After the Scottish elections: How Is Socialism To Be Won?

THE SCOTTISH Socialist Party (SSP) now has six MSPs elected to the Scottish parliament.

This important breakthrough can help socialists reach a new generation seeking an alternative to poverty, low pay, racism and war.

But how is socialism to be won?

PHILIP STOTT (International Socialists, CWI Scotland) looks at the SSP’s current manifesto and recent statements by leading SSP members and contrasts that to the kind of programme the International Socialists believe is needed to achieve socialism.

AT THE elections the SSP stood on a platform of five “fast track” pledges all of which the International Socialists supported. They were: scrapping the council tax and replacing it with a wealth tax, introducing free school meals for all pupils, a higher minimum wage and a shorter working week for public-sector workers, and scrapping PFI and PPP privatisation schemes.

The SSP manifesto also outlined a further 200 demands that could be implemented under the current powers of Scotland’s parliament. Again the International Socialists supported the vast majority of these proposals.

So what differences do the International Socialists (CWI) and the SSP leadership have on a socialist programme for Scotland?

One section of the SSP election manifesto argued that countries like Norway and Denmark, while still being free-market economies, nevertheless show: “Yes, you can tax the rich. Yes, you can have public ownership of North Sea oil and other profitable industries. Yes, you can impose higher taxes on big business. Yes, you can invest in high quality public services”.

SSP convenor Tommy Sheridan developed this idea in a BBC interview (20 April): “… a number of countries… have a successful mix of public ownership and high taxation… like Norway and Denmark they manage to combine high levels of public ownership with high taxation for the wealthy.”

These quotes, and many others like it, show the SSP leadership’s changing position. They believe that by taxing the rich and big business, without ending capitalism, they could at least significantly, and for the long term, reduce poverty and inequality levels in Scotland.

Of course the International Socialists supports SSP demands for increased corporation tax on big business and higher personal tax on the wealthy. We support, for example, the scrapping of council tax and its replacement with a wealth tax heavily weighted towards making the rich pay far more for local government services.

These measures form part of our programme that aims to eradicate poverty and low pay permanently, but only if they’re linked to the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of a socialist society based on workers’ control and management of the economy and a democratic plan of production.

The lessons of left and radical governments that came to power but failed to bring the economy and the state under the control of the working class proves that limited action against the capitalist class’s power and privilege cannot provide a long term solution.

Francois Mitterrand’s Socialist Party government won power in 1981 in France, promising increased employment, more money for health and education and increased taxes on big business.

Under immense pressure from the International Monetary Fund and French big business who threatened a ‘strike of capital’, they eventually ended up carrying through counter-reforms against the interests of the French working and middle classes, because Mitterrand’s government refused to break with capitalism.

This was also the experience of some of the radical governments that came to power in Latin America with mass support among the population such as Chavez in Venezuela in 1998.

Fighting for reforms

THE CWI fights for every advance for the working class that can be wrung out of capitalism. After all it was Militant (the forerunner of the Socialist Party in Britain) that played a leading role in Liverpool city council’s struggle in the 1980s. This movement, involving tens of thousands of council workers and sections of the wider working class, took on and defeated the Tory government and won significant improvements in housing, education, nursery provision etc.

Militant, in Scotland and Britain (which then included Tommy Sheridan and other SSP leaders) were central to building the mass non-payment campaign that defeated the poll tax and removed Thatcher from power. In Ireland we led the mass campaign that defeated the water charges imposed by right wing governments in the 1990s.

Victories can be won and reforms gained for working class people. But we always explain that unless, or until, capitalism is overthrown the ruling class will return time and again to try and remove the working class movement’s past gains.

What they are forced to give up with one hand, they try to take back with the other. Under capitalism reforms can turn into counter-reforms, so we tie the struggle for immediate reforms to the idea of the socialist transformation of society.

At all times, we seek to build the membership of our Marxist organisation, because we believe that a mass party armed with a Marxist programme is essential for the overthrow of capitalism and the building of a socialist society.

Despite victories in Liverpool in the 1980s the issues of poverty, low pay and social deprivation have not been resolved. While the mass movement removed the poll tax from the statute books its replacement, the council tax, has proved an intolerable burden on working-class families.

A consistently socialist position – a Marxist programme – means explaining why fighting for reforms on their own is not enough. Reforms won under capitalism still leave the economy in the capitalist class’s hands. We always put demands such as a wealth tax in the context of advancing the need for workers’ control and management over the economy.

This can only be done by bringing into public ownership the multinational corporations that dominate the economy under the democratic control and management of the working class.

The capitalist class resist – and will keep resisting – paying more tax on their personal wealth and that of businesses they own and control. They also use intricate manoeuvres of tax avoidance, hidden and offshore bank accounts etc. and even threaten to remove funds from the economy if their interests are at risk i.e. a ‘strike of capital’.

Such a tactic was even threatened against Harold Wilson’s 1964-70 Labour government when they proposed mild tax rises on big business and the rich.

For two decades after World War Two, workers won significant reforms in countries like Sweden, Norway and Denmark – and in Scotland and Britain. This was during an unprecedented economic upswing, the post-war capitalist boom, which ended by the mid-1970s.

Economic crisis

THE RETURN of economic crisis, stagnation and recession forced a change in capitalism’s policies. Not the Scandinavian model but Thatcher’s “British model” – free market policies, slashed welfare spending, casualisation of work, privatisation and social cuts – became the ruling class’ new policy internationally.

This position has now been adopted by Swedish, German and other European capitalist governments, both by traditional ruling-class parties, and by former workers’ parties like New Labour and the German and Swedish Social Democrats.

Falling profits and low growth necessitate capitalist attacks on the working class. Rather than the whim of individuals, this policy of the capitalist class internationally is based on the objective crisis they now face, as they try to undermine workers’ gains from a previous period.

The SSP’s manifesto argues the opposite, claiming: “It is not economics, but politics that dictates that big business in Scotland and across the UK makes sky-high profits while poverty runs rampant and public services disintegrate.”

In reality capitalism’s economic crisis ultimately drives governments’ political policy. Of course the strength and cohesion of the working class and the role of the trade unions and working-class political parties have a critical role to play in holding back such attacks. That’s why we campaign to build powerful trade unions with fighting policies and new mass workers’ parties that can defend the working class and prepare a movement to end capitalism.

However, while capitalism exists there can be no permanent eradication of poverty, exploitation or inequality. Comparisons with Norway and Denmark in the SSP manifesto can create illusions that higher taxes on the rich and limited public ownership could lead to a significant long term reduction of poverty.

A mixed economy

Interview with Tommy Sheridan, The Herald, 30 April 2003

Alf Young, The Herald: Isn’t there an ultimate condition that you’re seeking to reach, one where the market has no role to play, that the state can do everything?

Tommy Sheridan: No. We very much believe in a mixed economy.

AY: It doesn’t sound like it, Tommy.

TS: Well, our mix is different from New Labour’s mix. Labour would like to add a wee drop of whisky to the Atlantic Ocean and say that’s a mixed economy. We think that’s wrong. We think there’s a larger role for the public sector to play.

THE IDEA of a mixed economy i.e. public ownership of some sectors of the economy existing alongside a “regulated” big business sector isn’t new. It is another variant of capitalism. These ideas have existed in the working-class movement since its inception. They are reformist in that they seek to reform capitalism or achieve socialism through gradual changes in how capitalism operates.

Marxism consistently points out that what you don’t own, you can’t control. To limit your demands to the democratic public ownership of a limited part of the economy is to leave most of it in the hands of the capitalists.

If an SSP government came to power and decided to nationalise 20% of the economy, but left 80% in private hands, the 80% would dictate terms to the 20% not the other way around. Marxists struggle to build a party and a movement armed with a clear socialist programme. This programme stands for the public ownership of the decisive sections of the economy under democratic working-class control.

Interview with Tommy Sheridan, The Herald, 30 April.

Herald: Would you nationalise Tesco?

TS: I don’t think there’s a need to nationalise Tesco right now. What I think there’s a need for is to impose on Tesco proper wages and employment conditions. What we would be doing is regulating business. You don’t have to own it, you just regulate it.

TESCO IS a multi-million pound supermarket chain which made over £1 billion profits last year. How could you stop the massive mark-up on food bought by consumers; prevent the rip-off of small farmers and other small food producers driven to ruin by the supermarket chains that dominate the food industry; guarantee decent wages for Tesco workers unless Tesco and other food giants are brought into public ownership?

The same goes for every other sector of the economy. The “commanding heights” of the economy must be owned and controlled by society as a whole through a socialist plan of production.

Tommy Sheridan also told The Herald: “It’s worth remembering that 99.9% of the Scottish economy is small business.” The logic of this argument is that 99.9% of the economy would remain in private hands under an SSP government.

Yet the Scottish economy is dominated by big business, both indigenous to Scotland and foreign owned corporations. Scotland’s publicly traded companies reached a market value of £101.2 billion at the end of April. Once you add on the non-publicly traded companies and foreign-owned multinationals a thousand threads tie Scotland’s economy to big international capitalism. The small business sector is totally reliant on big business for markets to sell their goods.

The national question

UNDERPINNING THE SSP leadership’s political shift towards reformist ideas is their view that the struggle for socialism in Scotland will take place isolated from the rest of the world. The manifesto says: “We repudiate the fictional claim that in the new globalised economy an independent Scotland would be powerless to tax the rich, wipe out poverty.”

Firstly, we never accepted that an independent Scotland could “wipe out poverty” unless capitalism was ended and a socialist Scotland established. We argue for an independent socialist Scotland that would link up, in a voluntary socialist confederation, with other socialist states.

Secondly, to stand up to the globalised economy i.e. a hostile international capitalist class that would seek to crush a socialist society wherever it existed, that struggle has to be internationalist. A socialist Scotland would need to appeal to the working class worldwide, starting in the rest of Britain and Ireland for support and for the overthrow of capitalism in other countries.

Tommy Sheridan’s statement about not nationalising Tesco flows from the idea that you can’t deal with multinational companies in a Scottish context, other than by “regulating” them. It is a recognition that within the limits of an isolated Scotland there would be limits on what could be achieved. But it is wrong to view it in that way.

If the socialist transformation of society takes place in Scotland first, which is by no means certain, the long-term survival of a socialist Scotland would depend on the spreading of a socialist revolution internationally.

Globalisation has further accelerated the concentration of capitalist wealth and power, which has unfolded for over 150 years, into fewer and fewer hands. Some 150 corporations dominate the British economy. Around 500 transnational corporations control 90% of world trade.

We are fighting to build a mass movement that would bring those economic colossi into the hands of the world’s workers and poor masses. This would release the resources to transform the lives of billions of people. This can only be done by ending capitalism internationally.

Instead of the environmentally damaging, destructive anarchy of capitalism, a socialist society would plan production, through setting up democratically elected committees involving the workers in those industries and across the country.

Through these bodies – organised locally, regionally, nationally and internationally – it would be possible to work out an economic plan based on need, where production for profit would be ended. A socialist plan of production would work out an overall outline of what goods and resources society required. This would involve an agreement on what was needed for investment in health, education, housing and other public services.

On that basis socialists could end the enormous waste and duplication of the capitalist mode of production. A socialist society could harness the wealth and productive potential to eradicate poverty and hunger both in Scotland and internationally.

Socialist nationalisation has nothing in common with nationalisation of, for example, the Norwegian oil industry. That’s a capitalist state-run industry, and like nationalisation in Britain in the past, railways, mines etc. are not under the control of the working class, nor are its profits used primarily to improve the lives of trade unionists, young people or pensioners.

By fighting for a socialist plan of production – both in Scotland and internationally – which would utilise society’s wealth and productive potential, the world could be transformed.

Capitalism with all its advances in science and technology and the massive accumulation of wealth has created the means to abolish hunger and poverty and disease for all humankind. A new Scotland and a new world are possible. It has to be a socialist one.

  • Renationalise the privatised railways, gas, electricity, telecoms etc.
  • For the public ownership of the major monopolies that dominate the Scottish economy under democratic working class control and management.
  • Seize the assets of multinational companies that pull out of Scotland.
  • For a socialist plan of production that would link Scotland with England, Wales and Ireland as part of a socialist plan internationally.

About the international Socialists:

THE INTERNATIONAL Socialists play an active role in the SSP.

We are committed to building the SSP into a mass force with a clear socialist programme. Like the Socialist Party, we’re also part of the worldwide socialist and Marxist movement the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) which is active in 36 countries.

Up until 2001 many leading members of the SSP including Tommy Sheridan MSP and Alan McCombes, the editor of the SSP paper Scottish Socialist Voice who drafted the SSP manifesto, were members of the CWI.

They left after a lengthy debate about the need to build support for a Marxist organisation and programme while also building the SSP. They rejected that idea. Unfortunately many of the SSP leadership’s ideas today represent a decisive break with Marxism and the programme of the CWI.

Both the SSP manifesto and recent statements by SSP MSP Tommy Sheridan show that a significant change is taking place in the SSP leadership’s political position. Moreover, they now argue for ideas that they previously vehemently opposed. We respond to try to clarify the programme that we believe is needed to overthrow capitalism and establish a socialist society, in Scotland and internationally.