Issue 250 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review
Can we build a new party?
Since the formation of the Socialist Labour Party in 1996 things have changed for the left. Many said that because of the failure of the SLP the idea of a new workers' party was off the agenda. But on the agenda it is. We saw the formation of the Scottish Socialist Alliance, which brought together the left in Scotland. This in turn saw the birth of the Scottish Socialist Party.
The advances the SSP has made are to be admired. Yes, we can disagree on positions and tactics, but surely we cannot disagree that the SSP has been a success. Some comrades say that the SSP should have been a revolutionary party from the start. Well it isn't, but neither is it Old Labour. We can argue what sort of party it is--centrist, reformist, etc. But, whatever you call it, it is not going to go away. If you believe it should be a revolutionary party, then join and win the membership of the SSP to your position.
This brings us to England and Wales. Again, as in Scotland, a Socialist Alliance was formed. It has taken us a lot longer to get to the position where the Scottish Socialist Alliance was just prior to the formation of the SSP. But here we are on the eve of a general election and, with the possibility of over 80 candidates and local alliances springing up all over the place, things are moving at a fast pace. This will be the biggest socialist challenge to New Labour and the Tories that has been seen in a lifetime. Finally we are working together. There is no doubt things have been strained, but for once we are aiming our guns at the Blairites and the Tories, and not at each other. This has to be seen in a positive light.
The question is, do we turn the Socialist Alliance into a party? Put aside the political differences for one moment and think about how we would organise such a party. Organisation is essential if it is to work. We would need a national centre, a weekly/ fortnightly/monthly paper, a full time executive committee, a national committee, branch structures--in short, a constitution. Some say that a paper is a fantasy or a pipe dream. Well, I think it is possible.
Already we have an officers' committee, executive committee, liaison committee. Is it really that impossible to build democratic structures? Over 100 years ago the Labour Party was formed. We have had a whole century to practice and learn from its mistakes. Is it not time we built a party the working class could believe in and fight for a socialist society?
We cannot forget the political aspect of a new party. We will never agree on everything, and it is no good kidding ourselves that we will. So how do we work this out, then? We could call a conference after the general election to discuss and debate our successes and failures in the election. This would allow new people who have joined the Socialist Alliance through election campaigns, and not forgetting the many who will join after seeing the election broadcast, to be part of the building process. So we should not have a conference where all we do is argue--we will have plenty of time for that later. We then should build for a conference in October this year, which would give us time to debate with each other via our own press, the internet and liaison committees on what sort of party we should build. And at the conference in October we can build our structures and, yes, continue to debate our differences for a launch in May 2002.
It is time we start building a new party of the working class, not just for ourselves but for future generations. These ideas are my own--everybody will have different ideas and opinions. The general election is the beginning, not the end, but the beginning of what? That is a question we should all ask ourselves.
I have no doubt that the party is fully aware of the differences between reformism, centrism and revolutionary socialism, so I won't go into that territory. Instead I want to look at this 'uncritical Socialist Alliance phase' as a strategy/tactic. This brings up the political arguments about the differences between a united front and a popular front, and I fear it is the latter that this strategy/tactic is becoming. Is the SWP going to be able to lead the Socialist Alliance, drawing reformists out of it to make new revolutionaries--or is it going to sow illusions of electoralism in its own ranks?
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As socialists we all know Blair and his New Labour clones are in love with the free market. But is it too much to ask to keep the capitalist machine out of our education system? Apparently it is. The University of Sheffield, where I am a student, recently signed a letter of intent with the multinational company Boeing, the world's second biggest arms dealer, to establish a new multi-million pound research centre.
The university's vice-chancellor, Professor Bob Boucher, welcomes these murderers onto our campus. We should hardly be surprised at this--he was one of the first people to suggest and encourage the introduction of top-up fees, and continues with plans to privatise the halls of residence despite opposition from the students. We cannot stand by and let the interests of big corporations such as Boeing take precedence over our educational needs.
Of course, the Boeing problem at Sheffield is only the tip of the iceberg. The arms trade worldwide is a major industry backed by the US, Britain and many others, which continually pump billions of pounds into corporations 'committed to developing innovative solutions for customers', as Boeing would have it. Students all across the country should rise up against the corporate invasion of houses of learning such as universities and colleges. We must show Tory Blair we will not be silenced--we have a voice and will be heard!
If we stand still and let our education be eroded by the corporations, who knows what will be next? Education is not a commodity to be branded. Students are not at universities to be exploited by big corporations, despite what New Labour might think!
Bradwell nuclear power station has applied to incinerate low level radioactive waste. These plans first became generally known when one woman, in her seventies, heard the news and leafletted her whole village. Her dedication meant that when the Environment Agency held a public meeting in West Mersea (population 7,000), over 700 people turned out!
If these plans go ahead the implications are pretty grim. Incineration doesn't destroy radioactivity. It goes against the waste management ABC, which is contain it, not spread it. Chimney emissions will inevitably be carried down wind to Mersea, Clacton, Colchester, Brightlingsea and surrounding places. The health risks of low level radiation are not fully known, but it is well established that the appearance of cancers isn't proportionate to the 'dose'. They are far more frequent at low doses than previously thought. In the past the damage done has been underestimated due to an incorrect comparison between man made radioactive material and background radiation.
Additionally, no filtration system has been fitted to either of Bradwell's incinerators. BNFL admit that this system would reduce Sulphur-35 emissions by 75 percent and breathable particle matter by 99.99 percent, but refuse to fit such a system as it would cost £1 million pounds. There's no benefit to incineration-- it's only to cut costs. By incinerating waste, dispersing it into the atmosphere and using the ash for who knows what, they'll save the cost of transporting waste to the Drigg site, which is the safest method of containment currently available.
It is unacceptable that public health is considered less important than the soon to be privatised BNFL's costs. Since the meeting, the Environment Agency has been bombarded with complaints forcing it to extend its 'consultation period' and Colchester council is to host a public meeting--small indications that we've moved forward.
Bradwell is not well loved in the area. The Environment Agency is prosecuting over the dumping of contaminated waste into the sea, a cover up involving a security guard who tampered with the computer system that came to light recently, and both reactors are shut down for repairs--Bradwell is long past its original life expectancy.
If we do not stop them now, what next? Will they be granted a licence to import waste for incineration? Will their disposal methods become even more slipshod?
We can push these criminals and if we do it hard enough maybe it'll be a nail in the coffin of nuclear power. You can send messages of protest about this matter to: firstname.lastname@example.org or fax: 01480 483 223, and messages of support to Shut Down Bradwell, 26 Mill Street, Colchester, CO1 2AH.
Hyman Frankel (February SR) says I must be either ignorant or deliberately lying when I state that the Communist Party had no 'alternative vision of socialism'.
I can't equal comrade Frankel's 50 years in the CP, but I have been active in left politics for over 40 years. One of my earliest memories is attending a CND rally in Trafalgar Square where CP members turned up with placards reading 'No German finger on the trigger'. I was deeply shocked that an internationalist event could be corrupted by the poison of narrow nationalism.
In my trade union, Natfhe, CP members opposed the demand for flat rate increases to lessen differentials, and opposed the regular re-election of full time officials. Internationalism, equality and democracy have always been central to my vision of socialism.
Doubtless CP leaders made inspiring speeches, and I have read all the varying versions of The British Road. But the overriding fact remains that the 'vision of socialism' endorsed and enthusiastically promoted by the CP was the society existing in Russia under Stalin and his successors--a society based on labour camps, show trials, the crushing of independent workers' organisation, and a grossly inefficient centralised economy masquerading as 'planning'.
As for listening and learning, remember that in the 1960s and 1970s there were three left campaigns which won genuine mass support--the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and the Anti Nazi League. All were initiated outside the CP, all were initially opposed by the CP, and in each case the CP had to catch up and admit it was wrong.
I agree absolutely with comrade Frankel about the importance of 'left unity'. It would be quite wrong to allow the Socialist Alliance to be disrupted by disputes about dead issues and the settling of old scores.
But let us be unambiguous about one thing. There is growing dissatisfaction with the free market and globalised capitalism. We have the responsibility to argue for a socialist alternative. But we shall fail to convince unless we make it crystal clear that the socialism we advocate has nothing whatsoever in common with Stalin's Russia.
Hyman Frankel accuses Ian Birchall of lying when he argued that the Communist Party had no alternative vision of socialism to counterpose to Labour's (February SR).
Phil Piratin may have urged CP activists to 'keep the vision of socialism before the people', but which vision of socialism? For CP members at the time socialism meant the USSR and the Eastern Bloc where workers had no rights and millions slaved in labour camps. Just as in the West, human needs were sacrificed to the dictates of production of the weapons of mass destruction. The CP's programme of the time, The British Road to Socialism, envisaged a parliamentary strategy no different from Labour's.
The launching of the CP as a Marxist workers' party in 1920 was a major step forward. But this was on the basis of a commitment to socialist revolution in Britain as part of a world revolution, not serving the foreign policy interests of the Kremlin.
The abandonment of a genuinely alternative politics to Labourism was the ultimate reason for the CP's demise despite its significant working class base, one that it tragically frittered away.
In building the Socialist Alliance we should acknowledge the achievements of the CP but learn from its mistakes.