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Tommy Sheridan's denunciation of "an unsavoury cabal of comrades at the core of the leadership, their hands on the apparatus, who are more interested in pursuing personal vendettas, through vile lies and slander, than conducting the class struggle... alien to the socialist and trade union movement and more akin to the dark days of Stalinism" is no less than a signal for a split in the Scottish Socialist Party.
The SSP, a multi-tendency activist-left party first launched as the Scottish Socialist Alliance in 1996, now has three thousand members and some small working-class electoral base, in Glasgow at least. Relative to the local population, it is one of the strongest activist-left groups in Europe.
But now Tommy Sheridan, the SSP's best-known public figure, is calling for a special SSP conference in September to purge most of the people who have run the SSP organisation since its beginning, on grounds of their behaviour towards him. This is no less than a call for a split.
Worse, it would be a split in which the Sheridan forces would link up with the unsavoury George Galloway.
Sheridan won a majority against the SSP leadership at the SSP's special National Council on 28 May - apparently on the basis of mobilising the more remote and less integrated SSP activists - and has the backing of the pro-SWP and pro-CWI tendencies in the SSP, who could provide the "backroom" staff for a Sheridan-Galloway outfit.
We have, and have long had, criticisms of the SSP leadership's "bio-degrading" into populism, nationalism, and over-electoralism. But an outfit led by Sheridan and Galloway would be more like a forcible breakdown of the SSP's Marxist and working-class fibre by strong chemicals than a gradual bio-degrading. The fight for a revolutionary, internationalist, working-class political course in the present relatively (though far from ideally) democratic SSP may have difficulties, but in an outfit centred round Galloway and Sheridan as personality-politics figureheads it would be an outright lost cause.
Galloway - with his long-time friendship with Saddam Hussein's deputy Tariq Aziz, his avowed reliance on funds from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates to run his campaigns, his pose as a "fighter for Muslims", his contempt for the idea of "workers' MPs on a workers' wage", and his insistence that such a great man as he "needs" £150,000 a year ("I couldn’t live on three workers’ wages" - Scotsman, 19/05/03) - represents communalist populist opportunism, not class-based socialism.
Tommy Sheridan has a much more honourable history. But now George Galloway has repeatedly appealed to Sheridan for an alliance - a Scottish version of Respect - against what he calls the "Trotskyite Calvinists" of the SSP -and Sheridan has not rebuffed him, not even mildly.
By his tacit alliance with Galloway - and on the basis of his personal grievances against other SSP leaders, not of any argued-out political principle - Tommy Sheridan taints himself. All friends of the SSP, and all admirers of the fine class-struggle work Tommy Sheridan has done in the past, must wish for a firm stand by a majority of the SSP to pull Tommy Sheridan away from this disastrous direction. Get a grip on yourself, Tommy!
Splits may be necessary and fruitful - when they are on issues of political principle, so that the split has the effect of liberating the progressive side in a clear political division from paralysis by infighting, clarifying and galvanising political energies.
There is no evidence of anything like that here. On the major issues where the SSP leadership deserves heavy criticism - Scottish nationalism, over-electoralism, lack of strategy towards the Labour Party, uncritical alignment with Chavez and Castro, etc. - Sheridan is not one bit better.
On such signals as Sheridan has given of political difference from the SSP leadership, he stands for worse politics than them, not better.
Galloway is notorious for his opposition to women's rights on abortion. In his open letter Sheridan caricatures the SSP leadership as wanting to make the SSP "a gender-obsessed discussion group", and focuses his attack on three of the SSP's women MSPs.
The SSP leadership has been trying - sometimes clumsily and inadequately - to move the SSP away from the "lads' socialism" of the old Militant tendency. Sheridan stands not for a clearer and more effective working-class fight for women's rights, but for a reversion to that "lads' socialism".
Plainly there have been nasty disputes within the SSP leadership about Sheridan's personal life and his libel case against the News Of The World over allegations about his sex life published in 2004.
We have no basis, nor any wish, to offer endorsement or approval to the way that the leadership has run those disputes. But the proper way for Sheridan to take up complaints about bad behaviour in the personal conflicts is to demand an investigation by a confidential SSP commission separate from the leadership (or, if the polarisation in the SSP has gone too far for that to work, by a commission of socialist activists from other countries distant from the dispute).
In fact, how could it not be better for everyone if Sheridan (and the SSP) had simply responded to the News of the World, "no comment"?
In any case, to take one's position in a political conflict like this on the basis of a "best guess" (and it cannot be more than that) about who has behaved badly to whom in the personal conflicts, is hopeless. Responsible political activists should align themselves according to the big, publicly-visible political issues, not according to such "best guesses".
Whatever the shortcomings of the SSP, its establishment and growth as a relatively sizeable, united, relatively democratic socialist movement, with some real working-class base in some areas, is a major gain - something to be built on and defended, not destroyed for the sake of personal conflicts and ambitions.
So we say: defend the SSP, oppose the split!
Probably no amount of publicity and court hearings will settle the arguments about Sheridan's personal behaviour and the way the SSP leadership has dealt with it.
Yet the fact that the SSP has been thrown into political crisis by this row shows the need for more reliable and timely information to members, more political education, and more open discussion, in the SSP about the big political issues.
As the new SSP United Left network, launched by the current SSP leadership comments, the crisis has shown that the SSP membership is "susceptible to external interpretations of the SSP's internal politics, created via the media".
It should not be a surprise. The SSP's paper Scottish Socialist Voice confines itself exclusively to popular agitation, never introducing its readers to the more serious debates. SSP members have no choice but to rely on the likes of the Sunday Mail, the Sunday Herald, the Scotsman - plus the internet - to get their bearings in the SSP crisis.
The SSP's ban on SSP members publicly selling any socialist papers other than Scottish Socialist Voice -with the argument, which now rings very hollow, that such sales will "confuse" workers - should be immediately suspended.
Scottish Socialist Voice should carry more serious educational and debating material, and be supplemented by a regular discussion bulletin or magazine.
Dayschools and educationals should become a regular part of SSP activity in every city, educating SSP members in the basics of Marxism and equipping them to debate the SSP's politics in an informed, theoretically-based way.
These measures are necessary not only to deal with the crisis, but to build the SSP into a socialist party solid enough that in the bigger future crises inevitable in the class struggle it cannot be destabilised by "scandals" and "exposures" cooked up or blown up by the bourgeois media.
Tommy Sheridan's personal standing in a wide public, arising from his activity against the poll tax, has helped the SSP a great deal. Whatever the outcome of the current crisis, the SSP cannot surf on that wave much longer. It needs to develop muscles for swimming.
The SSP United Left calls for the SSP's "community activism and socialist education" to be upgraded so that they no longer lag behind its electoral successes.
Absolutely! But in opposing a split, we cannot endorse the political platform of the United Left, or see it as sufficient.
Even in suggesting a change of direction for the SSP, the United Left speaks only, vaguely, of "community activism", not of a specific focus on working-class struggles. And in its summary of what it means by socialism, the United Left reduces it to workers' "control" (not collective ownership?) of the means of production and to a break with "the British state" (not the capitalist state, to replace it by a republic of workers' councils?)
It is time to be more specific. The SSP's trade-union and workplace activity should be greatly strengthened. The SSP should develop organised SSP union fractions, and regular SSP workplace bulletins at workplaces where there are SSP activists.
Working-class-oriented and internationalist campaigns like No Sweat and Iraq Union Solidarity should be taken up in a much more active way.
A turn towards more serious trade-union work will, we believe, force a reconsideration of the SSP's nationalist drift. Serious trade-union work cannot be done without linking up with socialists in the unions in England and Wales, since all the major unions cover the whole of Britain or of the British Isles. No "Scottish-only" policy will suffice. A policy for reorganising Britain as a democratic federal republic is much more suited to maintaining the unity of the trade-union movement than Scottish separatism.
That reconsideration will, we believe, have to go on to a reconsideration of the SSP's current simplistic attitude to the Labour Party, and a recognition of the need to work with those forces within the trade unions, like the Labour Representation Committee, which are fighting to mobilise the trade unions within the Labour Party framework on working-class policies for a break with Blair and Brown.
If it once seemed plausible that a simple progression of electoral successes would enable the SSP to displace Labour and win the affiliation of the whole trade-union movement, bit by bit, it is now clear that any such scenario is a fantasy. Truly mass working-class socialist politics cannot be developed without applying a lever to the contradictions within the Labour Party between its trade-union base and its pink-Tory leadership machine.
In the coming months, the activists who want to defend the SSP will have to break from the equivocation which has so far characterised the SSP's attitude to George Galloway. It will be plain to them by now that for working class politics, Galloway is a destructive force. We need to spell out why, honestly, rather than take refuge in cheap demagogy about Galloway being "London-based". Scottish Socialist Voice comments that Galloway would have to give "half his income" to the SSP if he wanted to be an SSP representative (where does "half" come from? If Galloway's income is, as he says, £150,000 a year, more like four-fifths!). The political issue here - accountable working-class politics versus "star"-focused demagogy - deserves to be discussed in more than a throwaway jibe!
And, finally, a clear decision for working-class politics as against personality-based electoralism cannot but force some rethinking on the drift of the SSP to an uncritical attitude towards the personality-centred, top-down populism represented by figures like Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro.
Defend the SSP, and work to turn into towards truly independent working-class politics!