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Socialist Labour conference

Communist Party of Great Britain

Weekly Worker

December 11 1997


Socialist Labour conference

Factions square up

Dave Craig of the Revolutionary Democratic Group (faction of the SWP) weighs up the balance of forces in the SLP

Recently there has been a dispute within the SLP’s London Regional Committee over the production of its bulletin. It had been edited by Ann Goss. But she fell out with Brian Heron and was then sacked. Things got a bit nasty, with accusations of sexism flying around. Brian Heron, chair of the London regional committee, apparently referred to Ms Goss as Madame Defarge. She, you may recall, was a rather unpleasant character, who, during the French revolution, sat knitting while the guillotine did its work.

Poor old Brian. In his previous incarnation as a knight in shining armour, he had ridden into south London with his sidekick, Sir Pat Sikorski. Sir Gallahad was determined to defend Lord and Lady Goss under siege in their South London castle. I don’t know if the angry local peasants took exception to Madame Defarge knitting in their meetings. But they certainly objected to Lord Tony blowing a fuse and threatening dire retribution if anybody questioned the way he chaired meetings.

For protesting against their lord and master, south London peasants were demonised. Despite the fact that just about everybody who is anybody is ex-something, including Goss (ex-SWP, ex-Labour Party), the south Londoners were labelled as anarcho-peasants, wild raving Trotskyists and people who had previously been in other organisations.

This was enough to gain the full backing of our gallant knights, who then helped to promote Goss to – yes, you guessed it – the London regional committee. Well, comrade Heron, if you should read this column, you’ll be pleased to know that south London members are pissing themselves laughing at your predicament.

If life in Arthur’s party sometimes seems like pure farce, there is of course some real politics lurking behind it. The Gosses have set themselves up as loyal Scargillites. Heron is a Fourth International Trotskyist, formerly part of a group known as Fisc, who have a major influence on the London regional committee. What has been taking place over the London bulletin has undertones of something more political than simply a clash of personalities.

I rejected the old schema that divided the SLP into left and right on the basis of support or opposition to the witch hunt and the voidings. I was attempting an insight into the political alignments inside the SLP. But for a proper analysis it was too crude and simplistic.

Logic tells us there must be a centre, between left and right. We must identify political trends on the basis of their views on programme, tactics, organisation, and the kind of party they want to build. Identifying the left, right and centre of the SLP is description rather than analysis. But we need to start from what trends exist on the ground. We are locating their relative positions.

Of course we need to go to a deeper level of analysis to decide which of the various trends are objectively centrist or reformist, etc. We should not forget that ‘left’ is not necessarily good or revolutionary. As Lenin showed in Leftwing communism – an infantile disorder, a left wing might be ultra-left. Ultra-leftism objectively helps sustain reactionary and sectarian politics. However, it is not my prime purpose to make such an analysis in this article. I want to confine myself to describing the main trends that exist.

The SLP right wants to build a new, left Labour party with a strong tinge of old British communism: that is, Stalinism. Not surprisingly, gravitating to this pole recently have been Harpal Brar and the Bullites. They would like a British version of eastern European state capitalism. If this trend were to take over the national executive to the exclusion of all others, the SLP would be doomed, with or without Arthur Scargill.

The SLP left is basically the Trotskyists, armed with the transitional programme and the desire to turn the SLP into a revolutionary Marxist party. The left is comprised of the Marxist Bulletin, Socialist Labour Action and what John Stone claimed (Weekly Worker July 17) were “some very significant oppositionist comrades who are Trotskyists and come from other traditions”.

Since then the SLA has disappeared and the significant Trotskyists have not cohered into any organised form. Now the Marxist Bulletin has emerged as the main voice of the Trotskyist left.

Some comrades objected to placing the Marxist Bulletin on the left. They were hostile to the CPGB and opposed the Campaign for a Democratic SLP. But comrades must not let their emotions cloud their political judgement. We must start our analysis from the Marxist Bulletin‘s programmatic positions, rather than their opportunist or sectarian manoeuvrings.

The SLP centre is occupied by those who see the SLP as potentially some kind of communist-Labour party or party of recomposition. I identified some ex-SWP members and the ex-Fiscites as holding this position. The ex-Fiscs look to a model like the Italian Communist Refoundation.

The programme of the centre is as yet somewhat confused. The ex-SWPers speak of minimum programmes. Brian Heron wrote in Capital and class about a new version of the British road. What is common between them is their rejection of the Trotskyist transitional programme and the search for some alternative.

A communist-Labour party must necessarily have a democratic internal regime. A party with a mixed ideological component could not possibly work without democratic methods and procedures. Hence there is a democratic imperative in the politics of the centre. For opportunistic reasons, the ex-Fiscs seem to have ignored this fact.

It is with some interest that I have been watching the emergence of this new grouping of SLP Republicans. They seem to have classic politics of the centre. Looking at their platform, they want communists and socialists to unite in a republican party. They seem to put forward republicanism as some sort of new British road to socialism. And they do call for democratic party methods.

Comparing the left, right, and centre makes clear that each offers a different perspective for the SLP and the future of the British socialist movement. Of the three, the positions of the right and the left are the most clearly defined. They are the politics of the Cold War, with old Labourism, Stalinism, and Trotskyism fighting it out all over again. They all have their own publications: Economic and Philosophic Science Review, Lalkar, Socialist News and Marxist Bulletin.

However, the SLP centre is not simply repeating the old politics, but is searching for a new direction. Its programme is far from clear. It has no publications that I am aware of. Whilst the centre might possibly provide a way out of the current impasse, it cannot do so because it is weak and divided.

The SLP centre is split. This is the key internal factor in the current situation in the SLP. With the centre divided the house must fall. At the root of this division has been the role played by ex-Fisc. Heron, Mr Nice Guy, hides a sectarian method. Apart from obvious political differences, it is one reason why Terry Dunn (ex-NUM and NEC member) doesn’t trust him.

Originally the ex-Fisc allied themselves with Scargill and supported the expulsions. We should therefore identify them as the right-centre: the centre allied to the right. We can see from the correspondence (see ‘Disunity blunts left challenge’) that the SLP Republicans are left-centre, seeking and failing to achieve some form of unity with the Marxist Bulletin.

In the run-up to conference the battle lines have been drawn: not in three camps, but four. We have the right (Scargill and the Stalinists), the right-centre (ex-Fiscs), the left-centre (Republicans) and the left (Marxist Bulletin). This is not to deny the existence of various independents who have yet to align themselves and other possible alliances that may emerge.

Over the last few months we have seen evidence of the skirmishing that takes place before any major battle. On the right there has been a closer alignment between Scargill and the Stalinists (Roy Bull and Harpal Brar). There has been friction between the right and right-centre.

The row between Heron and Ann Goss is symptomatic of this and not just about personal animosity. The right and the right-centre have a different perspective for the SLP. This has created mistrust and differences of opinion on the NEC.

Scargill has been battering away. Dave Proctor was put up to challenge Sikorski for vice-president. We have seen that Dave Osler and Roland Wood, both with some past connection to Fisc-type politics, have lost their membership. The writing is on the wall for Heron and Sikorski. No wonder Heron thinks the SLP has gone pear-shaped. He is pinning his hopes for a revival of the SLP’s fortunes on an influx of new members via trade union work.

When a proposal was put before one London branch that Heron be nominated for general secretary, Terry Dunn turned to oppose this and proceeded to explain that Heron had been less than helpful on the national executive. Neither Heron nor Sikorski were present to help Terry Dunn picket the Campaign for a Democratic SLP meeting. He was forced to rely on Bullite Adrian Greenman.

It is also noticeable that Terry Dunn doesn’t attend London Region meetings and doesn’t think much of them. At local level trust and cooperation between the right and the right-centre seems to be breaking down.

Will Scargill back Sikorski for vice-president? Certainly Dave Proctor (South Wales and NUM) has stood down. Perhaps Scargill doesn’t feel confident to ditch Sikorski at the moment.

On the left, arguments have been going on between the Republicans and the Marxist Bulletin. The letters that we have managed to get hold of tell us something about that. The Marxist Bulletinconsiders the Republicans to be centrists or rightists. The Republicans consider the Marxist Bulletin and the rest of the Trotskyists to be ultra-lefts: that is, fake lefts.

The Republicans are calling for a democratic republic as a step towards socialism. The Marxist Bulletin is opposed to a democratic republic, calling for a national socialist republic. What this means in practice is brought out most clearly over Ireland. The Republicans support a united Ireland. The Marxist Bulletin opposes it, unless it is a socialist republic. They have dressed this up in the name of not forcing anything unpalatable on the loyalists.

On Saturday, supporters of the four factions will attend national congress. Battle will commence. We will find out exactly who lines up with who over what issues. I look forward with interest to see how it is conducted. I look forward to seeing the outcome. I’m sure it will have an important effect on socialist and communist politics for the next few years.

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