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The ISM, the SSP and Internationalism

interview with Alan McCombes

The following interview with Alan McCombes was published in the second issue of Red Shift, the magazine of the Socialist Solidarity Network in England. We are reproducing it because the points it deals with are extremely relevant to the ongoing debate on how socialists should organise in Scotland and internationally, on socialist regroupment and on the role of Marxists in this process. (As some of the answers indicate, the interview was conducted before the SWP [UK Socialist Workers Party] joined the SSP [Scottish Socialist Party] and before the general election).

[from Frontline, a magazine published by the International Socialist Movement, a Marxist platform within the Scottish Socialist Party]

Red Shift. ISM members like yourself and Tommy Sheridan are also leading members of the SSP. Why do you need to have a separate ISM organisation within the SSP?

AM. The SSP is markedly different from the Socialist Alliances in England and Wales, or even from its predecessor, the Scottish Socialist Alliance. Rather than a federation of separate organisations and parties, which have come together on a limited basis to fight elections or to organise a specific campaign, the SSP is a cohesive political party. The vast majority of its members participate in the party as individual members rather than as part of an affiliated organisation. We have our own staff, we have offices in Glasgow and Edinburgh, we have a fortnightly twelve-page newspaper which is about to become a 16-page weekly. The structures of a unified party are far less ramshackle or ad hoc than the structures of a looser electoral pact or coalition.

Most SSP members who were involved in the Scottish Socialist Alliance recognise that the merging of most of the resources of the components of the SSA into a single party identity was a decisive turning point in the development of an effective socialist force in Scotland.On the other hand, it was important that we did not go too far too fast in the opposite direction. In addition to the thousands of individuals who have joined, there are also groupings within the party their distinct tradition and ideological outlook. In the near future this is likely to include the SWP.

There will always be different trends of opinion in any large, growing socialist party. Inevitably, these currents will organise to one degree or another. Rather than trying to artificially impose uniformity, the approach of the SSP has been to recognise that the party is pluralist and, flowing from that, to allow ideological groupings ' defined in the party constitution as 'platforms' ' to not only exist, but also to have certain rights (e.g. representation at National Council meetings). In the future, these different trends may be less entrenched and more episodic and fluid in character, with people tending to coalesce around specific debates on specific issues rather than operate as permanent groupings.

In the meantime the ISM exists to maintain within the SSP the best traditions of the old Scottish Militant Labour organisation, which was the major driving force behind the formation first of the SSA, then of the SSP. It also exists as an educational forum to discuss political ideas in far greater depth than they can be discussed at this stage in the branches of the SSP, which, as a campaigning party, necessarily concentrates more of its attention on the immediate political questions that face working class people in Scotland rather than on in-depth theory and ideology.

The ISM does not see itself in any way as a rival to the SSP; rather we see it as a pro-SSP platform which aims to strengthen the party politically.

Why did the ISM leave the CWI?

It's well known on the left that there has been an intense political debate going back three years between the CWI and its Scottish organisation. The debate openly erupted in response to our proposals to transform the SSA into the SSP. The CWI expressed outright hostility to the proposal, though it later qualified its opposition by arguing for two alternative variants: their preferred option, which was to launch SML as a new broad SSP with SML's programme and constitution (the equivalent today in England of calling for the SWP to re-launch itself as a new broad socialist party with the SWP's programme and constitution); and their fallback option, which was to change the name of the SSA to the SSP, but maintaining SML as a separate party within that, with its own newspaper, full time staff, headquarters, branch structures etc. In effect it would have been simply to repackage the SSA rather than to form a new type of party, and would have failed to make anything like the impact that we have made. Our proposal was put forward at just the time when the Socialist Party in England and Wales and the CWI, the dominant section of the CWI, were beginning to turn lukewarm towards the idea of socialist regroupment. In retrospect, it's clear that the political divergence can be traced back several years before the proposal to launch the SSP was first raised. SML, as the ISM was called at the time, had driven towards socialist regroupment from the mid-1990s onwards. SML first raised the idea of a Scottish Socialist Alliance in mid 1995.

The Scottish Socialist Alliance was set up six months later - the first Socialist Alliance to be set up - and became the model for Socialist Alliances in England and Wales. However, the SSA was more successful, primarily, in our opinion, because SML was prepared to put more effort into the project than either of the two sizeable left organisations in England. The SWP at that stage was hostile to the idea of socialist alliances. The Socialist Party seemed to be in favour of the idea at the start, but after a few months began to draw back in favour of a strategy of building a small mass Marxist party, while its relationship with the Socialist Alliances became increasingly platonic in most areas.

In our view, the long-term strategy that we have pursued has proven a resounding success. Organisations like the SWP, which previously opposed that strategy have learned from that success. However, the CWI, instead of acknowledging its earlier mistakes, and retracing its steps, remained hostile to the SSP project and in particular to SML/ISM which forms a key part of the leadership of the SSP.

We would have had no problem remaining within the CWI if the CWI itself had even been prepared to 'agree to disagree' with our strategy and, on the basis of events and experience, assess who was right and who was wrong. Sadly, the CWI leadership grew ever more hostile as our successes multiplied. There was a strong feeling of disappointment in Scotland, and even a certain degree of anger, at the repeated denigration of the ISM and SSP. Instead of an honest political debate, our politics were being misrepresented and falsified. Moreover, from the day the debate had first begun, the CWI leadership effectively refused to co-operate or collaborate with its own section. The essence of internationalism is co-operation, collaboration and solidarity. At present, the CWI leadership seems to regard everyone who does not accept in its entirety the programme, strategy and even detailed tactics of the CWI leadership as political enemies. That is sad and hopefully it will change in the future, but it was clear there was no place for us in the CWI unless we recanted and rewrote the history of the past three years - which of course we could not possibly have done.

Despite leaving the CWI, do you still accept the need to build a revolutionary international?

Inevitably, disappointment at the role played by the CWI leadership over the past three years has led to a certain wariness or suspicion of all international forces who proclaim themselves to be the only true defenders of the Marxist faith. Our experience has certainly led us to question the ultra-centralised, top down hierarchical structures that seem to be a hallmark of a number of revolutionary and left organisations. We believe that there is much we can learn from the history of the Marxist movement internationally, but Europe in the 21st century is not the Russian Empire at the start of the 20th century, or Western Europe in the 1930s, where forms of organisation reflected the conditions in which socialists and revolutionaries operated at the time.

At this stage, the emphasis in any national or international organisation has to be on democracy and openness rather than on top-down centralism. Developments in technology, including especially the Internet, means that information can be rapidly exchanged across international boundaries, at least in the more advanced industrial countries.

This means firstly that nationally-based organisations such as the ISM and the SSP can remain in day-to-day touch with all sorts of organisations internationally and can maintain a strong internationalist outlook without necessarily being formal members of an international. If anything, our separation from the CWI has allowed us to develop much richer international links because we are able to communicate with organisations outside the CWI without being accused of political infidelity.

The communications revolution will eventually force all international organisations to reassess their own structures. The idea that all information passes through a small group of popes or cardinals - where it is then interpreted and, let's be honest, on occasion spin-doctored - before being handed down vertically to national sections has had its day.

We believe that we are now entering a period where there will be a flourishing of international debate and discussion, where there will be more information available to socialists than ever before about international developments, and that much of the information will be disseminated horizontally rather than vertically.

That does not mean we reject traditional methods of organisation such as conferences and meetings and elected committees. There is a place for all of these things; but on an international scale they tend to be quite exclusive affairs because of the costs of travel, etc. Throughout its history, only a minuscule proportion of the SML membership would ever had the opportunity to attend international conferences or to help directly shape the politics of the CWI. Whatever international information was reported in Scotland tended to be handed down second or third hand rather than direct. Communications technology is likely to mean less hierarchy and more of a level playing field and that will be reflected in the structures of any new revolutionary internationals that will emerge in the future.

Our experience in the CWI has also taught us to attach special weight and respect to the views of people on the ground. People in England, Japan or Australia are entitled to disagree with our strategy or our programme on Scotland. But often that opposition can be based on lack of information, ignorance, and prejudice rather than on a full understanding of the situation on the ground. You cannot impose a political line on a national organisation against the wishes of that organisation; nor can you generally persuade people they are wrong by shrill denunciation.

Any new international has to be united on the big international issues (e.g. opposition to capitalism, globalisation, imperialism, capitalist wars, nuclear weapons, racism, fascism; and solidarity with workers in struggle, support for progressive social movements, defence of the right of national minorities to self determination, promotion of the unity of the working class and other oppressed sections against the exploiters, support for democratic rights, acceptance of an alternative socialist vision etc). But it has to combine that with respect for national autonomy on issues of programme, policy, tactics and strategy pertinent specifically to the country concerned.

Such an international would by its nature be pluralistic and would include some quite diverse trends of opinion. It would also be democratic and would allow specific ideological groupings to organise within that international. In the event of such an international ' and the SSP is prepared to play a role in help bringing such a movement into existence when the time is right - an organisation like the ISM would probably seek to forge additional links, in a non-sectarian way, with those ideologically closest to us within that international.

Have your ideas on the nature of a future revolutionary international changed? For example, more and more emerging Marxist groups worldwide do not call themselves Trotskyist. Does this matter? Do you have to be a Trotskyist to be a revolutionary Marxist?

There are two dimensions to this question. One is a question of presentation, the other of substance. On the first point, the labels that people use to define themselves are less important to us than the politics that they fight for. Trotsky made a monumental contribution to our understanding of Stalinism and of capitalism. His analysis has been borne out by events and would now be accepted by many on the left who would not necessarily want to define themselves as Trotskyist.

For some older trade unionists, the definition 'Trotskyist' acquired negative connotations of sectarianism because of the role played by certain groups, notably the Workers' Revolutionary Party. Many newer younger activists don't like labels because they have a healthy of rejection of the cult of personality, of the idea that one individual should be regarded as the fount of all knowledge and wisdom.

And - although I wouldn't go all the way with this point - there is a feeling that looking to the future is more important than harking back to the past. Of course, we need to do both; but the label Trotskyist - even to a certain extent the definition Marxist, although that's become more generic ' can be off-putting to younger people who might agree with most of Trotsky had to say if they ever read it, but don't quite understand why activists have to define themselves by such a label.

There is a more substantial point. There are individuals and organisations who would more consciously distance themselves from Trotskyism, because they specifically reject some aspects of Trotsky's politics. Does that disqualify these individuals or organisations from being regarded as revolutionary Marxists? My answer to that would be a definite no.

Che Guevara, for example, would never have defined himself as a Trotskyist. He would have accepted many of Trotsky's ideas, especially on the need for international socialism, but would have rejected others. Some people might argue that Che was revolutionary, but not a Marxist. You then enter the arena of semantics. What is a Marxist? Someone who has read all the books and who can recite all the passages but has never led or even participated in a struggle in their life? Or someone who has led a revolution and regards themselves as a Marxist but may not be 100 per cent orthodox in their writings or speeches? I know which kind of Marxist I would rather have beside me.

Today, there are organisations like the DSP in Australia, or the SWP in Britain, who for different reasons would reject the label of Trotskyism. There are debates to be had among revolutionaries and socialists, for example on the permanent revolution, or on state capitalism. But we should be conducting these debates calmly within broader parties and within broader international organisations rather than in a sectarian fashion between rival organisations.

What do you think the main lessons of the SSP experience are for Marxists outside Scotland? What does pluralism mean in practice and what adjustments does it mean in past methods and culture?

The obvious lesson of Scotland and the SSP is that it is possible to build a viable socialist party capable of breaking big sections of the working class away from their traditional allegiances. I would warn that the experience of Scotland won't be automatically replicated, for example in England. Some specific factors have included:

That experience in Scotland has directly led to the rebuilding of the Left in England. This incidentally exposes the dogmatism of those grouplets in England who attack the SSP because it is autonomous rather than being part of an all-UK party. Truth is concrete. The SSP was only established as a viable party because the membership of the Scottish Socialist Alliance and especially of Scottish Militant Labour ' the biggest component part of the SSA ' chose to launch the SSP in the teeth of intense opposition from socialists in England. For example, the Socialist Party ' to which SML was linked ' voted overwhelmingly to oppose the SSP initiative. The other major socialist grouping in England ' the SWP - argued strongly against first the SSA then the SSP. If socialists in Scotland had not gone it alone, formed their own organisations, taken their own decisions, the Left in Scotland would not have made the advances it has, because the SSP would not have been launched. As a consequence the left in England and Wales would also be weaker because it was only the success in action of the Scottish Socialist Party - in defiance of the majority of the Left in England - that paved the way for the important developments we are now seeing in England and Wales.

What is your experience of the SWP in Scotland over the last 20 years so?

The SWP have a positive record in certain areas. For example, they campaigned vigorously against the Gulf War and against the Balkans War. They've also put a lot of effort into anti-racist activity and into campaigning on issues affecting students. They have also a good track record of raising money and building support for workers in struggle. But it would be dishonest to pretend that it's all been sweetness and light. The SWP over the past number of years have made some quite serious political mistakes which has left them weaker in Scotland with less influence than they have been able to achieve elsewhere. A big part of the problem for the SWP in Scotland has been the over-centralisation of their organisation, where decisions tend to be taken in London then implemented uniformly throughout Britain. For example, the SWP misjudged the mood on the Poll Tax and instead of uniting with those building a mass campaign in the communities began by opposing the mass non-payment campaign and counterposing to it the official labour movement campaign which was designed not to fight the Poll Tax, but to derail people from fighting the Poll Tax.

This was a mistake which the SWP later rectified in England, but in Scotland, where the Poll Tax was implemented a year earlier, they became quite isolated for a time. They also made serious mistakes during the campaign against the Criminal Justice Act by counterposing an SWP-run campaign based in London to the broad-based organisation in Scotland which involved a range of socialists, trade unionists, environmentalists, anarchists and animal rights campaigners. The other problem I think the SWP have had is with the national question. Socialism and internationalism are inseparable, but the SWP has in the past gone too far in simply counterposing workers unity to national rights for the people of Scotland. In Scotland there is a strong class dimension to the national question and there is also an important national dimension to the class struggle as it is expressed in Scotland.

Having said that, the SWP will no doubt have their own criticisms of SML in the past. On both sides we have to try and set aside past conflicts to concentrate on the future. I'm greatly encouraged by the trajectory of the SWP over the past year or so, their involvement in the Socialist Alliances, their positive attitude to the SSP, their preparedness to adopt a more sympathetic and sensitive attitude to the national question.

The fact that the SWP are preparing to join the SSP to create a single socialist party with a single newspaper is potentially an important step forward. It won't be easy to overcome decades of conflict and suspicion on either side. It will take patience and tolerance, not just on the part of the leaderships of the SSP and the SWP, but on also on the part of the general membership. One big strength of the SWP is their willingness of their members to engage in activity. If they can channel that activity for the benefit of the SSP, in a sensitive way that avoids friction between SSP and SWP members, the movement for socialism in Scotland will be significantly strengthened.

Tony Benn has recently said that 'socialists are no longer on the defensive'. Do you agree?

It's true that socialism was on the defensive for most of the 1990s, though it would be a mistake to be too sweeping on that point. In Scotland, for example, support for redistribution of wealth, public services, and public ownership at least of the privatised utilities remained strong, as did opposition to nuclear weapons.

The SSP was launched at the end of 1998, more than a year before Seattle and the movements against global capitalism. That first year was a huge success, where during which the SSP won a seat in the Scottish Parliament, then won 4 per cent of the vote in the European elections and went on to win third place in a Westminster by-election. The Left in France also made a big impact in this period before the anti-globalisation movements began to emerge. Now we're fighting on more favourable terrain. Instead of feeling that socialism in Scotland is quite isolated, we see a growing anti-capitalist mood across the world, which in turn will help to galvanise the movement here in Scotland. It is significant that this upsurge of opposition to capitalism has taken place at a time when the UK economy is allegedly in its strongest, healthiest state for a generation. If the current stock exchange crisis precipitates a severe downturn in the American, European and British economies, we could see socialist parties growing rapidly and a new mass politicisation of young people, and of the working class generally.

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