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Socialist Party: Anyone for another reformist party?

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February 1997 saw the official launch of the Socialist Party, formerly Militant Labour. The weekly paper Militant has changed its name to The Socialist. The party has declared its intention to stand 25 candidates at the general election and published a Socialist Party Manifesto.

The launch of the Socialist Party (SP) represents yet another “turn” by a leadership fundamentally disorientated by the collapse of its 40-year long perspective of transforming the Labour Party into a mass Marxist party. Unfortunately, neither the new perspective, nor the Socialist Party’s new programme, are qualitatively better than their predecessors.

They embody the same refusal to spell out the revolutionary tasks facing the working class in its struggle against capitalism that was the hallmark of Militant under Ted Grant and Militant Labour under Peter Taaffe.

For more than forty years Militant carried out “strategic entrism” in the Labour Party. The tactic was premised on the theory that the majority of workers would “inevitably” flow into the mass socialist parties as the class struggle intensified, transforming them into centrist or proto-revolutionary parties. The task of Marxists, according to Militant’s then leader Ted Grant, was to stay in the Labour Party at all costs to provide the leadership when that event occurred.

The theory was underpinned by an even more basic revision of Leninism: namely that what Grant liked to call the “hammer blows of the class struggle” would spontaneously transform workers’ consciousness into revolutionary consciousness.

This led Militant to present its politics as a version of left reformism, as an “organic” part of the Labour tradition. Nowhere was this more clearly demonstrated than its adoption of a reformist perspective on how the workers could achieve state power.

Specifically, Militant reduced the demands of the Trotskyist Transitional Programme - such as expropriation of the capitalists, workers’ control and the revolutionary workers’ government - to a set of demands on Labour. The crucial question of the smashing of the capitalist state machine, of working class organising to take power through its own councils, was dropped.

Enabling Act
Instead, Militant called for a “socialist Labour government”. Such a government, they argued, backed by a mass movement outside parliament and an “Enabling Act” inside, would be able to march towards socialism .

As generally happens when socialists dress up fantasies as “perspectives”, events proved Militant completely wrong. The struggles of the 1970s and 1980s did not see the masses flow into the Labour Party, still less its transformation. Nor did the workers’ consciousness spontanously move in a revolutionary direction. By the early 1990s, with a strategic defeat inflicted on the trade unions and Neil Kinnock in the ascendant, Militant was witch-hunted out of the Labour Party.

It responded not with an honest reappraisal of its former politics and perspective, but with a bureaucratic purge of a group around Ted Grant who opposed what they saw as a turn away from the Labour Party work. Under force of circumstance Militant’s new leadership, headed by Peter Taaffe, embraced “open” work outside the Labour Party.

The new Socialist Party bears all the hallmarks of Militant’s old opportunist politics but this time without any of the excuses of working within a reformist party. The main change, perspectivally, is in Militant’s view of the state of working class consciousness. According to February’s Socialism Today (the theoretical journal of the SP):

“The collapse of the Stalinist states and the ideological capitulation of the Labour leaders to capitalist triumphalism has set back socialist consciousness among broad layers of workers. The politically active workers who consistently participated in the trade unions and political organisations has largely disappeared. There has been an extreme weakening of the layer of class conscious socialist activists.

“Our role therefore can no longer primarily be that of presenting a distinct Marxist programme and strategy to a broad socialist movement. We have to reach out to broad layers of workers and youth who, while they may not consider themselves socialists at the moment, are looking for an alternative to capitalism and a way of fighting back.”

This is a familiar refrain of an opportunist who reasons, “the party is not growing, the workers are in retreat, therefore let’s throw overboard some more programmatic ballast and make ourselves more acceptable to masses.” It has a name in the Marxist movement; it is called “liquidationism”.

So what does the Socialist Party present before the “broad layers of workers and youth” who are looking for an alternative to capitalism in its election manifesto? Warmed over reformism, pure and simple.

As Dave Nellist told a launch rally in Coventry, “the Socialist Party will do what Labour promised to do, but never did.” But Labour only ever promised to reform capitalism.

The Socialist Party’s Manifesto does put forward some excellent demands. Who would disagree with a minimum wage of £6.00 an hour or the repeal of the anti-trade union laws? The 35 hour week without loss of pay, the restoration of benefits for 16 and 17 year olds, the abolition of the JSA, proposals to build “a million homes in the first year”, the restoration of student grants to 1979 levels, £6 billion for the NHS.They are all excellent reforms that any socialist, indeed any left Labour Party member, would agree with. But they are reforms; they do not amount to socialism or a socialist programme.

Reform or revolution?
Revolutionaries know that reforms, forced out of capitalism by workers’ struggle in one period, can be seized back in another. But this is another weakness of the Manifesto. There is not a word about how these reforms will be forced out of the capitalists, the type of fighting organisations in the unions, on the estates, in the schools and on the streets that will be needed.

A section on “Democracy” calls for the abolition of the monarchy and House of Lords, the strengthening local government, and “real powers” for Scottish and Welsh assemblies. But it fails to utter one word about British imperialism’s war in Ireland in defence of an Orange statelet that was founded on the oppression of the nationalist community. Is the Socialist Party ashamed to put forward Militant’s rotten position of refusing to support the democratic rights of the Irish people against the imperialist partition of their country? Its silence is equally shameful.

But what about socialism? According to the manifesto socialism means:

“taking into public ownership the 150 or so major companies and financial institutions with compensation to former owners on the basis of proven need”.

It means running these under:

“democratic working class control and management. Decisions at every level would be made by democratically elected representives of workers, users of services or local areas”.

This measure would leave whole swathes of the economy in private hands. It is a radical sounding version of the reformist utopia of a state directed “mixed economy”. It is not socialism. But how would such a take-over come about? The Manifesto does not say, it avoids the whole issue of the nature of the capitalist state.

Does the Socialist Party really believe that the capitalists would passively stand by while it implemented this programme? Don’t they remember what happened in Chile when the Allende government tried to implement a radical reformist programme?

Of course the leaders of the Socialist Party do know their history but they prefer to conceal it. They prefer to lull the “broad layers of workers and youth” with the idea that these demands can be achieved as part of the normal parliamentary struggle. They believe that uttering the word revolution, which does not get a mention in the Manifesto, will alienate the “broad layers”.

They are peddling a reformist vision of socialism, with no strategy for achieving it. It is little more than a set of “nice ideas” for the future.

In fact there is only one way to get socialism: through a government of workers’ councils - what the Russians in 1917 called Soviets - backed up by an armed workers’ militia which takes on and smashes the repressive forces of the capitalist state. For more than 80 years support for this form of struggle is what has divided revolutionary socialists, true fighters for working class interests, from reformist socialists.

It is these reformists who have again and again rescued the capitalist system in periods of crisis, often hiding behind a mask of sanctimonious “socialist” phrases and even “anti-capitalist demands”. They have led the workers to defeat after defeat in country after country and even, like Allende, into the jaws of bloody counter-revolution.

Leon Trotsky and the Fourth International developed a different method and a different programme. The Transitional Programme did not dispense with immediate demands. It linked them to a series of transitional demands and methods of struggle which formed a bridge between the everyday struggles and reforms fought for by the unions and reformist parties, and the final struggle for state power.

The purpose of demands like the picket defence squad, the factory committee, workers’ control of production, the sliding scale of wages and hours was to develop and direct the daily struggle of the working class and its organisations towards a struggle for power.

In the Ted Grant years, Militant cadres would proudly defend the tendency’s programme as a modern version of Trotsky’s Transitional Programme. In fact they had gutted it of all life and reduced it to a series of demands on Labour. The Socialist Party’s new programme represents a further step away from genuine Trotskyism. The last remnant of the “old Trotskyism” has been junked.

Trotsky wrote:

“Classical Social democracy . . . divided its programme into two parts independent of each other: the minimum programme, which limited itself to reforms within the framework of bourgeois society, and the maximum programme, which promised substitution of socialism for capitalism in the indefinite future. Between the minimum and maximum programme, no bridge existed. And indeed social democracy had no need of such a bridge since the word socialism is used only for holiday speechifying”.

Just short of 60 years later, the Socialist Party has produced a programme of the exact same type.