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The Scottish debate

Short thesis on the Revolutionary Party

By Peter Taaffe, General Secretary, Socialist Party


Scottish Militant Labour is an autonomous part of the Socialist Party, which is a revolutionary party. The Socialist Party is the British section of our international revolutionary organisation/party, the Committee for a Workers International. 

The Committee for a Workers' International is present on all continents with official sections or groups in 34 different countries, with sympathisers in many others. The Socialist Party and Scottish Militant Labour are based upon a clear revolutionary programme, perspectives, strategy and tactics, and a separate revolutionary organisation.

The aim of the Socialist Party/Scottish Militant Labour and the Committee for a Workers' International is to build mass revolutionary parties in Britain and throughout the world, and a mass International. The whole of working class history attests to the fact that the socialist revolution, which will be the greatest change in history and yet the most difficult, cannot be realised without the creation of mass revolutionary parties, the nuclei of which are in the affiliated sections of the Committee for a Workers' International. 

The programme, the main documents and the decisions of the Committee for a Workers' International which all affiliates accept, are democratically decided at a World Congress.

The need for a party flows from the position of the working class as it has developed in capitalist society. The working class is the most united class because of its role in production and society. The middle class is scattered, with its upper layers tending to merge with the capitalists, and its lower layers forced by large-scale monopolisation into the ranks of the working class. 

However, while the working class is the most united, it is still divided into many different layers: men and women, on racial lines, skilled and unskilled, young and old, etc. The ruling class throughout history has skilfully learned to play on these divisions in order to perpetuate its rule. A revolutionary party is designed to overcome these divisions, to unite the working class for common objectives, the day-to-day struggle against capitalism, and its eventual overthrow and replacement with a socialist society.

The movement of the working class is, of course, the main motor force in history. But the history of the working class in the last 150 years shows that without the role of the 'subjective factor', that is a mass party with a far-sighted Marxist leadership, the task of the socialist revolution will be stillborn. 

There have been many opportunities for the working class to take power in the 20th century which have been lost because of the absence of a mass revolutionary party and leadership and the conscious counter-revolutionary role pursued by the Stalinists and the social democrats. In 1918 the German workers could have taken power, as could the Hungarian workers in 1919. 

Other examples of where the absence of a mass revolutionary party and leadership led to defeats or lost opportunities for the working class are: the revolutionary upheavals in Italy in 1920, the 1926 general strike in Britain, the Chinese revolution of 1925-27. In Spain between 1931-37, Trotsky commented that not one but ten revolutions would have been possible if a mass party and a clear revolutionary leadership had existed.

In May/June 1968, power could have been taken by the working class in France but for the leaders of the Communist Party and Socialist Party. In Portugal between 1974-76, the pressure of the revolutionary masses compelled the taking over of 70% of industry. The Times, then the most authoritative organ of the British capitalists, commented that "capitalism is dead" in Portugal. They had, however, failed to reckon with the counter-revolutionary role of Mario Soares, the leader of the Socialist Party which, together with the false policies of the Stalinised Communist Party, derailed the revolution.

Only once, in Russia in 1917, did a consciously organised working class take power and carry through the socialist revolution. This would not have happened without the existence of a revolutionary party, the Bolshevik Party, and its leadership, primarily Lenin and Trotsky. This party was based upon the ideas of democratic centralism. In essence, this means the fullest possible internal discussion and debate, both orally and in the written form (access to the internal bulletin) and, at the same time, the carrying out of commonly arrived at decisions by the whole organisation.

However, today the capitalists and reformists, both left as well as right, have linked the idea of 'democratic centralism' to the experience of Stalinism. It is, therefore, better now to use the term 'democratic unity' to explain the character of the Committee for a Workers' International and its different national sections or parties.

The conditions which we face today in Britain, Scotland and elsewhere, are not those of Russia in 1917. The democratic rights of the members must be safeguarded at all times but whether the democratic or centralist aspect of 'democratic centralism' predominates, depends upon the concrete situation. In this period the pace of events and our ability to openly organise allows even more democratic freedom of discussion and debate.

The character of the internal regime of a revolutionary party is shaped to some extent by the developments in society and the labour movement. In the period following the collapse of Stalinism in the 1990s, there was a challenge, particularly from the new generation, to anything which smacked of 'authoritarianism' and which gave the appearance of being undemocratic. 

A certain hostility to anything which is 'organised', and particularly if it has a 'top-down' approach, is a feature of the outlook of the new generation. This was linked with a more 'spontaneous' approach and a concentration on single issues, usually organised through umbrella 'networks'. 

This was to some extent a favourable factor for us because it opened up, amongst this new layer, a preparedness to discuss ideas with many travelling into the ranks of our organisation. But the underlying assumption of all these movements is that a general, 'broad', loose movement is capable, by itself, of defeating the attacks of the capitalists as well as enhancing the position of the youth and the working class.

This mood has undoubtedly spilled over at certain stages into the ranks of our organisation. This has sometimes meant that the perception of our organisation as a clear, distinct, revolutionary organisation, a party, albeit a small party, has become blurred in the minds of some comrades. Compelled to undertake activity of a 'united front' character, the role of our party, its special, distinct character, and differences with other parties, can be lost sight of unless there is a constant effort on behalf of the leadership to delineate our position with regard to other organisations and trends on programme, perspectives, strategy and tactics.

Paradoxically, the flexible approach which we have adopted towards the idea of a new mass workers' party can have a negative effect on our ranks unless there is a clear perception of the difference between mass reformist, left reformist or centrist parties, and a Marxist revolutionary party.

We have emphasised, particularly in the name-change debate, that we have a dual task in this period. We have, on the one side, the task of rehabilitating and popularising the ideas of socialism, redeveloping socialist consciousness and, at the same time, the building of our revolutionary party. 

We also have to raise and campaign for the establishment of a new workers' party. We also have to engage in united front type activity in this period. Examples are the 'Broad Left' activity in the trade unions and also in the struggle to save free education. We have a long history of such work: in Liverpool, in the poll tax, and in Scotland in the Scottish Socialist Alliance. 

In the 1990s we have seen the collapse of the mass workers' parties into bourgeois formations and with it the collapse of the reformist left. It is, therefore, particularly difficult to lead broad movements, particularly when they have a mass character - as with the poll tax - and, at the same time, develop, build and emphasise the clear differences between the broad formations and our party.

It is easier to avoid this danger when it involves single issues, like the poll tax, the battle against water privatisation, etc. It is more of a problem when the revolutionary party works in broader formations of a general political character, such as the Scottish Socialist Alliance , particularly when we constitute the overwhelming majority of the active forces involved. It is quite easy for the perception to grow, both on our periphery and within our ranks, that it is 'easier' to join the broader formation whose programme appears to be close or similar to our own.

That is not the end of the matter. We possess separate perspectives, strategy and tactics for the building of mass parties on a national and international scale. Above all, the internationalist character, the affiliation of Scottish Militant Labour and the Socialist Party to the Committee for a Workers' International, cannot be blurred. Even in those circumstances where we enter broad formations we must maintain our party press, separate branches, finances, etc.

This does not preclude us building broad formations, either the Scottish Socialist Alliance or a broad party. But it would be absolutely fatal to give up, to weaken, or to accept measures, no matter how well intentioned, which would have the effect of dissolving into a broad formation, the distinct character of our revolutionary party. It is absolutely essential that separate branches of all those who subscribe to the Committee for a Workers' International should meet and discuss on a weekly basis and seek to recruit members to the Committee for a Workers' International.

There is no once-and-for-all tactic for building the revolutionary party. In the past we have been compelled to employ a variety of tactics: entrism, open work, faction work in broad formations. We do not preclude fusions with organisations where principled agreement on programme and perspectives is achieved. 

Flexibility and variety in methods of work will undoubtedly be required in the building of mass formations of the Committee for a Workers' International. But at all times the consciousness of a separate revolutionary organisation or party must be engendered in the minds of our members by the leadership. 

Where we work in broad formations it is essential that we meet separately and regularly, preferably on a weekly basis, to discuss the way forward, to collect dues, and to recruit to our party.

April 1998





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