Scottish Socialists on the verge of a split

The Scottish Socialist Party is being torn apart by an internal wrangle that was sparked off back in 2004 by a dispute between its leading figure, Tommy Sheridan, and the News of the World newspaper about his personal life. All genuine socialists back the SSP against attacks by the state, but questions need to be asked of why the party has reached this sorry state.

The crisis in the Scottish Socialist Party hit the news when judge Lady Smith jailed SSP policy co-ordinator, Alan McCombes, for 12 days on May 26th, after he continually refused to hand over the minutes of a meeting from November 2004. This was the latest in a series of crises which has stretched the party almost to breaking point.

The Court of Session action was brought by lawyers acting for the News of the World who are demanding to see the minutes of an SSP Executive Council meeting held on 9th November 2004 which culminated in the Executive passing a unanimous 19-0 vote of no confidence in party leader, Tommy Sheridan. This was the beginning of a process that has driven the SSP to the verge of a split.

The party leadership did not want Sheridan to take his fight against the bourgeois press to the courts, seen by many as "away ground" to use a football analogy. However, the party's founder and leader (up until then) decided to pursue his legal case against the News of the World without the backing of his fellow members. In so doing Sheridan opened a Pandora's box, and now it cannot be closed.

It is not wrong in principle to use the courts; indeed, sometimes it is absolutely necessary to do so. However, it is also always necessary to campaign outside, in the workers' movement, and one must always remember that the legal system is an integral part of the capitalist state machine. Ultimately its task is not to ensure "fair play" but to protect capitalism, and the rights, power and privileges of the ruling class. What is unacceptable is to turn the idea of fighting in the courts into a principle, as Sheridan appears to have done.

Similarly, where possible socialists would be foolish to refuse an invitation to use the pages of the bourgeois press to promote our ideas. However, even the most charismatic socialist cannot use the rich man's press without knowing that at some point these same papers will turn around and attack him.

Whether a struggle is conducted on the parliamentary front, in the courts or in the press, the most important question is not the strength of personality of individual leaders, but the programme, the political ideas that are being defended. Marxist ideas do not make it impossible to fight on any of these fronts. On the contrary, they should enable us to understand the nature of such struggles, and therefore the need to use each and every one of them as a rallying point in the workers' movement and amongst the youth.

What is most vital then is organise socialists in a Marxist organisation, based on the rock solid foundations of Marxist theory, and a revolutionary programme. Unfortunately this is something that some SSP leaders openly say is not necessary, Sheridan amongst them. He was at the forefront of those party leaders advocating the old (failed) idea that national freedom could be achieved first and then socialism would be possible in some vague future. This outdated Stalinist idea is supposed to be more "realistic" for the working class.

It was just such political naivety, or at any rate error, that allowed Sheridan to rail against the bourgeois media one week only to have a double page article about his family appear the week after in the same papers. Of course, socialists can use the pages of the bourgeois media on those rare occasions when they are open to us to argue for our ideas. However, we can never fall into the trap of believing them to be somehow "on our side". Once again this demonstrates the importance of Marxist theory, to understand the nature of the media, its role and purpose in capitalist society.

Marx long ago explained that social being determines the consciousness of an individual. Clearly hanging out with the likes of George Galloway has had a certain impact on the outlook of Sheridan. He now claims that there is a clique within his party more obsessed with gender issues than with the class struggle. It is interesting that only when his political career is at risk, does he begin to recognise errors that rank and file members have pointed to for some time.

For many of the SSP leaders socialism now comes second to national independence. This is only a variant of the old Stalinist theory of "stages" that has been such a disaster all over the world. Now Sheridan is complaining about the lack of socialism and how the SSP has ceased to be "an organisation conducting class struggle". For as long as we can remember a regular columnist in the SSP's weekly paper has been arguing against socialism (astonishing as that might seem). Why has Sheridan never complained about this in the past? Kevin Williamson, who is a successful publisher and author, has openly attacked Marxism in his writings in the party paper. That party paper is financed by the rank and file who were, and still are, attracted to the SSP because they thought it was a socialist party. Yet when the Queen came to open the Scottish Parliament, Williamson wrote an alternative "Declaration of Calton Hill" which did not once contain the word socialist.

Less than a month ago, we read in a column recommending how to get introduced to socialism: "There are first principles involved related to how power operates and how it sustains its dominant position the world over. For instance, the power structures in Soviet Russia, Maoist China and even Castro's Cuba were constructed on the same organising principles as the hierarchical elitist power structures in Bush's America or Hitler's Germany" (SSV, Friday, 19 May, 2006). He goes on to advise his readers to study Chomsky in order to learn about socialism! There was no letter from Sheridan complaining the following week, but, to be fair to the rank and file, there was one from another member criticising some of Williamson's errors.

Sheridan has produced an open letter, highly critical of the SSP leaders, which has been widely circulated in the press. He appeals to the natural instinct of socialists to support him in a struggle against the Murdoch press machine and so on. However, there are vital questions here that cannot be swept under the carpet in a show of unity for Sheridan against the bosses' press. These are questions central to building a revolutionary socialist organisation in Scotland.

Naturally all socialists must side with the SSP against an attack from the state. Unfortunately, Sheridan has handed them their weapons on a silver plate. As a result, Lady Smith had the legal right to raid the offices of the party.

Alan McCombes, policy co-ordinator of the SSP, went to prison for a few days because he stuck to a decision of the party not to release the minutes of the National Council that the News of the World claims will prove their allegations about Sheridan's private life. Whilst he has to be congratulated for his personal stance, what a tangled mess they have got themselves into, not in a struggle against capitalism, but in a petty squabble inside their own party.

Sheridan has effectively split the party with the idea that they must unite behind him in his war against the bourgeois media. The movement must always be above the personal pride and prestige of any of its members. In fact the SSP leadership is partly responsible for the promotion of the idea that only "Tommy" was jailed against the Poll Tax and so on!

Reading the pages of the SSP press it would seem as if there are no political differences behind this split in the biggest organisation of the "far-left" in the UK. Instead one needs to buy The Herald, The Scotsman, the Daily Record and the Scottish Sun to find out about the latest developments. This is a media binge that is damaging the entire socialist movement.

In the old days of the labour movement debates were carried through the pages of our papers and bulletins, now some elements in the socialist movement seem to be more interested in filling the pages of the bourgeois media.

Of course, the media allow the SSP leaders to use their pages occasionally. They do so in order to be better able to savage them immediately afterwards. The Herald is the serious bourgeois paper in Scotland; the Scottish Sun (the "tartanised" version of Murdoch's rag) is the pit bull of the ruling class. Now the Herald happily ponders over how the SSP's crisis will "ill serve the democratic process" (The Herald Editorial, May 29). We must reject and denounce this hypocritical view; this attack is not only an attack on the SSP but the whole socialist movement.

Hundreds of trade unionists, young people and committed socialists have given their time, energy and money to build the SSP. They must now be looking for a way forward, a way out of this mess. That way is only to be found in theory. Ideas and programme must come first. It is not enough to claim to be a socialist. The working class deserves better leadership, a leadership based on the lessons of the history of the movement. The task today is to build a leadership worthy of standing shoulder to shoulder with the working class. To construct such a powerful force a solid foundation is required. That foundation can only be found in the ideas of Marxism, on this rockbed alone can a democratic, internationalist and revolutionary organisation be built.

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