Fundamentally flawed

Ian Donovan, editor of 'Revolution and truth', elaborates his criticisms of the Revolutionary Democratic Communist Tendency platform

Dave Craig’s reply (Weekly Worker July 2) to my critique of the ‘Revolutionary democratic communism’ platform is welcome, but only serves to emphasise his own confusion and misunderstanding, both of the positions of Revolution and truth and of more general aspects of Marxism and the road forward for the workers’ movement. In fact, comrade Craig’s reply is often more notable for those issues raised in my original letter that it does not address, than for those it does.

I cannot, of course, speak for the comrades of the Marxist Bulletin, though I find it somewhat difficult to believe that the International Bolshevik Tendency (who are the political mentors of the Marxist Bulletin) would subscribe (even ‘at arm’s length’) to the totally inadequate platform of the RDCT. I suspect that the comrades, whose self-designation of themselves as a ‘fighting propaganda group’ is somewhat belied by their inability to produce effective propaganda, have been caught on the hop due to this deficiency by comrade Craig’s repeated demands for a reply. On the other hand, I am grateful for the opportunity to engage in serious political debate with the comrades of the RDG and the CPGB.

Comrade Craig quotes me as saying that “the four points of the platform of the ‘Revolutionary Democratic Communist Tendency’ have the quality of ‘apple pie and motherhood’” and then somewhat rhetorically responds that: “In other words, they are so obviously good that no one can disagree with them. If this were true our tendency would be massively supported. In fact it is not true.”

Dave is missing something important in his reading of my letter (Weekly Worker June 4). In fact, what I wrote was that elements of the platform of the RDCT “have the quality of ‘apple pie and motherhood’ insofar as they are correct”. In other words, while the RDCT platform contains correct points, they are not the decisive points in the platform and there are other points in the platform, both explicit and implicit (in terms of its failure to address points that no communist tendency worthy of the name can fail to address) that means, despite the ‘apple pie and motherhood’ contained within it, in its overall thrust it is fundamentally inadequate. I could say the same thing about the ‘Where we stand’ column in Socialist Worker.

As I said, Dave’s reply is remarkable for the questions that it fails to address. Yet later in his reply he makes the following rather revealing remark:

“First we want to replace bourgeois democracy with proletarian democracy, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie with the dictatorship of the proletariat. In this we are replacing a lower form of democracy based on parliament with a higher form of democracy based on soviets or workers’ councils. We reject any notion that establishing a workers’ state can mean swapping one set of bureaucrats for another. A ‘bureaucratic workers state’ is a contradiction in terms.”

I wonder which ‘hat’ Dave is wearing when he is arguing that “a ‘bureaucratic workers state’ is a contradiction in terms”. Is he speaking as a representative of the RDCT as a whole, or merely as a representative of the RDG? My understanding is that the RDCT is a bloc of the RDG and the CPGB. Yet the CPGB for many years characterised the Soviet bloc states as representing ‘bureaucratic socialism’. Even now, the CPGB, when challenged, will still defend the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. In this regard, when Dave says that “at present Ian is outside our tendency and opposed fundamentally to it, as we are fundamentally opposed to his ideas”, he certainly appears to be speaking the truth. But it would be interesting to ask which of my ideas Dave is most “fundamentally” opposed to, and whether his bloc partners in the CPGB would agree with him as to which of them merit the most ‘fundamental’ opposition.

This is particularly notable, given that in the following week’s paper, Don Preston, polemicising with the SWP, argues that in 1929, with the first five-year plan, the USSR became “an exploitative politico-socio-economic formation that was neither capitalist nor socialist” (Weekly Worker July 9). This is essentially the thesis of Max Shachtman and his latter-day followers, whose conceptions of ‘democracy’, mean that for them there is nothing to choose between the former Soviet bloc states and capitalism itself.

Implicitly it involves a repudiation of those positions taken by the Leninist tendency that put it generally on the correct side of the barricades in the Cold War of the 1980s. For if the former Soviet states were ‘exploitative societies’ what is there to stop the CPGB from retrospectively adopting the position of most ostensibly Trotskyist centrists and left reformists in saying that it was correct to support Solidarnosc on the basis that what was involved was workers fighting against an “exploitative politico-socio-economic formation”? As opposed to the reality of workers alienated by decades of the monstrous corruption of Stalinism mistakenly opting for the return of the old exploiters, thereby cutting their own throats in a social sense. It would not be the first time that an ex-Stalinist formation like the CPGB had jumped straight out of the ‘socialist camp’ into the ‘third camp’ of Shachtman and Cliff. This certainly gives credence to my observation that the RDCT is a “congruence around a stageist strategy based on vulgar democratism as the basis for convergence”.

The quotation from Lenin Dave alleges backs up his case for his interpretation of ‘revolutionary democracy’ (which in practice means that the main governmental slogan of the workers’ movement in advanced capitalist Britain in 1998 should be that of a bourgeois ‘federal republic’), is not exactly relevant. The article he quotes from is titled, indicatively, The revolutionary proletariat and the right of nations to self-determination, and there is no question that Lenin was right against Luxemburgists such as Karl Radek who rejected the demand for the right of self-determination of nations such as the Poles in the tsarist empire - ie, to separate if they choose and form their own, separate state. If I had been arguing against the right of Scotland (for example) to separate from the United Kingdom (if the Scottish people so choose) then Dave would have been justified in using this quotation in order to show that my position was incompatible with that of the historic Marxist movement. But this is not the case.

Dave responded to by criticisms of the RDCT platform’s statement that “the working class can become the leading force in society by championing the struggle for democracy” by reminding us of the experience of Russia.

“He [ie, myself - ID] seems to have forgotten that the Russian working class did exactly that with Lenin’s leadership. It was Lenin who called the working class ‘the vanguard fighter for democracy’.”

There is a vital difference between pre-1917 Russia under a semi-medieval pre-capitalist absolutist despotism and the advanced bourgeois democracy that is today’s Britain. In Russia, you had a bourgeoisie that was too cowardly to carry out the tasks of an essentially bourgeois revolution. The questions of democracy Lenin was speaking about were not about minor tinkering with the format of a parliamentary regime. Fundamentally, they involved the destruction of the absolutist regime and the liberation of the oppressed nationalities from its pre-capitalist tyranny, and the expropriation of a whole class, the landlords, with the distribution of their property to the largely landless peasantry.

In Britain, conversely, the main agency of oppression and exploitation is the bourgeoisie itself. The monarchy is essentially a bourgeois institution, despite its medieval form. The British aristocracy today is not a separate class with its own interests distinct from the bourgeoisie. It is rather the remnant of an old ruling class, that has been assimilated by the current ruling class and is now a caste within the bourgeoisie. The main significance of the monarchy for Marxists is twofold. It is, of course, a prop of social servility and conservatism. But more important is its potentially Bonapartist role: the crown has the power in a ‘national emergency’ to override parliament; thus the armed forces swear loyalty, not to parliament, but to the crown.

However, bourgeois republics also have this reserve power, to be used at times of acute class struggle, usually in the form of a clause allowing the head of state to override parliament in circumstances of ‘grave national emergency’, which of course includes a revolutionary situation. Indeed such powers were widely used by Hindenburg, the president of Weimar Germany, to override the Reichstag in the lead-up to Hitler’s assumption of power. Such ‘clauses’ in whatever form are a necessary part of all bourgeois-democratic regimes, monarchical or republican. Marxists oppose all of them. But such powers (and the armed bodies of men and women that are able to enforce them) are indispensable to the rule of the bourgeoisie. These kinds of ‘emergency clauses’ and ‘royal prerogatives’ are only a juridical form that legitimises the core functions of the bourgeois state. To demand their abolition points directly to the need for the destruction of the bourgeois state itself. Dave’s perspective, on the other hand, appears to involve the replacement of one (monarchical) form of this, with a positive advocacy of a (republican) replacement as necessarily a step forward.

In this context, Dave’s accusations of economism are plain silly. Economism is the separation of economic struggle from political struggle. What my dispute with Dave is about is not about the necessity or otherwise of political struggle in the fight for socialism, but rather of what kind of political struggle. My political record over the last few years has been in propagating the need for a bridge from the minimum programme of reforms under capitalism to the need for the destruction of capitalism itself. How this transitional method can be termed ‘economistic’ is utterly mystifying. The essence of ‘economism’ is that everything beyond the minimum programme is to be left to other forces. In the case of tsarist Russia in Lenin’s polemics against the economists, the economists sought to leave these matters to the liberal bourgeoisie. This was further complicated by the fact that in Russia a revolution, whose most immediate tasks were similar to those of the classical bourgeois-democratic revolution, was impending, which is certainly not true in Britain today.

Indeed, Lenin wrote:

“It is absurd to contrapose the socialist revolution and the revolutionary struggle to a single problem of democracy: in this case, the national question. We must combine the revolutionary struggle against capitalism with a revolutionary programme and tactics on all democratic demands: a republic, a militia, the popular election of officials, equal rights for women, etc. While capitalism exists, these demands - all of them - can only be accomplished as an exception, and even then in an incomplete and distorted form. Basing ourselves on the democracy already achieved, and exposing its incompleteness under capitalism, we demand the overthrow of capitalism, the expropriation of the bourgeoisie, as a necessary basis both for the abolition of the poverty of the mass and for the complete and all-round institution of all democratic reforms. Some of these reforms will be started before the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, others in the course of that overthrow, and still others after it. The social revolution is not a single battle, but a period covering a series of battles over all sorts of economic and democratic reform, which are consummated only by the expropriation of the bourgeoisie. It is for the sake of this final aim that we must formulate every one of our democratic demands in a consistently revolutionary way. It is quite conceivable that the workers of some particular country will overthrow the bourgeoisie before even a single fundamental democratic reform has been fully achieved. It is, however, quite inconceivable that the proletariat, as a historical class, will be able to defeat the bourgeoisie, unless it is prepared for that by being educated in the spirit of the most consistent and resolutely revolutionary democracy” (The revolutionary proletariat and the right of nations to self-determination October 1915).

It is not myself who is guilty of contraposing the struggle for the democratic, on its own quite ‘minimum’ demand for the abolition of the monarchy to the struggle to expropriate the bourgeoisie. On the contrary, I was arguing that they should be linked together. Indeed, I argued against the SLP Republicans on behalf of the Marxist Bulletin that socialists should “advocate as the goal of the labour movement, and all its demands and struggles, the goal of a workers’ republic” (see Marxist Bulletin No7, May 1998).

The demand for the abolition of the monarchy in Britain today is part of a minimum programme, and is essentially negative - the demand for the abolition of a particularly reactionary, anti-democratic institution. In and of itself, it does not point beyond capitalism. For revolutionaries, the raising of the demand for the abolition of the monarchy must be linked to the demand for a workers’ government based on mass organisations of the working class, not the bourgeois parliament. That is the only ‘positive’ context we can give it that has a revolutionary content. Indeed, outside of such a context, it is quite conceivable that it could be achieved as part of a programme aimed in a situation of deepening class struggle to save capitalism, to stabilise it.

To raise this demand without linking it to demands that go beyond capitalism, as the RDG and increasingly the CPGB are systematically doing in arguing in positive terms for a federal republic, is not so much to ‘leave politics to the bourgeois liberals’ as to adopt the programme of bourgeois republicans for yourselves. While an elected head of state (at least in theory) should represent an advance compared to a non-elected one (which is why the abolition of the monarchy is a democratic demand), the fact is that the so-called democratic bourgeois republics, such as France, the United States, etc are just as oppressive to the working class and other oppressed layers as is monarchical capitalist Britain. To make one’s main governmental slogan the positive demand for a bourgeois republic reflects illusions in bourgeois democracy, and certainly builds much illusions. It also robs this democratic demand of its potential agitational significance against the capitalist system as a whole. If this democratic demand is to have any anti-capitalist significance, it must mean the demand for a workers’ republic (or rather a federation of workers’ republics).

The slogan of a federal republic as raised by comrade Craig is not connected to the right of self-determination of Scotland or Wales. It is rather advanced as a bourgeois alternative to separation. Comrade Craig wants to preserve the unity of the English, Welsh and Scottish working class - by offering the goal of a reformed bourgeois British federal state to struggle for. The essence of my argument is that this is fundamentally inadequate in a class sense. Comrade Craig is fond of evoking the revolutionary traditions of Irish republicanism in support of his essentially bourgeois republican perspective. In this regard, I would rather echo the sentiments of James Connolly regarding such questions in an Irish context.

“After Ireland is free, says the patriot who won’t touch socialism, we will protect all classes, and if you won’t pay your rent you will be evicted same as now. But the evicting party, under the command of the sheriff, will wear green uniforms and the harp without the crown, and the warrant turning you out on the roadside will be stamped with the arms of the Irish Republic.”

“Now isn’t that worth fighting for?” (Socialism made easy).