Establishment at an impasse
While Boris Johnson may well hanker after an illiberal democracy, Jack Conrad warns that parliamentary deals, calls for a caretaker government and campaigning for a second referendum are worse than useless.
Having established an iron grip over the executive arm of government, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings are now playing out their “final Brexit offer” to Brussels - before car ramming into the EU (Withdrawal) (No2) Act, the ‘Benn Act’. Then, so goes the calculation, a historically defining general election will follow.
A brief reminder: the Benn Act is named after the rightwing Labour MP, Hilary Benn, son of the famed left reformist, Tony Benn. It was he, Hilary Benn (along with Lord Rooker), who tabled the anti-no deal legislation that requires the prime minister to seek a three-month extension to article 50 if they cannot get a Brexit deal agreed by the end of the European Council meeting on October 19. The Commons majority was 329:300. Boris Johnson brands the Benn Act the ‘Surrender Act’.
In a sign of the ever-increasing high-stakes game being played by Johnson and his minority government, Sajid Javid, chancellor of the exchequer, says that the Benn Act will be circumvented. No surprise: he declines to reveal details.
Nonetheless, there are various well publicised ways for the government to scupper the Benn Act. Sir John Major warns of “passing an order of council to suspend the act until after October 31”. An order of council “can be agreed by privy councillors - that is, government ministers - without involving HM the queen”.1 Jo Maugham QC agrees that such fears are well founded. But, he says, an alternative course for the government could be to “disapply the Benn Act” by recourse to the Civil Contingencies Act 2004: “This allows existing legislation to be suspended in the event of a national emergency.”2
Note, an ‘emergency’ officially means (a) an event or situation which threatens serious damage to human welfare in the United Kingdom or in a part or region; (b) an event or situation which threatens serious damage to the environment of the United Kingdom or of a part or region; or (c) war, or terrorism, which threatens serious damage to the security of the United Kingdom.
Legally, to activate a state of emergency, there must be “an event or situation” that “threatens damage to human welfare”: namely (a) loss of human life; (b) human illness or injury; (c) homelessness; (d) damage to property; (e) disruption of a supply of money, food, water, energy or fuel; (f) disruption of a system of communication; (g) disruption of facilities for transport; or (h) disruption of services relating to health.3
To state the obvious, no such situation exists at the present. Yet crippling delays at Dover, a shortage of medicines, violent disorders, bomb outrages, a run on the pound or an incendiary diplomatic incident can always be arranged. Back in 1924, the Tories brought down the Labour government of Ramsay MacDonald and then ran a red-scare general election campaign using the forged ‘Zinoviev letter’. “Soviet plot - red propaganda in Great Britain - revolution urged by Zinoviev - foreign office bombshell,” screamed The Times headline.4 Anyone voting Labour is “voting for handing the country over to the communists and Moscow”, thundered Tory grandee Lord Curzon.5
Government ministers, including Johnson, have been appealing to ‘Britain’s finest hour’ and the ‘queen and country’ mob. They talk of traitors, betrayal and never surrendering. Incitement, says a tremulous Amber Rudd. But Dominic Cummings menacingly warns such remainer MPs that they should expect popular anger to explode if Brexit is not delivered on October 31. Grabbing his chance of notoriety, Brendan O’Neill, editor of Spiked, and now a fervent Brexit Party supporter, went further. Speaking on BBC’s Politics live, he eagerly declared that “there should be riots” in the style of the gilets jaunes.6 Words, words and yet more words, but the stage is being set.
Perhaps the Benn Act has been drafted so tightly, so cleverly - rumour is that EU legal officials gave a helping hand - that getting around it will prove impossible. If that is the case, it leaves Johnson with little choice. If he wants to remain in office and within the law, the ‘Surrender Act’ will have to be applied. He will have to seek an extension of article 50 from Brussels.
Former attorney general Dominic Grieve has told Johnson in no uncertain terms that the queen will sack him if he breaks the law. Never known to exaggerate, Grieve claims that Johnson would be “gone within five minutes” if he refuses to implement the Benn Act. What is certain though is that the Supreme Court would convene within a matter of days and would, presumably, come to another judgement against him. Meanwhile, Grieve believes that the civil service would refuse to work for him. If he stubbornly maintained his intransigence, Elizabeth Windsor would swiftly deliver the coup de grâce.
Grieve’s warning comes after it had been revealed that the queen had “sought legal advice on the circumstances in which she can dismiss a prime minister”. A well placed Buckingham Palace source told the i newspaper that this was the “first time in her reign that the monarch had sought such advice”.7
So maybe Johnson will comply with the Benn Act. But, if he does, it will be in the full glare of publicity. He will strike a belligerent, defiant pose, demonstrating to the great British public that he is the victim of an out-of-touch, arrogant, unpatriotic establishment. The battle lines of a ‘people versus elite’ general election will have been drawn.
Despite parliament once again sitting - because of the 11 Supreme Court judges - the remain camp is hopelessly divided and seems incapable of doing anything decisive to stop Johnson’s Brexit juggernaut. Symptoms of what Karl Marx famously called the incurable disease of “parliamentary cretinism”.8 There is unanimity about what they are against, but no agreement about what they are for. Petty manoeuvring amounts to everything.
Jo Swinson has switched the Liberal Democrats from a second referendum remain to a general election revoke. Jeremy Corbyn has been dragged into adopting a second referendum after a general election position. As de facto leader of Labour’s rightwing backbenchers, Tom Watson insists on a second referendum before a general election. As for the Scottish National Party, it supports a second EU referendum call, but with a beady eye to holding a second independence referendum.
Amongst the ever so clever ideas is installing Jeremy Corbyn as “caretaker” prime minister. But the Lib Dems, the Independent Group and the liberal Tories would not - could not - agree to such an outrage. So the SNP’s no-confidence plan flopped.
Of course, as Labour has in principle accepted the idea of a “caretaker” government of national unity, the door is wide open for another candidate. Step forward a Ken Clarke, a Margaret Beckett, a Harriet Harman or a Keir Starmer. After all, if stopping a no-deal Brexit is the most important question facing the United Kingdom, surely Corbyn is under an obligation. Make way for someone else. But, no, it is “non-negotiable”, Corbyn must be the “caretaker” prime minister, insists shadow chancellor John McDonnell.9
It is highly unlikely that there will be a second referendum. Boris Johnson will not go for it … though he is doubtless delighted that Jeremy Corbyn has fallen into the elephant trap. Yet imagine for one moment that the remain camp overcomes its paralysis and succeeds in securing a government committed to holding a second referendum. What would the result be?
While opinion polls show clear majorities wanting a “say” on any final Brexit deal, the result of a second referendum is far from certain. Survation (September 25) has 51% for ‘remain’ and 45% for ‘leave’.10 The sort of margin seen at the beginning of the 2016 referendum campaign.
Because things are too close to call, the likes of Tony Blair and Justine Greening have proposed a three-option referendum (obviously in order to guarantee their desired result). Through perpetuating such a blatantly dishonest trick, argues David Jeffery, a lecturer in politics at Liverpool University, it is theoretically possible for just 34% of voters to decide the “winning option”.11 With the right questions placed on the ballot paper, such a referendum would see two bitterly opposed leave camps and a comparatively aloof remain campaign.
If a preferential vote is added into the mix, then the least popular option would be eliminated and there would be a count-off between the last two questions … and, so ‘remain’ would, so goes the calculation, emerge the winner with over 50% of the vote.
Even barring such transparent forms of cheating, say remain narrowly won in a straightforward two-option referendum, what do we expect the 49% (or whatever) - ie, those who vote leave - to do? Sit on their hands? Cosily unite with remainers in the national interest? Hardly.
No less to the point, Labour, presumably, will be squeezed in a general election held either before or after any such second referendum. If they play their cards right, Johnson’s Tories can count on mopping up the Brexit Party vote and maybe, as a result, capturing more than a few seats in the English midlands and the north: seven in every 10 of Labour’s constituencies voted leave on June 23 2016. And, having been steered into the remain camp, Labour has to fight a resurgent SNP in Scotland and a resurgent Lib Dems in London and the south-east. Not a good prospect.
Jeremy Corbyn could conceivably pull off a miracle, as he did in 2017. But this will, in all probability, not be another anti-austerity general election. Well, not with Sajid Javid’s sprouting money trees. Nor, frankly, with the Johnson-Cummings EU ‘no surrender’ narrative. And, unless the ongoing trigger ballots result in a thorough-going purge of the Parliamentary Labour Party - unlikely at the moment - the majority of sitting Labour MPs will continue to act as an enemy within. They will disrupt, sabotage and smear.
Much of what passes for the left is utterly confused, utterly disorientated: eg, Boris Johnson is a “pound-shop Mussolini”, who on September 9 carried out a “coup” and an “assault on democracy” (Alliance for Workers’ Liberty). No, as shown by Johnson’s - albeit grudging - acceptance of the Supreme Court judgment, he still acts within the framework of the existing semi-democratic, monarchical constitution. That said, the prognosis offered by these social-imperialists is not wrong.
Brexit unmistakably points towards a low-tax, low-regulation, low-rights economy. The working class can only but suffer. But the AWL cure amounts to cyanide: “a strictly single-shot caretaker government which will send the Brexit-extension letter to the EU and call a general election”.12 OK, the PM might conceivably be Jeremy Corbyn … but more likely a Ken Clarke, Margaret Beckett, Harriet Harman or Keir Starmer. And who will be the chancellor of the exchequer? Who will be home secretary? Who will be minister of defence? Etc, etc. Unmistakably a recipe for popular-front negotiations to be crowned by a government of national unity.
Another - strange - proponent of this line is Paul Mason. Though he has made the long march from the Left Faction of the International Socialists to wizard-wheeze techno-reformism, he cannot, surely, have forgotten Trotsky’s account of the 1930s, which he once treated as an article of faith. Anyway, here is what he wrote in The Guardian:
The popular front tactic has deep antecedents in the very political traditions the modern Labour left emerged from. In 1935 the Bulgarian communist leader, Georgi Dimitrov, single-handedly manoeuvred the Communist International into supporting calls for a ‘popular front’ against fascism. This was about formal electoral pacts with centrist socialists, left nationalists and liberals - and it paid off within six months. In Spain, to the fury of conservatives, who had formed their own electoral alliance with the fascists, the popular front took power in January 1936.13
Mason’s argument is, in fact, so absurd, that his good faith must be called into question. Either he has suffered some kind of brainstorm or he is baiting his old comrades. Clearly Mason relishes his new-found role as a ‘blue skies’ thinker for the liberal middle classes, but presumably he cannot resist scandalising the old-fashioned Trotskyites who still inhabit the Labour Party. As for the rest of his audience, he presumably holds it in such contempt that he does not even expect the most cursory Wikipedia fact-checking exercise.
With the least investigation Mason’s account of the Spanish popular front, and popular fronts in general, proves to be entirely bogus. Behind the figurehead of Georgi Dimitrov there stood Joseph Stalin. It was he, not Dimitrov, who “single-handedly” manoeuvred the Communist International into supporting popular fronts. Mason does not want to tell this inconvenient truth. His Guardian readers would not find his popular front particularly attractive seen in that light. But then there are the unrepentant Straight Leftists - Seamus Milne, Steve Howell and Andrew Murray - serving as Jeremy Corbyn’s advisors. Presumably, they, as good Stalinites, welcome Paul Mason’s conversion to popular frontism.
Historically the Communist International (and before it the First and Second Internationals) championed working class independence. In other words the project of socialism, as opposed to the project of a reformed capitalism. A united front between working class parties was considered legitimate. This tactic involved presenting reformist socialist and social democratic parties with a package of campaigning demands with a view to advancing the interests of the working class.
Primarily though, this approach was designed to win over the mass of the working class to the Communist Party. The expectation being that the leaders of the socialist and social democratic parties would either fight half-heartedly or would prefer unity with the bourgeoisie to the unity of the working class. It should be stressed that Comintern’s tactic involved real parties of the working class - not miniscule sects such as the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party in England and Wales, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, etc, etc.
Taking seats in a bourgeois cabinet, supporting one (lesser-evil) bourgeois party against another (greater-evil) bourgeois party was explicitly ruled out. Communist MPs were expected to behave not as “legislators” seeking an agreement with other legislators, but agitators “sent into the enemy’s camp to carry out party decisions”.14
Needless to say, in 1935 Stalin definitively broke with that tradition. Under irresistible pressure from Moscow, the world’s communist parties were to support ‘progressive’ capitalist governments (potential diplomatic allies of the Soviet Union). Naturally, towards that end, all notions of proletarian social revolution had to be put on the back burner.
The ‘official’ Communist Party of Great Britain encouraged the Labour Party to join with it in an anti-fascist popular front alongside an assorted mish-mash of patriotic conservatives, muddle-headed liberals and well-meaning pacifists, actors and clerics. The Independent Labour Party and the Socialist League were drawn into that orbit - not least due to the prestige of the Soviet Union and the palpable threat of Hitler fascism. However, the Labour Party itself steadfastly resisted - ironically in the name of working class independence.
Likewise it appears to escape Mason’s notice that the Spanish republic was defeated in a bloody civil war. Even after the fighting was finally over, partisans of the republic were butchered on an industrial scale. As many as 200,000 are thought to have been killed. General Franco wanted class revenge.
In fact, the political compromises necessitated by the popular front directly, inescapably contributed to the horrendous defeat. Eg, the ‘official’ communists opposed colonial independence movements. Stalin did not want to upset ‘anti-fascist’ imperial powers. In Spain crucially that meant opposing independence for Morocco, the main base of Franco’s mercenary army. Rather than appeal to the Moroccan masses and win them to the fight against Francoism, the Spanish republican government loyally upheld the existing constitutional order.
The logic had to be counterrevolutionary. Those seeking - albeit often hamfistedly - to push things forward to a full-blown social revolution were branded enemies of the people, even a Francoist fifth column. Thousands of anarchists and Poum (Workers Party of Marxist Unification) members were tortured and executed. In short, the ‘official’ communists in Spain acted not like Bolsheviks in October 1917, but like the right wing of the Menshevik Party who joined the February 1917 Provisional Government.
A popular front that has stopped Brexit would undoubtedly unleash a storm of reaction. Chauvinism, xenophobia and imperial nostalgia will not easily surrender. Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Dominic Cummings, Nigel Farage, Tommy Robinson, the Democratic Unionist Party, Britain First, the Football Lads Alliance can only but be expected to loudly bang the ‘great betrayal’ drum.
Their message is well rehearsed. The leave campaign won the June 2016 referendum fair and square. The votes of 17.4 million people have been ignored, treated with contempt. Britain continues to be shackled to Europe because of an ugly conspiracy hatched by the German and French governments, Brussels bureaucrats, George Soros, Whitehall mandarins, the City, big business, the self-serving political elite, trade union bosses … and their leftwing allies.
Amplification will doubtless be provided by The Daily Telegraph, The Sun, The Express and the buzzing swarm of alt-right websites and bloggers. One can easily imagine discontent spreading to the army. Note, in 1914 the Tories, Ulster Unionists and the military high command effectively supported the Curragh Mutiny, which derailed home rule in Ireland. Army officers staged mass resignations, while the Ulster Volunteer Force imported 24,000 rifles.
Barry Gardiner, Labour’s shadow foreign trade minister, has warned for some time that a second referendum would boost the far right and could lead to “civil disobedience”.15 We have already had the killing of Jo Cox MP.
Back in 1935 Sinclair Lewis chose the ironic title It can’t happen here for his bestselling novel. His plotline has a charismatic and madly ambitious American politician, Berzelius ‘Buzz’ Windrip, cynically promoting traditional Christian values, winning the trust of the wealthy, denouncing Jews, fuelling hatred for Mexicans and promising impoverished electors instant prosperity. In short, America will be made great again.
Buzz easily defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the presidential race and goes on to establish a horribly autocratic regime: Congress and the Supreme Court are emasculated. “Irresponsible and seditious elements” are physically crushed by the Minute Men - a ruthless paramilitary force, acting under the direct command of the president. Many thousands are interned and many more flee north to Canada.
Could it happen here? Following a script carefully crafted by Dominic Cummings, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson - otherwise known by the mononym, ‘Boris’ - skilfully blew the anti-establishment, anti-EU, anti-Muslim dog whistle: “letterbox” and “bank robbers” - all in the context of Theresa May’s Brexit negotiations.
With his narrative of Muslims as ‘other’, Brexit betrayal and the magic of post-Brexit free trade, he was bound to win the Tory contest to succeed the hapless May. He remains hugely popular - and not only amongst the “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” who make up the Tory rank and file. According to opinion polls, a Johnson-led Conservative Party that has been thwarted by the Westminster elite over Brexit would be well placed electorally.
Johnson would promise to restore national honour, freedom and prosperity, a global Britain closely aligned with Donald Trump’s USA.
But, after such an election, in the cold light of day, discipline, law and order and a strong state will be needed. After all, the EU will refuse to play fair, Labour, Lib Dem and SNP collaborators will continue to betray. And there are inevitable economic consequences. The car industry will go down the pan. The pound will sink. Prices will rise. Hence people will be expected to make ‘short-term sacrifices’ in the national interest. The ‘usual suspects’ - ie, trade unionists, leftwing activists, students, etc, who resist will have to be dealt with using the full force of the law.
Boris Johnson’s ‘police speech’ on September 5, back-dropped as it was by a phalanx of new recruits, comes straight off the pages of Sinclair Lewis. There is more than a whiff of ‘Buzz’ about Boris.
Though they violate the principle of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’, referendums seem to have become thoroughly internalised. People on the right, centre and left treat them as the epitome of democracy - far superior to parliamentary elections and the votes of the ‘great and the good’ in the House of Commons. Hence we have the Brexit camp, including sections of the organised left, upholding the result of the June 2016 referendum in the name of what the ‘people decided’. Meanwhile the remain camp, including sections of the organised left, holds out for a second referendum because the ‘people must decide’.
Communists reject referendums. They are a con - a means of fooling people. That explains why Harold Wilson, Tony Blair and David Cameron used them. Needless to say, we consider it an elementary mistake for the Labour Party to have treated David Cameron’s June 2016 referendum as democratic exercise. Labour was wrong therefore to take part in the referendum campaign … and, crucially, under pressure from the rightwing press, to say it would accept the result. The Labour Party has not got, but it ought to have, a socialist programme, when it comes to the EU. Demand sweeping reforms, fight for a working class takeover. Such a programme should not be changed by the result of a referendum. That is certainly the case with the CPGB. We did not respect the referendum. Nor did we respect the result.
An analogy. Say Boris Johnson wants to restore the death penalty for child murderers. Say he puts it to a referendum and wins. Should the left accept the result? No, the left should campaign to abolish the death penalty. Referendums reduce complex issues to a hard-edged ‘yes’ or ‘no’ choice that cuts across class loyalties. Hence, today, one half of the working class are leavers. The other half remainers. And the division continues. Tragic, but hardly surprising.
Our objections to referendums are long-standing. Eg, communists urged an active boycott of Tony Blair’s 1998 Good Friday referendum in Ireland. It offered a bogus choice. An unacceptable past versus an unacceptable future. The ‘yes’ result was a forgone conclusion. And it has institutionalised sectarian divisions ever since: yet most of the left voted ‘yes’.
Likewise in June 2016, Marxists called for an active boycott. Admittedly our results were very modest - 25,000 spoilt ballot papers. Nonetheless, as is crystal-clear nowadays. David Cameron’s “I have many regrets” referendum was not about giving power to the people. On the contrary, he reckoned on outflanking the UK Independence Party, wrong-footing Labour, satisfying his frothing Europhobes … and hanging on as prime minister.16 No reason, whatsoever, to give him support.
John McDonnell claims he is “inspired” by the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci.17 Well then, let us cite him, on referendums. He wrote this in June 1921:
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.18
It ought to be emphasised, however, that this general principle does not translate into automatically refusing to call for a referendum vote 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.
Nonetheless, our principled opposition to referendums stands. They are not a higher form, compared to universal suffrage and deliberative democracy. The Paris Commune, Russia’s Congress of Soviets were examples of representative democracy and saw speeches, resolutions, amendments and extensive debate. Doubtless, referendums date back to ancient times. Eg, ancient Athens. Then there is the 16th century Swiss confederation. All male citizens could vote on an equal basis. Compared with what existed around them, they were beacons of liberty.
However, it was in the aftermath of the French revolution that referendums were used for reactionary purposes. The Girondists wanted to kill off the Jacobin bid to abolish the monarchy using a referendum. In terms of our tradition, opposition to referendums unmistakably dates back to Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.
The Marx-Engels team knew all about the undemocratic nature of referendums. Louis Bonaparte’s ‘self-coup d’état’ referendum in 1851 (92.1% for him on a 79.9% turnout), then his self-elevation to become Napoleon III in the 1852 referendum (96.7% for him on a 79.9% turnout).
Bonaparte went on to impose press censorship, restrict demonstrations and public meetings, savagely repress political opponents (mainly red republicans) and force thousands 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”.19 In the same defiant spirit, George Sand (Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin), damned them as “an infamous snare”.20
Then there was the May 1870 referendum. The options were so worded that it was impossible to express disapproval of the policy of the Second Empire without declaring opposition to all democratic reforms for the working class. Despite that, the French sections of the First International argued for a boycott. On the eve of the referendum members of the Paris Federation were arrested and charges with conspiracy. At their trial, June 22-July 5 1870, the charge of conspiracy was clearly exposed. Nevertheless prison sentences were handed down as a deterrent for others.
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”.21
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 castigated referendums as a cruel trick. In 1911 Ramsay MacDonald 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”.22
Historically, what Marxists have advocated is recallability. Elected representatives should be subject to immediate recall. Whether that is by the electorate (voting by a certain percentage) or by the representative’s party revoking their mandate depends on the electoral system. We prefer the latter, because we prefer party lists and proportional representation. That was certainly the case with Lenin.
Idiots and answers
There have been conservative attempts to turn back the incoming democratic tide by using referendums as a “veto player”23:
- 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, and challenged the Liberals to do the same with Irish home rule.
- In 1911 Lord Balfour tabled his ‘people bill’ in the House of Lords, allowing 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 prevent the extension of the franchise to women.
- And, as the reform bill giving women over 30 the vote was passing through parliament in 1918, 53 peers wrote to The Times urging a referendum.24
However, there were those useful idiots on the left who were attracted by the idea of referendums and the right of the people to initiate them. Karl Kautsky, the celebrated pope of Marxism, chose Moritz Rittinghausen, a German social democrat, as his main polemical target over the issue.25
Kautsky’s Parliamentarism, direct legislation by the people and social democracy (1893) was designed to shoot down 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, as extreme ‘against elections’ advocates still want, this would represent not a step forward for democracy, but a step backward.
Kautsky fields three main arguments.
Firstly, he stresses that there are very few situations where there is a simple binary choice in politics. Secondly - and this is no less important - Kautsky wanted to strengthen the system of party politics. In the transition period between capitalism and communism, it is, he said, vital for the broad mass of the population to think about, to organise around and to vote for competing party outlooks. Thirdly, Kautsky stresses the point that Marxists strive - particularly through their emphasis on a working class party - to bring about a situation in which the state is as weak and the people are as strong and organised as possible. He draws a vital distinction between, on the one hand, ‘the people’ as an unorganised mass who do not think about national or global issues in a coherent fashion, and ‘the people’ organised into, or by, a workers’ party. One is to be the perpetual victim of lies, fraud and humbug. The other readies itself as the future ruling class.
Sadly, swathes of the contemporary left have totally forgotten the left’s history of opposing referendums in the name of extending representative democracy. That can, that must, change.
Financial Times September 27 2019.↩︎
The Times October 25 1924.↩︎
Quoted in The Times October 27 1924.↩︎
The New European September 27 2019.↩︎
i September 30 2019.↩︎
K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 11, London 1979, p161.↩︎
The Independent October 1 2019.↩︎
Solidarity September 9 2019.↩︎
A Adler (ed) Theses, resolutions and manifestos of the first four congresses of the Third International London 1980, p105.↩︎
BBC Radio 4 Today August 21 2018.↩︎
See D Cameron For the record London 2019, chapter 22.↩︎
Financial Times September 6 2019.↩︎
A Gramsci Selections from political writings 1921-1926 London 1978, p50.↩︎
V Hugo Napoleon the little London 1852, p144.↩︎
G Sand The letters of George Sand Vol 3, New York NY 2009, p192.↩︎
See L Morel and M Qvortrup (eds) The Routledge handbook to referendums and direct democracy Abingdon 2018.↩︎
G Tsebelis Veto players: how political institutions work Princeton NJ 2002, p25.↩︎
See V Bogdanor The people and the party system: the referendum and electoral reform in British politics Cambridge 1981, pp9-94.↩︎
See B Lewis, ‘Referenda and direct democracy’ Weekly Worker September 18 2014; K Kautsky, ‘Direct legislation by the people and the class struggle’ Weekly Worker March 31 2016.↩︎