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a socialistworld is possible: the history of the cwi by peter taaffe
new introduction

Scottish Socialist Party

The ‘terrible nineties’ that followed the collapse of Stalinism, is the objective source of the opportunism of many organisations.

Paradoxically, developments within the CWI – the movement away from a revolutionary Trotskyist position by the leaders of what was to become the Scottish Socialist Party – inadvertently encouraged this process. The formation and electoral success of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) has now become a model for some of those who are in headlong retreat from Marxism and Trotskyism. The decision of the then leadership of the CWI section in Scotland, in the late 1990s, to set up a broad socialist formation, the SSP, while effectively abandoning the revolutionary party, represented a fundamental break with the revolutionary programme, tactics and strategy of the CWI. This development, led by individuals who had played an important role in the CWI in the past, such as Tommy Sheridan, Alan McCombes and others, was not at all accidental. It was the product of the difficulties of continuing to argue for a revolutionary programme and approach in a dramatically changed political climate.

The proposals of these comrades, at the outset, did not appear to many as representing a fundamental departure from our analysis and programme. After all, it was the leadership of the CWI not the leadership of the Scottish section, Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes, who initially called for a new mass workers’ party. This was based upon our analysis about the ‘bourgeoisification’ of the social democracy in Britain (New Labour) and, ultimately, social democracy worldwide. Despite the attempts of Alan McCombes and Tommy Sheridan to try and picture the CWI majority as rejecting the idea of forming a broad party, such arguments cut no ice with the majority of the CWI membership.

Our objection was to their liquidation of the revolutionary current within such a formation. The arguments in and around these ideas can be thoroughly examined by visiting the CWI website at The leadership of the CWI, with an overwhelming majority of the CWI behind it in the debate over this issue, correctly foretold the political evolution of what later became the leadership of the SSP. Despite their denials that this was their aim, we predicted their political backsliding and their ultimate liquidation into the SSP. This involved a shift towards reformism that, in practice, amounted to the winding up of Scottish Militant Labour, which had been a revolutionary party. To begin with, when Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes formed the International Socialist Movement within the SSP, this was not obvious. However, in January 2003, the leadership proposed winding up as the ISM, as the SSP was “doing the job”. The proposal was put on ice until after the Scottish parliamentary elections that year. In October of the same year, it was raised again. It was agreed to maintain the ISM but there was little enthusiasm to build it. They needed to retain the semblance of an organisation because of political opposition within the ISM, as well as because of the danger which would then be presented to their position by other platforms within the SSP, particularly the CWI. The reality is that the ISM is the faction of the majority of the SSP leadership.

Despite this, the SSP has partially filled the vacuum which exists to the left of Labour and has had a measure of success electorally, as well as growing in numbers. Its electoral success in the 2003 Scottish parliamentary elections raised its profile further, as has the affiliation of the Scottish Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT) branches to the SSP. As a result, in some quarters of the ‘revolutionary left’ internationally, this has been invoked as a model of how to lay the foundations for new parties of the working class. Heavy emphasis is laid on the need to go ‘broad’, involving, in practice, the submerging of revolutionary organisations into such formations. This seems to be justified by the success of the SSP. However, what is forgotten in all of this are the limits to what has been achieved in Scotland. Concrete, specific conditions exist there and, with different conditions elsewhere, it may not be possible to immediately reproduce an SSP-type party. Undoubtedly, the national question has given a sharpness to the political situation in Scotland, from which the SSP has benefited. However, the Socialist Party in England and Wales also has a credible record on the electoral field. The SP successfully stood in eleven elections at local level, leading to the election of socialist councillors and their re-election. Since 2001, the votes won in Coventry, during election campaigns for the Socialist Party’s Dave Nellist, have been consistently the best of parties to the left of New Labour in England and Wales. Moreover, while the SSP polled a credible 5.2% of the vote in Scotland during the 2004 Euro elections, the SP (CWI) in Ireland won 5.5% across Dublin in the same EU poll. These election results underline the fact that electoral support can be won without abandoning a consistent Marxist and Trotskyist programme.

We welcomed and supported the setting up of the SSP – despite the completely false claims of the leadership of that party that we were opposed (for more details, see But we insisted on continuing with the maintenance and building of a clearly-identified Marxist trend within the SSP. This corresponds with the tactic set out in the 1990s – the dual task of fighting for and rehabilitating the basic ideas of socialism and, at the same time, building new parties of the working class while maintaining the ideas of revolutionary Marxism within these new organisations.

The SSP leadership subscribed to the first task but have abandoned the second, and vital, task for Marxists in this era. Through impatience – a drive for short-term popularity – they have watered down the ideas they formerly adhered to when in the CWI. Now neither they or we, nor any other serious organisation in the international movement today, would describe the SSP leaders as consistently ‘Trotskyist’. They seek to put as much distance as possible between their present position and their revolutionary past in Militant and Scottish Militant Labour, as well as in the CWI.