Tactics, principles and willing dupes

What attitude should the left take to the People’s Vote campaign and its call for a second referendum? Jack Conrad insists that referendums are a backward, not a forward step for democracy

Once, when Steve Freeman was an ‘external’ member of the Socialist Workers Party, I had hopes in him. I thought him winnable. Now, many years later, when he is one of the few remaining active members of Left Unity, he writes in the disorientated spirit of petty bourgeois democracy: desperate, panicky, eccentric and foolish.

His letter last week testifies to an ever quickening right shift.1 Taking issue with my article, ‘Oppose siren calls’, he ends with the miserable plea for the left to tail behind the People’s Vote campaign for a second referendum.2 Nonetheless, the comrade does raise some interesting points and, of course, because the European Union, Brexit and the demand for a second referendum are such pressing issues at the moment, answering him does provide me with yet another opportunity to clarify the Marxist position on referendums and explain once again the appropriate tactical position communists should adopt.

Comrade Freeman begins with a bald statement: in making his case “against a ‘people’s vote’ on the Tory-unionist deal to exit the European Union”, Jack Conrad “argued that all referenda should be opposed in principle”. In other words, if “any take place, they should automatically be boycotted”.

It is certainly true that as a matter of principle the CPGB is opposed to referendums. Our reasons are sound, consistent and historically well established. Antonio Gramsci, writing in June 1921, can usefully be cited here:

The communists are … on principle opposed to the referendum, since they place the most advanced and active workers, who make the greatest sacrifices, on the same plane as the most lazy, ignorant and idle workers. If one wants direct, individual consultations, then this must take place in assemblies, after an organised debate, and a vote must presuppose knowledge of what is at stake and a sense of responsibility.3

However, it ought to be pointed out that this general principle does not translate into one of refusing to call for a referendum under all circumstances. Nor does it translate into a general principle of always responding to a referendum organised by our enemies with a corresponding call for an active boycott. To vote this way or that way, to set about an active boycott campaign, etc, is always a tactical decision.

Eg, we urged a ‘yes’ vote in Ireland’s May 2015 referendum on gay marriage; the same with Ireland’s May 2018 referendum on abortion. And, in the UK, while being critical of the Liberal Democrat proposal for reforming the parliamentary voting system, the CPGB called for a ‘yes’ in the May 5 2011 referendum. Despite the glaring inadequacies, our judgment was that, on balance, getting rid of the ‘wasted vote’ syndrome would be a “small gain” and provide better conditions for the left to develop than the ‘first past the post’ system.4 Needless to say, we are programmatically committed to a thorough-going proportional representation system, party lists and the right of the party to recall MPs, MEPs, councillors, etc.

The Lib Dems wanted an alternative vote system. Voters would be asked not to opt for a single candidate, but tick candidates off in an order of preference: 1, 2, 3, etc. If we were standing under such a system, I expect we would advise voting: 1, for the CPGB candidate, 2, for the Labour candidate … but no vote for bourgeois or out-and-out reactionary parties. True, calling for a ‘yes’ vote lined us up with the Lib Dems, the Greens, Ukip, Sinn Féin and Plaid Cymru. Labour adopted no official position, while Respect, the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party in England and Wales and the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain supported the Tory ‘no’ campaign.

Anyway, the reason I cite such episodes is obvious. Comrade Freeman’s statement that the CPGB is of the view that “all referenda should be opposed in principle” is lazy, uninformed and therefore misleading. Hence his daft accusation of “ultra-leftism” entirely misses the mark.

However, our opposition to referendums stands. They are not a higher form of democracy than the election of well-tested working class representatives, communist politics and extensive public debate. Referendums, on the contrary, tend to divide the working class, weaken its party spirit and produce radically false alignments: eg, in 2011, the CPGB with Ukip; the SWP with the Tories.


In terms of our tradition and the rejection of referendums, things begin with Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Not Karl Kautsky, as comrade Freeman contends. The Marx-Engels team knew all about the undemocratic nature of referendums, given the bitter experience of Louis Bonaparte and his ‘self-coup d’état’ in 1851, and then his self-elevation to emperor in 1852 (each autocratic power-grab being legitimised by a referendum). Bonaparte went on to impose strict press censorship, restrict public gatherings, savagely repress political opponents (mainly red republicans) and force thousands to flee into exile - amongst them, the celebrated writer, Victor Hugo. Initially a supporter, Hugo furiously denounced Bonaparte’s referendums as a means to “smother men’s minds”.5

Marx and Engels, along with their co-thinkers, Jules Guesde and Paul Lafargue, presented their alternative to the post-1871 third republic - in essence a reformed version of Bonapartism - in the minimum section of the Programme of the Parti Ouvrier. Here it is explained that the creation of a workers’ party “must be pursued by all the means the proletariat has at its disposal, including universal suffrage, which will thus be transformed from the instrument of deception that it has been until now into an instrument of emancipation”. The party will fight for the confiscation of church wealth, remove restrictions on the press, meetings, organisations, etc, and abolish the standing army and replace it with the “general arming of the people”.6

The Marx-Engels position opposing referendums became the common sense of the Second International, including both its far left and its far right. Arturo Labriola, the Italian syndicalist, wrote his Contro il referendum in 1897. He damned referendums as a cruel trick. In 1911 Ramsay MacDonald, Labour leader and future prime minister, came out in similar terms: referendums are “a clumsy and ineffective weapon which the reaction can always use more effectively than democracy, because it, being the power to say ‘no’, is far more useful to the few than the many”.7

Note, the - still widely venerated - constitutional theorist, AV Dicey, promoted an all-UK referendum in the 1890s as a means to scupper Irish home rule; Ulster unionists ran with his referendum proposal and demanded that it be integrated into the constitution; in 1910 Stanley Baldwin included the promise of a referendum over tariff reform in the Tory manifesto, challenging the Liberals do the same with Irish home rule; in 1911 Lord Balfour tabled his Representation of the People Bill in the House of Lords, which would allow 200 MPs to petition the crown for a referendum and thereby potentially block unwelcome government legislation; in 1913 Lord Curzon floated a referendum as a democratic way to thwart the extension of the franchise to women; and, as the bill giving women over 30 the vote was passing through parliament in 1918, 53 peers wrote to The Times urging a referendum.8

However, there were those innocents on the left who were attracted by the idea of referendums and the right of the people to initiate them. Karl Kautsky chose Moritz Rittinghausen, a German social democrat, as his main polemical target over the issue. Parliamentarism, direct legislation by the people and social democracy (1893) was designed to demolish Rittinghausen’s referenda nostrums and uphold the strategic perspective he outlined in his hugely influential commentary on the Erfurt programme, known in English as The class struggle.

Even if referendums could replace existing representative institutions, which he doubted, this would represent not a step forward for democracy, but a step backwards,Kautsky insisted. No, instead of going along with conservative advocates of referendums - and their gullible leftwing outriders - Marxists should continue to focus on the fight to extend representative democracy. Such a course is vital both to the inner-workings of modern working class organisations (he lists co-ops, trade unions and social democratic parties) and for the struggle of the working class to gain a majority, conquer state power and transform society.

Kautsky fields three main arguments.

However, as I have repeatedly pointed out - but clearly not in language strong enough to register with comrade Freeman - Kautsky spoils his argument. He “claims that referenda might be useful in the weaker, less autocratic states”: maybe in the “US, England and the English colonies, even under circumstances in France”. Comrade Freeman grabs hold of this unnecessary concession by Kautsky - a concession to so-called ‘direct democracy’ - in order to make the claim that “principled opposition” to referendums by Marxists “is not the case”.

Nevertheless, despite its undoubted shortcomings, I argue that Parliamentarism, direct legislation by the people and social democracy retains its worth, not least because we have seen the entirely negative effects of referenda campaigns over recent years. In Northern Ireland the left fell in behind the 1998 Good Friday agreement that constitutionally institutionalised the sectarian divide of the working class; in Scotland the working class split into two hostile camps over independence, and the non-Labour left hopelessly collapsed into petty nationalism; and throughout the UK the question of Europe effectively cleaves the working class into bitterly opposed ‘leavers’ and ‘remainers’.


Comrade Freeman believes he has found a “big gap” in my argument, when it comes to the question of national self-determination. The Bolsheviks, he rightly says, wish to see national questions settled by peaceful rather than violent means.

He quotes what he says is the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party and point 3 (b) of its 1913 ‘Thesis on the national question’. Actually, the theses were Lenin’s and were written by him for the lectures on the national question he delivered in the Swiss towns of Zurich, Geneva, Lausanne and Berne in July 1913. Anyway, Lenin calls for “the settlement of the question of such secession only on the basis of a universal, direct and equal vote of the population of the given territory by secret ballot”. From this passage comrade Freeman deduces that Lenin favours referendums as providing “for a peaceful resolution of the national question”.

When it comes to the 1913 theses quoted by comrade Freeman, it is worth making a few points. Lenin’s call for “the settlement of the question of such secession only on the basis of a universal, direct and equal vote of the population of the given territory by secret ballot” was not directed at the tsar. Lenin emphasises the unity of the workers and peasants of all nationalities in the Russian empire in the struggle to overthrow tsarism. After that, under the conditions of the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants, Lenin says all areas of the state that are “distinguished by social peculiarities or by the national composition of the population must enjoy wide self-government and autonomy, with institutions organised on the basis of universal, equal and secret voting”.9

It is these representative institutions that should exercise the right of nations to self-determination. Needless to say, there should be no privileged nation. However, except in the most exceptional circumstances, Marxists favour the unity of different nationalities in the same state. There should be no pandering to bourgeois or petty bourgeois nationalism. Certainly, when it comes to the party, federative structures and separate national groups must be forthrightly rejected.

We in the CPGB do not think that the Scottish National Party should have to persuade the UK government in Westminster to allow a second referendum. If the SNP stands in elections to the Holyrood parliament on an explicit programme of going for separation; if it gains a majority … so be it. We would resolutely oppose the SNP and its bourgeois nationalism, and we would also denounce those ‘socialists’ who prefer unity with the SNP over unity with workers in England and Wales. However, we would defend the right of the Holyrood parliament to debate and vote on independence.

But, of course, where we in the CPGB fight for a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales, comrade Freeman positively favours the separation of nations and nationalities - the Scottish from the English, the Welsh from the Scots, the Czechs from the Slovaks, the Iraqi Kurds from the Iraqi Shia, the Iraqi Sunnis from the Iraqi Shia, etc.

From Lenin to Gorbachev

Looking at my index of Lenin’s Collected works I find only four references to referendums/plebiscites. The first, from November 1916, advises Swiss social democrats to use the “parliamentary tribune and the right to initiative and referendum” in a revolutionary, “not a reformist manner”.10 The overriding aim is making propaganda for the socialist transformation of the country. The second, from January 1918, denounces the Constituent Assembly and referendums as being antiquated.11 Soviet power is of a far higher order. The third is from December 1921. Lenin rhetorically says that the Soviet Republic will withdraw its troops and allow a referendum in Georgia - as demanded by the Labour Party in Britain - if Britain does the same in Ireland, India, etc.12 The fourth, is a jotting which simply notes that in Australia there “were plebiscites” in the drafting of the constitution.13 Not much, in other words.

It seems to be the case that at the end of 1917 Lenin and Stalin, his commissar of nationalities, toyed with the idea of demanding a referendum in Finland. They wanted a vote that would result in Finland - a relatively autonomous part of the Russian state - joining the new Soviet Republic. But the Soviet Republic was weak and reeling under a German offensive and nor were the red forces in Finland in any position to organise any such referendum (even if they had wanted to). With direct help provided by the German high command, the whites, under Pehr Svinhufvud, were determined to achieve full independence, take control of the cities and crush the reds - the resulting civil war cost at least 37,000 lives.

Constitutionally, Stalin’s Soviet Union included the provision for referendums. Article 48 of the 1936 constitution states that the supreme soviet could call for a nationwide vote at its own initiative, or on the demand of one of the union republics. None were held. But Nikita Khrushchev revived the idea of holding referendums … to overcome public apathy - once again nothing came of it. However, if Stalin or Khrushchev had held a referendum, it would, of course, have been conducted along the same undemocratic lines as perfected by Louis Bonaparte, Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. Needless to say, with the launch of the first five-year plan in 1928-29, the Soviet Union saw a counterrevolution within the revolution.

Mikhail Gorbachev did oversee a referendum in March 1991. Faced with the nationalist disintegration of the state, he put this loaded question to the populous: “Do you consider necessary the preservation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics, in which the rights and freedom of an individual of any nationality will be fully guaranteed?” Gorbachev got his 76% ‘yes’ vote on an 80% turnout. However, there were boycotts by the authorities in Armenia, Georgia and Estonia. And by December 26 1991 it was all over. The Soviet Union formally dissolved into 15 separate parts.

Not referenda

Comrade Freeman says “working class democrats” are consistent champions of “every kind of democratic demand” under capitalism. He lists elections, republics, universal suffrage, parliaments … and referenda. We certainly favour elections. Marxists fought for universal suffrage in the 19th and 20th centuries. This allows us to form the mass of workers into a class party … and measure our strength. Marxists also stand for the democratic republic. Yes, we stress the limitations of what exists today. Bourgeois republics, such as the USA, Switzerland, France, Brazil, Mexico and Turkey, are flawed, corrupted or simply fake. We favour making them complete, healthy, real. The democratic republic is indeed the form that working class rule will take.

Hence, when it comes to parliaments, Marxists do not take things as they are. We demand the abolition of the upper house - the UK’s House of Lords, the US Senate, the French Sénat, etc. We also demand the abolition of the monarchical presidents in the US, France, Turkey, Egypt, etc. Marxists champion a single-chamber assembly, elected annually by universal suffrage, along with the right to instantly recall. But referenda … no!

Comrade Freeman, of course, favours referendums. He says this:

Referenda are, like elections and other examples of universal suffrage, an opportunity for millions to engage in political struggle. They are an opportunity for parties to engage … in class struggle. They are, of course, political weapons, like elections, which are used by the capitalist class against the working class. Working class parties have to learn the threats, dangers and opportunities.

Evidently, especially under capitalism, the opportunities are extremely limited. However, the dangers and threats are real and present. The 2016 referendum on the EU did not advance the interests of the working class one iota. On the contrary, the result was a triumph for backward-looking illusions, fake promises about the financing of the national health service, anti-migrant bigotry and narrow nationalism.

What of the ‘remainer’ opposition? Comrade Freeman says that, when 100,000 people march through London demanding the right to vote on the Tory deal, “we are dealing with a mass democratic demand”. He asks why 46 million UK voters should not have this right? He expects communists, as the most militant democrats, to be in the vanguard in fighting for the “right to vote in a second referendum by demanding working class demonstrations and, more decisively, political strikes”.

This is simply to provide a radical spin for the People’s Vote campaign.

The problem for the advocates of a second referendum on the EU is that there has already been a referendum … and on June 23 2016 they lost by 51.89% to 48.11%. Organising a march of 100,000 people from Trafalgar Square to Parliament Square is all very well and good. But, to use a phrase, the people have spoken. What would comrade Freeman says if Boris Johnson, David Davis and Nigel Farage organised a march of 200,000 defending the June 2016 result. Would he welcome such a demonstration as a mass democratic movement and demand political strikes to back it. It is all too absurd.

Showing how easy it is for petty bourgeois democrats to flip over into becoming petty bourgeois anti-democrats, comrade Freeman rails against liberalism and elitism … and comes to the conclusion that constitutionally referendums should trump parliamentary sovereignty. He writes:

Liberals have always been elitists. They naturally prefer decisions to be taken by clever and educated people. They feel it is dangerous to allow the ignorant masses to have a say. If they had to choose between 635 MPs and over 800 Lords to decide on the EU or 46 million voters, the liberal elites prefer the former.

This has the whiff of Bonapartism about it. As we have shown, Marxists have traditionally distrusted and often forthrightly denounced referendums. We do so not out of any trust in Tory, Lib Dem and rightwing Labour MPs. Or because we think that there are clever people in the House of Lords who know better. No, we seek to organise the working class masses into a political party, educating them through common struggles, through open debate, through displays of collective strength nationally and internationally, in order to ready this class to take state power and become the ruling class ... thereby begin to end classes and class divisions.

Without taking this road, the masses are easy prey for demagogues, media manipulation, PR campaigns, trade union bureaucrats and the well-crafted lies of career politicians. That is not just the case with Nigel Farage, the Daily Mail, Vote Leave, Get Britain Out, Cool Blue, Arron Banks, The Sun, Boris Johnson, etc. It is also true with Tony Blair, Stronger in Europe, The Guardian, Open Britain, Manuel Cortes, Vince Cable … and People’s Vote.

Though it claims to want to empower the UK’s 46 million voters, the fact of the matter is that People’s Vote works hand-in-glove with the Confederation of British Industry, Institute of Directors, Engineering Employers Federation and companies such as Airbus, BMW and Nissan. And, of course, People’s Vote is one of many similar front organisations. Others include Labour for a People’s Vote, Best for Britain, Best for Europe, European Movement UK, In Facts, Open Britain, Our Future Our Choice, Scientists for EU and Wales for Europe.

These organisations act almost as one under the overall direction of the Grassroots Coordinating Group. Chuka Umunna, the darling of Labour’s hard right, is the official leader. The campaign boasts plush offices in Milbank Tower and there are said to be 150 local groups and 500,000 supporters. George Soros’s Open Society Foundation has donated more than £800,000 to such anti-Brexit causes (including £400,000 to Best for Britain, £182,000 to European Movement UK and £35,000 to Scientists for EU).14

Clearly no-one on the principled left should have anything to do with People’s Vote. Marching alongside the Lib Dems, the Labour hard right, Tory rebels and Green naives on June 23 was to march in the interests of big capital. Ditto, to give a leftwing spin to People’s Vote is to desert even the notion of independent working class politics.


1. Letters Weekly Worker July 12 2018.

2. J Conrad, ‘Oppose siren callsWeekly Worker July 5 2018.

3. A Gramsci Selections from political writings 1921-1926 London 1978, p50.

4. Weekly Worker April 27 2011.

5. V Hugo Napoleon the little London 1852, p144.

6. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/ works/1880/05/parti-ouvrier.htm.

7. See L Morel and M Qvortrup (eds) The Routledge handbook to referendums and direct democracy Abingdon 2018.

8. See V Bogdanor The people and the party system: the referendum and electoral reform in British politics Cambridge 1981, pp9-94.

9. VI Lenin CW Vol 19, Moscow 1977, p246.

10. VI Lenin CW Vol 23 Moscow 1977, p143.

11. VI Lenin CW Vol 26, Moscow 1977, p497.

12. VI Lenin CW Vol 33, Moscow 1977, p182.

13. VI Lenin CW Vol 39, Moscow 1977, p247.

14. The Guardian February 11 2018.