In Defence of the Revolutionary Party
Reply to the Scottish Militant Labour Executive’s For a Bold Step Forward
From the Socialist Party EC
5 May 1998
None of the arguments put forward in the Scottish Militant Labour Executive’s For a Bold Step Forward (or in further documents which we have just received) convince us that what the Scottish Militant Labour EC comrades are advocating for perspectives, programme and strategy in relation to their proposal for a new Scottish Socialist Party will assure the continued strengthening of the forces of Marxism in Scotland or effectively prepare the way for the development of a mass revolutionary party.
Nor, in our view, will their proposals assure the development of an effective section of the Committee for a Workers’ International in Scotland. This is why we are writing In Defence of the Revolutionary Party.
After carefully studying the Scottish comrades’ reply, we still consider that the strategy of dissolving Scottish Militant Labour into a "hybrid" or "transitional" party (a development of the Scottish Socialist Alliance) is based on profoundly false ideas about the tasks facing us in this period. In this reply, therefore, we concentrate on the crucial issues of theory and perspectives which we believe to be at stake in this debate.
Above all, this means the questions of the character of the present period after the collapse of the Stalinist states in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the essential political features of the revolutionary party, and the programmatic and strategic tasks involved in building a future mass revolutionary party. We also deal with the essential role of our International, the Committee for a Workers’ International.
For a Bold Step Forward devotes relatively little space to these issues, and in our view does not answer the questions we posed in our first response to the Scottish Militant Labour EC’s Initial Proposals for an Scottish Socialist Party. Much more space is given to analogies from the past, from the history of the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party (RSDLP), the early Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), and the Musteite American Workers Party (AWP) in the United States.
We are completely in favour of studying the history of the revolutionary movement and drawing lessons for today. But all analogies have limitations and have to be applied carefully. In our view, the historical examples referred to in the Scottish Militant Labour EC’s document are used in a one-sided, selective way. Above all, insufficient account is taken of the differences in conditions between past periods and the present situation.
For example, the history of the RSDLP and the Bolsheviks undoubtedly provides valuable lessons for Marxists today. But the period before 1917 was really an early, preparatory stage in the development of the theory and practice of the revolutionary party developed above all by Lenin.
It was through struggle with the Mensheviks and other trends in the RSDLP and even within the Bolshevik Party itself, through struggle against the centrist and reformist trends within the Second International, and above all through the experience of the 1917 revolution itself that Lenin developed the theory of "a party of a new type", which from then on was regarded by revolutionary Marxists - pre-eminently by Trotsky - as an essential prerequisite of socialist revolution.
We can discuss the history of the RSDLP, but we have to apply its lessons in a balanced way to the issues of perspectives and strategy which face us today.
The Scottish Militant Labour EC comrades also rely heavily on the example of the US Trotskyists’ fusion with the Musteite AWP in 1934. Yet as the comrades themselves point out, the period of revolution and counter-revolution which followed the Russian revolution in the 1920s and 1930s was completely different from today.
Despite the rather mixed political complexion of some of its leaders, the AWP embraced sections of militant workers who were moving towards revolution and support for the Fourth International. The US Trotskyists adopted a short-term tactic of merging with the AWP in order to break out of isolation and win a significant layer of workers to a revolutionary tendency linked to the Fourth International.
As we argue below, the turn towards the AWP does not support the Scottish Militant Labour EC’s proposed strategy, and certainly does not justify the idea of building a "hybrid" or "transitional" party over a prolonged period. Neither Cannon nor Trotsky argued for such an idea. Their aim was to rapidly transform the new formation into a revolutionary party linked to a commitment to build the Fourth International.
There are also lessons for us in the period of the Stalinist Communist Parties’ disastrous policy of popular frontism in the 1930s, as well as in the earlier history in Germany of the Social Democratic Workers Party’s merger on an opportunist basis with the supporters of Ferdinand Lassalle (the General German Workers Association) into the Socialist Workers Party of Germany in 1875.
The comments directed toward the British EC on these episodes in the Scottish Militant Labour EC’s document, however, are based on second- or third-hand accounts of informal conversations, and we do not have space to deal with them in this reply.
We recognise the outstanding achievements of comrades in Scotland, both through Militant and Scottish Militant Labour, and we also recognise the tremendous potential for Marxism which will open up in Scotland over the next few years. We believe that the call for an independent socialist Scotland can position the forces of Marxism at the forefront of the struggle for self-determination, linking the fight for independence with the fight for a socialist transformation of society.
However, we will only strengthen the forces of Marxism and prepare the way for a mass revolutionary party on the basis of programme, perspectives and strategy which will measure up to the complex processes which will unfold. For reasons which we explain in this and other documents, we believe the proposals being put forward by the Scottish Militant Labour Executive Committee are in serious danger of throwing away past gains and especially throwing away the enormous gains that can potentially be made in the next period.
Our criticisms of the Scottish Militant Labour EC’s proposals are not "entirely negative" (105), as they claim. In our letter of 2 April (Clarifications of Proposals for an Scottish Socialist Party), we proposed two alternative strategic options: Option 1, the relaunch of Scottish Militant Labour as the Scottish Socialist Party, drawing in Scottish Socialist Alliance members and new forces; and Option 2, a relaunch of the Scottish Socialist Alliance as a Scottish Socialist Party, with Scottish Militant Labour (under a new name) becoming a component of the new formation.
Our letter explains the strategic and tactical factors which, in our opinion, would apply to the two options. Our main concern is the need to conserve the core of Marxist cadres we have built up over a long period of time and to adopt strategy and tactics which will allow us to strengthen the forces and mass influence of revolutionary Marxism. We believe that the Scottish Militant Labour EC are making a serious mistake in rejecting both these options in favour of a "hybrid" strategy.
The Scottish Militant Labour EC comrades may suggest that the British EC are "Old Bolsheviks", "guardians of Marxist orthodoxy", that we have fallen into "the trap of rigid formalism", and claim that we want to lock them away in "an organisationally pure prison cell". But such polemical comments are no substitute for political arguments. We are quite happy for our capacity for measuring-up theoretically to new developments and for bold initiatives and flexible strategy to be judged on the basis of our record.
To help comrades keep track of the debate so far, the main documents exchanged between the Socialist Party EC and Scottish Militant Labour Executive are as follows:
Published in Members Bulletin 27 (March 1998):
Initial Proposals for a New Scottish Socialist Party by Alan McCombes on behalf of Scottish Militant Labour EC (6 March);
Published in Members Bulletin 28 (April 1998):
For a Bold Step Forward (A reply from the Scottish Militant Labour EC to the British EC);
Short Thesis on the Revolutionary Party by Peter Taaffe;
Clarification of Proposals for a Scottish Socialist Party (to Scottish Militant Labour EC from British EC, 2 April).
MB 28 also includes contributions from the Executives of the German and Swedish Committee for a Workers’ International sections, a letter from Farooq Tariq, Pakistan, and other individual contributions to the discussion.
This document, In Defence of the Revolutionary Party, is written mainly in reply to the Scottish Militant Labour EC’s document For a Bold Step Forward. This reply was more or less completed when we received (23 April 1998) three more statements from the Scottish Militant Labour Executive: New Tactics for a New Period; Draft Proposals Outlining the Basis for Discussion to Launch a New Socialist Party; and Proposals on Scottish Committee for a Workers International Within the Scottish Socialist Party.
We shall be replying to these documents shortly, but there is nothing in them that changes the arguments we are putting forward here. On the contrary, we believe that they make it even clearer that the Scottish Militant Labour Executive are effectively proposing the dissolution of our Marxist tendency in Scotland and a retreat from the programme and methods of Trotskyism - thus reinforcing the validity of our arguments.