Drop the dead donkey

Dave Craig of the Revolutionary Democratic Group discusses why he is against a “Duma with full powers”

We are in favour of a republican boycott campaign in Scotland. This means that we want to unite the aim of a republic with the idea of boycotting the referendum on Blair’s Scottish parliament with limited powers. We are not boycotting the referendum just for the sake of it. We are not boycotting just to be awkward. We are not boycotting it for some moralistic reasons or because we are anarchists, who reject any kind of parliament.

As revolutionary republicans, we are waging a definite struggle for a republic. We are using the opportunity of Blair’s referendum to campaign for a republic. When that is agreed, we can usefully discuss the tactical options. I am persuaded that an active boycott of the referendum is the best way to fight for the republic.

We must put the horse before the cart. To mention the cart (boycott), and not tell them about the republican horse, will not encourage them to travel with us. The CPGB have got a cart but are not sure whether to tie it to the republican horse, or attach it to a dead donkey with full powers. As militant republicans, we want them to drop the dead donkey.

We must tie the horse and cart together. When people hear the word ‘boycott’ they must think to themselves, ‘Ah, those are the people who want a republic.’ And when they hear the word ‘republic’ they must think, ‘Ah, those are the people who want us to boycott Blair’s parliament.’ But if the people hear the word ‘boycott’ and think, ‘What the hell do they want?’ then as militant republicans we have failed. On this the RDG is not alone. The Republican Workers Tendency and the Edinburgh Republican Group have a similar, if not the same position.

In this context we come to the slogan of “a parliament with full powers”. This was invented by Scottish Militant Labour so that they could give critical support to Blair. What is wrong with Blair’s parliament? - Answer: it hasn’t got enough powers. This was SML’s bridge to Blair’s left critics inside the Scottish Labour Party. But when push came to shove, it was not the Labour left that crossed this bridge to Militant. Rather it was the other way round. SML crossed to the Labour left, who were tied to the Labour right, who were allied with the left Tories and Lib Dems in a giant popular front. Unfortunately the CPGB, who mistakenly adopted the slogan of “a parliament with full powers” in order to make an alliance with SML, are now left holding the baby.

The slogan of “a parliament with full powers” is an ambiguous slogan. It means different things to different people. It is acceptable to the Labour left, SWP, Workers Power and the CPGB, because each inteprets it differently. This is the political fog that needs to be blown away. Our cause is helped by clarity, not confusion. A republic draws the line between ourselves and the Labour left, SML, SWP and Workers Power. This does not cut us off from these people. But if we want to pull them in our direction, instead of chasing after them and adopting their confused slogans, we need to anchor ourselves to something solid. Let the SWP justify why they are against a republic and in favour of a monarchist parliament “with full powers”.

As always, we need to learn from history. Recently a comrade drew my attention to the fact that “A Duma (Russian parliament) with full powers” was a Menshevik slogan. I was then able to look back to that debate in 1906. Nobody is suggesting that Russia in 1906 is the same situation as Scotland in 1997. There was a revolution taking place in Russia. Clearly there is not one or anything like it happening in Scotland. Neither am I claiming that what Lenin said proves me right. I am quoting extensively from one of Lenin’s articles on this, not as proof, but rather to let readers judge for themselves how Lenin approached the question of a “Duma with full powers”.

The Bolsheviks were fighting for a republic. On paper, so were the Mensheviks. But they wanted to make an alliance with the Cadets (the revolutionary sounding liberal party) who wanted a constitutional monarchy. Plekhanov came up with the slogan of a “Duma with full powers”, behind which both Mensheviks and Cadets could unite.

In fact the Cadets were moving to the right in the aftermath of the 1905 revolution. They were so desperate for a deal with the tsar that they wanted a “Duma with a few limited powers that the tsar felt able to grant”. Plekhanov was chasing shadows and confusing the whole movement as he did so.

In ‘The new senate interpretation’ (VI Lenin Collected Works Vol 11, p333), Lenin takes up the case against “full powers”. In a letter to a paper, Plekhanov was asked what could serve as a joint platform for the left and extreme left parties. He replies: “To this question there can be no other answer than: a Duma with full power”. Lenin first pours scorn on the idea that there can only be one answer.

He goes on to explain that behind this slogan is the issue of unity between Social Democrats and Cadets. With his slogan, Plekhanov goes further to the right than the rest of the Mensheviks, by in effect proposing “a definite ideological bloc with the Cadets”.            

Lenin says:

“Let us pass on to the real political meaning of Plekhanov’s slogan. Its inventor is in raptures over it. ‘This general formula,’ he [Plekhanov] writes, ‘exactly expresses in algebraic form the political tasks that is most urgent today for the lefts and extreme lefts,’ while allowing them to preserve their other demands absolutely intact. Plekhanov says: ‘The Cadets’ conception of a Duma with full power cannot be the same as that of the Social Democrats. But both need a Duma with full power. Therefore both must fight for it’.”

Lenin continues:

“It is clear from these words that Plekhanov is fully aware that this slogan is bound to be understood differently by the Cadets and the Social Democrats. The slogan is the same, ‘common’ to both, but the Cadets’ ‘conception’ of this slogan cannot be the same as that of the Social Democrats. In which case, what is the purpose of a common slogan?

“Is it,” says Lenin, “only for the sake of appearances, to cover up something that should not be explained to the masses, to perform behind the backs of the people, a parliamentary manoeuvre that promises all sorts of advantages? Or is it to raise the class consciousness of the masses and really explain to them their present tasks?” Here we have Plekhanov

“proposing a platform for the first general party election campaign which it is known will be interpreted by Cadets in one way and by Social Democrats in another! What does it all mean? If Cadets and Social Democrats cannot have the same conception of a Duma with full power, neither can the broad masses of the people. Evidently Plekhanov regards the Cadets’ conception of a Duma with full power as wrong, and all wrong conceptions of political aims are harmful to the people. Consequently, Plekhanov is advancing a slogan in a form that is known to be harmful to the people, for it leaves a wrong conception unexplained and concealed. To put it simply and bluntly, this means deceiving the workers and the whole people for the sake of an appearance of unity between Cadets and Social Democrats.”

Lenin continues:

“What is wrong with the Cadets’ conception of a Duma with full power? Plekhanov doesn’t say. This silence proves, firstly, that Plekhanov is using the election campaign not to clarify the minds of the people, but to obscure them. Secondly, it takes away all meaning of Plekhanov’s conclusion that ‘both Cadets and the Social Democrats need a Duma with full power’. This is sheer nonsense concealed by verbal trickery: two different parties need the same thing, which each conceives of differently! Which means it is not the same thing.

“We might as well symbolise both an autocratic monarchy and a democratic republic with the letter ‘a’ and say that different parties (now fighting for the same thing, ‘a’) are free to substitute different arithmetical values for this general algebraic formula. That is typical Plekhanov logic or rather Plekhanov sophistry.”

Lenin goes on to show how the Cadets deceived the people with similar algebraic formulae in the past. For example the slogan of “a democratic regime” “united” the Cadets and the Socialist Revolutionaries. The Cadets meant a constitutional monarchy and the Socialist Revolutionaries a democratic republic (ibid p339) Again the Cadet newspaper admitted, in Lenin’s words, “to leading the people by the nose with the slogan of a constituent assembly”. “The Cadets,” Lenin says, meant “a constituent assembly ‘with the preservation of the prerogatives of the monarch’, and not a republican constituent assembly.” It was to the Cadets’ advantage “to attract the sympathies of the masses by means of this deception”.

A “parliament (or Duma) with full powers” can be both a liberal monarchist and a republican slogan. Republicans can deceive themselves with this. But as a revolutionary republicans and communists, Lenin argues very clearly, we have nothing to gain from this ambiguity and everything to gain from clarity.