One step forward, two steps back

The annual general meeting of the Republican Communist Network, held in Edinburgh on October 28, unanimously agreed to "oppose all forms of nationalism" - and then went on to elect an effective nationalist majority onto the editorial board of its quarterly journal, Republican Communist.

The annual general meeting of the Republican Communist Network, held in Edinburgh on October 28, unanimously agreed to "oppose all forms of nationalism" - and then went on to elect an effective nationalist majority onto the editorial board of its quarterly journal, Republican Communist.

The final wording of the anti-nationalist motion was agreed as a compromise after the minority of RCN nationalists vehemently opposed the original CPGB proposal moved by Sarah McDonald to add opposition to "all forms of nationalism and separatism" to the RCN's agreed aims. The new aim now reads: "To promote internationalism and oppose all forms of nationalism. We support the right of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales to self-determination. We fight for the highest unity of the working class in all parts of the UK and Ireland to challenge the UK and Irish states and end the partition of Ireland." It was accepted without any opposition from the 21 comrades present.

Albeit something of a camel, this principled statement - despite the removal of the reference to separatism - leaves the RCN well placed ideologically to stand with those who fight for the organisational unity of workers in the UK against the UK state. It also places the RCN against the notion propounded by the majority of the left that the separate political organisation of workers - for example, in the Socialist Alliance in England, the Welsh Socialist Alliance and the Scottish Socialist Party - is either unimportant or positively desirable.

Thus, while the SA, SSP and WSA are committed to a minimalist level of cooperation in the forthcoming general election campaign, they do not intend to take it any further than that. Indeed in the spirit of closet English nationalism the SA leadership has written to comrades in Scotland who have applied for membership, returning their subscription fee and advising them to join the SSP instead. In contrast to this, implicit in the RCN call for the "highest unity" is the goal of a single Communist Party, based on democratic centralism, for the whole of Britain.

In moving the original CPGB motion, comrade McDonald stated that the separatism of the SSP leadership could only serve to break up the historically constituted British working class. It was, she said, "unprincipled not to take a position on nationalism". While the CPGB motion was not meant to exclude anyone from RCN membership, up to now, she said, the network had declined to say where it stood for fear of alienating its nationalists. As Tom Delargy pointed out, they must "be prepared to be in a minority".

The nationalists in question last Saturday were Allan Armstrong and his two fellow members of the Communist Tendency in Scotland, along with the vicarious Scottish nationalists Phil Sharpe and Phil Walden - apparently the entire 'membership' of the Trotskyist Unity Group. These five comrades indignantly objected to what they described as the CPGB's "wrecking amendment". Though they all excuse their call for a "Scottish workers' republic" - in practical terms no different from the official SSP demand for an "independent socialist Scotland" - with claims that it stems from proletarian internationalism their whole programme is based on weakening, not overthrowing, the existing state. Shades of Joseph Pilsudski.

So, like the SSP leadership, they declare their undying opposition to nationalism, but draw the line at opposing "separatism". The CT's Ian Robertson stated that such a formulation would imply that, "We in Scotland can never have a divorce from the UK state ever." It does no such thing, of course: it would merely have stated RCN opposition to those who advocate separation of different nations and nationalities as a principle. However, comrade Robertson believed that this would leave the RCN open to "ridicule" in the SSP, where its "valuable work" would be undermined.

In fact the RCN's failure to take a firm stand has paralysed it on this central, burning issue. Where have been the RCN Scotland's public statements on the nationalist reasons behind the SSP leadership's attempts to keep out the Socialist Workers Party? Where is the upfront campaign for a common election intervention in complete unity with the SA? This criticism was vehemently denied by RCN secretary Mary Ward, who was proud of the network's growing reputation as "the revolutionary opposition in the SSP". But how can a tendency be revolutionary in the conditions of today if it fails to work tirelessly in word and deed for an all-Britain party to challenge and in due course overthrow the UK state?

Comrade Armstrong, by contrast, wrote off a revolutionary upsurge in Britain as a whole as the "least likely" scenario. He was convinced that his revolutionary republicanism would arise as a real force in Scotland first - which obviously meant that all-Britain working class unity was at best unnecessary, at worst a diversion. Similarly Phil Sharpe was absolutely certain that the revolution would break out in Scotland in the first instance, while comrade Walden "sensed" that the working class in Scotland was "coagulating" much more than in England. Nevertheless, these comrades felt obliged to vote for the final formulation, which stands in direct contradiction to their separatist politics.

While the unanimous acceptance of anti-nationalism as an agreed RCN aim was a step forward and marked a success for the small CPGB contingent in Edinburgh, the result of the elections to the editorial board of Republican Communist can only be described as a bad setback. We are not concerned for ourselves. Rather we believe the whole RCN project has been discredited and the immediate chances of winning other 'strong' organisations, apart from the CPGB, has been thrown back a long way.

The dominant figure on the outgoing team was undoubtedly comrade Armstrong, while Nick Clarke, once a member of the CPGB and then a supporter of the Revolutionary Democratic Group, had a largely technical role. The third member of the board had left the RCN since his election a year ago.

The resulting left nationalism and left communism were particularly glaring in RC No3 (see Weekly Worker July 20 for a review of this issue). That is why the CPGB was keen to ensure a better balance through an expanded editorial board, reflecting the anti-nationalist views of the majority (overwhelming in England). Unfortunately, the late arrival of comrades from England due to serious disruption of the rail network meant that the start of the AGM had to be delayed and debate on this crucial issue was severely curtailed.

While it was narrowly agreed that the size of the board should be increased to four (the CPGB had called for five), the idea - originating with comrade Armstrong in order to secure his own disproportional influence - that no more than one comrade from any tendency ought to be represented appeared to gain credibility. Five comrades stood for the four vacancies: comrades Armstrong and Clarke, comrade Walden, Steve Freeman of the RDG and the CPGB's John Bridge.

Since nobody opposed the re-election of the two outgoing editors, and since it was accepted that the CPGB ought to have a representative, comrades Armstrong, Clarke and Bridge were declared elected without a vote. That left a straight fight between comrades Freeman, a staunch anti-nationalist, and comrade Walden, a close ally of comrade Armstrong.

The votes of Mary Ward and Nick Clarke were decisive: despite being so-called supporters of the RDG, they voted against their own top comrade and for Phil Walden, who was elected by 11 votes to nine. In a heavy-hearted act of conciliation with the forces of left nationalism, these comrades backed an opponent of a federal republic and working class unity - presumably because they had fallen for comrade Armstrong's 'one tendency, one representative' line. That is supposing in the first place that comrade Clarke was a member - i.e., represented - the RDG.

Yet comrade Clarke had shown by his very action in voting against his 'own' comrade Freeman that people must be judged first and foremost by their political acts, not according to their flag of convenience. What we saw was the worst kind of formalism: instead of aiming for a political reflection of the majority of the RCN, the majority in Edinburgh went for an 'equity' amongst the self-defining groups, irrespective of their size or influence. So the two-strong TUG and four-member CT, neither of which have any kind of independent publication, were equated, for example, with the CPGB and the Weekly Worker.

If there had been time to debate the relative merit of comrades Freeman and Walden, we would have been able to point out that the latter had attempted to split the RCN England by claiming to call, with two other comrades, a "full RCN meeting" in opposition to the elected secretary, comrade Freeman. Comrade Walden was subsequently censured by the England branch, with only himself voting against the motion admonishing him for his disruptive activity. At the same meeting he openly declared that he did not agree with either republicanism or revolutionary democracy, two of the RCN's central tenets and agreed slogans.

What we have now is two representatives of the overt nationalist minority in effective control of Republican Communist. Comrade Clarke has shown by his actions that his tendency towards conciliationism is stronger than his commitment to the RDG, a federal republic or workers' internationalism. As confirmation he went along with comrade Armstrong's decision not to publish Jack Conrad's extended review of Neil Davidson's book, which shows why communists not only stand for Scottish self-determination but, unlike Davidson's SWP, unflinchingly fight nationalism and work for the unity of all workers in Great Britain.

As an excuse only technical reasons have been cited. It is the only piece that has ever been refused. Certainly the anti-nationalist majority in the RCN has only one intransigent representative on the editorial board.

Hopefully comrades will have an opportunity to consider these arguments at the next general meeting in March. It is essential that the RCN shapes up to the key task of opposing the SSP's open embrace of nationalism and the Socialist Alliance's effective acceptance of an English-only nationalist road.

Peter Manson