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Socialism in the 21st Century
The Socialist Party
The Socialist Party is not just an organisation that argues the case for socialism. We use our Marxist analysis as a tool to attempt to guide struggles to defend and improve the living conditions of working-class people.
Even in the 1960s, when we had very small forces, we played a crucial role in a number of battles, such as the 1964 apprentices’ strike. In the 1980s and the early 1990s we led two of the most important mass struggles of the working class of the time, the battle of Liverpool City Council and the mass campaign against the poll tax. We were then called 'Militant' and were the major Marxist current within the Labour Party.
Militant supporters were expelled from the Labour Party by the right wing in the late 1980s and early 1990s. We explained that the expulsion of Militant supporters would be the thin end of the wedge and that a purging of socialist ideas would follow close behind. Unfortunately, we were proved correct as Blairism established a stranglehold on the Labour Party. It was not only socialists who were expelled along with socialist ideology, even the idea of defending the living standards of the working class was trashed.
While the New Labour leaders have almost entirely expunged class struggle from their party they cannot wipe it out of British society so easily. The major battles we led or participated in during the last 20 years will be dwarfed by the struggles of the next 20. But the victories we have so far been able to contribute to will be remembered and their lessons will be useful for the new generation.
From 1983-87 we played a leading role on Liverpool City Council as it fought against Tory government cuts. For having the temerity to stand up to Thatcher we were vilified by the Labour leaders. Yet, if every Labour council in the country had taken the same stand, not only would the Tory government have had to abandon its cuts packages, it would have been swept from office.
Even though Liverpool City Council was isolated alongside Lambeth Council, under attack from all sides, it was able to secure a major victory. In 1984 it won a ‘95% victory’ when it extracted an extra £60 million in funding from the government. This was not just a battle of the council but a struggle that engulfed the entire city with demonstrations of 50,000 and more. Millions of workers across the country supported the movement.
The results of the Liverpool battle still stand in bricks and mortar. Some of the main achievements of the council were:
Fourteen inner-city and two other housing estates, with a population of over 40,000, were completely transformed. Five thousand council houses were built, all with front and back gardens and their own private entrance, 4,400 council houses and flats and 4,115 private-sector homes were renovated.
Five hundred extra education staff were employed, six new nurseries opened and four colleges were built.
Six new sports centres were constructed. Sports facilities were free for the unemployed, disabled people, those in receipt of a pension and school leavers.
The council took on an extra 800 workers and 16,489 jobs were created by the house building programme.
In the early 1990s we played a leading role in the battle against the hated poll tax. Eighteen million people refused to pay it. On 31 March 1990, 50,000 marched in Glasgow, with over 200,000 in London. (The London demonstration ended in rioting after the police viciously attacked the march.)
The mass movement against the poll tax was responsible not only for defeating the tax but also forced the resignation of its architect, the ‘Iron Lady’, Maggie Thatcher. These two examples are the biggest, but far from the only, mass struggles our party led in this period. For example, we also initiated school student strikes in 1985 which defeated the Tories plans to remove the right of 16- and 17-year-olds to claim unemployment benefit (this measure was unfortunately forced through four years later).
In 1992 we set up Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE), which played a key role in the battle against the neo-Nazi British National Party (BNP). YRE’s first act was to organise a demonstration in Brussels against the far-right of 40,000 young people from across Europe. In 1994 YRE co-organised a demonstration of 50,000 in Welling, South London, which succeeded in getting the BNP's headquarters closed down.
When the BNP got a councillor elected on the Isle of Dogs, East London, YRE played a crucial role in marginalising the neo-fascists and assisting the Asian community in organising against the BNP. As a result of the anti-Nazi movement of the early 1990s the BNP were pushed backed into virtual non-existence. Now, as they are beginning to grow again, YRE is once more to the fore of the struggle to defeat them.
On coming to power, New Labour swiftly abolished the student grant and introduced student tuition fees. We responded by founding Save Free Education (SFE). Over the following years SFE has led a series of student strikes, protests and occupations alongside a non-payment campaign, and calls for a living grant and the abolition of the fees. The campaign continues.
Fees have been abolished in Scotland (although the graduate tax system that has replaced them is far from progressive) and their days seem to be numbered in Wales as well. New Labour in England has floated the possibility of abolishing them, but seems to have retreated for now. It is because of the huge unpopularity of student fees that New Labour is on the retreat.
But it is also due to the effect of the campaigns initiated by SFE, not least in popularising the idea of mass non-payment. When fees were first introduced, The Times Higher Education Supplement commented that
Whilst non-payment is not taking place in the same organised way as during the anti-poll tax campaign, the major factor forcing New Labour to reconsider its policy is the scale of non-payment. It is estimated that around 30% of fees have gone unpaid and in the more working-class universities the figure is higher.
There are countless other campaigns that we have been involved in over the last decade – some more successful than others. There was the battle against the Criminal Justice Act in 1994, the ‘no blood for oil’ campaign against the Gulf war in 1990, and innumerable struggles against the privatisation of our public services.
However, whilst we fight heart and soul in every campaign in which we are involved, we also understand the limited nature of even the greatest victories whilst we live in a capitalist society. That is why we always link day-to-day struggles with a socialist programme. It is only by a socialist transformation of society that the working class will be able to win decent living conditions and justice on a permanent basis.
In the last decade there have not been national struggles of the working class on the scale of the 1980s and early 1990s. However, the first breezes of the coming storm in British society are beginning to stir. In all of them – the movement against war in Afghanistan, anti-capitalist May Day demonstrations, and increasing strike action - we have taken a full and active part.
We have also helped organise hundreds of local struggles against the barrage of attacks on the working class. To give just one from hundreds of examples, in Sheffield we played a leading role in a successful campaign to close a toxic waste disposal plant in Killamarsh. The Press Officer of the campaign explained how he viewed our party:
As a result of our role in different campaigns we have been able to build real roots in communities. We are the only socialist organisation in England and Wales to have had public representatives elected, with Socialist Party councillors in Coventry and Lewisham, London. All of our public representatives take no more than the average wage of a skilled worker.
In the trade unions we are to the forefront in the battle to defend jobs and working conditions, and in overcoming the obstacle of the right-wing trade union leaders. In 2000 a member of our party, Roger Bannister, stood for the position of general secretary in UNISON (the biggest trade union in Britain) and won 71,021 votes (over 31%). We have eleven members on the National Executive Committees of six of the main trade unions.
The Socialist Party is part of the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI) which organises in 33 countries, on every inhabited continent of the globe.
Many of the sections of the CWI have an established record of leading mass struggles, for example, in Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Sweden and Ireland. Our sister party in Ireland succeeded in getting Joe Higgins elected as a TD in the Irish parliament, the Dáil.
We also have councillors in Ireland, Netherlands, Kazakhstan and Sweden. Compared to the scale of the task we have set ourselves the forces of the CWI are very small. However, regardless of the size of our international groups, we have always started from an international standpoint.
The need for a global organisation flows from the development of capitalism itself which has created a world market and a world working class. This idea is even more important today in the period of globalisation. The linking together of companies, continents and different national economies has taken place on a hitherto unimagined scale and adds urgency to the need for Marxists to organise internationally.
The importance of ideas
Our party’s orientation and action are integrally linked to our ideas. Without an understanding of Marxism, and a capacity to develop and apply it to new situations, we would not have been able to play the role we have in several mass movements. That method has also enabled us to comprehend the changes in the world since the collapse of Stalinism. That is why our party, unlike most others left organisations, has been able to withstand the difficulties of the 1990s and has continued sinking roots in workplaces and communities.
The respect we have built up in the 1990s has put us in a good position to intervene with Marxist ideas in the massive struggles that will develop in the next decade. In doing so we will aim to convince as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, of socialist and Marxist ideas and of the need to join our party.
However, this is not our only role. Nationally and locally, we always attempt to develop demands and tactics that will take any particular movement forward. In the battle against the poll tax we put forward the slogan ‘can’t pay, won’t pay’ and campaigned for organised, mass non-payment of the tax.
Even though we had relatively small forces, it was our ability to see which demands would strike a chord with millions of working-class people, which strategy could lead to victory, and then to energetically campaign for our programme and strategy, that made the difference between the success or failure of the movement.
Without our role there would still have been mass anger against the poll tax, but it is highly unlikely that it would have taken the form of an organised and democratic mass movement, able to effectively paralyse the efforts of the government through the courts, bailiffs and prisons to impose the tax.
It was not only our strategy, it was also our determination which enabled us to play a leading role. Along with hundreds of others, many Militant supporters, including Terry Fields MP, were jailed for refusing to pay the poll tax.
In hundreds of campaigns, from national movements to local community struggles, we attempt to develop a programme that will take the movement forward. At the same time, we always attempt to link the immediate issues to the broader question: the need to change society.
For a new mass workers' party
In the past, despite its right-wing leadership, most workers saw the Labour Party as ‘their party’. In general, this is no longer the case. New Labour is seen as just one more establishment party representing the capitalists. Labour Party membership has fallen by around 100,000 as working-class members have flooded out of the party.
Support for Labour in its 'heartlands' has sunk to an all-time low. Even Tony Benn, a socialist who still resists the idea of breaking from the Labour Party, has accepted that,
Even in the past the leaders of the Labour Party generally reflected the interests of the capitalists rather than the working class. However, the working-class membership was able to exert pressure on the leadership through the party’s structures. That meant that the capitalists never saw Labour governments as wholly reliable servants of big business. Today the situation is very different. It is true that the trade unions are still affiliated to New Labour. But all the democratic structures, which previously allowed trade unionists and rank-and-file members to influence policy, have been dismantled.
There is an urgent need for a new party made up of and representing working-class people. As anger at New Labour grows, the desire for an alternative is also increasing. The government is continuing with its privatisation frenzy at the same time as the trade unions give New Labour money – £6 million in 2001 alone.
Unsurprisingly, growing numbers of trade unionists are asking ‘why are we feeding the hand that bites us?’
At trade union conferences, in the face of hysterical opposition from right-wing leaders, delegates have supported motions moved by Socialist Party members recommending a review of the link with New Labour and considering support for candidates who campaign in the interests of trade unionists.
This represents the first tentative steps towards setting up a new party to represent workers’ interests. We have seen other foretastes of this in several local elections - including strikers who stood against council cuts in Tameside in the North West, the environmental activists in Killamarsh, and the campaigners for a new comprehensive school who won a council seat in Lewisham, London.
On the basis of their experience of struggle fresh layers of the working class - trade unionists, community campaigners and young people - are drawing the conclusion that they need their own political voice. At the moment this is taking place on a partial and localised level. For a new party made up of, and representing, the working class to develop will take much bigger developments.
The Socialist Party recognises that a new party will be formed primarily out of workers’ experience in major class battles. These events will push working people to move towards the formation of a new party that represents them. This will probably not happen in one big bang. On the contrary, it could be a confused and drawn-out process with a number of false starts before a new party is successfully created.
However, Socialist Party members do not stand aside and simply wait for objective developments. One of the critical tasks for Marxists is to help the most politically aware sections of workers to draw the conclusion that such a party is necessary and to speed up its formation.
Therefore, we raise the need for a new party in our leaflets and other material. We support and encourage any steps that groups of workers take towards that aim. This would include, for example, raising the idea that groups of workers or community campaigners should stand as anti-cuts candidates in elections, or calling for trade unions to open up their political funds to support socialist candidates and disaffiliate from New Labour.
At the same time, the Socialist Party has shown the potential for socialist ideas to gain an echo. We have had important successes in elections, winning four councillors and receiving very good votes in other seats. One of the most effective ways of working towards a new mass workers’ party is to support and strengthen the Socialist Party and enable us to reach more workers with our socialist programme.
As well as building the Socialist Party, we also work in broader political formations. This is a vital part of developing any movement. Every struggle we have played a leading role in, including Liverpool City Council and the anti- poll tax campaign, has involved us working as part of broad, democratic left alliances. This holds true in the trade unions where we participate in broad left organisations.
To gain support for socialist ideas and to maximise the socialist vote we are also prepared to take part in ‘broad’ electoral and general campaigns. It was for this reason that we founded the Socialist Alliance in the mid-1990s. We aimed to bring together different socialist organisations and individuals on a democratic and federal basis.
This allowed for the maximum possible principled unity around an agreed set of demands, whilst at the same time preserving the rights of all the separate component parts of the Alliance. Unfortunately, the Socialist Alliance no longer operates on the democratic, federal basis on which it was formed. The very small forces of the Socialist Alliance are now effectively centralised under the control of one organisation, the Socialist Workers Party.
For this reason we are currently unable to take part in it, although we are doing our utmost to avoid electoral clashes with it and other socialist organisations. However, the failure of the Socialist Alliance does not alter our enthusiasm for any future formations that represent a step towards a new mass party - be they alliances, electoral agreements or (providing they are organised on a democratic and federal basis) broad socialist parties.
This book gives an outline of the ideas of the Socialist Party. On the basis of events we will adapt and develop our ideas. A vital aspect of this is learning from the struggles of young people and workers but, at the same time, also seeking to generalise this in a programmatic form.
Nonetheless, we believe that our ideas are the most effective political tools available to guide the struggle for socialism today. We are therefore engaged in a constant drive to convince as many working-class people as we can reach of our ideas. In the future, when a new mass party of the working class is formed we will, of course, campaign, as the Marxist wing of such a party, for it to adopt our programme.
However, it is not certain that we will succeed in the first instance. What we are confident of is that many thousands of workers in Britain will be convinced of our programme and will join the Socialist Party in the coming months and years. We appeal to readers of this book to do so.
We also understand that the broader layers of the working class – ‘the millions’ - will not all accept our programme on the basis of argumentation alone. The mass of people accept new ideas, not because they read about them in books and newspapers, but on the basis of their own experience. Even then, human consciousness tends to be conservative. It usually lags behind objective reality, although it can then catch up in startling leaps forward. On the basis of their experience over time, the majority of those in a new workers’ party could be convinced not only of socialist ideas in general, but of our Marxist programme.
At every stage, locally, nationally and internationally, our party fights to defend the existing position of the working class and for every possible step forward. We fight for the smallest local reforms - such as traffic calming measures on local estates, or fighting for the right to a tea break at work - to more significant steps forward for the working class as a whole, such as a new mass workers' party. However, we never limit ourselves to fighting solely for individual reforms.
Throughout all the campaigns we participate in we put the case for socialism. We explain that it is only by overthrowing capitalism, by liberating humanity from the dictates of the market, that we will be able to begin to build a society free from poverty and inequality. That would be a democratic socialist society, driven not by the need to create profits for a few, but the desire to satisfy the needs of all humanity.