Chris Harman


The personality is political

(2 September 2006)

Comment, Socialist Worker, No.2016, 2 September 2006.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Worker Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

This weekend’s meeting to discuss launching a new party in Scotland provides a great chance for the socialist movement to throw down a challenge to the parties of the political establishment.

The Scottish left has been in disarray since some leading members of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) testified for the News of the World in a libel action brought by the party’s best known figure, Tommy Sheridan.

Now, rather than enter into a bitter internal fight that could drag on for months, Tommy Sheridan has called a conference aimed at bringing a wide range of socialist forces together.

Socialist Worker supporters in Scotland have welcomed this call as a chance to bring together those who have been on the streets opposing war with those who have been fighting privatisation, poverty and racism. Out of this can emerge a new party capable of putting up a credible electoral fight in the elections for the Scottish Parliament in May.

However some on the left, including some of Tommy Sheridan’s former comrades in the SSP, are suspicious of the conference. They say that socialists cannot base themselves on the politics of personalities and that this can only end up building up egos that come to see themselves as more important than the movement.

This is very similar to the arguments used by some people in England who refuse to back Respect because of the role George Galloway plays in it.

Many false arguments start from a small element of truth. And the sort of socialist society we want to see cannot be established by any individual, however eloquent or committed.

It depends on the mass of workers discovering that they themselves have the capacity to take control of their own destinies. We understand that individuals, however talented and courageous, cannot fight capitalism by themselves and that, if they try to, they are likely to be broken or even corrupted in the process.


Often when a new movement is developing, certain figures emerge who seem to many new activists to embody what it stands for. For instance, in the late 1960s the new mass movements of students and workers found its first figureheads in people like Danny Cohn Bendit in France, Tariq Ali in Britain and Bernadette Devlin in Ireland.

More recently, Fausto Bertinotti and Vittorio Agnoletto came to be seen as figureheads of the anti-capitalist movement in Italy when they responded to the police murder of Carlo Giuliani in Genoa by calling on thousands of workers to defy the government by demonstrating the next day.

In France, peasant leader José Bové is seen by hundreds of thousands of people as the person who best expresses their feeling against the system.

Once such personalities begin to have a prominent role there is, of course, the danger that they will later use their prestige to mislead the movement – as Fausto Bertinotti has by entering an Italian government that is sending troops to Afghanistan and Lebanon.

But socialists cannot, out of fear of what might eventually happen, simply turn our back on their capacity to stimulate the growth of a movement.

We have to throw ourselves into building that movement, knowing that as people become part of it, they can begin to discover their capacity to take control of things without relying on individuals.

In doing so, they can create an environment with its own democratic structures which are the only protection against individual personalities going in the wrong direction.

Tommy Sheridan has a public profile much greater than that of any other socialist in Scotland because of his record of agitation going back to the campaign against the poll tax and the principled stands he has taken both in and outside of the Scottish Parliament.

Socialist Worker supporters are working with many others to build this weekend’s conference, not because we have suddenly joined some Tommy Sheridan fan club, but because together we can draw in the forces for a new movement that is powerful and confident enough to value the talents of individuals without bowing down to them.

Last updated on 14 December 2009