33. Political differences and defections



Tommy Sheridan made a wild attack on the CWI, claiming that we had slandered the SSP from “Vladivostok to Berlin”. We refuted this accusation and, in the traditions of the CWI, had not attacked or criticised them outside of our ranks until the January 2001 conference. However, it was quite clear that they had distanced themselves from the CWI over the preceding period as demonstrated by a statement on ‘international links’. This stated: “The (Trotskyist) model they (the CWI) have tried to apply is obsolete, if indeed it was ever a credible project.”1 This was a repudiation of the entire history of the ISM within the CWI. We pointed out that the policies and methods of the CWI made a crucial contribution to the successes of our organisation in Scotland, including defeating the poll tax. The SSP’s current successes were only possible because of these past gains. Yet here the ISM was totally writing off its history, although this was not a bolt from the blue because their trajectory had been clear even before this conference. In their book, Imagine, neither Tommy Sheridan nor Alan McCombes mentioned their membership of the CWI, Militant or SML!

At a subsequent SSP conference there was a discernible move towards the right on their part, both on policy but also on internal democracy within the SSP. They proposed ‘guidelines’ saying organisations within the SSP could not sell their own publications. These were the same methods used by the Labour Party’s right wing against us in the past. There were also many serious mistakes on programme and policy. For instance, Tommy Sheridan was quoted in the Scottish supplement of the Observer implying that the SSP would take part in a coalition government with the SNP or would support such a government from the outside. This would be collaboration with what was, at this stage, clearly not a working class party but a nationalist, predominantly middle class party that would not go beyond the framework of capitalism. Tommy, unfortunately, never repudiated the statement nor did the majority of the SSP leadership, which was a factor in the eventual shipwreck of the SSP and its unprincipled adaptation to nationalism in the independence referendum a decade and a half later.

The ISM leaders made similar errors on, for instance, the nature of Cuba. Tommy Sheridan had described Cuba as ‘socialist’ without any qualification in a prominent Scottish newspaper, the Daily Record. We made it clear that we defended the planned economy in Cuba, but that it would be wrong to describe it as ‘socialist’. In fact, it was essentially a one-party regime, although at times very popular with the mass of the people. Genuine socialism could only be based on workers’ democracy. Unfortunately, this position, supported throughout the CWI, was now abandoned by the leaders of the ISM. The defection of the majority of Scottish CWI members represented a blow to the Socialist Party in England and Wales and the CWI itself. Naturally, it generated a certain amount of hostility and even bitterness expressed in the days following the ‘split conference’ in Scotland. It led to a public disagreement between Tommy Sheridan and myself over our public reaction to the split in interviews with the press. Tommy Sheridan wrote to a newspaper and did not pull any punches in condemning my “actions and those of the CWI leadership in releasing the attached press release to the enemies of the socialist movement internationally and the working class in general… This discussion and debate [between us] were sometime heated but always took place in a democratic and comradely manner and atmosphere. It was very much a family affair. Unfortunately, you and the CWI have now committed a cardinal sin  within the socialist movement. You have put our disagreements into the hands of the anti-working class, anti-democratic and antisocialist press… I note your pathetic complaints when one of these grateful capitalist lapdogs ‘distorts’ what you had to say. For goodness sake, Peter, what did you expect?… This press release… will probably convince the 75% of the CWI members in Scotland who voted to leave that they were right to do so.”

I replied equally robustly: “Dear Tommy, I suppose we should be grateful that you have, at last, replied to letters and statements from me and the CWI… I was contacted by the Daily Record reporter and made my remarks, some of which were misreported… in no way do I or the CWI leadership dissociate ourselves from the decision to issue the statement or its political contents. But like Shakespeare said you ‘doth protest too much’. It was you and the ISM Majority who, via the net, broadcast to the world the news that you had departed from the CWI. This was done before the ISM Minority comrades issued their press statement… According to you, we have ‘now committed a cardinal sin’ for allowing our views to be expressed in the ‘anti-democratic and anti-socialist press and media’. But, Tommy, you wrote 80 articles in your weekly column for the ‘anti-socialist press and media’. Moreover, you have not hesitated on tv and in press statements to criticise other socialists such as Arthur Scargill and Dennis Canavan. You criticised the latter for his attempt to return to the Labour Party, despite earlier describing him as a ‘principled socialist’… are you not guilty of double standards?”

This issue of when, where and how socialists use the bourgeois press to get some of their ideas and programme broadcast, even if it took the form of criticism of others, has come up in the past and will do so in the future as well. Marx, Engels and Lenin all, at various times, used the capitalist press to get their ideas over but this did not mean that you would use any and all news outlets. There are limits. The openly reactionary semi-fascist anti-working class newspapers and media outlets were off limits. However, we pointed out: “I am afraid, Tommy, that neither the history of the working class, socialist and Marxist movement, nor our recent experiences support you on this issue. Marx wrote regularly for the New York Tribune in the 19th century. Engels contributed a number of articles to the English capitalist press. Lenin wrote an article on Marx and Marxism for the Liberal populist publication Grannat’s Encyclopaedia Dictionary. Trotsky wrote an article on Lenin in 1926 for the reactionary Encyclopaedia Britannica.” He even wrote for capitalist newspapers in order to get over necessary ideas to as wide an audience as possible.

We went on: “Yet you and your supporters have consistently accused the CWI of being ‘undemocratic’, of ‘refusing to listen’. In reality, we have listened but profoundly disagree with the political positions of yourself and your supporters. You say our disagreements were ‘very much a family affair’. But, Tommy, you have walked out of the ‘family’. We wanted to keep you and your supporters within the ranks of the CWI because we were confident that through debate, discussion and experience we would convince many of the comrades of the correctness of our position… One of the most astonishing, if not arrogant, statements in your letter is that ‘you and the CWI stand condemned for distinctly anti-socialist and anti-labour movement actions’. So public criticism of your position and those of the ISM leadership is synonymous with ‘antisocialist and anti-labour movement actions’? Don’t you think this is a wee bit intolerant and lacks a sense of proportion, Tommy?”

We concluded: “We will collaborate with all who genuinely fight to defend working class people and struggle for socialism. But at the same time, we will never hesitate to make constructive and fraternal criticisms of those ideas, policies and actions we believe will weaken the struggle for socialism. Without political clarification the working class will never be able to change society. Yours fraternally, Peter Taaffe.”2 We published lengthy aspects of this exchange of correspondence to indicate just how polarised – with charged emotions on either side – was the situation between the CWI and those like Tommy Sheridan who left. However, this did not stop us from working together with these comrades at a later stage. In particular, we energetically supported Tommy Sheridan in his conflict with what was then the SSP majority, including Alan McCombes, Frances Curran and Richard Venton, over the Murdoch press’s hounding of Tommy and the shameful support given to them by this majority. We continued to work within the SSP, but in opposition to the leadership majority who quickly moved towards a politically opportunist position.

This was revealed at the SSP conference in February 2001. In the run-up to the general election, 200 SSP members discussed the manifesto of the SSP to fight the general election. Sinead Daly moved a motion which committed the SSP to refuse to participate in an SNP administration at Holyrood (the site of the Scottish Parliament). Incredibly, SSP members argued that the party should keep their options open, but the resolution was overwhelmingly passed. Amendments from Dundee West, moved by the CWI opposition within the SSP, which argued for working class control of industry were also passed. This replaced phrases in the manifesto like “popular decentralised management” when referring to nationalised industries. However, former CWI member Alan McCombes, who proposed the manifesto, opposed an amendment from Kirkcaldy committing the SSP to an independent socialist Scotland as a step towards a socialist confederation of Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland. He argued that the manifesto had to be short and it was not the same as a programme. This left the SSP silent on the specific relations a socialist Scotland would have with other countries in the British Isles. By this kind of sleight of hand, the SSP leaders were moving away from the CWI’s clear position.

As mentioned earlier, the SSP’s new guidelines for internal discussion specifically opposed the right of platforms to sell public journals. It was Richard Venton who moved the resolution for the SSP executive. Philip Stott, in opposition, moved an alternative set of guidelines which maintained the right of platforms to publicly sell and distribute material as an organised force within the SSP. He argued that the voluntary unity of the SSP had secured its growth. Going down the road of imposing bans would repeat the mistakes of other parties including the Socialist Labour Party. He argued that it was ironic that comrades like Richard Venton, who had been expelled from the Labour Party for his association with Militant, could move such a resolution. He also pointed to the hypocrisy of the leadership platform, the ISM, who held nine out of eleven leadership positions on the executive. There was a bloc to pursue their policies, while at the same time moving guidelines that would remove the right of other platforms to do the same.

Despite his arguments, the executive motions passed by two to one – with around 60 voting against. At the same time, despite opposition disquiet, the SSP executive attempted to downgrade the annual conference by requiring that a referendum of all SSP members would be held to decide whether any conference decision to change any of the party’s ‘seven core objectives’ would be implemented. They had to retreat from this position.3 Bob Labi from the CWI and Joe Higgins from the Socialist Party Ireland gave fraternal greetings to the conference. While understanding the enthusiasm which the SSP’s good showing in the 1999 Scottish elections had given to the party, Bob argued that the party had to learn from the experience of other left forces internationally which had once scored good votes but had failed to use them to build support for socialist ideas and then gone into decline.

We faced up squarely to the setback we had suffered in Scotland. This was primarily due to objective factors: the aftermath of the collapse of Stalinism and the ideological retreat that flowed from this. This in turn had a profound effect on all aspects of the labour movement. As history demonstrates, Marxism and the revolutionary movement in general cannot remain immune from this. Inevitably, opportunist as well as ultra-left pressures were felt within the movement.

Whether or not it is possible to withstand these pressures depends on the political resistivity of the material – the political and theoretical understanding of the cadres – to rise above temporary setbacks and see the future clearly, as well as the willpower to accompany this. Very few, particularly at the top, were capable of doing so. The leadership of the CWI in Scotland, although they had  achieved a great deal in more favourable times, were incapable of keeping their political bearings in the changed situation which confronted them in the noughties. Consequently, the SSP has shrivelled and become an appendage of the SNP in the completely non-socialist referendum campaign, while the CWI in Scotland maintains an important presence, is growing and will become stronger in the future.