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Marxism and the SSP

Interview with Nick McKerrell


There has been a recent debate in the Scottish Socialist party about the role of platforms. Frontline the magazine of the International Socialist Movement (ISM) dedicated issue #16 to a discussion of this issue.

The Socialist Unity Network spoke to Nick McKerrell, a member of the ISM.


SUN: > Can you describe (briefly) your political background and any positions you hold in the SSP/ISM (for identification)?

Nick: > I first became involved in left wing politics in the 80s, 1987 in the aftermath of Thatcher's third electoral victory, when still at school. I joined the Labour Party then the Militant fairly soon after that. I have been active more or less consistently in that time, sad as it sounds!, so I have been through the process of launching Scottish Militant Labour, the Scottish Socialist Alliance and the SSP.

In the mid nineties I was convenor of the Scottish Defiance Alliance which organised illegal demonstrations and civil disobedience against the Criminal Justice Act. Since the SSP launched in 1998 I have been branch organiser in Glasgow Shettleston. I was second on the list for the European elections for the SSP in 2004 and in the recent General Election I was election agent for Glasgow Central. I am an elected member of the Parliamentary and International Committees and regularly write for the Scottish Socialist Voice.


SUN: > In the recent issue of Frontline there is an interesting debate about the role of platforms, in which you wrote a quite critical account of the ISM. Viewed from outside Scotland it looks like- apart from publishing Frontline - the ISM has effectively ceased to operate as a platform, would that be fair comment?

Nick: > Speaking personally - and the Frontline article was only a personal view - I would say that is fair comment. If by operating as a platform the ISM has a coordinated Scottish wide approach or structures then no the ISM does not really operate in that way. There are exceptions Glasgow - which is the strongest base for both the SSP and ISM - still has regular platform meetings. These are more of the role of educationals though.

It is important to state though that the ISM was always a little different to most other platforms. Its primary loyalty is to the SSP so it never promoted its own identity at the expense of the party - not that all platforms do this. This approach - which I believed to be 100% correct - came with the overheads of not really promoting mass recruitment to the platform. But definitely in the last period there has been an even deeper qualitative shift in the functioning of the ISM as a platform.


SUN: > In particular you wrote something I found interesting: "the ISM has not sought to impose political lines on its platform members. This is refreshing and open and arguably one of the reasons that the ISM faces no opprobrium over its existence from the broader party membership." Do you believe that if the ISM had sought to be a more disciplined body this would have inhibited the earlier stages of the SSP's development?

Nick: > Yes I do. One of the reasons that the majority of the ISM left the Committee of the Workers International (CWI) - the ex-Militant international - was its inflexible and frankly sectarian approach to organisation. Although the debate before our split was carried out with arcane terms on "democratic centralism" and "revolutionary parties" essentially it boiled down to how best intervene and lead a broader socialist movement than previously experienced. CWI had actually promoted these initiatives in the mid 1990s - I personally think that of all the British based far left organisations they were the only ones that could have really taken it forward at this time - but they took a dramatic step back from this by the end of the nineties.

It's not simply about discipline but about approach - do you go to meetings with a pre-arranged line that you batter through at any cost or are you confident enough to disagree, listen to others and maybe even change your mind. By doing this I am convinced that the ISM has escaped the criticism that has been placed at other platforms like the CWI and the Socialist Worker Platform.


SUN: > In the Australian Socialist Alliance the largest platform, the DSP, seeks to combine working to build a broad multi-tendency party, with its continued existence as a democratic centralist group. The ISM did not adopt this approach: do you think democratic centralism can still play a constructive role in platforms in broad socialist parties?

Nick: > Depends what you mean by "democratic centralism" or "broad socialist parties" and there has been screeds written on those questions! Do I think that in the Scottish Socialist Party you need a disciplined phalanx of revolutionaries who decide their policies at closed meetings and then "intervene" in debates and meetings in this way - definitely not. In fact the experience of the SSP has shown that this has the opposite effect - those type of platforms become weaker and are less likely to be successful.

However if you had a broader formation than the SSP with a clearly reformist leadership which didn't have the programme or the experience of the leadership of the SSP then people who wanted to promote explicitly socialist ideas would need a degree of organisation. I can't really comment on whether this is the case with the Oz socialist alliance but if you look at the developments in Germany with Oscar Lafontaine launching a counter weight to the SPD socialists would need to organise in some form there if it becomes a full blown party.

However even when you needed to organise I think the whole concept of "democratic centralism" needs to be looked at. Platform meetings as a norm should be open to all party members - there could be exceptions to this. Members of a platform should be able to disagree in public - although I guess this is up to the platform itself.


SUN: > Gregor Gall's article in Frontline paints a rather negative picture of platforms, mostly marching to the beat of a drum outside the dynamics of the SSP. Do you think this is a historically unavoidable stage in the development of left unity?

Nick: > I think there are generalities you can make on left unity but every country when it launches a far left organisation of the nature of the SSP will have its own particular problems and history. In the SSP there is a negative element to some specific platforms and the way they operate.

The CWI as a representative of an International that is not really supportive of the SSP and in fact argued against its formation mean that they have become a very small tightly organised group of SSP members who always promote their platform whenever they speak.

The SW platform joined the SSP two and a half years into its existence - there were teething problems but many of this platform became fully committed SSP members. However there are a number who have never really engaged with the SSP and what it represents - in the recent period particularly since the anti-war movement in 2003 this number probably wouldn't even see the SSP as the main focal point for their political activity.

The Scottish Republican Socialist Movement feels a need to exist as they want to defend the policy of independence for Scotland. They feel this is threatened in an explicit way by tiny groups (literally one or two SSP members) who promote a British Socialist Party and in a more subtle way by groups like the SW and CWI who have international leaderships in London.

And as explained the ISM has had problems of its own existence and questions over its direction given its approach to promoting the SSP and recent political developments. I think the Republican Communist Network has had similar issues although I don't really know enough to comment on that.

I've gone into a bit of detail there just to show that all the platforms have developed in the seven years of the SSP - I don't think there is anything inevitable about it. What is positive is that all these forces on the left in Scotland are in one organisation. In England I think there will be idiosyncratic developments.

Also it is important to note that most members of the SSP are not in any platform nor see the need to join one. I think most platforms memberships has either stayed the same or fallen since the SSP has existed or since they joined the SSP which I think tells a story in itself.


SUN: > In England, Respect voted not to recognize platforms. There is a right for 20 members to submit a motion to conference, but no right for anyone to attend the conference to move the motion. Indeed, some motions last year would have fallen on procedural grounds if other comrades had not moved them formally on behalf of the originators, who were not present as delegates. Do you think that if the SSP had not recognized platforms it would have been possible to attract and retain comrades for example from the SWP or CWI?

Nick: > Well explicitly the SW platform would not have joined if the SSP did not have its current policy on platforms. If there were moves to abolish platforms these groups and others correctly would argue against it.

But some platforms are their own worst enemy - by their own behaviour: dominating meetings, promoting their own literature at inappropriate moments and acting independently of the SSP a ground can be prepared that would be open to the ideas of limiting platforms. However the SSP shows that you can balance an open approach to platforms with maintaining a unified pluralist socialist organisation.


SUN: > The SSP has adopted an inclusive approach, and although the inclusion of some of the platforms must be a mixed blessing at times, to what degree do you believe uniting nearly all the left organisations has increased the credibility of the SSP?

Nick: > Well I think I have covered this but an ounce of experience is worth a ton of theory. Come up to a demo on Scotland and overwhelmingly you will see the left intervention -banners, papers etc in the name on one party the SSP. Equally go from town to town, city to city on a weekend - if there are left political stalls overwhelmingly SSP. That sort of unity is invaluable - even if there is limited dispute on the margins.


SUN: > In the experience of the NLP, precursor of New Zealand's Alliance Party, apparently their election poll rating dropped from 17% to 3% after their founding conference was shown on TV, where some comrades were talking about socialist revolution. Can you imagine, in the future, electoral pressure on the SSP restricting the legitimacy of some issues being debated?

Nick: > I would be surprised if that was the only factor in the Alliance drop in support. Electoral success brings its own pressure as electoral failure or electoral abstention does. What is clear is that the SSP needs to maintain its proactive socialist programme in the face of pressure from the state. At the moment very few SSP members if any would say that we should not debate issues because of electoral considerations.


SUN: > You wrote: "In the aftermath of Tommy's resignation there was a chance for the entire SSP to debate the nature of political leadership in socialist organisations by questioning whether the party needs a convener or some other structure. However, the chance to do this was stopped at a vote of the National Council in December 2004." What conclusions do you draw from the operation of the ISM during this period?

Nick: > Well as the Chinese Communist said about the French Revolution - its too early to say what all the conclusions are that I have drawn but it was a critical period for the party and for the ISM. I don't think either one is the same as it was before that which given the inextricable link between both organisations is not surprising.

I think one of the things I could say is that the ISM obviously had not built a Scottish-wide leadership amongst the grass roots of the SSP which could cope well with such events. Even though this was one of our stated aims. How we deal with that is something I and others are still thinking about.

This sort of culminated in the National Council vote of December which was confusing and for me frustrating

SUN: > During the Sheridan resignation controversy, I was very surprised that other left organisations in Britain showed rather less solidarity than might have been expected, indeed Galloway even went so far as to invite Tommy to join Respect. Does this reveal that members of some SSP platforms still need to be convinced of the value of the SSP? Does this means the ISM needs to have a louder voice in providing a theoretical defence of the broad party form of organisation?

Nick: > Well I think I have said that some platforms have a limited engagement with the SSP or perhaps a fairer way to put it some members of some platforms.

I think a theoretical defence of the SSP - what it represents, its achievements and historical role - is vital. Although SSP members should be positive and proud about this and not defensive. Whether it falls for the ISM to do this is another question.


SUN: > In the recent election for convenor, both candidates, Colin Fox and Alan McCombes, are members of the ISM. I interviewed both of them for the Socialist Unity Website (Interview with candidates for SSP convenor), and it seemed to me that there were clear political differences. Was there any formal internal debate in the ISM about this election?

Nick: > No, there was no debate in the ISM as a platform over which candidate to support and we were divided on that. But both candidates were also backed by members that were not in any platform. If we had decided to formally back one candidate above the other there would not be one ISM platform in existence now.

In a sense the ISM has done the same before - in the Scottish wide vote on the European election list there was not one candidate for all ISM members. On issues like gender equality and constitutional reform the ISM also did not take a line.


SUN: > Do you think a Marxist platform directly involved in campaigning at the grass roots level is necessary to prevent the SSP being pulled towards parliamentary routinism and bureaucracy?

Nick: > Yes although I am not sure what form that will take at the moment. I also don't think that the SSP has been pulled inextricably to routinism or bureaucracy although you don't want to shut the door after the horse has bolted.


SUN > It seems that the ISM might relaunch as "a new forum is required where all Marxists feel comfortable" When you say "all Marxists" are you contemplating that members of other platforms may join the ISM?

Nick: > This is one option that has been discussed. Some have put forward other members from other platforms joining. Again it can't be artificial. I think it is a process. Those platforms that are closely tied to the dynamic of the party itself - like the ISM, the Republican Communists and the Scottish Republicans - have come through similar experiences. If some members join together excellent. However it can't be "you must be a Marxist to join". I think it's important that a new forum be egalitarian, take on board feminist and environmentalist concerns, new education methods and importantly develop a grass roots leadership for the Party


SUN: > You also say: "it simply cannot be a discussion circle within the SSP it needs to help develop a local grassroots leadership for the party. In this there will be a direct engagement of political theory and practical campaigning" My experience in the English Socialist Alliance was that there was often no connection between a comrade's formal adherence to Marxism and their ability to make tactically correct judgments or operate in a constructive manner, and many excellent members of the SA would not consider themselves Marxists. To what degree do you believe it necessary that the platform is "Marxist"?

Nick: > I agree and see my answer above. I guess I used Marxism in my original article as partially defining my own position. For me Marxism is about engendering critical thought and not dogmatic adherence and ultimately that is what a new formation needs to do amongst its membership. So I don't think you have to have a stamped certificate from the Marxist Qualification Authority to join - you should be engaged with the issues that are live for the Scottish Socialist Party though.


June 2005


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