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The Scottish debate

In Defence of the Revolutionary Party

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One of the "general long-term processes" on which the Scottish Militant Labour Executive Committee (Scottish Militant Labour EC) base their proposal is the fact that "Not only in Scotland, but internationally, the traditional ideological battle lines which divided the left have become blurred." (Initial Proposals, 16) 

This has contributed, together with other developments, "to a breaking down of political barriers which at an earlier stage may have appeared almost insurmountable." (Initial Proposals, 17) In our initial reply (Letter, 17 March 1998, 26), we said that the Scottish document was far too sweeping and superficial on this point. We do not believe that the Scottish Militant Labour EC has answered this in their reply.

The lines have not been "erased", say the comrades, "simply... blurred". (71) But what does this mean? Do they mean that there has been a convergence of the various trends on the left, a coming together on the basis of a common analysis and conclusions? Or do they mean that the issues have become less distinct, more confused (the usual meaning of ‘blurred’), and that the analyses and positions of the various trends have become less clear?

We accept that the weakening and increased isolation of the left since the collapse of Stalinism has given rise, at least on the part of some groups, to a re-examination of past positions and especially to strive to come together with other trends in common action. Our tendency internationally has responded to this by opening up discussions with many groups and trends, and especially seeking united action on immediate issues: fighting unemployment and racism; fighting for trade union democracy; forming left platforms to contest elections; etc. This is especially true of movements mainly involving young people, such as the YRE, the Justice campaign, etc.

One of the positive features of the post-1989 situation has been the shattering of the influence of Stalinism amongst the working class, both in the advanced capitalist countries and throughout the Third World. Most of the Stalinist leaders abandoned their formal commitment to the socialist transformation of society and have embraced the capitalist market. In any case, this process began long before the collapse of the Stalinist regimes, with the development of ‘Euro-communism’ and trends like ‘Marxism Today’ in Britain. 

The trends which cling to rigid neo-Stalinist ideas, like the group around Scargill in the SLP, still have some support among an older layer of trade union activists, but are incapable of winning new forces, particularly from amongst the younger generation. Some ex-Stalinists, as the Scottish comrades point out (73), both in the former-Stalinist states and in the West, are now forced to acknowledge the general validity of Trotsky’s analysis and his opposition to Stalinist bureaucracy. Trotsky’s analysis of the Stalinist bureaucracy has been vindicated by events. It is indeed an advantage for us, in this period, "that our ideology is treated much more seriously than was the case in the past..." (74)

Nevertheless, the shattering of the left and its general disorientation since 1989 has unfortunately resulted in an extreme blurring of ideas, blurring in the sense of confusion and distortion. We do not agree that "the task of organisationally and ideologically delineating the forces of revolutionary Marxism from other socialist currents was in the period 1919-1920 a much more crucial task than is the case today." (42) 

The task of ideological clarification is certainly different today. We are not immediately facing revolution and counter-revolution, which pose issues of revolutionary strategy and tactics as immediate life-and-death questions. Nevertheless, we still have to resolve crucial strategic and tactical questions, which are inevitably linked to our perspectives. For example, the struggle against the poll tax would not have been successful without our policies and tactics (which were opposed at various times by the CP, SWP, anarchists, etc). 

On the other hand, there was no inevitability about the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1984-85: with skilful tactics, especially campaigning for a majority in a ballot at the beginning, the strike could have been won, which would have radically changed the course of events under the Thatcher government. We have had to face up to the task of analysing the character of the present period, the new features of world capitalism, and the trends within the working class. These are questions of perspectives, but they inevitably affect our strategy and tactics, our day-to-day activity.

During the name-change debate, as the Scottish comrades point out, we did emphasise the task of "win[ning] support for a socialist programme and for socialist ideas generally". We stressed this aspect at the time because we were arguing primarily against those who were arguing that we should retain the name ‘Militant’ and aim our activity at a relatively small, advanced layer, rather than reach out (as we argued) to broader, fresher layers of workers and youth. We never argued, however, that broad propagandist activity in any way diminished the need for us to strive for political clarity on crucial issues of perspectives, programme, strategy and tactics.

On the contrary, since the collapse of Stalinism we have argued that one of our main tasks is to counter the ideological counter-revolution which was unleashed after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Despite the grotesque totalitarian distortion of the Stalinist regimes, the collapse of the planned economies in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was a set-back for the working class internationally. 

It allowed the capitalist class of the dominant imperialist powers to accelerate the neo-liberal assault on the workers’ gains of the post-war period (the ‘welfare state’, trade union rights, etc) and open up the Third World countries to even more intensive exploitation. This defeat for the working class was not on the scale of the defeats inflicted by fascism in the inter-war period, when the mass organisations were smashed under the fascist regimes. 

Although weakened, working-class organisations have not been shattered, and the capitalist class has not been able to eliminate basic democratic rights. Nevertheless, the collapse of Stalinism triggered a ferocious ideological offensive against the working class.

The rapid disintegration of the planned economies fuelled the capitalists’ triumphalism. The events were used to reinforce the argument that ‘communism’, ‘socialism’, the planned economy will not work; that the capitalist market and parliamentary democracy are the only ‘natural’, viable way of running society. 

Moreover, new technology, the spread of the capitalist market to Eastern Europe and China, the development of the Asian ‘Tigers’, and the return to the unfettered free market (neo-liberalism as opposed to the discredited Keynesianism) were opening up a new era of unlimited capitalist growth and prosperity.

This process inevitably had a profound effect within the workers’ organisations, including Marxist organisations. The collapse of Stalinism provoked a crisis of confidence in the aims of Marxism: Is the socialist transformation of society possible? Is it possible in this period to win mass support for fundamental socialist aims? At the same time, doubts arose about the role of the working class as a force capable of transforming society. 

Many of those previously on the left abandoned the aim of socialist transformation as, in effect, a utopian aim, or as a goal postponed to the far-distant future. Many turned towards single-issue campaigns, and new social movements, for instance, on environmental issues, anti-racism, civil rights, etc, turning away from the struggle of the industrial working class.

Some groups, on the other hand, reacted to the crisis of the left by trying to reinforce old formulas, reasserting the ‘orthodoxy’ of the past. Within our own ranks, both in Britain and in the Committee for a Workers’ International, we fought a political battle with Ted Grant and his supporters on this issue. 

The Grant trend had become incapable of analysing new developments. They clung to past perspectives and policies, incapable of coming to grips with the new features of the international situation. For example, they continued to argue that the financial crash of October 1987 would lead to a world economic recession long after it was clear that the major capitalist powers had pumped massive liquidity into world markets to prop up the system for a further period. In the case of South Africa, they refused to accept the possibility of a peaceful handover of power from the apartheid regime to the bourgeois-nationalist leadership of the ANC, even when it was clear that the Stalinist leadership under Gorbachev were ready to cooperate with imperialism to achieve such a transition. 

Most seriously, even after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 they refused to accept that the Stalinist system was in a state of total collapse and that it was now most likely that a capitalist counter-revolution would be carried through. (These issues are dealt with in Two Trends: The Political Roots of the Breakaway, by Peter Taaffe, January 1992.) At the same time, they asserted the need to return to propagandist activity amongst the (now very depleted, fragmented) advanced layer, increasingly criticising our mass campaigning activity (for instance, around the struggle of Liverpool council and against Thatcher’s poll tax).

We opposed Grant’s attempt to cling to ‘orthodoxy’, that is, to outdated formulas. Our call for the Open Turn in Scotland in 1991 precipitated a split in our organisation. Subsequently, we argued for an open turn in Britain and called for the party’s name to be changed from Militant Labour to the Socialist Party, a change that was linked to our call for even a small revolutionary party to carry out mass campaigning and recruitment activity.

We are certainly not suggesting - in answer to your document’s question (95) - that the Scottish comrades should scale down their mass work and public intervention. Of course it is true that "cadres are shaped not just by ideas, but also by activity and involvement in the broader struggles of the working class." (95) 

We have argued that we now have to go ‘broader’, given the reduction of the former advanced layer of workers and youth to very thin, scattered strata, in order to reach fresh layers of workers and youth. During the name-change debate this was the main emphasis of our arguments, because we were arguing against a trend (mainly the Hearse-Bulaitis group) which was arguing that our party activity should be aimed mainly at an advanced layer on the left (the strength of which they grossly exaggerated), while activity should be through a broader socialist party involving different campaigning and solidarity groups on the left.

While arguing for a broader approach, however, we never argued that the task of achieving theoretical clarity was any less important than in the past. On the contrary, in our view theoretical clarity is inseparably linked to the capacity to intervene successfully in campaigns and struggles. Our tactical proposals on the Open Turn, on the name change, on an orientation to the YRE and other broad campaigns, etc, flowed from our theoretical analysis of the period.

Since the collapse of Stalinism, there have been a whole series of debates within our organisation, both in Britain and internationally. Major theoretical issues which have been debated include:

  • The processes involved in the degeneration of the Stalinist bureaucracy and the collapse of the planned economies: Some on the left, including many former Stalinists, simply did a political about turn. Acquiescing to the counter-revolution in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, they simply accepted that the planned economies were inherently unworkable, making no serious effort to analyse the contradictions of the Stalinist regimes. 

Some Trotskyist groups, on the other hand, have tried to portray the entire process of events in Russia and Eastern Europe as the unfolding of the political revolution predicted by Trotsky, refusing to accept (or only very belatedly accepting) that the restoration of capitalism has taken place. 

We are facing up to the task of rebuilding the workers’ movement in Russia and Eastern Europe under conditions of primitive capitalist accumulation. The collapse of the planned economies was the responsibility of the Stalinist bureaucracy, and we still defend the principle of economic planning together with democratic workers’ management and control as the basis for a new socialist society.

  • The direction of the world capitalist economy: We analysed the new features of capitalism, characterising the period after 1974 as one of capitalist depression (a phase of long-term stagnation and decline), though recognising the very one-sided, finance-driven booms that have taken place on the basis of an increased polarisation of wealth in society. 

Many (if not a majority) on the left were affected by the bourgeois triumphalism of the early 1990s, accepting ideas that capitalism could go through another long period of upswing, on the basis of the development of the ‘Tiger’ economies, new technology, globalisation, etc. We consider that the next period will be one of growing problems for the capitalist system internationally, with deepening economic and social crisis which will give rise to explosive mass movements of the working class, creating the conditions for a revival of socialist consciousness.

  • The changing character of the traditional workers’ parties: We have analysed the process of bourgeoisification, the transformation from bourgeois-workers’ parties to bourgeois parties, as in the case of the British Labour Party, PSOE in Spain, etc. This idea was far from being widely accepted on the left before the election of the Blair government, but is now increasingly accepted.

  • We have analysed the character of the new left formations such as the PT (Partido Trabalhadores) in Brazil, the PRC (Partito Rifondazione Comunista) in Italy, etc. While recognising the importance of these formations, we rejected the superficial characterisation of them by some on the left as new ‘revolutionary’ parties. We have analysed the concrete balance of left reformist and centrist currents, and the tendency towards reformism within these parties. At the same time, we recognise the need for Marxists to either work within or orientate towards these mass formations.

  • We have recognised the need in many countries of preparing the way for new, mass parties of the working class, which will be capable of drawing in wide layers of workers and youth, which will base themselves on class struggle, and mobilise behind an anti-capitalist programme with radical socialist policies. 

The emergence of the political forces necessary to launch such new formations will depend on events, on objective processes, but in the next period our tendency has to be ready, when opportunities arise, to take initiatives towards the formation of such new parties. At the same time, we have to maintain the political independence and organisational coherence of our Marxist tendency and continue to work to build the forces of revolutionary Marxism within new, broad formations.

  • We have had extensive debates within our organisation on the national question, especially in relation to Ireland, Israel/Palestine, ex-Yugoslavia, former USSR and Eastern Europe, and of course Scotland. We have applied the ideas of Marxism, and especially those of Trotsky, in a dialectical way to the concrete, contemporary problems in these situations.

Our analysis on these questions inevitably has practical consequences for perspectives, programme, strategy and tactics. We cannot accept, therefore, that issues of theory and perspectives are any less important than in the past. They may not be exactly the same "battle lines" which divided the left in the past. But they are nevertheless still important points of difference between us and other left groups. 

Such differences may be pushed into the background for a time, especially when there is an urge towards collaboration in campaigns, a common election platform, and so on. Nevertheless, it is inevitable that in any broad formation there will be political differences with the emergence of different political trends (as there were in the anti-poll tax campaign, in the Liverpool council struggle, etc).

This is not to say that we discuss key political issues from the point of view of establishing "ideological purity". It would be counter-productive to allow the clarification of perspectives and programmatic issues to form a barrier to attracting new forces, to become so many "Berlin Walls" around our organisation. We have to combine political debate and clarification with a reaching out to new layers. 

In the recent period, we have done this in both Scotland and the rest of Britain (through the anti-water privatisation campaign, the YRE, the Justice campaign, the Liverpool dockers, Scottish industrial disputes, such as Timex and Glaciers, etc). In most of these campaigns we have worked together with "other left forces". 

We made it clear, for instance, that we were eager to participate in the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), when that was first announced in November 1995, provided it took the form of an open, inclusive party that allowed different groups and trends within it. When it was clear that the SLP was not going to develop in this direction under Scargill’s leadership, we took the initiative in trying to form local Socialist Alliances, and comrades in some areas are still participating in this work, although the forces involved are extremely small at the moment.

It is false to counterpose the struggle for political clarity to a struggle to reach wider layers of workers and youth. In their two documents, the Scottish Militant Labour EC refer many times to Lenin’s struggles to open up the Bolshevik Party to radicalised workers moving towards revolution. Both during the 1905-06 revolution and the 1917 revolution, Lenin fought politically against sections of the party leadership who were still basing themselves on outdated formulas. 

He struggled to reorientate the party towards the revolutionary processes which were unfolding. But at no time did Lenin abandon a struggle for theoretical clarity or minimise the need for building a revolutionary party.

In the period between 1905 and 1917, for instance, Lenin fought against the ideas of Bogdanov, an influential leader of the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party, who attempted to reconcile Marxism with various non-Marxist ideas. This involved Lenin in a re-examination not merely of political issues, but of the philosophical foundations of Marxism. In 1908 Lenin published his book, ‘Materialism and Empirio-criticism’, a substantial contribution to Marxist philosophy.

In the years immediately before the first world war (1914-18), Lenin was also involved in an intensive theoretical debate over imperialism (with Bukharin, Hilferding, Luxemburg, etc). Again, this was not a purely ideological issue, let alone a quibble about formulations. The theoretical issues had a crucial bearing on perspectives and programme. 

For instance, Karl Kautsky, one of the leaders of the German social democracy, argued that capitalism had now developed into a form of "ultra-imperialism", according to which the interpenetration and interdependence of the main imperialist powers ruled out the possibility of world war. At the same time, exponents of the Kautsky school argued that the continued development of imperialism would allow the ruling class to maintain the upper layer of the working class, the so-called "aristocracy of labour", in a privileged position, which would reinforce the social barriers standing in the way of revolutionary developments.

When Lenin returned from exile in Switzerland to Petrograd in April 1917, there was a crisis in the Bolshevik Party (see Bold Step, 29). A section of the Bolshevik leadership (Kamenev, Stalin, etc) advocated critical support for the Provisional Government formed on the basis of the February revolution. 

Headed by Lvov and later Kerensky, this was composed of bourgeois liberals and ‘moderate’ socialists, who were incapable of ending the war, carrying out a radical land reform, etc. Lenin, on the contrary, advocated that the Bolsheviks, through the soviets, should lead a struggle for the workers and poor peasants to overthrow the Provisional Government, take power into the hands of the workers, and carry through a fundamental social change. 

There was an intense political struggle within the Bolshevik Party over strategy and tactics. However, the April Theses, the programme issued by Lenin on his arrival was not merely concerned with policies, strategy and tactics: it reflected a profound change of perspectives, from the old ‘outdated’ idea of the ‘democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants’ (i.e. acceptance of a bourgeois-democratic stage before socialist revolution came on to the agenda) to a struggle for workers’ power or ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ (in effect, the perspective of permanent revolution advocated by Trotsky since 1905). Incidentally, in the April Theses (point 10) Lenin also raised the call for a new, revolutionary International.

Lenin did face a struggle against the ‘Old Bolsheviks’ who were clinging on to ‘outdated formulas’ as the Scottish Militant Labour EC document (Bold Step 29) says. He relied "for political backing for his revolutionary tactics and strategy upon that layer of radicalised new members who flooded into the party in 1917" (29), but he also relied decisively on rank-and-file Bolsheviks and wider layers of workers previously educated and organised by the party. 

But the fact that Lenin was forced to launch a political struggle against the "Old Bolsheviks who claimed to be the guardians of Marxist orthodoxy", did not mean that he simply counterposed mass struggle to theoretical clarity or to the need for a well-organised party. On the contrary, the strategy and tactics of Lenin and Trotsky were based on the theoretical clarification of the revolution as it unfolded, whereas the Old Bolsheviks tried to cling onto old theoretical formulas which were falsified by events.

Inevitably, Lenin was frequently accused of ideological hair-splitting, of placing ideological purity above the practical needs of the movement. For Lenin, however, ideas and perspectives were an indispensable guide to action, and the linking of clear ideas with bold revolutionary action required the building of a revolutionary party.





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