A short cut to socialism

Review of Imagine a book from Alan McCombes and Tommy Sheridan
By Per-Åke Westerlund, a member of the CWI in Sweden. 21st March 2001

Taken from the English language pages of the Swedish CWI site. There is a lot more material there of general interest, visit them at: http://www.socialisterna.org/rs_eng/index.html

“In the 20th century, millions of people in the West decided that they were not socialists, even though they sympathised with the ideals of socialism”. In order to turn this tide, Alan McCombes and Tommy Sheridan, leaders of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and ex-members of the CWI, have written a new book, ’Imagine - a socialist vision for the 21st century’.

Despite the subtitle, Imagine is another book in the same category as those by Swedish left-wing author Johan Ehrenberg, or the bestseller ’Global Trap’. Imagine gives a lot of useful facts about poverty, in Scotland and on a world scale, and on the mega-rich. It describes Blair as a continuation of Thatcherism etc, but like the books mentioned above, it does not show a way to break this process.

Imagine does not start with the ”revolution in reverse” of the 1980s and 90s – cuts, privatisation, deregulation, worsening working conditions – which affects workers and the low paid in all countries. It takes no clear stand on the EU, EMU or immigration/asylum policy. Concrete struggle is referred to only in bypassing, and the perspective of a deep social crisis or revolutionary struggle is not laid out. The book mainly deals with the unfair distribution of wealth.

It is therefore not a guide to action, rather the ambition of the authors is to ”provoke a wide-ranging ideological debate”. It’s one thing to understand that positions and perspectives are working hypothesis which have to be constantly discussed and modified. Perspectives are conditional and can therefore be wrong. But the left reformist formulation at the end of Imagine, ”This book does not lay any claim to political infallibility.”, is just a way of avoiding responsibility for their positions. This formulation is aimed at a particular layer, which is evident in the forward by William McIlvanney: ”The book is still searching. I respect the search.”

The book seems to be aimed at that layer which have illusions in capitalism and who might fear the class struggle and the collectivism of socialism. We are told that Stalinism – the system of bureaucratic dictatorship in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe – ”strangled initiative and stifled individual flair”. But above all, Stalinism strangled the collective initiative and power of the working class, and based itself upon the incredible privileges of the bureaucracy. The latter point has to be made by socialists in order to differentiate ourselves from the bourgeois criticism which stresses ”individual initiative”.

With a new millennium and new technology, the authors argue, socialism will be easier to achieve. ”It is true that no genuine socialist democracy has ever yet been established.”, they state, but the lessons of the failed revolutions of the last century are not drawn. Trotskyism was in fact founded as a tendency in opposition to the policies which led to defeats in Germany 1923, China 1925-27, Germany again in 1933 and Spain in 1936-38. Trotsky defended the Bolshevik programme of 1917: the working class taking power through their own councils, under the leadership of a Marxist party. It was the class collaboration, the two-stage theory, and the nationalism of the Stalinists which led to defeat. Imagine cites the example of the workers’ mass strikes in France 1968 and the strength of that movement, but again leaves out the necessary criticism of the Communist Party and trade union leadership. Even in a new period with better preconditions for a victory, those lessons are key.

A revolution in Scotland

Imagine puts forward a two-stage perspective for the Scottish revolution, the first stage being the ”goal of a fully independent Scotland”. This is in line with the increasing support for independence in the closing decades of the 20th century.

This stage is everywhere in the book linked to the Scottish National Party (SNP), which ”can call and win a referendum”. In this perspective, such a stage would shatter illusions and subsequently pave the way for the Scottish Socialist Party.

The SSP should therefore support this process ”even on a non-socialist basis as promoted by the SNP”. Reading Imagine one would think that the process towards independence was problem free. The inevitable wavering of the bourgeois nationalists, in this case the SNP, is not even dealt with. It’s one thing to call for independence, another to actually fight for it against the tremendous power of the state and the capitalists. Why do the authors take the coming to power of the SNP as their point of departure? And why, in advance, proscribe to socialists the role of supporters?

Despite the authors describing parliaments as generally powerless, they state that ”Scotland needs a proper grown-up parliament, able to take its own decisions on all the issues that matter.” These illusions in an independent Scottish parliament are taken further: ”Presumably, under an SNP government, Santa Claus will be appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer.”

The CWI position of an independent socialist Scotland is the only way forward for real independence, of power and control by workers and the oppressed. While strongly fighting against national oppression, socialists can never allow themselves to be reduced to supporters of bourgeois nationalists.

Imagine describes nationalism without any class qualifications:
”In some parts of the world, the character of nationalism is predominantly aggressive, tribalistic and inward-looking. In the Balkans, nationalism has led to the tearing apart of integrated communities, ethnic cleansing, and rivers of blood as violent conflict rages over disputed territories.

That is not the case in Scotland, where the demand for national independence is about opposing nuclear weapons, standing against inequality, and prioritising public services over private greed.”

This is unfortunately a very nationalistic statement. Every kind of national struggle in the Balkans is lumped together: Milosevic and a Kosova Albanian worker in the same pot. Nationalism has not always assumed the same shape and strength in the Balkans. The ”rivers of blood” of the 1990s are the result of both the collapse of Stalinism, with the attempt of the Stalinist leaders to stay in power through nationalism, and the role of imperialism: IMF, foreign banks, the US and EU. The carnage in the Balkans was not the result of any programme of the oppressed nationalities. Of course in the Balkans you could find people fighting against greed and nuclear weapons. It is not the demands which differentiate Scotland from the Balkans, but the degree of social and economic crisis and their pre-history. What it shows is the need for a real mass based socialist leadership in the struggle. But the elimination of class qualifications means that McCombes and Sheridan also include the SNP in their positive characterisation of nationalism in Scotland as the fight against greed and inequality. This is linked to their perspective of the SNP leading the first stage of the struggle for independence. And by the way, doesn’t every successful national struggle have to be ”aggressive”?

How to change society?

The second stage of the revolution is described with the same light touch: ”Let’s be concrete and imagine it’s the year 2010 or 2015 and the forces of democratic socialism have swept to power in a general election, perhaps within an independent Scotland.” This is an extremely parliamentarian description. The necessary basis for such a government, the party organisation, organisations in the workplaces, housing estates etc are all left to one side. McCombes and Sheridan know that any struggle for change will lead to hard class contradictions, described in their characteristic proverbs like ”the battle for the future is not like a game of cricket”. But this is then toned down and the tasks of a revolutionary government are equated with the risks of crossing a road! They go on to say that ”the threat of military invasion is highly unlikely”. The threat from military forces are of course very difficult to estimate in advance, and the objective strength of the working class is unquestionable. But it is wrong not to qualify the risks, and definitely wrong, by only using the term ”invasion”, to ignore the risks from forces within Scotland. The authors themselves give examples of the actions of the state forces against the miners’ strike and the anti-poll tax movement. Revolution in Scotland will be decided by living struggle, depending both on the basis for the revolution in Scotland itself, and even more on the appeal of the revolution internationally, particularly in England, Wales and Ireland.

Imagine presents a very static perspective: In the period up to the election victory of the SSP, there are no impulses from world events or even a build-up of the party itself. The basis for a revolution – the impasse of both capitalism and the ruling class – are not discussed.

”But could Scotland really go it alone?”, is a key question for the authors. Their answer is ”This is not the impoverished Nicaragua of the 1980s, which was brought to its knees by an American economic blockade”, and ”We have a long tradition of science and engineering.” (!)

But it wasn’t poverty or the lack of engineers which led the Nicaraguan revolution to a halt. The Sandinistas overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in 1979 with a small-armed force supported by the mass of the people. The dual mistake, based on the advice the Sandinista leadership was given by both Moscow, Havanna and European social democratic leaders, was to nationalise only the property of Somoza and make no attempt to spread the revolution internationally. This meant to stop the revolution at the stage of national capitalism. Short of any possibility to create a genuine socialist economy with workers’ rule, and without real internationalism, the revolution was derailed.

To hint that a socialist Scotland would survive a prolonged period of isolation, developing it own science and technique and competing with capitalism is completely unreal. The example of Cuba, which the SSP leaders refer to as ’socialist’, was unique, due to the fact that Stalinism still existed as a lifeline. The price for Cuba was to develop along the lines of the Eastern European regimes of that period, i.e. a nationally planned economy without workers’ democracy.

The new SSP government would ”at least begin to move in the direction of socialism”, ”taking control over key sectors of the economy”, says Imagine. These formulations are dangerously vague. Which are the key sectors? Does control means ownership? What about the need for a planned economy and the role of the working class?

A socialist planned economy is needed to overcome the limits and crises of capitalism. Private ownership and the national state; the anarchic character of the market and the hunt for profits as the driving force; the class contradictions, never mind the systems’ own organic causes of crises and depressions; these are the basic reasons for the struggle for a planned economy. Such an economy would be able to develop faster and more broadly than capitalism, and in the service of workers and the poor.

Sweden was for decades named a ”mixed economy”, with some state ownership and planning alongside the private ownership of the biggest banks and industries. But every crisis and especially the 1980s and 90s has shattered any illusions that capitalism wasn’t in charge.

Although going a bit further than Swedish social democracy, Imagine aims for a halfway house. Sheridan/McCombes advocate ”workers cooperatives”, with the astounding comment that ”they work harder and more efficiently” than other firms, when the problem today is that most workers have to work too hard. These cooperatives are always cited by people who want to show that there is an alternative to nationalisation. But cooperatives can only act as a supplement to the big companies, owned by the state and incorporated into a plan. Imagine further states that ”some larger companies, too, may even remain in private hands, on the grounds of expediency. ”, meaning for example call centers. Sheridan/McCombes ensure us that ”even with vastly increased wages, improved conditions, shorter hours, and higher rates of corporation tax, most companies would probably still find it profitable to remain.” What the authors present us with is, in other words, some kind of mixed economy.

Imagine gives credit to bourgeois commentators who ”rightly denounce the centralised bureaucratic planning” of many nationalised industries. As an alternative they favour ”decentralised democratic planning”. Both statements point in the wrong direction. Of course autonomy and local forms of rule will enjoy an upsurge under socialism. But the main shift of power is from capitalists to workers, not from centralism to decentralism. The need for a central plan is crucial to solve the housing crisis, drug problems, the threat to the environment and other social diseases raised in the book.

It is not enough to state that ”The forms of social ownership appropriate for Scotland in the 21st century will bear no resemblance to the monolithic state-run corporations established by Old Labour governments in the mid 20th century.” Imagine’s main argument against those state-owned enterprises is namely that the management had too little expertise. That was not the criticism from Marxists at the time, rather that state companies merely imitated private ones, with little or no difference in workers’ conditions or rights. ’No-go-areas’ were established for the social democratic government in Sweden by the capitalists who retained control of the major companies and banks, thereby preventing any planning.

A qualitative change?

Imagine blurs the need for a qualitative change from capitalism to socialism and replaces this with a gradual process. The change of the Scottish economy is described in terms of establishing a new national economy rather than a new socialist economy: ”Attempting to predict the future economic health of a national state which does not yet exist is like trying to predict which horse will win the Derby in five years time.” This refusal to make any prognosis is wrong, even for a capitalist economy. The financial system in the new economy is described in a similar neutral-to-the-economic-system fashion: ”Whether any financial system can function effectively or not depends first and foremost on the skills, the training, the know-how, the experience of the workforce at every level.”

A socialist economy is run by the working class, in cooperation with all other oppressed layers in society. Imagine mentions workplace councils, but describes their role as ”ratifying” decisions, which is alright if it means to check and vote on reports made by their workers’ representatives at regional and national level. But workplace councils like those in post-war Yugoslavia, which merely rubber-stamped decisions made by management, do not mean socialism.

Media and culture play a big role in Imagine. But here as well, it’s unclear what kind of media system an SSP-lead state would establish: ”In any case a socialist government would stand up to the media moguls and ensure that the future battle of ideas will be fought out on a level battleground. In a socialist society, minority or alternative newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations would be granted equal access to the most advanced printing, digital, and broadcasting technology.” This leaves the way open for ”media moguls” to stay in power, and for socialist or environmentalist newspapers still to be ”minority” or ”alternative” ones.

In addition we are told that the Internet, a system praised and over praised by the authors, is ”open for everyone”. It is cheaper for newcomers to start a website, but the fact is that information on the net is largely owned by the same ”media moguls”. Those who can afford to employ journalists and PR people are the same in papers, TV and the net.

Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes, having left the CWI, the international socialist organisation of which Rättvisepartiet is the Swedish section, and lead the small, politically broad, socialist party SSP. The methods of ”broadness” – cutting the historical thread of Marxism and flirting with all kind of left currents, vagueness in describing the coming policies of the party – are all evident in the book.

”Genuine socialist will always fight for reforms, for improvements, no matter how modest, in the lives of ordinary people”, is a generally correct statement in the book. Socialists should not ”stand aloof from the day-to-day struggle”. But the case here referred to is the new tax, SST, which Tommy Sheridan advocates in the Scottish parliament. This is not a question of supporting workers fighting for a modest demand, or even supporting a proposal from another member of the parliament. It is a modest demand raised by Sheridan himself, assisted by some academic researchers. The SST is a very limited proposal which” would not eradicate poverty and inequality in Scotland”, Imagine confesses, and therefore is hardly a test of day-to-day struggle.

Socialist traditions

During the debate over the proposal from the then CWI members, McCombes and Sheridan, to liquidate the CWI group in Scotland and build the SSP instead, they frequently denied the existence of pressure from centrism or reformism. Now they themselves appear as centrists moving to the right. One feature of centrism is its denial of historical roots and traditions. They are only ”new”, from several ”different traditions”.

In the pages of Imagine there is no October revolution in Russia 1917. We are told that the tsar was overthrown and that the aim of the revolution was ”cooperation, equality and democracy”. The decisive struggle between bolshevism and other currents is kept from the readers.

Later on, this revolution appears to have been a mistake. In the typical Sheridan-McCombes style: ”And trying to build socialism in a backward country like Russia 1917 was like trying to build a fire in a waterlogged swamp in the pouring driving rain without a stick of wood, a teaspoonful of fuel or a single match.”

This instead of saying that Lenin and Trotsky saw the revolution in Russia as the beginning of an international revolution. The Russian workers were given the opportunity to take power because of the war, the economic crisis, the national question, the soviets - and the Bolshevik party. The October revolution was the greatest event in world history, showing that a workers’ state is possible. Russia alone could not achieve socialism but it could gives an impetus that would shake the world.

Like the October revolution, the fighting tradition of Trotskyism in the 1930s is missing in Imagine. This despite some paragraphs on Trotsky which, while sympathetic, don’t reflect his most important idea – the struggle to build a new revolutionary party and international.

Imagine refers to the 1930s saying that ”communist parties and other left wing organisations mushroomed into mass movements”. It doesn’t explain which other organisations. For Marxists, the struggle of Trotsky and the organisations supporting him belongs to the most valuable of experiences.

As said earlier, Stalinism is not explained in Imagine. On Eastern Europe they claim that ”the same pattern was repeated” as in Russia, which of course is wrong. In most countries of Eastern Europe, Stalinism developed as a consequence of the victory of the Stalinist Soviet Union over Nazi Germany and its allies in the world war. There was no revolution, or period of genuine workers’ democracy as in the first years in Russia.

Sheridan and McCombes don’t mention the CWI either, which leaves the book without history. The British section of CWI, in the 1970s and 80's called Militant, lead a number of mass struggles which enriched Marxism. It’s up to the authors of Imagine either to claim to be the inheritors of those days, or to openly admit which mistakes they think were made. The long fight against cuts in Liverpool, with local mass struggle and strikes forcing concessions from the Thatcher government, is not mentioned in Imagine.

Progressive national traditions?

It is on nationalism, intolerance and racism that some of the worst revisions take place in Imagine: ”Socialists, naturally, oppose all forms of national chauvinism... But... socialists should also battle to rescue the progressive and inclusive sides of English and Scottish national identity.” They talk about the need to ”reclaim the best of their national traditions”.

This sounds exactly like those in Sweden who argue that ”healthy nationalists” should reclaim the Swedish flag from the fascists. And that Swedes should be more proud of ”our” nation and its citizens. There is definitely nothing progressive in the national symbols of Sweden.

Imagine refers to bigotry and intolerance, but again, makes no attempt to explain the root causes. The immigration policies of the European Union point at refugees as criminals or at least a problem that needs to be got rid of. The nationalist card is played by politicians to keep refugees out. Combined with unemployment and cuts it provides a fertile ground for racists and fascists to spread their poison. Defending the right of asylum, mobilising against Nazis and racists are among the urgent tasks for socialists today.

The national traditions which Imagine wants to reclaim are kept in the dark. To ”reclaim” them implies that they were once the property of socialists. It is hard to see what progressive sides of the national identity the authors are aiming at, why not just refer to ”human identity”? The only point of using the word ”national” must be to say that is something which Pakistanis, Kurds or the Irish do not have. And to preserve it, some kind of border or differentiation is needed.

The case of Scottish culture, especially popular culture, is made very strongly in Imagine. Up to one page is filled with the names of authors and people in films, theatre and music to prove a new leading international role for Scots. Personally, I like Ian Rankin’s books on police inspector Rebus, but can’t see what they have to do in a book about socialism. It is hinted that the upsurge in Scottish culture is connected with the increased support for independence, not with support for a socialist Scotland.

The final impression is that this layer, of authors etc., is very much the audience at which the book is aimed. That could explain the emphasis Imagine gives to ”individual freedom on personal matters” and statements like ”the philosophy of 21st century socialism will be essentially libertarian.” This is an attempt to distance themselves from ”older” variants of socialism. What does it mean, apart from assuring the petit bourgeois socialists of their right to individual freedom? But those today wavering over whether to support socialism will only be convinced by the struggle itself.

Sheridan and McCombes have left the ideas of a revolutionary, Trotskyist party behind them, and along with it the revolutionary international. Now it’s a question of building links with ”political, environmental, trade union and pro-democracy movements all over the globe”. As if that hasn’t always been a task for socialists, and, more importantly, as if it diminishes the need for a clear socialist programme.

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