In Defence of the Revolutionary Party
IV. ELECTORAL STRATEGY
In our first response to the Scottish Militant Labour EC’s Initial Proposals, we commented that "the reasons being put forward [by Scottish Militant Labour EC] to justify these new proposals are primarily electoral" (Letter, 17 March, para 9), not "purely electoral", as Scottish Militant Labour’s second reply says (97). This is a matter of fact: the arguments put forward in the first section of Initial Proposals are predominantly electoral.
The document says that "1999 will be a decisive year for the socialist left", with "three separate sets of elections... during the first half of 1999: the local council elections... the first elections to the new Scottish Parliament... and the Euro-elections..." (para 2)
If the socialist left fails to make a breakthrough in these elections, it argues, "the advance of socialism could be slowed down"; while socialist victories, particularly the achievement of a toe-hold in the new Scottish Parliament, "could dramatically accelerate events". (para 3)
The Scottish Militant Labour EC’s proposals for a new Scottish Socialist Party are premised on the imperative of avoiding "two or more socialist parties... stand[ing] in opposition to one another", which could lead to "a unique historical opportunity [being] criminally squandered". (paras 4, 5)
The argument of the Scottish Militant Labour EC is, in essence, that if the British EC opposes their proposal for a new Scottish Socialist Party it must be because we do not recognise the importance of these forthcoming elections or the need to strive for a unified election platform.
The crucial issue in our view, however, is not the importance of fighting election campaigns or the desirability of a broad socialist platform, which we fully recognise, but the character of the new party which is being proposed. The need to fight these elections does not require us to dissolve our own organisation into a broader formation. We accept the need to contest elections on a socialist platform, but we do not accept the need to dissolve our organisation. There is no necessary, logical link between the two proposals.
Surely there is no doubt about our position on fighting elections? Since the Scottish Turn in 1991 and the Open Turn in England and Wales in 1992, we have contested a series of parliamentary, European Parliament, and local elections.
Fighting elections, in this period, is a vital way of reaching wider layers of workers with socialist ideas and policies. Campaigning work in elections, moreover, is an important way of making contact with the fresh, scattered layer of workers and young people who are questioning capitalist conditions and are open to socialist ideas if they are presented in the form of a fighting programme.
We also recognise that there can be advantages in fighting elections as part of a broader socialist platform. The coming together of significant left socialist forces, left trade union forces, and the most radical elements in single-issue campaigns on a unified election platform could have a greater impact than the different left elements fighting the elections separately. We certainly do not dispute that "election results and successes" have an important impact in the eyes of the broad masses of the working class. (106)
In any such election platform, we would fight for the boldest possible socialist programme. But this would not be a pre-condition for our participation. An anti-capitalist programme, with some key class demands, could play an effective role in raising the consciousness of broad sections of workers.
This is the position we took when Scargill first raised the call for a Socialist Labour Party. We welcomed the prospect of a unification of left forces on the basis of a radical anti-capitalist programme, pointing to the effects it could have through fighting elections and other campaigning activity.
This possibility, as we have argued elsewhere, was thrown away because of the narrow, undemocratic structure Scargill imposed on the SLP, which unfortunately rendered it incapable from the outset of unifying a significant section of left forces or of appealing to newer, fresher layers looking for radical change.
In the case of Scotland, we have made it clear that we are not opposed in principle to an attempt to establish a unified election platform. As we explained in our letter (Clarification of Proposals for a Scottish Socialist Party, 2 April) this, in our view, could take either the form of a new Marxist Scottish Socialist Party working to form a broader platform with other socialist forces, or of the formation of a broad Scottish Socialist Party, in which we continue to play a role as an organised Marxist tendency.
We also recognise that winning seats on local councils and especially in parliament is an extremely important lever for the development of socialist consciousness amongst wider layers of workers. This will be especially true in the case of the Scottish Parliament, given the heightened developments which will take place in Scotland.
However, the need for Marxists to reach out to wider layers in elections campaigns and through gaining public positions, is only one side of the equation. What is the point of reaching wider layers, if we don’t draw new layers into our own ranks, developing them into politically conscious activists, into Marxist cadres? The need to develop a socialist consciousness amongst wider layers cannot be counterposed to the need to build a party consisting of conscious revolutionaries. The two tasks go hand in hand. The strengthening of the revolutionary party is a prerequisite for the development of broader socialist forces in the future.
The Scottish Militant Labour EC argues that the growth of a revolutionary party is not merely an arithmetical progression. This is quite true.
But neither is the growth of anti-capitalist, socialist consciousness amongst the mass of workers an arithmetical progression. If the socialist left is able to chalk up big successes in the various Scottish elections next year, even winning one or two seats in the Scottish Parliament, that would undoubtedly be a big step forward. But even if the Scottish Militant Labour Executive’s most favourable scenario was to be borne out, it would surely be an illusion to believe that such a breakthrough would guarantee the steady growth of socialist consciousness amongst the workers in Scotland.
There will inevitably be twists and turns on the part of different left groups, as well as ebbs and flows of the mood of different sections of the working class. This is why we need a politically coherent organisation, a revolutionary party. Such a party can orientate to events, responding with appropriate policies, strategy and tactics.
The Scottish Militant Labour EC say that we "have a lightminded attitude to the electoral possibilities that are posed". (106) But our point is that even if there is no element of exaggeration at all in the comrades’ estimate of the potential that exists, even if their most favourable scenario is borne out, it does not justify the dissolving of our party into a broader formation. This would be a political disarming, undermining the capacity of Marxism to respond to future events.
Of course, Marxists in Scotland should attempt to occupy the most strategically important ground in advance of next year’s elections. An Scottish Socialist Party should attempt to unify the maximum possible forces, putting itself in a strong position to demand negotiations with other left forces to secure an electoral coalition or pact (102). This is one thing, but it is quite another to argue that the potential gains of the Scottish Militant Labour EC’s strategy are so great that it justifies the dissolving of our own organisation. This is a false method.
In all our activities we should strive for the maximum possible gains. At the same time, in our perspectives we have to have a realistic appraisal of likely developments, anticipating a number of different outcomes. In our view, the Scottish Militant Labour EC’s appraisal of the likely gains are one-sided, to say the least. For instance, we consider it is unlikely that in the event of a split in the Labour Party in Scotland all the departing lefts, or even a majority, could be won to an Scottish Socialist Party, whatever form it takes.
The aim of unifying left forces on a common election platform does not necessitate the dissolving of our organisation. As we have suggested (Clarifications, etc, 2 April) there are two options. One is a Marxist Scottish Socialist Party, drawing in existing Scottish Socialist Alliance and some other new forces, working for building an electoral alliance with other forces. The other (Option 2) would be for a broad Scottish Socialist Party, with Scottish Militant Labour under a new name continuing as a component part of the new formation.
Why are both these options ruled out in favour of a looser, broader Scottish Socialist Party into which Scottish Militant Labour would be effectively dissolved? In the sections headed ‘Electoralism’ and ‘Electoral Pact’, the Scottish Militant Labour EC puts forward two points: First, rejecting the idea of "a mass recruitment drive" under the banner of the Scottish Socialist Alliance, they say, "unless our existing apparatus, including our branches, our full-time apparatus and our paper are directed towards that goal, then it would have only a limited impact." (103) Second, they say: "There is a persistent discord between the public tasks that rest on the shoulders of our organisation and the internal demands of maintaining and building our ‘independent organisation’." (104)
The clear implication of this is that, whether we are talking about the Scottish Socialist Alliance or a new Scottish Socialist Party, that "public tasks" (election campaigns, anti-cuts campaigns, etc) should take priority over "internal demands" - that is, politically integrating new recruits, educating and developing cadres, developing an internal political life essential to ‘democratic unity’, sustaining a politically and organisationally coherent organisation, building up strong internal structures, finances, etc.
The Scottish Militant Labour EC comrades effectively accept our point that there is now "quite a weak internal situation (in Scotland) in terms of the development of cadres, organisational structures, and finance". (86) They point to the difficult objective situation in the last period and the complicated consciousness following the collapse of Stalinism. These are factors that have affected most sections of the Committee for a Workers’ International. Nevertheless, there is also the subjective factor of what priority is given to developing the organisation’s internal life, a systematic approach to recruitment, education, finances, etc.
The comrades say that though the organisation is weaker numerically than it was five or ten years ago, its specific weight on the left and within the working class generally has increased. But the Scottish Militant Labour EC comrades say, quite wrongly, "We understand that they [the British EC] disapprove of the emphasis that we have placed on mass work, including leading campaigns, intervening broadly in elections, etc." (93) Not at all! We applaud Scottish Militant Labour’s public activities. But we think it is completely mistaken to counterpose public activity to the task of developing cadres and the internal life and structures of the organisation.
This section is headed ‘Campaigns and Cadres’. But the only reference to cadres is: "It is almost a truism of Marxist politics that cadres are shaped not just by ideas, but also by activity and involvement in the broader struggles of the working class." (95) Of course, cadres are developed through struggle, but the development of cadres does not merely depend on "an interest in theory and ideas" (which the comrades refer to, para 94) but on the development of an internal political life, the structure of debate and decision making - ‘democratic unity’.
The Scottish Militant Labour EC comrades attribute the problems to the problem of running two organisations, the Scottish Militant Labour and the Scottish Socialist Alliance in the past period. But the clear implication of their argument is that it is impossible in this period to combine public campaigning activity with cadre-building - that is, with the tasks we have always associated with building a revolutionary organisation.
Thus they are arguing for the Scottish Socialist Party to be a looser, broader formation, a "hybrid" or "transitional" formation. They say that the forces of Scottish Militant Labour would be a significant force, if not the dominant force within the new party. But they give no proposals of how cadres will continue to be developed in the new party.
Yet without a bigger force of cadres we will not necessarily be able to achieve electoral breakthroughs and we certainly would not be able to translate potential electoral breakthroughs into a more firmly-based advance of socialism.