This exchange of letters between supporters of the Marxist Bulletin and the SLP Republicans group illustrates the continuing friction between sections of the SLP left. Their inability to unite around a common platform threatens to marginalise democrats in the party
Letter from SLP Marxist Bulletin to SLP Republicans and others
At the last meeting there was a dispute over the question of a joint slate for the NEC elections. The comrades associated with the Marxist Bulletin felt that it might be useful to write down our understanding of the dispute, as there seemed to be a large degree of unclarity at that meeting about our position.
Firstly we would like to reiterate our commitment to the struggle to democratise the SLP and to the united front bloc around this question and the democracy motions put to the conference. We look forward to doing further joint work as part of the united front around a mutually agreed basis.
The dispute within the united front arises over a difference over whether this should be extended to include a joint slate with joint propaganda for the NEC election. For most of you this seems to be a natural extension and you are bemused and even outraged by our refusal to be party to it. However, for us it is not a natural progression – as we have argued when the question has come up at previous meetings.
We believe that the production of lowest common denominator joint propaganda for the NEC elections, even with the right to produce our own separate propaganda, would be detrimental to the necessary struggle for political clarity at the congress. We believe such a slate implies a much higher level of political agreement than in fact exists.
We realise that the majority disagrees with the degree of emphasis that we give to political clarity but it is central to our perspective and the joint slate is not something we can go along with. We do not consider that we are in any way breaking the existing united front: we are merely refusing to be part of something else – as is surely our right, whatever you may think our reasons for doing so.
Some of the comments made in the heat of the moment following the last meeting implied that the majority may well decide that our refusal to be directly involved in a joint slate places us outside the boundaries of the previous united front. If so you will have to accept the political responsibility that it is you, not us, who would be breaking the formerly agreed bloc. As this would weaken the fight to democratise the party, we are confident that you will not take this path.
As an alternative to a joint slate we propose a voting agreement. We agree that it would be useful if there were only 6 candidates standing for the CSLP positions on the NEC, based (for lack of a better measure) on the candidate having signed the ‘Statement’. We propose negotiations towards working out such an arrangement.
At the last meeting the Marxist Bulletin comrades suggested that we stand one comrade for the CSLPs, with the united platform standing five comrades. However, at the end of the meeting it appeared that the majority of those present were in favour of putting forward a six-person slate in opposition to, among others, any Marxist Bulletin comrades who might stand for the CSLP positions. We understood that you were asking us not to stand anyone against this slate.
We find it odd, given the importance you put on getting “democrats” elected to the NEC, that your position amounts to saying that Barbara Duke, one of the more likely “democrats” to get elected, should not stand. Unless of course your position is that Barbara and the other Marxist Bulletin comrades have suddenly become non-democrats as a result of our unwillingness to be part of the united platform.
At the conference we will be producing an election statement for those candidates standing on the basis of the ‘Marxist Programme’. This statement will also call for critical support to other candidates on the basis of their having signed the ‘Statement’ and what we know of their political views. We would hope that the proposed united platform would call for a vote to our candidates as comrades who have consistently fought for democracy in the party – but our support will not be conditional on this.
We encourage all comrades standing for the NEC to do so on their complete programme for social change. The lack of democracy in the SLP is only important in that it hinders the political discussion and debate necessary for building an organisation based on a political programme capable of leading to a socialist revolution. The congress is the highest body of the SLP and to have argued for more democracy and discussion, as our united front has done, and yet then not to take full advantage of those opportunities that do exist seems more than a little contradictory.
It is not enough to simply argue for our right to hold political views – we must also exercise those rights.
Comradely regards Marxist Bulletin
October 27 1997
Letter from Socialist Labour Party Republicans to Marxist Bulletin
Thank you for your letter of 27th October 1997 which gives us an opportunity to clarify the issues.
SLP Republicans are in favour of full democratic rights for all SLP members. We are in favour of a united front of all SLP members who share this aim and have specific proposals to extend democracy in the SLP. Marxist Bulletin, SLP Republicans, some Trotskyists and some independent democrats share this aim. There may be others.
The SLP conference will be an important opportunity to test support for these aims and policies. For this purpose, we need to unite our forces around a united platform and joint slate, with the full freedom for comrades to put forward their own separate platforms as well. We think this establishes most clearly our points of agreement, as well as giving full expression to any distinctive political positions we may hold.
Marxist Bulletin has consistently refused to support a united platform. This is not because you have any disagreement with the content of a united platform. But rather because you do not wish to sign up to it, on the grounds that this “would be detrimental to the necessary struggle for political clarity at the congress.”
Your position, at first sight, appears to be one of principle – political clarity is most important and this would be compromised by being seen to support a united platform. Hence you say: “We realise that the majority disagrees with the degree of emphasis that we give to political clarity, but it is central to our perspective and the joint slate is not something we can go along with.”
What you propose instead is an informal voting arrangement. This means that we make a deal behind the scenes whereby you vote for candidates of a united platform and we “stand down” one of our candidates in favour of Barbara Duke, and vote for other Marxist Bulletin candidates. The political basis for this deal is unwritten and unclear. This is proposed by you in the interests of political clarity!
Let me assure you that SLP Republicans are opposed to any behind-the-scenes deals with Marxist Bulletin. We consider your views on republicanism in Britain and Ireland to be ultra-left and therefore downright reactionary. You are opposed to a federal republic and to a united Ireland. In reality, you have accepted the protestant veto, which, when you cut through the leftist rhetoric, puts you in the same camp as Labour and the Tories. If the SLP adopted your position on Ireland, it would be a major setback for the party, and it would weaken the struggle for democracy in the UK.
In the interests of political clarity, the reactionary nature of your policy must be exposed. We do not rule out in principle making an agreement with you for limited aims, provided those aims are in the interests of the socialist and working class movement. It does however rule out any informal, unwritten, unsigned, behind-the-scenes deals. We rule this out because of the importance we give to political clarity.
A united platform is clearly formulated, written down and available for inspection by all party members. It is clear exactly what the candidates have agreed with. Equally it is clear what is not agreed (i.e. everything else). It is also clear who exactly endorses this platform because their names are signed to it. Before we could consider voting for Marxist Bulletin candidates, with such reactionary views on republicanism, exactly what was agreed would have to be written down, signed in blood, and then published for SLP members to see. Since you are opposed to signing a united platform then there is no agreement.
You are therefore quite wrong to suggest that Marxist Bulletin alone demands political clarity. On the contrary you are opposed to signing a clear political statement and want to substitute a vague voting arrangement, which leaves the political basis of this unclear. The distinction between what is agreed and what is not is somewhat blurred. Nothing is formally agreed and nobody signs up for anything.
There is another interpretation of your refusal to join a united platform. Your preference for a vague, informal “voting arrangement” is not the result of some high principle of political clarity. Rather you are motivated by something more down to earth and self-interested. You want to maximise the vote for Marxist Bulletin candidates. You want these votes to be seen as votes for your Trotskyist programme. Therefore you want to secure the votes of the united platform. It serves your narrow interests to keep the basis of that support as vague as possible. Get the votes, without agreeing to or publishing any joint statement. It would therefore serve your interests to talk much about “democracy” before the conference, and about how many had supported your views on the protestant veto, on republicanism, and your programme after.
I am sure that neither SLP Republicans nor any united platform would want to be voting fodder for the Trotskyist programme of the Marxist Bulletin. We could only consider urging SLP members to vote for any of your candidates on the basis of political clarity and openness about where we agree and where we oppose the Marxist Bulletin.
You call on all comrades standing for the NEC to put forward more than limited democratic demands. SLP republicans are doing precisely that – and this in no way disqualifies us from standing on a united platform with other comrades who do not share a republican perspective.
Whilst we remain open to discuss these matters further, there seems little point unless you are prepared to give more serious consideration to the importance of political clarity.
We hope this clarifies our political position.
Yours in comradeship SLP Republicans
November 24 1997