Unity against nationalism

Republican Communist Network

The England branch of the Republican Communist Network last weekend took a stand for the highest organisational unity of the working class against the UK state.

The June 17 London meeting agreed that debate was required on whether to strengthen the agreed slogans of the RCN by the addition of an extra, anti-nationalist, bullet point. At present the slogans are: 'republicanism', 'revolutionary democracy and culture', 'workers' power' and 'world communism'. But the CPGB's Jack Conrad proposed the following motion: "This meeting calls for a discussion on the need for a new bullet point on the RCN platform with the aim of a decision by October 2000: 'For the highest unity of the working class in Great Britain against the UK state. Against all forms of nationalism and separatism.'"

The network, originally established in Scotland and now the main left faction within the Scottish Socialist Party, has up to now seen an uneasy truce between the adherents of two views on the national question north of the border - a federal republic of Scotland, England and Wales on the one hand, and Scottish separation on the other. With the acceptance of comrade Conrad's motion (agreed with only one abstention) by the branch in England addressing this central issue can no longer be avoided.

In proposing the motion comrade Conrad explained that the question of working class unity was now of the utmost urgency. The successful intervention in the Greater London Authority elections by the London Socialist Alliance had placed the mounting of an all-Britain leftwing challenge to New Labour at the next general election firmly on the agenda. The recent LSA conference had without opposition passed a motion which looked forward to "a national conference of socialist organisations to carry this out". Clearly SSP involvement would be essential in the drive for 50-plus candidates - sufficient for a television broadcast.

However, elements on the SSP leadership would see the standing of SSP candidates other than purely under their own party name as throwing down the gauntlet to their separatist approach, embodied in the left nationalist call for an "independent socialist Scotland". With good reason, since such united, all-Britain action would indeed severely undermine the notion that workers in Scotland can only hope to further their interests through separatism. RCN comrades working in the SSP must be in forefront of the campaign that puts working class unity first.

Comrade Conrad referred to the "persistent rumours" that the Socialist Workers Party is about to call on its Scottish members to join the SSP. The SWP, while taking an economistic approach to the national question, did not, however, favour separation. The SSP leadership, fearful of an internal challenge - not simply to its nationalist trajectory, but to its control of the organisation itself - might well resort to bureaucratic measures to keep out the SWP. Such measures might in turn threaten RCN oppositionists, up to now tolerated as a small, relatively harmless faction and a living demonstration of the supposedly open, non-sectarian nature of the SSP.

Comrades from the Revolutionary Democratic Group, while sympathising with the sentiments of the motion, questioned whether the adoption of this new slogan was the best move tactically, fearing it could lead to a damaging split in the RCN itself. CPGB comrades replied that if the RCN as a whole was won to unambiguous all-Britain unity, that would set it on a substantially firmer footing. It was unprincipled to step back from doing what was politically necessary just to avoid alienating a small nationalist minority. Besides, the new situation opened up the possibility of winning over new allies within the SSP, to begin with comrades from the Alliance for Workers' Liberty.

Despite its reservations the RDG agreed to back the motion, on the grounds that it was at this stage calling only for a discussion. In addition the meeting agreed to recommend to the full October conference that the slogan of 'international socialist revolution' be adopted.

While in my view the adoption of the motion on working class unity was the most important political decision taken by the meeting, it took equally important organisational decisions which should serve to finally draw a line under the (not unconnected) disputes which have wracked the RCN in England since its inception.

The truce over the national question observed in Scotland had from the very beginning not been in operation within the RCN in England. This was first evidenced by the attempts of supporters of a separatist Scottish workers' republic to bypass the authority of the convenor, Steve Freeman, who had been elected by the July 1999 national RCN meeting and was working with the national secretary to set up the England branch. However, on February 5 the founding meeting, attended by both factions, seemed to have resolved the dispute over who had the right to call meetings. Although at this meeting Brian Higgins of the Communist Tendency had at one stage walked out, comrade Freeman was elected secretary of the England branch overwhelmingly with just two abstentions and no votes against. Peter Manson of the CPGB was unanimously elected treasurer. Neither comrade was opposed.

Yet within six weeks these decisions were being challenged. A self-appointed clique of guardians sent an open letter to the Weekly Worker for publication, declaring that the February 5 meeting had been undemocratic, and that the "massed ranks" of the CPGB had "rode roughshod" over minority rights. In fact CPGB comrades were deliberately kept to a minority at that meeting, as they were last Saturday. The open letter, which was not published in the Weekly Worker, demanded the removal of the newly elected secretary and a more 'balanced' leadership, and announced that the minority had taken it upon themselves to call "a full RCN meeting".

June 17 gave members the opportunity to call both the officers and the minority faction to account. It was therefore somewhat disappointing that the most loud-mouthed members of the minority, comrades Higgins and Barry Biddulph, sent apologies for their absence. Phil Walden turned up on his own to face the music.

The meeting discussed the actions of these comrades after a complaint by the secretary. Comrade Freeman made it clear that this was not about the content of the open letter in terms of the attacks and allegations it made against individuals and organisations, including himself. It was about actions, not words.

The minority had gone beyond responsible and constructive criticism. They had acted in a way that was undemocratic and could have been very damaging to the RCN. They had written directly to the Weekly Worker instead of first taking up their 'grievances' with the secretary - the obvious course of action for comrades genuinely interested in finding a solution to a dispute. Then they had called a rival "full meeting", which could only be interpreted as an attempt to split the England branch.

Of the four members that had signed this letter Terry Liddle had very quickly recognised that he had been misled, withdrew his name and apologised. Phil Walden agreed that the minority faction had made these two mistakes, but dreamed up a whole series of excuses to justify them. Apparently comrade Biddulph had sent the open letter (headed "letter for publication in the Weekly Worker") to the CPGB only because he was not sure how to contact the secretary and hoped that the CPGB would pass it on. Comrade Walden denied responsibility for the letter, because it had been written by comrade Biddulph, the faction 'secretary'. Like comrade Liddle, Walden claimed that the final version was different to what they had agreed. But he refused to either apologise or withdraw his name from the open letter.

Comrades concluded that it would serve no further useful purpose to continue the discussion. Following the comrades' failure to apologise the meeting voted overwhelmingly to censure "comrades Brian Higgins, Barry Biddulph and Phil Walden and draws to their attention the need for members to send letters of complaint to the secretary in the first instance". The branch further censured the comrades for claiming to have "arranged a full RCN meeting ... without the authority to do so and without first writing to the elected secretary". Only comrade Walden voted against.

Despite his absence, the meeting also dealt with comrade Higgins' complaint against the secretary. The comrade had apparently been hurt to the quick by comrade Freeman's mild observation that Higgins' unauthorised attempts to convene a meeting to establish the England branch must have been due to either "a cock-up or conspiracy". Comrade Higgins demanded an apology, and his 'solution' to alleged breaches of democracy was the conversion of the present all-England organisation with its elected officers into a London-only branch, while true 'democrats' like himself could form another branch for "outside London" - everywhere from Northumbria to Cornwall!

Comrades were keen to resolve this item. We had been led to believe that comrade Higgins would attend, but he was unable to do so for personal reasons. The meeting decided that, rather than have this drag on, we would hear the case on the information available and decide what to do. If the comrade was not satisfied with that he could appeal to the October all-Britain AGM.

The meeting endorsed the position of the secretary, who was unclear whether he was being asked to apologise because his words were allegedly untrue or allegedly insulting. The remarks of Mark Fischer of the CPGB, characterising the complaint as "prissy" and the complainant as a "prima donna", were not contradicted by any other comrade. The meeting voted nem con (comrade Walden abstained) to uphold the right of all comrades to lodge complaints, but to reaffirm that allegations of infringement of democratic rights at the February 5 meeting were "unjustified". The motion further rejected the silly notion that the all-England branch be split into two.

Earlier the question of membership eligibility was raised. The Communist Tendency had queried the bona fides of the AWL, when other comrades were encouraging them to join the RCN. Later the RDG had questioned whether comrades Biddulph and Walden supported the political slogans of the RCN.

The secretary reported that, in response to a request for clarification, the AWL's Sean Matgamna confirmed the AWL's support for the RCN slogans - he is now a fully paid-up member. But there had been no response from comrades Biddulph and Walden. There was some confusion on this matter because some comrades claimed or believed that all that was required to join the RCN was 'acceptance' of its basic slogans. This is wrong. The founding statement, which had been passed unanimously and printed in Republican Communist No1, is quite clear: "Membership is open to any individuals and organisations who agree with the aims and slogans."

At the meeting Phil Walden was asked to say where he stood. After much beating about the bush and various stratagems to avoid giving a straight answer, he eventually told us the truth: he agreed with 'world communism' and 'workers' power', but not 'republicanism' and 'revolutionary democracy'. This simply confirmed what a number of comrades had alleged. It now seems that the CT, which had opposed the participation of the AWL, had been recruiting people presumably solely to try to bolster the separatist minority.

The majority have every right to be annoyed when someone who does not agree with our founding political slogans joins the RCN and immediately forms a faction to attack the newly elected officers in a way that could have split the England branch. Still, a bit of openness and honesty from comrade Walden has now made the situation clearer.

Another motion concerned the frequency of RCN meetings. In the absence of a previous branch decision and divergent views among the membership about how often we should meet, the minority had tried to use this as a weapon to attack the officers. The meeting was clear that members should decide the frequency of meetings. Where members have made no decision, it is the responsibility of officers.

Proposals or complaints should be addressed to officers, and/or raised at the next meeting. You might think that such a basic democratic method would be so elementary that it did not need to be mentioned, but this seems to have escaped the authors of the open letter sent to the Weekly Worker. Perhaps, though, such unusual behaviour is not surprising from comrades who join the RCN and do not actually agree with its platform.

Two new officers were elected. Comrade Liddle of the Green Party is now chair of the England branch, while Peter May of the RDG is Republican Communist organiser. Like comrades Freeman and Manson at the February meeting, they were elected with no votes against.

Peter Manson