In the Weekly Worker a debate hasbegun over a possible future referendum on the Tory ‘Brexit’ deal. The 2016 European Union referendum has divided the UK into reactionaries and ultra-lefts on one side, and liberals and democrats on the other. The slogan, ‘No to a second (or repeat) referendum: Yes to a ratification referendum’, is not only a democratic slogan, but the slogan of working class democracy.
Everybody knows that a people’s referendum means universal suffrage. Hence the members of every class can vote. We also realise that the working class is by far the largest class of voters. On a level playing field working class voters would carry the day. But, although the pitch is tilted massively against the working class and the referee has been bribed, working class democracy is not afraid to fight.
A ratification referendum offers the best opportunity to rebuild political unity in a working class deeply divided over Europe. This is opposed by reactionaries and ultra-lefts who oppose any referendum and the liberals who want to repeat the last referendum and overturn the result. Working class democracy does not draw an equal sign between reactionaries who want to leave and liberals who want to remain in the EU.
A second or repeat referendum would further harden the divide in the working class. The liberals are interested in the profits of the big corporations (or ‘jobs’, as they call it) and do not give a fig about working class unity. By contrast advanced workers would relish the opportunity to unite the working class against the Tory government and consign the actual dirty Brexit deal to the dustbin of history.
Hence the task facing communists and democrats is to force the Tories to concede this. The CPGB cannot provide leadership armed with a ‘principle’ of opposing every referendum. It lines up with the Tory government, Ukip and the Tory right and the wobbly Corbyn. It is worse than this. It surrenders to liberal calls for a second/repeat referendum with an abstract principle.
Let us return to the original debate about the theory of referenda in general. Jack Conrad says: “Comrade Freeman begins with a bald statement: that Jack Conrad ‘argued that all referenda should be opposed in principle’. He says: ‘It is certainly true that as a matter of principle the CPGB is opposed to referendums’” (‘Tactics, principles and willing dupes’, July 19).
Jack adds a qualification 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”.
Jack illustrates this by reminding us that the CPGB “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.”
At first I had to admit to struggling with this flexible concept of ‘principle’. Maybe we are arguing about the meaning of principles, not referenda? I needed to think again. Principles are principles and we have to stand by them on all (or virtually all) occasions.
In Leftwing communism Lenin reminds us we can ‘compromise’ our principles. ‘No compromises’ is an ultra-left slogan. If we are held up by an armed robber, we may have to compromise by handing over our wallet. We live to fight another day. So Jack is right to say the CPGB were not being ultra-left when they compromised their principles and handed over their wallets.
Jack confuses the issue by using the word “tactics”. Instead of principles, set aside by honest and necessary compromises, we have principles made meaningless by “tactics”. If every principle can be overthrown by the requirements of tactics we end up with opportunism.
Let us summarise the difference as follows: The CPGB opposes all referenda on principle. This is ‘strategic-programmatic’ opposition. The demand for a referendum cannot and does not appear in the CPGB minimum (or maximum) programme. On the odd occasion that the CPGB is forced to compromise it adopts tactical positions on voting ‘yes’, ‘no’, abstain, or boycott.
Hence the CPGB opposed an Irish referendum on gay marriage. Then the CPGB was forced to compromise and drop its opposition and decided to vote ‘yes’ to gay marriage. This becomes ‘tailism’. Before adopting tactics the CPGB has to disentangle itself from a non-existent Kautskyan principle.
By contrast working class democrats do not oppose referenda on principle. The demand for a referendum can appear in the minimum programme. There is no principle to be compromised. It is simply a ‘tactical question’. It is perfectly acceptable to call for a referendum before any other class has done so. It is a matter of analysing the conditions of the class struggle and making a tactical decision (‘yes’, ‘no’, abstain or boycott).
Let us return from principles to the present. A possible future referendum on the Tory deal is directly connected to the 2016 referendum. In 2016 the CPGB opposed the referendum and called for a boycott. There was no mass boycott and no mood in the working class to prevent it. It was a theoretical idea based on Kautsky. I doubt if it had a single supporter who was not a member of the CPGB.
A Tory referendum designed by the Tories could only divide the working class. The interests of the European working class were best served if Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales voted to remain and England abstained. The following votes were cast for remain - Scotland 1.7 million, Northern Ireland 0.44 million and Wales 0.77 million. In England 10.5 million abstained.
Millions of workers voted on these lines. Unfortunately in Wales a majority voted to leave and in England not enough people abstained. Of course, I do not claim that anybody reads my blogs or letters in the Weekly Worker. That would be ridiculous. Workers did what they thought was best in the circumstances. The case for democratic revolution was closely connected with how millions of working people were actually voting.
I did not advocate an all-UK abstention, but explained that the working class in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales voting to remain was in the interests of democracy and the wider European working class. The central message was highlighting the link between the European question and the national question. Two years later, this truth shows that Ireland and Scotland (but hardly Wales) present special, if not insurmountable, problems for the Tory government and Labour unionists.
How extremely astute comrades at the Weekly Worker/CPGB will now appear to be, how sparklingly impressive - by which I mean to any freely questioning, socially conscious plus humanitarianism-orientated folk out there. But as will become clear, that’s being said with tongue very firmly in cheek.
Last week saw the Confederation of British Industry call for net migration targets to be scrapped after Brexit - to be replaced by a system that “ensures people coming to the UK make a positive contribution to the economy”. These proposals from the CBI also stipulate that EU citizens should be “registered on arrival to the UK and restrict their visit to three months, unless they can prove that they are working, studying or are self-sufficient”.
In a barely masked further declaration of their intention to protect profits (no doubt also to ensure global market positions), the CBI goes on to point out that “the stakes are high. Get it wrong, and the UK risks having too few people to run the health service, pick food crops or deliver products to stores around the country.”
So there we have it: Whatever may be the box-like thinking on the nature of the European Union by Weekly Worker/CPGB (to a point of supra-rigidity) - not to mention those correctly Marxist niceties/the never-endingly examined details of your position on referendums - this is the outcome. In fact, some might say an outcome arrived at with 100% predictability.
Instead of free movement for all citizens within the EU, the organised/top-level corporations of UK capitalism now plan to dictate the terms and conditions upon which people can travel in order to find work. Quite outrageously, not only is a corporately controlled ‘two-tier grading’ of social status to be created, but the bedrock of our purportedly democratic way of life is to be redefined.
This proposal from the CBI represents big corporate control of society via now undisguised leverage of its political mechanisms - something that in turn can be seen as a modern-times incarnation of fascism, or are least the early stages of it, surely? In other words, a seemingly balanced and rational, oh-so-very-British ‘seeding’ process, with ingeniously ramped-up exploitative advantages as their ultimate Nirvana.
If looked at in conjunction with the fact that the Weekly Worker/CPGB consider Corbyn’s self-proclaimed ‘socialist’ Labour Party to be a potential breeding ground for Marxist ideologies and interventions - despite the fact that this concept is now lying in tatters, given Corbyn and co’s multiple backtrackings, as well as their all but comic feeble-mindedness, etc - surely it’s now time for an urgent ‘change of heads’ in the manner of Worzel Gummidge.
To be found amongst that choice of heads will be one that allows flexibility for the purpose of achieving elements of a communist minimum programme. In this instance, that should lead directly to a call from the Weekly Worker/CPGB to Corbyn’s Labour Party that, in turn, they adopt a policy of remaining within the European Union - (ie, that they reject outright any Brexit.) Instead, Labour should aim for ongoing membership, namely on the basis of both empathetic and constructive renegotiations of its terms, as they affect UK working citizens.
After all is said and done - and as everybody should keep in mind as arguably the most significant aspect in this entire matter - UK citizens will continue to be living under the general terms of global capitalism, whether their homeland is an EU member or not! In that exact same context, better surely to have the limited advantages of free movement, etc, rather than additional obstacles to developing a socialistic thinking process amongst our co-citizens, as will be created by both economic and cultural isolation. Not to forget the increased intensity of subjugation, exploitation plus oppression that will exist under a so-called sovereign (and thereby distinctly more primitive!) British state apparatus. Those ‘advantages’ are already being latched onto by the CBI!
Most simply put - better to remain inside the EU rather than be stuck with new, plus horribly inherent difficulties, having split away. At least until such time as modern life can occupy that far superior habitat within fully formed/properly established socialism, naturally!
Rex Dunn slates the CPGB and Labour Party Marxists for our strategic call for the transformation of Labour into “a real party of labour”, so that it can become “a united front for all pro-working class partisans and organisations” (Letters, August 9). But he completely misunderstands what we are arguing.
He writes: “… given the fact that [LPM] is only tiny, it cannot be seen as an effective ‘material force’, capable of transforming the party into a united front of the left.” So we are wasting our time! Yes, Rex, we know we are “tiny”, but we are attempting to lead by example. As the Weekly Worker never ceases to point out, if only the revolutionary left as a whole took the Labour Party seriously, it could make a decisive impact upon the strategic battle to defeat the pro-capitalist right.
But comrade Dunn is wrong when he says: “This implies that the latter can go a long way towards winning political control of the Labour Party and begin to transform it into a revolutionary one.” No, it does not. The term, “united front”, means what it says. While it is certainly possible for Labour to be opened up to the influence of Marxists, it cannot be transformed into a democratic centralist party. That is why, alongside our work in Labour, we insist on a single, united Communist Party, which is vital to lead the working class to state power.
But why does comrade Dunn say that Labour cannot be transformed into a united front? He states point-blank: “In the epoch of capitalist decline, it is impossible to transform social democratic parties into a united front of the left.” This is a totally unsubstantiated assertion. Why is it “impossible”?
Let us focus on the Labour Party itself. Despite the grip of the pro-capitalist right and, in particular, the anti-democratic measures imposed by the Blairites, it basically retains its original structure as a party based on the trade unions and other working class affiliates. Comrade Dunn states that our task is to defeat reformism and specifies what he means: “concretely the Labour Party and its affiliated trade unions”.
It is true that the unions are at the moment dominated by reformism, but is he seriously suggesting that they too cannot be won to actually challenge the system itself? In that case, we might as well all give up. Our aim must be to win a majority for the idea of working class power and, if that is possible, surely it must also be possible for that idea to become accepted in the unions. And, if it is true that we can win the unions away from reformism, why can’t they become a key asset in the transformation of the party they were instrumental in founding?
Comrade Dunn writes: “… in 1920-21, whilst the British working class was dominated by reformism, the majority of the workers were organised collectively”. He adds: “the rise of half a million Corbynistas cannot be compared to the rise of the leftwing movement back then”.
Is there really such a dramatic difference between that period and today in terms of organisation? Yes, the Communist Party had just been founded, but it was hardly a mass force. Or is he talking about the unions, which in any case he claims have always been a mainstay of reformism? It is true that today working class organisation is at a very low ebb, but we revolutionaries know that this situation must change. If comrade Dunn shares our optimism, then he must also accept that it will be possible to win the majority of workers to the cause of communism. Yet, somehow, reformist control of the Labour Party is immutable.
Writing of the period 1920-21, comrade Dunn states: “Moreover Labour had yet to come to power. Therefore Lenin’s position may be seen as a necessary strategy for exposing reformism at that time: ie, the workers had to go through the experience of a Labour government, which would be a valuable political lesson.” But Labour “cannot be seen as a primary arena for the class struggle today”.
Yes, the Bolshevik leaders did believe it was important to win the proletariat away from reformism by exposing the reformist leaders. But that does not tell the whole story. For example, this is what Trotsky had to say in July 1920 at the Second Congress of the Communist International:
“We must say openly that the Communist Party can be affiliated to the Labour Party if it is free to criticise and to conduct its own policies … All trade union members participate in the Labour Party. It is a very unusual formation of a kind that is not found in any other country … This is so important for the whole movement that we absolutely insist that the British communists must form a link between the party - that is, the minority of the working class - and the remaining mass of the workers.”
In other words, this tactic was about far more than just exposing the leadership. The idea was to bring together all working class forces and organisations into - if you want a term for it - “a united front for all pro-working class partisans and organisations”.
Today also, the Labour Party can be transformed. But, as I say, the first step must be to win the revolutionary left itself to the centrality of such a strategy.
Labour Party Marxists