Prioritise democracy

Examining the 'priority pledge' submissions to the Socialist Alliance's March 10 Birmingham conference is sadly instructive. Before us we have on parade economism lined up in neat regimented rows. An army of misguided innocence (see 'Our principles' Weekly Worker February 22).

Examining the 'priority pledge' submissions to the Socialist Alliance's March 10 Birmingham conference is sadly instructive. Before us we have on parade economism lined up in neat regimented rows. An army of misguided innocence (see 'Our principles' Weekly Worker February 22).

Besides debating and amending Mark Hoskisson's policy document, the intention at Birmingham is also to agree five or six key demands which will feature on posters, leaflets, etc, during the general election campaign. These are the priority pledges.

Four supporting organisations forwarded initial proposals: Alliance for Workers' Liberty, Workers Power, Socialist Party in England and Wales and the Socialist Workers Party (the latter granting itself 10 generous bullet points). There might be differences amongst the quartet, but they are of nuance, not substance. For example, the SWP talks vaguely of raising the minimum wage; SPEW fixes upon £5 per hour; whereas the AWL and WP boldly set their below-subsistence-level minimum wage at £7 per hour. Manifestly, the general approach is exactly the same. No one even thinks of asking what workers need and beginning there.

Other priority pledges are likewise caged within narrow trade unionism. Put another way, they reek of economism. Take the AWL, whom we have - perhaps wrongly - imagined as our closest allies. In brief they advocate: one, "an emergency plan for the workers and jobless"; two, taxing the rich and slashing the "arms budget"; three, the restoration of "benefits and pensions"; four, an expansion of "public services"; five, the "right to join a union"; six, "companies threatening closures" should be nationalised. And they still feign surprise, even indignation, when we dub them economists!

Ridiculously theorists and cadre alike attempt to parry the charge by reducing economism in their own minds to nothing more than routine trade unionism. A desperate ploy. Any half-educated student of Marxism will tell you that there are many other forms of economism - in this instance electoralist economism. We have said it many times before, and we will hammer home the point as long as necessary: economism - broadly defined - is characterised by downplaying the centrality of democracy.

Spellbound by economistic common sense, our allies actually voted against a militant Socialist Alliance campaign to abolish the monarchy on our Liaison Committee. And even when they are prepared to countenance key democratic demands in our policy statement - a republic, Scottish and Welsh self-determination, a united Ireland, abolishing the House of Lords - when it comes to priorities economics always comes first.

What political nuggets are to be found amongst the prioritised pledges? The SWP calls for "tough controls" over pollution, ending "discrimination on the basis of racism, sexism and homophobia" and cancelling the "Third World debt". Apart from WP's demand to "abolish all immigration laws" and the final maximalist flourish of establishing a government "fighting for workers' power and international socialism", that more or less is that. Between our Socialist Alliance quartet we have a grand tally of 23 purely trade union-type bullet points and a paltry four that might be said to be political.

Historically our movement has drawn a sharp distinguishing line between socialist politics and trade unionism. By creating two separate categories we do not mean to imply that trade unionism is apolitical: rather that trade unionism is limited, one-sided and in the last analysis circular. Such an understanding ought to inform the Socialist Alliance. We should seek to lead the struggle of the working class, not only for better terms and conditions, but for the abolition of the system of capital that compels those who possess no means of production - the propertyless - to sell their ability to labour.

The Socialist Alliance represents the working class, not in its relation to a given employer alone, but in relation to all classes in society and the state as an organised political force. If that is the case, and it should be, then it follows that the Socialist Alliance must not limit itself to the economic struggle. More, we must not allow economic struggles to dominate our activities and demands. On the contrary, the Socialist Alliance must prioritise the political training, or education, of the working class and developing its political consciousness.

What do we mean by the political education of the working class? Can it be confined to propaganda highlighting trade union grievances against the state? Of course not. It is not enough to protest against the Blair government's retention of Tory anti-trade union laws (just as it is not enough to complain when employers use these laws). We must take a definite stand on every democratic shortfall and concrete example of oppression and violation of rights (as we should with every trade union dispute).

It is a much repeated establishment boast that Westminster is the mother of all parliaments and that Britain is the epitome of democracy. E.g., the carefully cultivated myth that parliamentary democracy dates back to 1215 and Simon de Montfort's robber barons, and that nowadays the system of capital is synonymous with democracy.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Every democratic advance originates from below - Wat Tyler's peasants' revolt, the Levellers, the physical-force Chartists, militant suffragettes, poll tax refuseniks, etc. All these movements faced stiff, not to say bloody, opposition from above. Universal suffrage was only achieved in the late 1920s after generations of sacrifice and struggle. Nor should we forget that Britain is still constitutionally a monarchy with the crown holding significant - and potentially counterrevolutionary - reserve powers.

Furthermore, due to the very workings of the capitalist metabolism - profit overriding human need - there is a constant erosion of democratic gains, a draining of active content and the reduction of democracy to a four or five-yearly ritual of choosing the lesser evil. Democracy and capital are in fact antithetical.

So in Britain we find countless examples of commercial corruption, state repression, chauvinist discrimination, inequality, gross exploitation and the denial of popular sovereignty. Inevitably this affects the most diverse social groups and spheres of life - family relationships, ethnic minorities, homosexuals, recreational drug users, the arts, religious sects, small businesses and farmers, scientific researchers, etc.

We cannot develop the political consciousness of the working class without having answers to all democratic shortfalls and exposing all cases of injustice. Indeed the working class can only be readied for state power if it is educated in the spirit of consistent democracy and comes to champion all oppressed and exploited sections of the population.

Frankly our principal Socialist Alliance allies only pay lip service to such a Leninist perspective. Doubtless that in part explains why none of them have yet to take up our urgent call for a Socialist Alliance political paper. The comrades are still wedded to sect primitivism. In practice that means putting trade unionist demands to the fore and seeking to give them a socialistic coloration. Their initial priority pledges for March 10 proves the point beyond a shadow of doubt.

Evidently the comrades believe that economic struggles provide the surest, perhaps the only, means of drawing the working class into political struggle. For them politics loyally follows economics. That is as true for the AWL and the SWP, as it is for SPEW and WP. One way or another, we have heard it from them all.

But is prioritising economic demands the best means of involving people in political activity? No, it is not. Any and every police outrage - usually completely unconnected to the economic struggle - can galvanise large numbers. Kevin Gately, Blair Peach, Stephen Lawrence, Winston Silcott and Harry Stanley each became a cause célèbre.

The same happened with the Irish republican hunger strikers in the early 1980s - the funeral of Bobby Sands in 1981 brought 100,000 out onto the streets of Belfast - and victims of the British legal system such as the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six.

What of the criminalisation of cannabis smokers and pill-popping ravers, the horrors of Campsfield, clause 28, the Brixton, Soho and Brick Lane nail bombings, the air war on Serbia, nuclear weapons, the democratic deficit in Wales and Scotland, Aids, GM food, etc? Surely these and thousands of other such non-economic issues represent ways of drawing masses of people into political activity? Why then should the Socialist Alliance prioritise economic demands?

Long, long ago (May 1 1997) our principal allies in the Socialist Alliance voted Labour with varying degrees of enthusiasm. According to their theory of stages, before workers could do anything serious first they had to rid themselves of the hated Tories. Blair's victory was celebrated as heralding a crisis of expectations. Trade unions would be emboldened, economic militancy undergo a revival and hopes fructify. Suffice to say, there has been no explosion.

Auto-Labourism was always a variety of economism. A veering away from the politics of authentic socialism and class independence. Hence the left groups and 'parties' - not least the SWP - found themselves swept along in the wake of Blair's constitutional revolution from above: i.e., a complement and continuation of the Thatcherite counter-reformation. Trailing behind New Labour, they urged a 'yes' vote in one referendum after another: Scotland, Wales, Ireland, London. A sorry record, which, though one can forgive, should never be forgotten.

To achieve socialism requires revolution. Not just any revolution though. The revolution will have to be democratic, in the sense that it is an act of self-liberation by the majority and aims to take the democratic state to its limits as a semi-state that is already dying. Democracy and socialism should therefore never be counterposed. The two are inexorably linked.

Without socialism democracy is always encumbered and stops short of ending exploitation. Without democracy socialism is only post-capitalism: it is not proletarian socialism. The task of the working class is to unleash extreme democracy, not leave high politics to the Blairites, the top bureaucracy and the so-called chattering classes. Existing democratic forms must be utilised, new forms developed - e.g., soviets or workers' councils - and given a definite social or class content. The purpose is to extend democracy and control from below both before and after the qualitative break represented by the proletarian revolution.

In June 1934 Trotsky set out a minimum programme. The flaws are best left aside here - what we are interested in is his plan for a "more generous" democracy. 'A programme of action for France' contains the following, and for our purposes very relevant, passage:

"We are ... firm partisans of a workers' and peasants' state, which will take the power from the exploiters. To win the majority of our working class allies to this programme is our primary aim. Meanwhile, as long as the majority of the working class continues on the basis of bourgeois democracy, we are ready to defend it with all our forces against violent attacks from the Bonapartist and fascist bourgeoisie. However, we demand from our class brothers who adhere to 'democratic' socialism that they are faithful to their ideas, that they draw inspiration from the ideas and methods not of the Third Republic, but the Convention of 1793.

"Down with the Senate, which is elected by limited suffrage and which renders the powers of universal suffrage a mere illusion!

"Down with the presidency of the republic, which serves as a hidden point of concentration for the forces of militarism and reaction!

"A single assembly must combine the legislative and executive powers. Members would be elected for two years, by universal suffrage at 18 years of age, with no discrimination of sex or nationality. Deputies would be elected on the basis of local assemblies, constantly revocable by their constituents, and would receive the salary of a skilled worker.

"This is the only measure that would lead the masses forward instead of pushing them backward. A more generous democracy would facilitate the struggle for workers' power" (L Trotsky Writings of Leon Trotsky 1934-35 New York 1974, p31).

What a contrast to our principal Socialist Alliance allies. The AWL, SPEW, SWP and Workers Power obsessively downplay democracy and prioritise economic issues. As everyone knows, the CPGB does not ignore or dismiss such matters. However, in and of themselves economic demands are containable within the realm of bourgeois society. There is no bridge to socialism.

The bridge, comrades, is not a "decent job for all" or "nationalisation", etc. It is, and can only be, a plan for a "more generous" democracy. The working class must be trained through political struggle to become a universal class, a class that can master every contradiction, every grievance, every constitutional issue and sees its interests as the liberation of the whole of humanity.

Prioritise politics and democracy!

Jack Conrad