Friday 7 November 2014

Socialist Appeal's Scottish Turn

Earth shattering events have earth shattering consequences. The consequences of the Scottish referendum have been seismic. Labour north of the border is a bruised sack of bones and skin, punch drunk by a collapsing membership and a fed up electorate. Meanwhile, the nationalist parties - the SNP, but also the Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party - are riding high on the many hundreds of thousands drawn into politics for the first time. Things will never be the same again.

Nor will it be for one of Britain's most dogmatic Trotskyist groups. The group known after its dull and dreary journal, Socialist Appeal, has distinguished itself during the last 23 years of its existence as one of the most undistinguished components of British Trotskyism. SA was born of a split in the old Militant Tendency after a factional struggle over the character of and orientation to the Labour Party. The majority's argument was that as radicalised workers and youth were to be found increasingly outside Labour's ranks, it made sense for Militant to abandon its orientation toward capturing constituency parties and other official bodies and intersect with this potential pool of new recruits. The minority, containing Militant founder and guru Ted Grant, opposed this perspective. Their view was that as the working class start moving, they mechanically work their way through the institutions the labour movement had built up - including Labour.

The disappearance of militant trade unionists and radicalised young people from Labour's ranks, and the political shift to the right was a consequence of the strategic defeats of the 1980s and the restructuring of British capital. These tended toward the disaggregation and individuation of class, making collective action harder to sustain and throwing back consciousness of its potential. Indeed, those same tendencies continue unabated, still. So both the majority and minority were wrong. There were no radical rich pickings to be had outside the Labour Party. Nor were the battalions of fresh, angry proletarians going to appear to fill out the party's ranks. And yet, both factions were right: neither orientation allowed for the building of a substantial revolutionary party organised along (self-defined) Leninist lines.

Yet, SA have now changed their minds. In an article that makes it sound as though Scotland is in a pre-revolutionary situation, they note that post-referendum, many radical embers remain aglow. Compared with plodding along among the "13,000, mostly inactive older people" of Scottish Labour, the leftwing of the Yes movement is pregnant with opportunities. Unfortunately, SA's attempt to intersect with the 45'ers is hindered in two significant respects.

1. The SSP has clearly regained some ground it lost in the late part of the last decade, showing there may well be life after being left for dead by "Scotland's most iconic post-war socialist". As such, they are the initial focus of the SA entry job. The potential difficulty is the Grantites haven't done their homework. Tommy was able to almost destroy the SSP because he was aided and abetted by the CWI and Socialist Worker platforms, both of whom owed their loyalties to leaderships outside the SSP. True, Appeal have - at best - a handful of members in Scotland, but there will be more than a few party activists knocking about less than keen to see another centralist Trot sect pony up asking for admittance. Especially when the article is explicit that it sees the SSP as a means to an end.

2. Socialist Appeal have a huge disadvantage. The SSP are a pro-independence organisation. The much-reduced SWP and Scottish CWI are likewise. Chris Bambery's International Socialist Group were/are a big player in the Radical Independence Campaign. The IMT is not. In fact, in an article published on referendum day, they argued "a separate Scotland would serve to divide Scottish workers from their brothers and sisters down south. An independent Scotland would put Scottish workers and those in the rest of Britain in direct competition." And "On a class basis, an independent Scotland would be a step backward for the historic unity of the working class in Scotland as well as the rest of the UK." Oh dear.

The prospects for the IMT's Scottish turn aren't looking good, and that's before you consider them alongside their much more dynamic, colourful competition and the dead end stupidity of building a (ostensibly) revolutionary organisation. And what does this mean for SA elsewhere? Their entry into the SSP jeopardises their relationship to the Labour Representation Committee. And if it doesn't, the LRC itself might encounter "difficulties" because its affiliate has buddied up with an electoral competitor.

Whatever happens, I confidently predict that the radicalised workers and youth of Scotland will somehow resist Socialist Appeal's beguiling charms and it will, deservedly, remain as irrelevant as it always has been.


Ken said...

I met two or three supporters of Socialist Appeal in Scotland after a debate on the left and independence at Edinburgh University Socialist Society. They were young, energetic and open to discussion. But I didn't expect this!

Three things I find hard to understand about their shift:

Opposing the original Scottish Turn and later disdaining the SSP as 'a sect, or rather several sects' was part of the group's DNA and USP, as Alan Woods has recently been reminding us at length in his biography of Ted Grant. I do wonder if Woods feels as if history is repeating itself.

Second: the Scottish Labour Party is having a leadership election that for the first time in ages poses a clear left-right divide, and that raises interest, involvement and debate inside and outside the party, in the unions, etc. What a time to flounce out!

And finally, the logic of their position would surely be to enter the SNP, as the mass party which so many newly politicised workers and youth are joining. (Grant was right about this, newly politicised/radicalised people do turn at first to the first mass party to hand.) The SNP is not a working-class party, sure, but that hasn't stopped their tendency from joining and working in 'national' and 'people's' parties in other countries.

Phil said...

I think doing an entry job on the SNP would be too much for them. While working in outright bourgeois parties in, say, Pakistan can be excused because of the "special circumstances" of those countries , the dogma and the revolutionary identity politics at play rules it out.

I wonder how this turn has gone down with the membership? CWI comrades, including many who weren't even born when the split happened, much less involved; have been having a reet larf about it.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the supporters of Socialist Appeal will push their organisation to re-think this move - for many of the reasons you have set out.

mat said...

Apologies for the late comment, I've only just seen this post.

First of all Ken I would have to submit your description of Socialist Appeal having disdain for the SSP as part of their DNA to the Private Eye column on usage of that term, if I didn't think the subject was too obscure.

Secondly while this was an enjoyable article - I think really the tl:dr explains all.

Tiny weird Trot sect does weird thing. Somethings are beyond our ken (no pun intended).

Ken said...

Fair catch, Mat! Perhaps I should have called it hardwired, or been even more pretentious and called it part of their OS kernel, or (That's quite enough - ed.).

Yes, it's an obscure topic even for most of the readers of this blog. But, while Socialist Appeal in Scotland may be tiny, they aren't weird (as such things go).

And small as they are, they do indicate which way the wind's blowing. What those of us on the left who were for No have to recognise is that the Yes campaign brought about what some on the far left have sought in vain for lifetimes: a mass current to the left of the Labour Party. Very raw in some of its expressions, 'left populist' rather than socialist perhaps, but a definite new radical force far wider and deeper rooted than any of the far left's electoral alliances. And a lot of this has gone into the SNP, at least for now.

Phil said...

Indeed, Ken. What happens to that left current will be interesting. Nicola Sturgeon is a genuine social democrat IMO, but even she will have trouble reining in the new members that have *swamped* the existing SNP apparatus. Alas, my gut tells me that as per history, when mass mobilisations are captured by parties ultimately not rooted in the working class and have entirely different priorities, either the organisation is swept away or the upsurge peters out. Which is it to be?

Bob Wade said...

Sorry for the late entry, but hey, I’m on the road and hotel rooms get boring!

Yes, to the uninitiated, Socialist Appeal’s sudden turn to the SSP may seem surprising. But if you look at the group’s two leading influencers – the late Ted Grant and now Alan Woods – both historically have taken such sharp tactical turns as and when they thought necessary; they were not always wed to entryism.

Ted Grant in the 1930s and 1940s was instrumental in establishing the Workers International League and then the Revolutionary Communist Party, which worked as ‘open parties’ even though all members retained their Labour Party cards.

When in the Labour Party, Grant took his troops back out in 1956 to campaign openly as the Revolutionary Socialist League in a ‘sharp turn’ to try and recruit Communist Party members who were leaving in droves over the Hungarian Uprising. Even at its height of the triumph of entryism, there was not a slavish addiction to entryism (remember ‘PNP Youth’ in the ‘78/79?).

It’s the same for Alan Woods, for most of this period leading the Grant group, ‘Neuvo Claridad’, in Spain. The attempt at entry into the main Spanish workers’ party, PSOE, was thwarted with NC expelled en masse in 1977. While sticking to the entry perspective. Woods’s group did not sit idly by waiting ‘Godot-like’ for better times but instead intervened where they could.

There was no ‘PSOE fetish’. They continued entry work where they could within the PSOE youth sections, but at the same time set up CSI Eskerra Marxista in the Basque lands as a counter to the resurgent Basque nationalist party, while in 1984, where not just the NC organisation but the entire membership was expelled from the UGT in Alava, they formed an independent trade union, UST (later accepted back into the UGT). For similar reasons the CST independent union was set up by the NC leadership in Navarra.

When the big bust-up in Militant came in 1991/92, one of the accusations against Grant and Woods was that they were “dogmatic” on entry tactics, when a quick look at history proves otherwise. Indeed, at the time of the “parting of the ways” as Taaffe eloquently put it, Woods’s Spanish organisation had just launched the students union, SE, in Spain which was holding mass protests against NATO. So, hardly an inflexible approach to tactics and an indicator to today’s decision on the SSP.

Woods’s Spanish experiences may have concentrated the IMT’s mind - the sudden rise of Podemos in Spain does appear to have characteristics shared to the Scottish referendum. For once in Scotland, the masses were stirred into real debate – this was not the usual vote for twiddle-dee or twiddle-dum, or to vote ‘against’ something; it was a vote FOR something, which in turn stimulated the debate on what ‘For’ actually looked like. So there was heat and passion for once – a rare commodity these days.

The SSP are clearly under rapid regeneration, as is, as the IMT points out, the Radical Independence Campaign. This is all for the good, and Marxists surely don’t walk away from such developments (albeit muttering into their sleeve ‘bugger, didn’t see that one coming’).

We all know an ‘independent socialist Scotland’ in isolation would never work - we all know that’s the truth and we always need to tell the workers the truth and not cast illusions. But like the good Marxist shepherds that we all are, we would use such a development to guide the masses towards international solidarity and help them to use this beacon to ignite the world. Our position should be that of James Connelly in 1916 or Trotsky and Lenin during the ‘July Days’: if the class is on the move, you go with them, even if it is in the wrong direction, working alongside them while you ‘patiently explain’ your position, hoping to win them back to the true path.

Sermon over. I’ll go back to sleep now.

Anonymous said...

Dear all,

In fact, the new "Scottish Turn" of the IMT has already been abandoned. It happened like this. After the referendum was over, new paper called "Revolution" was published in the name of the "Scottish Committee of the IMT". It rather ambiguously seemed to give support to the slogan of an Independant Socialist Scotland, and also issued a call fair what amounted to abandoning Labour and joining the SSP, in spite of having qualified this organisation as an "insignificant sect" a short while before. An internal document claimed that this turn should have been made a long time ago, but that this was prevented by "fetishists" among the scottish members of the IMT.

So the scene was apparently set for a "turn" imposed from above. But it didn't happen, because the membership in Scotland vigourously protested. The majority of them did not agree with the slogan for an independant Scotland. Nobody had asked for their opinion on the matter, in any case. They also pointed out that the "Scottish Committee of the IMT" does not exist and that the Scottish comrades knew nothing of the project for a new journal. Finally, they did not agree with the turn to the SSP and resented having been cast in the role of "fetishists", being completely unaware of any previous attempt to herd them into the SSP.

So basically, after a belated attempt to convince the members in Scotland had failed, and since no "scottish turn" is possible without the Scots, the new paper was dropped, as was the slogan for independance and the turn to the SSP.

Not wanted to risk expulsion for the moment, I will sign as "Anonymous".

Phil said...

Thanks for the update, Anonymous. Very interesting. So where did the decision originate from, was it the powers-that-be in London? If so, and using entry work in Pakistan as a precedent, surely it would have been more profitable to have done an entry job on the SNP. I see that a self-described revolutionary and Tommy Sheridan fan has been selected as a SNP PPC. There's the opportunities.

Anonymous said...


The decision was taken by the International Secretariat, which is trying to impose "turns" on just about all of what remains of the international sections of the IMT, to get them to turn away from the workers organisations, which are generally considered as offering little prospects for the IMT.

The obsession is with "quick" results in terms of membership growth, but the results have been quite the opposite in most cases.

All of the Latin American sections - which were growing significantly in the past - have sharply declined over recent years, and some have disappeared completely. There is still an organisationally viable section (formerly Lambertist) in Brazil. The IS strongly disagrees with the politics of this section, but wants to avoid a clash for the time being. It was hoping to find points of support within the section against the existing leadership, but has been unable to do this.

In continental Europe, overall membership is much lower than it was 5 or 6 years ago. Spain went from 500 to 50, Denmark from 65 to 12 or 13. Belgium has had a couple of dozen members, at the most, for the last 25 years. Most of the membership in France broke away last year. Outside of Pakistan, where there is a potentially powerful base, the world membership of the IMT is no more than 1000.

Here in Britain - although not in Scotland - there has been some growth among students, but this has been at the price of losing most of the worker membership.


Vinyl Miner said...

Seem to be a few Sheridan friendly SNP people popping up and the SNP are keeping their eyes on things. The fact that TS was calling on people to join the SNP and not Solidarity and its allies is interesting. On being asked about this he did belatedly ask people to join his party. Still waiting for someone to point out Scotland is probably bankrupt and the NHS on verge of collapse.

sheraz mel said...

The same undemocratic decisions and sudden turns of international secretariate of the IMT has destroid the powerful base of the organization in Pakistan too, the IS of IMT suddenly announced in a king's decree that centrism in the workers traditional party and workers union is extreme opportunism without any debate or taking the opinion of even the highest body of the section. IS expelled 2450 members of the section out of 2500. Now IS has the same quantity for their quality having above in the IS.IMT should appologise CWI for their split in 90s, because IMT is now on the same path where CWI decoded 30 years earlier.

Unknown said...

Hi comrades, Very interesting discussion and all contributions were helpful. Bob Wade gave a very good rundown of Ted's tendency,
Ted was always flexible and always oriented to the class.He always stressed the need to avoid opportunism and ultra-leftism and steer a steady course, you do that and we'll be set fair he'd say.

What would he say today? He would have called for a no vote in indyref but would not have supported joining the SNP which would confuse workers as a 180o turn.

He would not tail-end the pro-independence Lefts but ask his comrades to mix in these circles explaining that Independence will be no solution, especially now, and there are no shortcuts to building.

I couldn't really believe a Scottish turn to the SSP was true at first. My god, a few short months later Corbyn got on the ballot. That tactic shows me they have lost touch and are swayed by stirring reports from Scotland of how we will be left behind etc., when, had they held their nerve it was all going to land in their lap!

Cde Anonymous mentioned they attacked fetishists is not surprising, I would be their first 'fetishist' back then, steering that steady course and remaining patient, so that was rumbling for a while...they must have had a knee-jerk reaction to the activity and jumped from no to yes camp. sheesh

Look at how it all panned out, this is a confirmation of the perspectives of Ted Grant. Look up his archive online...btw you could say his timing was wrong, but he would say the world ruling class created a false boom which the working mass are now facing the bill i.e. they delayed it 20 years but no more.

Any trained marxist must know that the period opening up is set to be the most stormy in history, the mole of the revolution is on the move and now everything is ruled in. And the break came in the mass party, Corbyn on the ballot lit the fuse. Now the lp is filling out again big time...all socialists worthy of the name should be helping in this battle as the class issues come to the fore, cutting across narrow petty bourg nationalism

The class her will swing against the SNP when they realise Sturgeon cannot deliver on anything except disaster, she doesn't know yet.

I'm glad the Scottish cds held firm and rejected Woods' Ted said then and would say a detour over a cliff.

comradely regards graham, Edinburgh