Second-best prescription

CENTRAL to the Revolutionary Democratic Group’s advocacy of a federal republic for England, Scotland and Wales is its contention that the ‘revolutionary democratic road to socialism’ is universally applicable. Thus in countries such as Iran, communists must pose demands for freedom of speech, assembly, election, etc, as well as freedom from all kinds of repression. The RDG correctly states that these democratic demands are revolutionary and could open the way for a working class seizure of power.

However, the RDG believes that in every country a democratic revolution must precede a specifically socialist one. So it becomes necessary to identify a democratic deficit everywhere in order to mobilise workers for revolution. In one country this could mean the abolition of the monarchy; in another direct presidential elections by the entire population rather than by a bourgeois parliament.

In Britain, the democratic deficit is clearly located in two principal ways: the existence of the monarchy and the lack of self-determination. Put the two together and you have your ingredients for the democratic stage of the revolution - the federal republic.

It is ironic that Dave Craig of the RDG actually holds the view that a federal republic provides less democracy than a democratic centralised one (see box below), so you may well ask why he does not go the whole hog. Perhaps we will need a second democratic revolution at some future date in order to complete the job.

I too accept that the monarchy must go and that the Scots, Welsh, English and Irish must have the right to determine their own future. But this does not lead me to advocate separate assemblies for Scotland and Wales. If the bourgeois state continues to deny any nation or nationality that democratic right, then our duty is to support any struggle (including armed struggle) to achieve it, as in the case of Ireland. If, for example, the state were to concede a referendum to the Scottish people and subsequently renege on the outcome - whether it were for devolved powers, federation or outright independence - then we would support them against the state.

Why should we advocate a second-best solution when we have not even entered the field with our first choice - a centralised democratic republic, containing the built-in, permanent right to self-determination? Separate bourgeois assemblies will give workers not one ounce more democracy, will provide not one material improvement to their lives, nor take them one step nearer to socialism. Communists must state this truth, however unpopular it may be in the short term.

My position can best be summed up by Lenin’s remarks in The socialist revolution and right of nations to self-determination:

“The closer a democratic state system is to complete freedom to secede the less frequent and less ardent will the desire for separation be in practice, because big states afford indisputable advantages, both from the standpoint of economic progress and from that of the interests of the masses and, furthermore, these advantages increase with the growth of capitalism. Recognition of self-determination is not synonymous with recognition of federation as a principle” (VI Lenin Collected Works Vol22 p146).

Lenin goes on to support the viewpoint of Marx, “who was a centralist” yet “preferred even the federation of Ireland and England to the forcible subordination of Ireland to the English”.

The point is that the federal republic was always viewed by Marx, Engels and Lenin as a transitionary step towards a centralised republic. Thus they regarded it as a step forward in the case of Ireland and Britain. In my opinion, such a demand would represent a tremendous revolutionary advance even today, but a reverse for Britain alone, where the most direct route to a centralised republic lies in the smashing of the monarchy.

The transitional nature of federalism means that it can only be viewed as a tactical question, and should certainly not figure in our long-term programme.

I will now return to the question which so exasperates my comrades. Given that we are all agreed that the monarchy must go, what demands are they proposing we make which would distinguish their version of Scottish and Welsh assemblies from those of Labour and the Liberals? After all not only Dave, but comrades Phil Kent and Mary Ward have been scathing in their condemnation of the latter in Weekly Worker articles. How do we show workers that our proposals are the “elephant” the Scottish people are demanding, as opposed to the “mouse” of the Lib/Lab Scottish constitutional convention?

I have been accused of being obsessed with bourgeois legality for persisting with this question. Yet Phil Kent tells us that the Lib/Lab devolution plans “are being correctly criticised for leaving Scotland firmly under Westminster control” (Weekly Worker110), and Mary Ward, in similar vein, writes: “Westminster will be in full fiscal control” (115). So their reformist schemes clearly do not go far enough for Phil and Mary. But if you refuse to outline (on principle, it seems) just what powers a Scottish assembly should have, your criticisms are in danger of appearing to come from a purely nationalist angle.

Dave’s response to my question is that the bourgeois parties are proposing devolution under the crown, whereas he wants a republican parliament. This merely takes us round in circles - back to the monarchy.

Another answer that I have managed to coax out is that the convention’s proposals do not allow for the right to secede. That is true, but there are other ways to allow for such a decision to be made: for example, through direct popular consultation by means of a referendum. And as the comrades are not actually advocating secession, it seems strange that they should be demanding separate assemblies for that purpose alone.

But the response which is supposed to demolish my position is that it is not so much the powers of the assembly that are important, but the means of obtaining it: we must fight for a federal republic in a revolutionary way, say the comrades. Thus Mary ends her article with the unsubstantiated assertion, “A federal republic is both a democratic and a revolutionary demand.”

The democratic demand is for self-determination, not any specific outcome of it. Any democratic demand can have a revolutionary potential. But for that potential to be realised two specific conditions need to be met.

Firstly, the people must be prepared to fight or even die for it. It is true that the call for a Scottish parliament is arousing great passion and support among Scottish workers. But our comrades are vigorously opposing the versions put forward by the bourgeois parties, while refusing to say how their own will meet workers’ aspirations. How do you expect workers to take up arms if they do not know what they are fighting for?

Secondly, the demand must be met by a point blank refusal to concede it. Among the bourgeois parties only the discredited Tories are now holding out against the idea of separate assemblies for Scotland and Wales. You can be sure that workers will dismiss with incredulity the call for a revolutionary struggle to achieve what seems to them about to be granted through reform.

So how should we approach the national question in these circumstances? First and foremost we must address the central demand for self-determination. The bourgeois state must provide some permanent mechanism whereby the Scottish, Welsh and English nationalities can decide their future, up to and including the right to secede.

At the same time we must warn against false ‘solutions’. Many Scottish and Welsh workers see ‘English rule’ as the problem. They believe that a separate assembly will provide improvements in health, education, housing, employment, etc. We know that the problem is capitalism, not the English.

Scottish and Welsh workers are no more oppressed by the British state than their English counterparts, and we must look to common, unifying struggles to throw off its yoke. The idea that we must unite to demand a degree of separation is absurd.

The Provisional Central Committee is about to propose that we formally adopt a policy for a federal republic. But it has not published a single authoritative article setting out the arguments to support it. Does the PCC agree with those of Dave Craig and the RDG? Or is it content to restrict itself to verbal criticisms of my position?

Peter Manson

Dave Craig of the RDG and Peter Manson have agreed the following points in the debate so far:

Some major points of disagreement ...