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Grant and the CWI: Between Labourism and nationalism

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Jeremy Dewar examines the fall out post-split and what the political trajectory of both wings of the Grantite tradition regarding the Scottish national question

Last October Militant held a special conference to discuss a new turn for the group. For decades Militant had stuck firmly to a perspective of strategic work inside the British Labour Party. Anything that threatened their position in the Labour Party was avoided.

The biggest crime of all, according to Militant, was to try to build an independent revolutionary organisation outside of the Labour Party. Only “sectarians on the fringes of the labour movement”, impatient with workers’ seemingly undying allegiance to their traditional reformist organisations, would attempt to recruit directly to an independent revolutionary banner.

Preserving their position in the Labour Party at all costs was justified through a lifeless schema which regularly predicted imminent economic slumps. These capitalist crises, it was argued, would produce massive radicalisations of the working class who would flood into the Labour Party where they would find the “Marxist wing” ready and waiting to transform the Labour Party into an instrument for seizing working class power.

This schema has been proved thoroughly bankrupt, in particular during the anti-poll tax struggle.

Militant became nationally famous over Liverpool Council’s initial defiance of the Tories. But in 1984 and again in 1985 they climbed down, first hailing a rotten compromise which took Liverpool out of the potential generalising mass movement around the striking miners. The Labour Party leadership took the opportunity of the second climbdown and the miners’ defeat to launch a savage witch-hunt against the left. Militant , as the largest organised left force in the party, soon became Kinnock’s prime target. They avoided a head on clash and frittered away many of their gains of the early 1980s.

The poll tax struggle, however, gave them another opportunity for mass influence. Yet despite playing a central leadership role in the movement, their activists found it increasingly difficult to recruit workers into a Labour Party which not only denounced the non-payment movement but actively hounded the non-payers. Nowhere was this more the case than in Scotland where the anti-poll tax struggle was strongest.

In May 1988, Militant supporters encouraged 500 anti-poll tax fighters to apply for membership of Pollok Labour Party in Glasgow. They were all turned down. As a result of this and similar events, as well as the Scottish Labour Councils’ role in implementing the hated tax, neither Labour nor Militant grew from the radicalisation of Scottish youth. The Scottish National Party (SNP) did. It was this series of events that encouraged the majority at Militant’s special conference to set up a separate and open organisation, Scottish Militant Labour (SML).

A minority faction, led by Ted Grant, Rob Sewell and Alan Woods, has since split from the Militant and are now organised around a new monthly review, Socialist Appeal (SA). SA have recently launched a public polemic against Militant and the SML in their pamphlet Scotland—Socialism or Nationalism by Ted Grant.

Grant’s pamphlet attacks the SML as an impatient adventure that makes unnecessary and dangerous adaptations to Scottish nationalism. While Grant is able to make many correct points in relation to SML’s opportunist adaptation to Scottish nationalism, he does it from the point of view of a complete defence of Militant’s old bankrupt strategy.

Grant correctly takes the SML and the Militant to task for their softness on the Scottish National Party (SNP). He points out how a series of articles in their papers fail to develop any serious critique of the SNP, how the Militant (20.9.91) can declare that in Scotland “It is the SNP which stands on a radical, left wing programme”. He quotes leading SML members as characterising Scottish nationalism as being the “outer shell of an immature Bolshevism”!

With a few pointers as to what the SNP actually stands on Grant quickly disposes of this drivel:

“In its 1987 Manifesto, [the SNP] talks about ‘an independent Scotland [being] governed by a democratic parliament. The head of state [will] be the Queen in a limited constitutional monarchy’. Their present policies talk about ‘a Scottish currency in the ERM, bolstered by strong exports and oil revenues’. It stood for ‘Tax reform that will remove the higher business rate burden that is crippling Scottish business’.” (p3)

Grant also quotes the SNP’s record of voting for the anti-union laws in Westminster and implementing the poll tax in Angus Regional Council where they held office.

In contrast to the SML, Grant argues that the way to win young workers from Scottish nationalism is not to adapt to it but to take “an implacable stand against this trend. We must above all expose its reactionary divisive character which poses colossal dangers for the working class movement”. He goes on to correctly argue:

“Marxists defend the right of the Scottish people to self-determination. But, in the first place this does not mean that we take it upon ourselves to advocate separation. On the contrary we must fight against it.”

But Grant himself ends up taking far from an “implacable” stand against Scottish nationalism. For all his polemical intransigence he too ends up tailing the Labour leaders in advocating a Scottish Assembly:

“While we stand firmly for the idea of a Scottish assembly with real powers, as one of our democratic demands, we must honestly explain to workers, that such an assembly, on a capitalist basis, would not be able to resolve the fundamental problems of the Scottish people.” (p6)

This is completely contradictory. The call for the Assembly, he says, is a “democratic demand”, i.e. on the terrain of capitalism, but at the same time it is absolutely useless to “resolve the fundamental problems of the Scottish people”! Indeed it is. That is why Marxists should not advocate it as any kind of solution to the problems facing Scottish workers. What “real powers” would Grant give it? If he advocated that it had sovereign powers, i.e. that it was in effect a constituent assembly, this would indeed be a real democratic demand but it would also concede the necessity of independence for Scotland.

Then of course real revolutionaries would have to fight inside and, far more importantly, outside this assembly for Scotland to be a workers’ council republic, not the capitalist monarchy that the Tartan Tories (and Tartan Kinnockites) of the SNP want. But all talk of assemblies with real powers but limited to the framework of the Union is a self-defeating diversion. Such an assembly would actually play into the hands of the Scottish nationalists. They, unlike Grant, openly say it is a diversion, that the only solution is full “independence”. A limited regional assembly would prove them, not the “Marxists” of SML and SA right.

While Grant can sound “orthodox” on the question of Scottish nationalism in relation to the opportunism of SML, running through the whole of Grant’s pamphlet is his chronic subservience to the “official movement”. For Grant the really heinous crime of his old organisation is to take up independent activity:

“The decision of the SML to stand a candidate against Labour in the general election is a fundamental break with the methods pursued by Militant in the past.”

The standing of candidates against Labour certainly represents a “fundamental break” with the past positions of Militant. But those positions were thoroughly centrist ones, based on the idea that as long as the Labour Party retained the allegiance of the mass of the working class it was “sectarian” for Marxists to stand against Labour. This argument turned the Marxist position on elections on its head.

Elections are periods when major political issues are posed to workers. What policies should be adopted to defend workers’ living standards? How should the economy and society be run? Wherever possible, where Marxists have sufficient resources and roots in the working class communities, they should stand independent candidates and use revolutionary propaganda to expose not only the openly bourgeois parties but also the reformist solutions of the Labour Party.

In this way Marxists use elections in a revolutionary fashion, linking up with strikes in progress, mobilising workers and the unemployed in demonstrations, drawing in the anti-poll tax movement etc. The aim of standing revo lutionary candidates is not purely or even mainly to win a seat in Parliament, although this clearly would be a gain, but to mobilise the workers, offer an alternative, strengthen the revolutionary party.

It is precisely this method, the method of Lenin and Trotsky clearly outlined by the revolutionary Communist International, that Grant rejects. The Militant turned the tactic of critical electoral support for Labour, a form of united front tactic at an electoral level, into a strategy as an excuse for the most chronic political adaptation to Labourism. Grant attacks every aspect of the new Militant tactic which dares to look outside the “official movement”:

“In the past Militant had a proud record of patient work in the Labour and trade union movement which achieved great results. Now in their search for new layers outside the Labour movement, all this is being thrown away.”

He denounces the idea of setting up independent youth organisations. He reserves particular venom for the “ultra-left and adventuristic policy in relation to OILC” the new off shore oilworkers’ union set up by rank and file oil workers. Militant has dared to support this union, Grant stands clearly with the officials of the AEEU, GMB, MSF etc, who are out to marginalise it. For Grant the foundation of the OILC is an “adventure” despite the fact that it has more members in the off shore industry than all the other unions combined.

What characterises the whole of Grant’s and the new Socialist Appeal’s politics is a chronic Labour and official trade union cretinism. For Grant the fact that significant numbers of workers were willing to vote for candidates that they believed represented an alternative to the class collaboration of Labour is a negative rather than a positive factor. It is something that has to be fought against with all his might.

In today’s Labour Party, where every expression of opposition to the right is crushed or driven out, this can only mean total passivity, keeping your head down and waiting for the objective conditions, “slump and revolutionary crisis”, to change things.

In the meantime, to the workers who want to fight the Tories, who come into increasing conflict with service cutting Labour councils, who increasingly clash with the trade union bureaucrats who sell out their struggles, Socialist Appeal can only say: join Labour and wait. They are denounced for ultra-leftism if they attempt to organise independently.

As Trotsky wrote in the Transitional Programme:

“If it be criminal to turn one’s back on mass organisations for the sake of fostering sectarian factions, it is no less so passively to tolerate subordination of the revolutionary mass movement to the control of openly reactionary or disguised conservative (‘progressive’) bureaucratic cliques.”

Socialist Appeal represents the worst in the tradition of Grant’s Militant, a tradition of chronic adaptation to Labourism. Peter Taaffe and Scottish Militant Labour have broken from one element of this strategy, but have done so without making any real analysis of or political break from the opportunist method that underlies it. That is why they have adapted to bourgeois Scottish nationalism.

Those supporters of Militant, SML and Socialist Appeal who are dissatisfied with this method should read the revolutionary ideas of Leon Trotsky afresh. They should turn to the only organisation that applies those ideas in Britain today: Workers Power.