Breaking down the barriers to unity
Is a federal republic the way forward? Here we present two more contributions to the debate
DAVID CRAIG’S articles on the national question (Weekly Worker 105 and 107) make it clear that he has misunderstood my reasons for opposing the Revolutionary Democratic Group’s call for a federal republic for England, Scotland and Wales. He has also failed to grasp the positions of Engels and Lenin.
The RDG proposes that “each nation will have its own parliament, as well as a central or federal parliament with representatives from all three nations”. Leaving aside the question of whether it is still correct to refer to three nations, rather than three nationalities within the British nation, I do not oppose this policy because I wish to deny the Scots, Welsh or English either democracy or self-determination.
On the contrary, I support the extension of democracy and the full expression of self-determination, but I believe that this policy would represent a step backwards and would hinder workers’ unity on an all-Britain basis.
In Weekly Worker 104 I asked how David’s Scottish parliament would differ from Labour’s devolution proposals. What powers would it have? These are important questions, because the role of bourgeois parliaments is to pass laws to uphold capitalist rule. How can separate laws on, say, trade union rights or the penal system enhance our ability to mount a united fightback against the British state which oppresses us all?
To give an extreme example, in the USA the death penalty applies in some states, but not in others. This has obvious repercussions for all US revolutionaries in their efforts to mount a united, national offensive. David gave the example of Margaret Thatcher, “who implemented the poll tax first in Scotland”. This is an argument for the abolition of the remaining anachronisms within a unified legal system, not for further divisive legislation and - yes - separation that would flow from it.
So when Scottish workers ask Dave how the RDG’s Scottish parliament would differ from Labour’s, does he merely point out that the Labour Party stands for devolution under the crown? From this workers would certainly understand that the RDG wants to abolish the monarchy and Labour wants to keep it, but that is a separate question, isn’t it?
No, it is not, according to Dave, because Lenin said the two are always linked.
As Dave points out in Weekly Worker 105, Lenin wrote in State and Revolution:
“Approaching the matter from the standpoint of the proletariat and the proletarian revolution, Engels, like Marx, upheld democratic centralism, the republic - one and indivisible. He regarded the federal republic either as an exception and a hindrance to development, or as a transition from a monarchy to a centralised republic, as a ‘step forward’ under certain special conditions. And among these special conditions, he puts the national question to the fore”.
Here “democratic centralism” does not refer to party organisation, but to the centralised democratic state: “the republic - one and indivisible”. The thrust of the argument is that the federal republic under normal circumstances should be seen as a hindrance to the aim of a centralised democratic republic, but exceptionally may be viewed as a transitional step forward towards that aim.
But does the exception automatically apply in the case of a monarchy? Of course not. Lenin was commenting on Engels’ study of the German constitution of 1850, in which Engels wrote:
“What should take the place of present-day Germany [with its reactionary monarchical constitution and its equally reactionary division into petty bourgeois states ...]? In my view the proletariat can only use the form of the one and indivisible republic ... For Germany, federalisation on the Swiss model would be an enormous step backward ... In Germany, the union state is the transition to the completely unified state, and the ‘revolution from above’ of 1866 and 1870 must not be reversed but supplemented by a ‘movement from below’” (pp450-451).
Engels is clearly stating that the replacement of the German monarchy by a federal republic would be “an enormous step backward”.
In regard to present-day Britain, Dave thinks that the “union state”, brought about by the “revolution from above” - the enforced marriage’ between England and Scotland of 1701 and 1707 - must necessarily pass through a federal stage. My position is that it “must not be reversed but supple-mented by a movement from below” if we are to achieve a “completely unified state”.
Far from viewing the federal solution as generally undesirable, Dave passionately advocates it as a democratic advance in its own right. He states: “The Scottish working class is spontaneously seeking greater democracy, wanting a measure of self-government.” Why, he asks, do I want to deprive workers of their democratic right?
Workers in Britain are ‘spontaneously’ seeking a Labour government, and many in Scotland think that a degree of separation from England (a Scottish parliament) would be an advance. Many have switched to the SNP because they have given up hope of the English ever voting out the Tories, and believe they would get their Labour government if Scotland were independent. They will flock back to Labour when they see that Tony Blair really is going to win at the next election.
I consider it my duty as a communist to point out that both Labour and a separate Scottish parliament are dead ends. A Scottish bourgeois parliament would provide not an ounce more democracy than Westminster. But let Lenin continue the argument:
“It is extremely important to note that Engels, armed with facts, disproved by a most precise example the prejudice which is very widespread, particularly among petty-bourgeois democrats, that a federal republic necessarily means a greater amount of freedom than a centralised republic. This is wrong.” Citing the French republic of 1792-98, he added, “The greatest amount of local, regional and other freedom known in history was accorded by a centralised and not by a federal republic” (p453).
But surely I cannot deny that Engels considered the federal republic to be a “step forward” in the case of Britain? I do not deny it, although I would certainly contest Dave Craig’s assertion that Lenin and Engels “predicted” that Britain would “evolve” along federal lines. Lenin supported Engels’ view that in nineteenth century Britain the national question was not yet a thing of the past. But does Dave not consider, as we approach the year 2000, that things have moved on?
Engels wrote of the federal republic: “It would be a step forward in Britain, where the two islands are peopled by four nations and, in spite of a single parliament, three different systems of legislation already exist side by side” (p451).
Does this not contain a clue to the main difference today? Nineteenth century Britain incorporated Ireland, run on colonial lines, whose northern Six Counties Britain continues to oppress. But the RDG does not agree that the two islands should be united in a federal republic: it advocates a separate state for Ireland.
My personal opinion is that, even today, a federal republic of Ireland and Britain would be a tremendous step forward, serving to unite our nations and the working class of both islands, so closely linked by language and history. It would be a step towards a centralised democratic republic, not a step away from it, as in the case of Scotland, Wales and England alone.
A call by Irish communists not only to smash the British imperialist occupation of the Six Counties, but to replace it by a voluntary union of all Ireland and Britain on the basis of equality would be vigorously opposed by both the British and Irish establishments, as well as by loyalists and nationalists. Potentially it could win support among all sections of the working class.
It would be a revolutionary demand, containing a concrete link with the question of the monarchy. Such a unifying step would be impossible unless the British working class swept away that anachronism.
Dave appears to accept my argument that British imperialist domination of Ireland is completely different from the relationship between England and Scotland. Yet he wants to have it both ways: “England is the dominant partner,” he asserts, with the implication that a Scottish workers’ struggle against ‘the English’ would be a progressive, legitimate one. England is today ‘dominant’ only in terms of area and population - hardly a major basis for constructing our strategy.
Let me now turn to the question of self-determination itself. Dave sees it only in a negative sense: the right to secede, the right to establish a separate parliament. Its positive sense carries the right to unite or remain united. He is correct in saying that there is no provision within the British constitution for self-determination.
Scottish, Welsh and English workers could exercise that right in a revolutionary way by rising up against the bourgeoisie and establishing their own rule, which would allow each nationality to determine its own future. Similarly, Irish workers can only truly achieve self-determination by removing the oppressive British occupation. It would be a pity if, in such circumstances, we then handed power back to the bourgeoisie through the re-establishment of parliaments.
However the demand for self-determination, even within the context of bourgeois rule, is a powerful, unifying one. That is why the CPGB includes it in our minimum electoral platform, alongside the call for a minimum weekly income of £275. We are not “offering” them to workers, as Dave states, but demanding them. We say that if others standing in elections cannot support these basic needs, there is no way that workers should support such groups.
Self-determination in this context can be exercised in a limited way through the election of constitutional assemblies or referenda, for example (In 1979 both Scotland and Wales voted against Jim Callaghan’s devolution proposals). Alternatively, communists could under certain circumstances take the lead and propose a conference of all working class organisations with the aim of forcing the ruling class to concede the right to self-determination on our terms.
Whatever the forum, communists should continue to argue against any degree of separation. We must argue for workers’ unity, including the state form which allows it to the greatest extent - the centralised democratic republic.
Finally, Dave Craig states: “For us, the case for a federal republic is not a policy thought up primarily to oppose the SNP or Plaid Cymru.” Unfortunately the same cannot be said for some CPGB members, who appear to be seduced by his arguments. It could be that some comrades also believe that a move towards the RDG on this issue would help cement rapprochement between our two organisations.
Such reasoning is opportunistic and would hinder unity. Dave Craig and his comrades are far too principled to allow genuine disagreement on particular aspects to stand in the way of communist unity.
Evolution or revolution?
FOR DAVE CRAIG the current RDG perspective for a federal republic is correct because Engels made comments cited with approval by Lenin in State and Revolution. But the method of Marxism in approaching the national or any other question is a concrete analysis of a specific historical and economic situation.
A detailed analysis of how constitutional reform and a federal republic could promote the development of the class struggle and socialism is missing, as other comrades have noticed. This gives the impression that the real inspiration for the perspective of a federal republic is not Lenin, but Tom Nairn.
In response to the rise of Scottish nationalism in the mid-1970s, Tom Nairn argued that the left should advance on the terrain of nation-state that history had provided. In other words, a modernised bourgeois state was required. The failure of socialism was seen to be the failure to modernise the British state. This supposed failure was understood to have made another round of bourgeois nationalism inevitable. This view implied nationalism was historically stronger than socialism.
This view was part of an analysis of English history provided by Nairn with Perry Anderson in the mid-sixties. The upshot of this approach was to argue that a second bourgeois revolution was necessary to complete the unfinished English revolution. The state in Britain should be modernised as a prelude to socialism. So a bourgeois republic was an advance to socialism. This view was rightly criticised by Marxists of various persuasions as infected by menshevik fatalism and stageism.
According to Dave, the Leninist message was the British state “was evolving and would continue to evolve into its opposite, a federal republic”. But the idea that there is an objective process irrespective of the level of class struggle or the intervention of the Party, bringing in the federal state gradually, is alien to the method of Lenin. It sounds like Second International fatalism. Or perhaps the method of Mandel or Pablo might be a more modern comparison.
Why could not the opposite of a unitary bourgeois state be a centralised workers’ republic? What about the possibility of workers’ unity in Europe or a federation of socialist states in Europe? Would a Leninist party have advocated a federal republic in 1919 or 1926, when English, Welsh and Scottish workers were united against the British state? Would a federal republic have been inevitable in the great miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974, when English, Welsh and Scottish miners were united against the unitary state?
For Dave there is an urgency about the need to demand a federal republic. He thinks constitutional reform would resolve the national tensions speedily and peacefully. So we must learn the lessons of Ireland and avert the tragedy of a bloody war. Or, to use the other analogy Dave puts forward, we must break the prison bars of the unitary state or resentment could lead to violence.
There seems to be a prejudice against political violence in general in Dave’s articles. Or perhaps like Tom Nairn he believes when political violence erupts nationalist or reactionary violence will always prove stronger than revolutionary working class violence. Therefore it is better to assist the evolutionary process rather than prepare the violent overthrow of the bourgeois state. Or, in Dave’s evolutionary terms, we must “not wait decades for bourgeois politicians to introduce federalism”.
Dave complains that under the present constitution the right of national self-determination does not exist. According to him, this renders the demand for self-determination meaningless. In Dave’s opinion this is rather like insisting on free abortion on demand when there are no clinics available. But if nationalism had such a profound influence on the working class of Wales and Scotland then they would not wait for or rely on constitutional reform or a bill of rights. They would exercise the right, arms in hand. To use his comparison, clinics could be set up by seizing the property of the crown. Why would it be a matter of peaceful or evolutionary constitutional reform?
Dave has scolded Peter Manson for underestimating the influence of English nationalism. But one of the elements in modern English nationalism is the myth of the democratic war against fascism. Dave himself is not entirely free from this influence, since he writes that the working class has been at the heart of democratic movements to oppose fascism. The idea of popular fronts or democracy to oppose fascism was Stalinist, but relied on the menshevik stages theory. The stageist notion of first democracy, then socialism was counterrevolutionary in the fight against fascism. It led to serious defeats in Spain and elsewhere. In Britain, the notion of a democratic front against fascism led to subordinating working class struggle to an alliance with sections of the bourgeoisie.
In his polemic with Peter, Dave said opposing federalism was about “taking the money” or trade union struggle. He compared establishing the federal republic as taking the power! The choice was a democratic road or a wage increase. Socialism appeared to be ruled out in advance. But constitutional reform or the federal republic is simply the flip side of Socialist Workers Party trade union militancy. It seems to be a more militant, political devolution.
Although Lenin said communists might prefer federation as an alternative to national inequality, he also said, other conditions being equal, the class conscious worker will always stand for the larger state. And in any case in 1916 Lenin stated that the
“proletariat will be able to retain its independence only if it subordinates its struggle for all democratic demands, not excluding demands for a republic, to its revolutionary struggle for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie”.