Workers' Liberty backs federal republic call

On December 5 the Alliance for Workers' Liberty executive committee endorsed the demand for a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales. This was in part a result of political developments in the UK, which have forced the AWL to fine-tune its politics. It is in part a result of agitation by the CPGB and the Revolutionary Democratic Group. But it is also a product of rapprochement talks between comrades from the AWL and RDG.

Originally the RDG had been keen to hold talks with the AWL and our allies, the CPGB. However, when the first talks were due to begin, the CPGB decided that they wanted to hold their own talks with the AWL, without the presence of the RDG. We were not happy about this, especially since we had set up the talks in the first place. We had been 'shafted' by our own allies! Still, that is politics for you! More to the point, we felt that this was a mistake and that it would be more productive to have tripartite talks.

The RDG requested that we continue to have informal discussions with the AWL. I met Sean Matgamna and Martin Thomas on a number of occasions. A number of issues were discussed. But most important was the question of programme. In the midst of our discussions, we uncovered the 1977 programme of the International Communist League, forerunner of the AWL. We considered this programme and endorsed the section headed 'Democratic rights'. We asked the AWL to clarify whether they still accepted these points and whether they still represented current AWL politics. When this was confirmed, the RDG requested the AWL executive to consider an amendment to include the word "federal" before "republic" in the following extract from the 1977 programme. It is confirmed that the AWL executive has accepted this amendment.

"The working class's only sure weapon to defend its rights is its own power, arms in hand if necessary. But we are not indifferent to formal democracy within the bourgeois state. The working class needs the maximum of democratic rights, the most consistent democracy, in order to pursue its struggle and in order to educate itself in preparation for self-rule. The more democratic, the more transparent and 'fair' all dealings are under capitalism, the more transparently fraudulent will appear the claims of the bourgeoisie that their system can represent liberty, equality or fraternity, in real human and social, as opposed to formal legal terms.

"In Britain many pre-capitalist barnacles survive and serve capitalism. The House of Lords is not only monstrous from the point of view of formal democracy - it is a serious reserve weapon in the hands of the bourgeoisie. We should demand its immediate abolition and the substitution of a single-chamber parliament.

"The monarchy is a degrading fossil - a permanent insult to ideas of human equality and dignity. It is an outrage against those in poverty or homeless, with its ostentatious and vulgarly flaunted parasitism. More, however. Its allegedly fictitious reserve powers, its 'mere ceremonial function' in state affairs, its 'normal and empty investment with the trappings and pomp of power' - these can take on a real weight and importance for the bourgeoisie in certain circumstances of political crisis. We demand the immediate abolition of the monarchy and the setting up of a [federal] republic.

"Formal parliamentary elections allow the workers to decide who should oversee their exploitation by capital for a number of years. But it is not a matter of indifference which government is in power. It is grossly undemocratic, even in strictly bourgeois terms, that elections are held only every five or so years and that the government in power can manipulate the date of elections. We demand annual elections on a fixed date.

"The British electoral system is grossly unfair. No matter how large its total of votes, a party cannot gain representation unless it achieves a majority in one of 635 geographical units. Thus even extremely large, wealthy and well-connected minorities such as the Liberal Party are grossly discriminated against. Artificial political blocs and an artificial political stability are kept in being. Real democratic discussion, differentiation, and the formation of an educated 'public opinion' are hindered. We demand: proportional representation; an end to legal penalties for contesting and losing elections; free and equal access to the media for all political parties, excepting only fascists.

"Parliament, MPs and ministers are in the hands of the permanent civil service. To propose political changes without democratising the civil service is to propose controlling the glove puppet and not the hand within it. We demand: election of senior civil servants and local government officials; and of judges and magistrates; abolition of the Official Secrets Act; opening of the books of public expenditure and the files of the civil service departments to public scrutiny."

This is interesting for a number of reasons. It shows that this organisation was not only republican and calling itself "communist", but clearly had a revolutionary democratic theory of bourgeois democracy. The first paragraph summarises the revolutionary democratic approach, at least at the level of political questions, with the proviso that the national question was not integrated into this section.

It also sheds new light on the internal struggle in the Republican Communist Network. The International Communist League had identified themselves as communists long before Allan Armstrong had 'seen the light' and decided to call his group the 'Communist Tendency'. When I was encouraging AWL members to join the RCN, Allan was opposing this. The AWL endorsed the RCN slogans of 'republicanism', 'revolutionary democracy', 'workers' power' and 'world communism', when the RCN wrote to them this year. This 1977 document shows that this was not some sort of Johnny-come-lately opportunism.

Allan, like me, was still a Socialist Workers Party economist when the ICL was endorsing revolutionary democratic and republican ideas. This is not to say that the AWL was necessarily 'correct' or beyond criticism. Far from it. But it does show up Allan's approach to politics. He says that, "Craig's attempt to draw the 'non-communist', 'non-republican' AWL into the RCN goes a long way to demonstrate the shallowness of his own communist politics" (May 2000, unpublished). What Allan exposes is not the shallowness of my politics, but the sectarianism of his own. In Allan's world 'The Communist Tendency' are the only true communists in the RCN. He is already outnumbered by the 'non-communist' RDG and CPGB. Therefore the last thing he wants is AWL members to join the RCN.

By contrast we see the RCN is one place where republican communists can debate and clarify their differences. The talks between the AWL and RDG and the 'discovery' of the 1977 programme is another such avenue. We want to build the RCN not as an end in itself, but as a point of dialogue, debate and coordination between the AWL, CPGB, CT, RDG and other comrades. This is not dependent on the AWL agreeing to a federal republic. I was trying to draw them in, even when their politics on this question was 'wrong'. This is the politics of engagement.

It is virtually the direct opposite of the method deployed by Allan. He was trying to bring in the Trotskyist Unity Group and comrade Barry Biddulph, even though they did not agree with either 'republicanism' or 'revolutionary democracy'. Why did he do this? Because they agreed with the CT slogan of a Scottish workers' republic! I would strongly urge Allan to have a serious rethink and then show himself brave enough to change trajectory. The future of the RCN, the opposition in the Scottish Socialist Party and direction of the working class depends upon it.

In the AWL's paper Action for Solidarity Martin Thomas argues for a federal republic. He says: "We want unity between the people on this island, but on a free and democratic basis. In two words: a federal republic. Britain already has a sort of botched de facto federal system with separate Scottish legislation and Scottish and Welsh assemblies. Isn't a 'federal republic' the best way for socialists to sum up our support for a democratic recasting of the British political system?" (December 16). The answer from the AWL, CPGB and RDG is now 'yes', 'yes' and 'yes'.

Engels and Lenin, both of whom knew a thing or two about the capitalist state, understood the nature of the UK as a unionist and monarchist state. Consequently they could predict that Britain would likely evolve into a federal republic. This would be, according to them, a "step forward". Obviously this evolution is not automatic, nor its end result predetermined. It depends on the action of the working class, the most progressive class. The working class has to become the political vanguard of the people, rather than simply a passive observer of the constitutional machinations of the ruling class.

The decision of the AWL executive to support the demand for a federal republic is of major significance for the British left. This demand is leaving the twilight zone of its prehistory. It will now have to be taken seriously. With the support of three Marxist organisations, the demand for a federal republic will soon be seen as the main, albeit minority, alternative to the political confusion, economism and nationalism of the Socialist Party, the SWP and the SSP.

Dave Craig (RDG)