised radical workforce. We want rail workers to be a driving force in social change, don’t we? We should not be so slack in our attitude towards them.
The SSP is not yet at a political crisis point, but if grassroots revolutionaries continue to be complacent and disorganised, the crisis will bite us.
Our party must develop closer and more formal links with revolutionaries abroad. In times of crisis, an objective view can be invaluable. Why are we not developing proper links with the EACL, or parties like the DSP in Australia, and the movements in Venezuela and Bolivia?
We have many friends abroad. At a recent event held by the Fourth International in France, I was taken aback at the high regard in which young European Socialists – and the leadership of the FI – had for the SSP, and the way we built our party.
With right-wing journalists hovering like vultures, all the establishment parties ganging up on us to suspend us from Holyrood, and George Galloway prowling around Scotland, barely disguising his distaste of the SSPour party has no few enemies closer to home.
I have covered many of the points raised by the RCN in their article, and hopefully made my own position clear. Marxists should be working much more closely together on politics and direction, and in the education of SSY members.
Our party can only move forward and be successful if it is steered in a revolutionary direction, with our minimum demands more clearly linked to our overall program of changing the way society works. To do this, there must be more dialogue, more understanding and more co-operation between revolutionary comrades. Old differences must be pushed to one side; thankfully, this seems to be happening.
Revolutionary socialist politics is not an indulgence, it is a necessity. Any other brand of politics, including parliamentary ‘socialism’ is a betrayal of our own class and a compromise to our opponents. Revolution is a living, breathing movement which is sweeping across Latin America in its infancy, throwing off the reactionary US backed juntas and sparking forest fires of revolt against imperialism and war. The same movement is slowly emerging in Europe, and the SSP is a leading force in this. The future success of our party is in the hands of those who wish to take it forward.