After the Scottish elections How is socialism to be won?

Philip Stott (International Socialists, CWI Scotland)

Socialist View Summer 2003, No. 11

The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) now has six MSPs elected to the Scottish parliament. This important breakthrough can assist socialists to reach a new generation who are looking for an alternative to poverty, low pay, racism and war. But how is socialism to be won? In this article, Philip Stott (International Socialists, CWI Scotland) looks at the SSP's current manifesto and statements by leading SSP members during the elections and contrasts that to the kind of programme the International Socialists believe is needed to achieve socialism.

The International Socialists play an active role in the SSP. We are committed to building the SSP into a mass force with a clear socialist programme. We are also the Scottish section of the worldwide socialist and Marxist organisation the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI) which is active in 35 countries. Up until 2001 many of the leading members of the SSP including Tommy Sheridan MSP and Alan McCombes, who is the editor of the Scottish Socialist Voice (paper of the SSP) and drafted the SSP manifesto, were members of the CWI. They left after a lengthy debate about the need to build support for a Marxist organisation and programme while also building the SSP. They rejected that idea. Unfortunately, the ideas put forward by many of the SSP's leadership today represent a decisive break with Marxism and the programme of the CWI. Both the SSP's manifesto and statements made by SSP MSP Tommy Sheridan during the election campaign have confirmed that a significant change is taking place in the political position of the SSP's leadership. Moreover, they are now arguing in favour of ideas that they would have vehemently opposed in the past. In responding to these ideas we do so in an effort to clarify the programme that we believe is necessary to achieve the overthrow of capitalism and establish a socialist society, in Scotland and internationally.

The SSP stood at the recent elections on a platform of five "fast track" pledges all of which the International Socialists supported. They were the scrapping of the council tax and its replacement with a wealth tax, the introduction of free school meals for all pupils, a higher minimum wage and a shorter working week for public sector workers, the scrapping of PFI and PPP privatisation schemes. These are likely to form the main legislative bills that SSP MSP's will put forward in the Scottish Parliament.

At the same time, the SSP's manifesto outlined a further 200 demands that could be implemented under the current powers of the parliament. They covered the main areas for which the Scottish Parliament is responsible such as health, education, transport, housing, local government, the legal system etc. Again the International Socialists supported the vast majority of these proposals. So what are the differences between the approach of the International Socialists (CWI) and that of the SSP leadership towards the drawing up of a socialist programme for Scotland?

Tax the rich

The SSP's election manifesto included a section entitled "For a free socialist republic". In that section the manifesto argued that countries like Norway and Denmark, while still being free market economies, nevertheless prove that: "Yes, you can tax the rich. Yes, you can have public ownership of North Sea oil and other profitable industries. Yes, you can impose higher taxes on big business. Yes, you can invest in high quality public services". Developing this idea further Tommy Sheridan, the convenor of the SSP, explained in an interview on the BBC (20 April 2003) that: "...there are a number of countries which have a successful mix of public ownership and high Norway and Denmark they manage to combine high levels of public ownership with high taxation for the wealthy."

These quotes, and many others of a similar vein, are a clear example of the changing position of the SSP leadership. They believe that by taxing the rich and big business, without ending capitalism, it is possible to at least significantly, and for the long term, reduce the levels of poverty and inequality in Scotland.

Of course the International Socialists supports demands of the SSP for increased corporation tax on big business and increased personal tax on the wealthy. We support, for example, the scrapping of the council tax and its replacement with a wealth tax that would be heavily weighted towards making the rich pay substantially more towards local government services. These measures form part of our programme that aims to eradicate poverty and low pay permanently, but only if they are linked to the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of a socialist society based on workers' control and management of the economy and a democratic plan of production.

The lessons of left and radical governments that have come to power but failed to bring the economy and the state under the control of the working class proves that limited action against the power and privilege of the capitalist class cannot provide a long term solution.

This was the lesson of the Socialist Party government of Francois Mitterand which won power in 1981 in France. They promised increases in employment, more money for health and education and increased taxes on big business. Under immense pressure from the International Monetary Fund and French big business who threatened a 'strike of capital', they eventually ended up carrying through counter reforms against the interests of the French working and middle classes. This was a consequence of the Mitterand government's refusal to break with capitalism. This has also been the experience of some of the radical governments that have come to power in Latin America with mass support among the population such as Chavez in Venezuela in 1998 and the Nicaraguan Sandanistas who came to power after the 1979 revolution.

Fighting for reforms

The CWI has an uncompromising record of fighting for every advance for the working class that can be wrung out of capitalism and big business governments. After all it was the Militant (the forerunner of the Socialist Party in Britain) that played a leading role in the Liverpool City Council struggle of the 1980's. This movement, involving tens of thousands of council workers and sections of the wider working class, took on and for a time defeated the Tory government and won significant improvements in housing, education, nursery provision and the like - although with the collusion of the Labour leadership, the Tories were eventually able to reverse these reforms.

Militant, in Scotland and Britain, whose membership included Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes and others, were central to the building of the mass anti-poll tax non-payment campaign that defeated the poll tax and removed Thatcher from power.

While leading these class battles we have always sought to explain that while victories can be won and reforms gained for working class people, unless, and until, capitalism is overthrown, the ruling class will return again and again to try and remove the past gains made by the working class movement. Reforms under capitalism can turn into counter reforms. That is why we tie the struggle for immediate reforms to the idea of the socialist transformation of society. Therefore we sought at all times, and still do seek, to build the membership of our Marxist organisation because we believe that a mass party armed with a Marxist programme is essential for the overthrow of capitalism and the building of a socialist society.

A consistently socialist position- a Marxist programme- requires an approach that explains fighting for reforms on their own is not enough. Reforms won under capitalism still leave the economy in the hands of the capitalist class. We have always sought to put demands such as a wealth tax in the context of advancing the need for workers' control and management over the economy as a whole.

This can only be done by bringing into public ownership the multinational corporations that dominate the economy under the democratic control and management of the working class.

High wage economy?

Interview with Tommy Sheridan, The Herald 30 April 2003:

"What we're saying is that in a future independent, socialist Scotland, we want to work on training, on skills. We want to offer a very high-skilled economy, a motivated workforce for big business. If that can work in places like Germany and France, where they have higher wages, better standards, and produce better products, why can't that work here in Scotland?"

The idea of a consistent high wage capitalist economy is a myth in today's economic conditions. The Gerhard Schroeder government in Germany has launched a vicious assault on German workers. This policy is dictated by the low growth and profits crisis in German capitalism and Schroeder's determination to make the working class pay for the crisis. Tommy Sheridan's idea that high wages benefit big business by allowing more money to be spent in the economy is turning Marxism on its head.

Capitalist profits are the unpaid labour of the working class. Workers' wages represent only part of the value that the working class produces. The working class never receives the full value in wages of the commodities that they make. Therefore, they cannot collectively buy back the goods they do produce. The capitalists overcome this contradiction, for a period, by investing a portion of the profits in re-tooling and developing new technology, but eventually the demand dries up and the economy goes into a recession. This is one of the factors that leads to a profits' crisis and the capitalists closing factories and workplaces, as they cannot sell the goods they manufacture.

Neo-liberal policies are being used to cut the collective social wage of the working class in an attempt to salvage the falling profits of the capitalists. A high wage economy, high quality public services, and low poverty rates and the existence capitalism are today mutually exclusive.

Multinational capitalism will always seek to maximise its profits by undermining workers' wages and conditions. Capitalist globalisation has increased the ability of companies to move to low wage economies. Scotland is seeing a similar experience in regards to the call centre sector where thousands of jobs could be moving to the Indian subcontinent where wages are much lower.

The chances of these companies operating in a "high wage" Scotland at a time of falling profitability and economic crisis are unlikely to say the least. Only by bringing these corporations into public ownership under democratic working class control and management, could high wages and decent conditions be guaranteed. At the same time, that does not prevent workers from fighting for increased wages and improved working conditions against the wishes of the bosses. However, until the profit system is abolished there is no job or wage rise that will not be under threat.

A mixed economy

Interview with Tommy Sheridan, The Herald 30 April 2003

Alf Young, The Herald: "Isn't there an ultimate condition that you're seeking to reach, one where the market has no role to play, that the state can do everything?"

Tommy Sheridan: "No. We very much believe in a mixed economy"

AY: "It doesn't sound like it, Tommy."

TS: "Well, our mix is different from New Labour's mix. Labour would like to add a wee drop of whisky to the Atlantic Ocean and say that's a mixed economy. We think that's wrong. We think there's a larger role for the public sector to play."

The idea of a mixed economy i.e. public ownership of some sectors of the economy existing alongside a "regulated" big business sector is not new. It is just another variant of capitalism. These ideas have existed in the working class and socialist movement since its inception. They are reformist in that they seek to reform capitalism or achieve socialism through the gradual changes in the operation of capitalism.

Marxism has consistently defended an alternative position. What you don't own, you don't control. To limit your demands to the democratic public ownership of a limited part of the economy is to leave most of it in the hands of the capitalists. For example, if an SSP government came to power and decided to nationalise 20% of the economy, but left 80% in private hands it would be the 80% that would dictate terms to the 20%, not the other way around. Marxists struggle to build a party and a movement armed with a clear socialist programme. This programme stands for the public ownership of the decisive sections of the economy under democratic working class control.

The national question

Underpinning the SSP leadership's political shift towards reformist ideas is their view that the struggle for socialism in Scotland will be taking place isolated from the rest of the world. The manifesto states, "We repudiate the fictional claim that in the new globalised economy an independent Scotland would be powerless to tax the rich, wipe out poverty." Firstly, we have never accepted that an independent Scotland would be capable of "wiping out poverty" unless capitalism was ended and a socialist Scotland established. We have argued for an independent socialist Scotland that would link up, in a voluntary socialist confederation, with other socialist states.

Secondly, in order to stand up to the globalised economy i.e. a hostile international capitalist class that would seek to crush a socialist society wherever it existed, it is essential to view that struggle from an international standpoint. That is to appeal to the working class internationally, starting in the rest of Britain and Ireland for support and for the overthrow of capitalism in other countries.

Tommy Sheridan also made a statement about not nationalising Tesco. This flows from the idea that it is not possible to deal with multinational companies in a Scottish context, other than to "regulate" them. It is a recognition that within the limits of an isolated Scotland there would be limits on what could be achieved. But it is wrong to view it in that way. If the socialist transformation of society were to take place in Scotland first, and that is by no means certain, the long-term survival of a socialist Scotland would depend on the spreading of a socialist revolution internationally.

Globalisation has further accelerated the concentration of capitalist wealth and power into fewer and fewer hands. This process has unfolded for over 150 years. There are approximately 150 corporations that dominate the British economy. Around 500 transnational corporations control 90% of world trade. We are fighting to build a mass movement that would bring those economic colossi into the hands of the world's workers and poor masses. This would release the resources to transform the lives of billions of people. This can only be done by ending capitalism internationally.

A socialist society would plan production, rather than the environmentally damaging and destructive anarchy of capitalism, through the setting up of democratically elected committees involving the workers in those industries and across the country.

Through these bodies organised on a local, regional and national and international basis, it would be possible to work out a plan for the economy, based on need, where production for profit would be ended. A socialist plan of production would consist of working out an overall plan of what goods and resources society required. This would involve an agreement on what was needed for investment in health, education, housing and other public services. On that basis it would be possible to end the enormous waste and duplication that is endemic under the capitalist mode of production. A socialist society would harness the wealth and productive potential that does exist to eradicate poverty and hunger both in Scotland and internationally.

Capitalism with all its advances in science and technology and the massive accumulation of wealth has created the means to abolish hunger, poverty and disease for all of humankind. A new Scotland and a new world are possible. It has to be a socialist one.

More articles about Scotland and the SSP are available here.