Republican Communist Network
Armstrong tactics Steve Freeman of the Revolutionary Democratic Group gives his view of the October 28 conference
In the Weekly Worker (October 19) I argued that there were three central issues that the Republican Communist Network must resolve as soon as possible. These were the position on Scottish independence within the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), the intervention of the RCN in the Socialist Alliance (England) and the issue of democracy and majority voting in the RCN itself. The RCN conference on October 28 was the first opportunity to assess what progress, if any, was being made to deal with these questions.
First, the SSP's demand for Scottish independence was dealt with in an emergency motion. Unfortunately this motion was moved down the agenda and then we ran out of time. Second, there was no discussion on how the RCN in England could intervene in the Socialist Alliance. Third, there was an airing of whether the RCN would adopt the democratic principle of majority voting, around a draft constitution produced by Allan Armstrong. Nothing was resolved.
If these three questions are central to the success of the RCN project in the current period, then I am forced to conclude that the conference achieved very little. In my view the RCN has stalled in the middle of a level crossing with an express train hurtling towards us. Can we get the engine started? Or should we run away before we are swept aside in the wreckage? Certainly singing a nice tune to keep our spirits up will not save us from disaster. The problem is that those who want to drive to safety cannot agree whether to engage first gear or go into reverse. Not surprisingly the tension is growing, a concern expressed by the RCN secretary on her journey to Edinburgh.
What is the politics behind all this? We can see it in three ways. First it can be viewed as an expression of the struggle between the 'Connollyite' and the 'Macleanite' wings of the RCN. The former sees the struggle for a republic as a step towards a workers' republic. In 1916 James Connolly provided us with a practical demonstration of this strategy based on the idea of permanent revolution.
On the other hand the great British-Scottish Marxist, John Maclean, argued for the slogan of a Scottish workers' republic. He raised this slogan in 1922 when the tide of revolution was ebbing away. It was abstract propagandism in such circumstances. It remains so today when the working class is weak, divided and suffering many defeats. Whilst Connolly's strategy triggered a revolution, Maclean's triggered nothing except his own isolation.
The same alignment can be seen in programmatic terms as a dispute between the 'federal republic' and the 'Scottish workers' republic'. On one side is the Revolutionary Democratic Group, CPGB and Campaign for a Federal Republic. On the other is the Communist Tendency and the Trotskyist Unity Group representing the 'Maclean wing'.
On a third level this can be seen through the prism of a battle between the RDG and the CT. I want to focus on this aspect of the struggle, not because the RDG is more important than our allies, but because it illustrates certain political features of the struggle most clearly.
The CT has been waging a no-holds-barred struggle against me as a leading representative of the RDG. After I was elected RCN convenor for the England branch, Allan encouraged CT member Brian Higgins to begin acting as a rival convenor. The founding meeting of the RCN (England) was thus launched in the middle of a serious dispute. However, I was overwhelmingly elected as secretary of the new branch. Within two months, a new faction of 'democrats' appeared with the now infamous 'open letter'. The central demand of this letter was that I should be removed as secretary. Again a member of the CT was backing this move.
The third occasion to see the state of play came during last Saturday's conference. I stood for the fourth place for the editorial broad of Republican Communist. Allan (CT) opposed my candidature very strongly. Indeed he was so moved to anger, that he departed from the normal 'modus operandi' in Scotland of everybody being ever so nice. He explained that I had censored his articles and would presumably do so again if elected. I was not a fit person to be on an editorial board.
This was a classic example of Allan's famous 'unsubstantiated allegations'. He had just drafted a constitution giving the editor (himself) powers to outlaw such claims! I demanded that Allan withdraw this as a lie. He did not do so.
Allan's Mr Nice Guy mask had slipped momentarily. But the reality was there for everybody to see. He soon recovered his composure and produced the old liberal argument about 'balance' used by the BBC. Allan explained that Nick Clarke, an RDG supporter "represented the RDG". Therefore if I was elected the RDG would have two comrades on the editorial board, which was not allowed. This 'constitutional' argument carried the day. The meeting proceeded to vote more or less along national lines. Scotland backed Phil Walden and England supported me, more or less.
Of course if there is to be one place on the editorial board for the RDG, it will be for the group to decide whether we should be represented by Nick Clarke or any other RDG comrade. Still, Allan is a canny politician and he did succeed in splitting the RDG from its Scottish supporters.
Despite these three attempts by the CT to remove or bar me from office, it should be noted that the RDG has not made any attempt to remove Allan Armstrong from the editorship of the journal. This is quite consistent with our general political line. Consider it in the context of the debate over 'international socialism'.
During the foundation of the RCN it became clear that the CT objected to the slogan 'international socialism'. Some of the arguments were highly dubious. For example that this slogan was used by the Socialist Workers Party and the Committee for a Workers' International and that it was employed by the 'Brit left' to avoid the national question. The 'Brit left' is a nationalist term which expresses the CT's hostility to the working class in Britain. Still, the CT had a more important argument about the nature of communism. Try as we did, none of us could understand this position as anything other than a new theory of national socialism or socialism in one country.
Nobody except the CT had problems with 'international socialism'. However, many comrades feared a split even before the project got off the drawing board. So we invented a special procedure, whereby we would wait a year and have three debates on the subject. Republican Communist would carry a reference to the fact that we had not made up our minds as yet.
The truth was that we did not adopt 'international socialism' because the CT was opposed to it. Everybody except them accepted the international character of socialism. The CT, which had three voting members in the RCN, was given a year-long special dispensation.
At the first debates, the CT arguments were defeated. If they were sound they might have created at least some agnostics. On the contrary, if there were any agnostics, they swung behind 'international socialism'. We demanded that the CT tell us what their alternative slogan actually was. Later in an article in the Weekly Worker Allan came up with 'international revolution', which was hopeless and left everybody mystified as to why he would want to abandon socialism and the working class.
At the next meeting I proposed the slogan of 'international socialist revolution' taken from the RDG draft programme. Both slogans, 'international socialism' and 'international socialist revolution', were acceptable to RDG comrades. I proposed this because, having listened carefully to what Allan Armstrong had to say, I believed we might find unity. So it proved. Not long after this the CT made clear that they could accept 'international socialist revolution'.
Since then the RDG has worked consistently to win the whole of the RCN to this slogan. First the England branch adopted the slogan. But it has to be said that there was some resistance by comrades, who felt we were being jerked about by the CT, who seemed to consider themselves the only real communists in the RCN. However the slogan of 'international socialist revolution' was, finally, passed unanimously at last weekend's conference.
This is not to pat ourselves on the back. It is to point out that if the RDG had been trying to oust Allan Armstrong or humiliate him, it would have been very easy. We would simply have put our efforts behind the equally principled slogan of 'international socialism'. He had made it clear at the start of the debate that this slogan was completely unacceptable to the CT and they might leave. Had the RDG put its support behind 'international socialism', which was quite principled, then, along with the CPGB, Campaign for a Federal Republic and the majority of independents, we would have carried the day.
Allan would have been left with the option of walking out. Alternatively it would have meant admitting that his new theory, which held up the whole project, publishing four journals without the fourth slogan, implying that communists in the RCN did not know their arse from their elbow, was not that important after all!
Quite simply the RDG had it in our power to put the CT in a very tight corner and possibly force them out of the RCN or into a humiliating climbdown. Leading comrades on the 'Connolly wing' such as Mary Ward and John Bridge know that I was lobbying them to support or continue to support the slogan 'international socialist revolution' as a principled unity slogan, right up to this conference. We opposed in practice the option of putting the CT in what they had claimed would be an impossible position.
Furthermore the RDG had sponsored two motions: one on a federal republic and another on republican parliaments. Mary Ward spoke to me about fears that comrades in Scotland might think we were trying to bounce them into a federal republic. I said that I would withdraw both motions in the same spirit of compromise.
Let us sum up the relationship between these two small groups. The RDG has made a number of compromises to maintain unity with the CT. But this was met with hostile action. First the CT and their allies took action against me as convenor and then as secretary. This failed miserably, with the plotters censured by the England branch. Allan tries to explain this in Scotland by claiming that we were not democratic in England, unlike the superior methods of niceness north of the border.
Allan then writes a polemic to explain that I am a 'conciliator'. Conciliation and compromise is for him a serious crime. Looking at the line of the RDG, you can see that he has a point (although I would add we have made no unprincipled compromise). Allan is not a conciliator and has waged a consistent struggle against the RDG and me in particular. The latest and clearest example was his total and successful opposition to me being elected to the editorial board.
Obviously he is playing a double game here. He is waging a war against the conciliationist RDG because we sought compromise on 'international socialist revolution', did not trying to oust him from the editorial board and withdrew our motions on a federal republic.
But he tells his allies that the RDG is out to get him. They are not democrats. They engage in unsubstantiated 'dubious' practices in England, when comrades Higgins and Biddulph innocently tried to oust Freeman with their 'democratic' faction. He even tells comrades in the meeting that I had censored his articles! Now he warns them that they are coming to Scotland to force us to accept a federal republic, which cannot be allowed according to Allan Armstrong's rules on democracy. This might fool a few people, but not for long.
The hypocrisy of this is surely plain. It is like somebody coming to attack you with a baseball bat and shouting out, as he strikes you on the head, 'Help, I am being victimised'. The passers-by, who have not looked at the situation carefully enough, might even feel sorry for a thug, who is shouting, 'Look, this man is hitting my baseball bat with his head'!
Allan Armstrong's actions over the editorial board are the last straw, as far as I am concerned. One-sided compromise and conciliationism cannot work. That has got to end. I am rapidly losing patience. It is crunch time and the crunch issue is democracy. There is a majority in the RCN in favour of a federal republic and a minority for a Scottish workers' republic. But we will not know for sure until we debate it and vote on it. That is the democratic method, in which both the majority and minority have rights.
Allan Armstrong is vetoing what we are allowed to vote on. We are allowed to vote on Kosova, but not on a federal republic. This operates through moral pressure. The majority should forgo its rights in case it upsets the minority and forces them to leave. Since nobody wants to have a split, this makes everybody fearful. It is much easier to delay it until later. But this solves nothing. Worse is that Allan wants to build this veto into the RCN constitution.
Eventually the majority will have its say or the pressure will build up to explosion point. We saw what happened in the Socialist Labour Party. The minority around Scargill were trying to control a majority. They used fear of a split. They used divide and rule. They used the personality cult. They started witch-hunts against comrades they labelled as 'wreckers'. Arthur Scargill even produced 3,000 fictitious votes from the North West, Cheshire and Cumbria Miners Association to help him. Victory by this method is Pyrrhic indeed.
We do not have real democracy in the RCN. We have a situation where the minority are fearful and the majority increasingly frustrated. Yet the situation around us demands that the RCN shows enough maturity to take the democratic road. The new draft constitution and the debate over the federal republic and how that is handled, will make it crystal clear. We will then know whether the RCN has a future as anything other than a periphery organisation for the CT and those they want to recruit.