For working class independence

Peter Manson replies to criticism of Jack Conrad’s pamphlet, Blair’s rigged referendum and Scotland’s right to self-determination

As working class confidence and combativity has declined, so the left’s belief in its own power to exert any influence, let alone leadership, has dissipated. Instead, revolutionary groups content themselves with tailing bourgeois campaigns, sadly concluding that nothing more ambitious can be achieved.

Typical of this pessimism has been the attitude of most of the left to the question of self-determination for Scotland. In response to the upsurge of the national sentiment and aspirations of the Scottish people, the bourgeoisie has offered a talking shop - a parliament so limited in its powers that it would be unable to introduce any meaningful reforms, let alone change Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the UK.

Overwhelmingly the left, while usually admitting the pathetically inadequate nature of Blair’s sop, lined up behind the establishment and called for a ‘yes, yes’ vote for the parliament on offer. Far from exposing it for what it is, the left has almost unanimously given its blessing to the bourgeoisie’s attempt to diffuse the simmering anger and frustration of workers in Scotland.

The reviews we have published of Jack Conrad’s pamphlet admirably illustrate the point. Gordon Morgan of Glasgow Scottish Socialist Alliance (Weekly Worker August 28), John Stone of the LCMRCI (September 4) and Bob Pitt (page 4, this issue) all berate the CPGB for our failure to back their call for “critical” support for a ‘yes, yes’ vote. All share the belief that the parliament, although insufficient, will at least be a ‘step forward’. Gordon Morgan claims, without a shred of evidence, that it will “foster our class’s belief in itself”.

If, as a result of mass militant action that threatened the bourgeoisie with revolution, the ruling class had desperately seized on the idea of a parliament as a device to placate our anger, then indeed workers would see the potential of their own power. Hopefully, inspired by the state’s retreat and filled with a new sense of confidence, workers would contemptuously dismiss the sop and push on for much more. However, far from being forced to make a concession to a mass movement, Blair has put forward his proposals after years of careful preparation during a period of low class combativity. They are part of his strategy of overall reform to re-stabilise the constitutional monarchy on a new basis.

Surely in such conditions the danger is that his reform will have the opposite effect to what comrade Morgan expects. The illusion will be reinforced that change is always delivered from above, that our role is to sit back and gratefully accept whatever crumbs are thrown our way.

But, the comrades clamour, there is no mass movement. Comrade Pitt dismisses Jack Conrad’s call for “political strikes, meetings and demonstrations, occupations and civil disobedience” as “fantasy politics”. Comrade Stone states: “There is no mood among the workers or students for direct action to violently stop the referendum”. On the contrary, they are all agreed that the mood is one of passivity, for accepting what is on offer.

Therefore nothing can be done. The left might as well advise workers to do what they are already resigned to and go along with Blair’s plans. Of course the comrades put forward all sorts of caveats, but in practice they call for full support for the establishment campaign for two crosses in the ‘yes’ box. Comrade Morgan suggests, as we march along with workers to mark our approval of the sop, that we should point out the parliament’s inadequacy and the oppressive nature of the bourgeois state: “In all of this,” he opines, “we are promoting workers’ self-organisation.” It is certainly an unusual form of workers’ self-organisation that leads it into the Scotland Forward bloc of Labourites, LibDems, trade union bureaucrats, dissident Tories, peers of the realm and prominent capitalists.

At least John Stone does not support such an unholy alliance. He wants workers’ organisations to “campaign for a ‘yes’ vote in a separate and opposite way” to SF. He points out that “Scottish bosses want more autonomy for their country to preserve the imperialist monarchy, while workers want to use the new concessions the better to fight for their own class demands.” So can both these opposing aims be satisfied simultaneously? If not, which class will gain from a ‘yes’ vote - the bourgeoisie, who are actively promoting Blair’s reforms, or workers, who provide the voting fodder?

Whatever ‘distinguishing’ slogans they have muttered to themselves during the campaign, the left groups who supported a ‘yes’ vote have in reality not been noticed. They have been buried in the establishment morass queuing up to back Blair. So when comrade Pitt remarks that “it is difficult to see how Marxists could get a hearing for their programme without critically advocating a double ‘yes’ vote”, he could not be more wrong. Who has noticed Scottish Militant Labour, the Socialist Workers Party or any of the ‘yes, yes’ brigade? Far from being “walled off” from the working class and being doomed to “sectarian irrelevance”, CPGB comrades who launched the Campaign for Genuine Self-Determination have indeed been noticed.

To say that the CGSD has failed to spark a mass movement in opposition to Blair is to state the obvious. However, our comrades in Scotland report that they did “get a hearing”. Workers did not dismiss our views out of hand, but listened with interest and responded with their own arguments.

In order to maximise the effectiveness of our intervention we concentrated our limited resources in Scotland, where our support is greater, rather than trying to launch a similar campaign to the CGSD in Wales, where we judged the immediate potential for mass resistance is less advanced. Nevertheless, our comrades were only able to reach a small minority of workers in Scotland.

So were we wrong to try? According to comrade Pitt, we raised demands “without the slightest concern for the actual state of working class consciousness”. He could have told us from the beginning that we were wasting our time. Of course, by refusing themselves to contemplate an independent working class campaign, insisting instead on “practical”, realistic proposals (such as falling in behind Blair), the left helps to make their warnings of failure a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If we had won over a majority of SML to see the need to fight now, the campaign could have been transformed. As we have pointed out many times, when it came to the poll tax Militant Labour adopted a completely different method: it led the opposition and was in no small way responsible for building a successful movement. Today, like comrades Pitt and Stone, it merely bewails the absence of militancy.

Bob Pitt is right to point out that there is a dialectical relationship between spontaneity and consciousness, but he himself falls into the very one-sidedness he seeks to avoid. There is no mass movement, so it is useless to propose any effective action - that is his reasoning. In effect he is waiting for resistance to spontaneously develop, as if conscious intervention itself has no role at all. By confining his demandsto those that “enjoy majority support”, in practice he is urging the working class to continue what it is already spontaneously doing - limiting its aims to the most meagre of sops.

It is not those who call for workers to campaign for what we need now, in this society, who are making “maximalist propaganda”, but those like comrades Stone and Gordon who on the one hand cry ‘socialism!’ or ‘workers’ control!’ while on the other calling on us to humbly accept the latest crumb.

Both these comrades have a further objection to the CPGB’s call for a boycott of the referendum. According to comrade Morgan, “An active boycott may be appropriate in a pre-revolutionary situation, but not in current conditions.” Comrade Stone suggests that such a tactic ought only to be employed “in a revolutionary crisis when the masses are mobilising every day”.

If Blair, as part of his constitutional reforms, were to call a referendum to legitimise his proposals for ‘modernising’ the monarchy with the question, ‘Do you agree with the government’s proposals?’, how would the comrades advocate we respond? Should revolutionaries mark their cross in the ‘no’ box in favour of the status quo? Or on the other hand should we reluctantly go along with the changes as a ‘step forward’?

Irrespective of the mood of the working class, irrespective of whether the country is in a state of tranquillity or ferment, there could be only one principled response - a campaign to boycott the referendum and to demand a republic.

Similarly, when we are faced with a question which permits only a toothless talking shop (with no power to determine Scotland’s relationship with the rest of Britain and the world) or the status quo, it is a matter of principle for communists to urge workers not to take part in such a charade, but to demand instead genuine self-determination.

The comrades’ error lies in supposing that the Leninist view of bourgeois elections can be mechanically transposed to determine our attitude to referenda. Yet we have a situation where the questions asked were not only composed by the ruling class, but rigged to ensure that no outcome favourable to the working class could be obtained. If bourgeois law provided for the possibility of citizens themselves being able to frame the question, and if the question posed permitted an answer which was of genuine advantage to our class, then we would use that opportunity.

Yet even Lenin’s position that it is “obligatory” for communists to participate in bourgeois elections in normal times should not be misunderstood. As far as possible we should seek to stand our own candidates, to pose a genuine working class alternative to the bourgeois parties. But does that mean we are obliged to indicate a preference between bourgeois candidates? If for example we are unable to contest all seats, or if our own candidate was eliminated in the first round of voting, are we obliged to ‘choose the butcher’ in the second round? Of course not. The “obligatory” participation can come in various forms, including a campaign for workers to spoil their votes.

The important thing is that communists use the opportunity of the ballot box - whether in an election or a referendum - to make the maximum impact at a time when the mass of workers are thinking politically. In the Scottish referendum campaign, who made the biggest impact? Was it the left groups who backed Blair’s sop, constituted themselves as adjuncts to the official ‘yes, yes’ campaign and consequently were almost entirely ignored? Or was it the Campaign for Genuine Self-Determination with its challenge to the bourgeois consensus? Which campaign had the greatest resonance?

For comrade Pitt our call for independent working class organisation is “sectarian”. As is so frequently the case, the word is misused in order to criticise those who depart from the mainstream. Thus a refusal to vote Labour is “sectarian”. A refusal to meekly accept what the establishment has deigned to hand down is “sectarian”. If we had opted for short-term advantage for our own organisation at the expense of advocating an independent working class position - for example through attempting to gain influence with the establishment as loyal participants in Scotland Forward - that would not only have been sectarian, but opportunist in the extreme.

It is not those who intransigently advocate what workers need - in opposition to what the ruling class is prepared to concede - who are “dooming themselves to sectarian irrelevance”. On the contrary it is those who in practice always advocate that such intransigence should be suppressed in favour of what is “practical”, who call on us to vote Labour, to campaign for Blair’s sop, it is these comrades who can be safely ignored by the bourgeoisie and who will go unnoticed by workers.

It is they who will be judged irrelevant.