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Sheridan no socialist

“Sheridan told he faces years in prison for lies about sex and socialism”, so ran one newspaper headline the day after a jury found the former MSP guilty of perjury (Times, 24 December).

We don’t know, or care, if he told lies about his sex life to get at a scandal rag that was trying to entrap him. It’s only the political aspect of the case that interests us, and it’s true that, as a reformist politician, he had certainly told lies about socialism. But this is the first time we have heard of this being a crime punishable by imprisonment. If it was, the prisons would be full of journalists, politicians and academics. Of course the Times – like the News of the World, owned by media tycoon Rupert Murdoch – was merely trying to discredit socialism.

Sheridan was a Trotskyist, originally of the Militant Tendency variety, and although he could not doubt explain why the USSR had been a “degenerate workers state” or why some common or garden reform was a “transitional demand” and so a stepping stone to “socialism”, he was not that kind of Trotskyist.

Trotskyists, being Leninists, hold that workers are incapable of evolving beyond a “trade union consciousness” (defined by Lenin as “the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc.”). So, according to them, putting the straight socialist case for common ownership, democratic control and production for use not profit to workers is to cast pearls before swine.

Instead, according to Trotskyists, what must be put before workers are demands that the government introduce this or that reform within capitalism. Getting workers to support such “transitional demands” is the only way they calculate they can get the mass support which, when the government fails to respond, can be used to catapult their vanguard party to power. But this requires people on the ground who are capable of winning a personal following. Normally, the Trotskyist gurus who direct their organisation from the shadows, are not up to this. They require front men. As it happens, Militant has been rather successful in this, with Derek Hatton in Liverpool, Joe Higgins at the moment in Dublin, and Tommy Sheridan in Glasgow.

Sheridan first came to prominence in the anti-Poll Tax campaign of the 1980s when he, along with the rest of the Militant Tendency, was still boring from within the Labour Party. Sheridan earned a reputation for being an indefatigable fighter, defending non-payers before the courts and himself getting a six-month sentence for contempt of court.

The trouble, from the point of view of the Trotskyist gurus in the background, is that such front men have, because of their following, a degree of independence and can prove difficult to control. Which is what happened in Sheridan’s case. When Kinnock clamped down on Militant – Sheridan himself was expelled from the Labour Party in 1989 – the group’s leaders didn’t want to change their tactics. They wanted to continue boring from within the Labour Party, in accordance with the argument they had used for years, that when the workers began to move against capitalism this would begin as a swing to the left by the Labour Party, so that’s where the vanguard cadres should be. Sheridan and most others disagreed. They wanted to form an independent party, opposed to Labour. They won out and a new party called “Militant Labour” was formed (the minority are still somewhere in the Labour Party, so deeply buried as to be invisible). In Scotland this became, in 1998, the “Socialist Socialist Party” with Sheridan as leader. It departed from traditional Trotskyism by embracing the idea of Scottish independence which of course is quite irrelevant from a working class and socialist perspective.

In 1999 Sheridan was elected a member of the Scottish Parliament. He was re-elected in 2003 with 5 other SSP members. This was the heyday of “Scottish socialism” (more properly, Tartan leftwing reformism). Under other circumstances they might have held the balance of power and given parliamentary support in exchange for some reforms to an SNP government. But it was not to be. In 2004 the News of the World published allegations about Sheridan’s sex life. He (apparently) told the SSP executive that there was some truth in them but that he was going to deny them. A majority disagreed and he eventually resigned as leader and, after winning a libel case against the Murdoch scandal-rag, left the SSP to form a new party, “Solidarity Scotland’s Socialist Movement”. In the 2007 elections to the Scottish Parliament both parties were wiped out,

Neither of them stood for socialism, only for reforms of capitalism and an independent Scotland (i.e. an independent capitalist republic like southern Ireland). Solidarity’s founding statement, for instance, declared that it was “a socialist movement that fights for the redistribution of wealth from big business and the millionaires to working class people and their families.” It does do this, but this has nothing to do with socialism, which is not about the redistribution of wealth within capitalism but about the common ownership of the means of wealth production.

Following the end of his career as an MSP Sheridan has only been involved in minor-league reformist politics, standing for Bob Crow’s petty nationalist “No2 Europe” list in the 2009 European elections and for the Militant/SWP TUSC in last year’s general election (the Militant and SWP Trotskyists, despite reservations about his views on Scottish independence, had followed him out of the SSP into Solidarity). On both occasions he stood on a reformist platform, a series of demands that the government must do this or not to do that which would have left capitalism, and its problems, intact.

ALB