Unsound programme and unsound tactics

Programmatically our International Socialist Group partners in the Socialist Alliance have had a long, and, it has to be admitted, often less than honourable record of what Marxists call substitutionism. In the absence of a revolutionary mass working class movement, alternative - albeit, so it was said, flawed and blunted - agents of social progress have been invented, accepted on face value and promoted with various degrees of enthusiasm. Stalin and the 1928 counterrevolutionary first five-year plan, the national communism of Josip Broz Tito, Mao Zedong and his cultural revolution, feminism, black separatism, the guerrillerism of Fidel Castro, the Labour Party and Bennism, pan-Arabism, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, Scottish left nationalism and even the butcher Ayatollah Khomeini - one after the other they have been pictured in the vanguard of a world revolution which inexorably edged forward despite the absence of active working class leadership. Using exactly the same method of substitution, the comrades have been urging that the Socialist Alliance should line up with the Tory right, little Britain left reformists and assorted neo-Nazis and join the 'no' camp in the expected referendum on the euro - as, it should be emphasised, an integral part of a wider "socialist" campaign for a British withdrawal from the European Union. The latest edition of the ISG's monthly Socialist Outlook carries several pieces on the EU and the euro, including a sadly misdirected polemic against the CPGB, Alliance for Workers' Liberty and Workers Power, penned by Alan Thornett. Its sole redeeming feature is the call for the Socialist Alliance "to open a discussion on these issues, to ensure that by the time decision-making comes [with the euro referendum] any disagreements which remain are not the result of a lack of political dialogue" (February 2002). ISG perspectives In the ISG's distorted perspectives a capitalist Britain which has recovered its semi-mythical national sovereignty over fiscal, legal and political matters by severing its organic links with the countries of western and middle Europe - in no small part through the working class joining the 'no' camp - would be a major contribution to a future United Socialist States of Europe. Red, white and blue British nationalism is thereby painted red from head to toe and presented as a vehicle for progress. Not surprisingly the history of the ISG and its antecedents has been one of heady infatuation followed by bitter disappointment. And the Socialist Alliance would be ill-advised, to put it mildly, to adopt the approach on the euro recommended by the ISG comrades. Our tactics must, on the contrary, be based the programme and historical understanding provided by authentic Marxism. Before expanding upon our main line of discussion, it is necessary once more to underline the fact that the fundamental reason behind the ISG's substitutionist method is to be found in objective conditions themselves. Not ill will or malign intentions. In my experience the ISG comrades are essentially honest and often selfless revolutionaries. Independent working class politics have for an entire historical period been crushed underneath a reactionary ice sheet of global proportions. For over 70 years we have endured what is in political terms an ice age. Thaws and warmer spells have proved tragically fleeting. The ideologically confident and steadily rising international movement of the working class which characterised the last quarter of the of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century has been reduced in terms of activity, self-awareness and ambition, under the accumulated weight of defeat, to a slave class whose politics rarely even hint of going beyond the cramped, defensive limits of trade unionism. The confinement of the world revolution to the impoverished territory of the former tsarist empire, fascist terrorism in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, the counterrevolution within the revolution in the USSR, the venal international role of social democracy and 'official communism' combined together to entrench a political ice age which cost the lives of countless millions. As a result, capitalism, after what Trotsky had understandably predicted would be a terminally fatal World War II, successfully put off communism - albeit by partially negating itself and adopting yet more transitionary features and thereby greatly intensifying its own internal contradictions. Social welfare, systematically downgrading the law of value, the permanent arms economy, etc. Present-day capitalism is dying capitalism. Nevertheless independent working class politics were thrown back seemingly to the point of departure. Marxism - which as a practical theory is inseparable from the fortunes of the working class movement - was in many ways kept alive as an ongoing idea by confessional sects. However, these sects were unable to connect with - ie, change - the world in any meaningful sense, given the comatosed state of the working class. Under these extremely adverse, and at the same time highly complex, conditions many sought solace and some self-confirmation in the real world by substituting other classes and strata, other movements, for the working class as the agent of social progress and human liberation. Hence what might have justified the existence of such sects - their defence of Marxism in a period where capitalism as a social mechanism is on the retreat, but where the working class is not yet able to bring about communism - becomes altogether more problematic. What was perhaps part of the solution mutates into part of the problem. EU Challenge The European Union certainly represents a programmatic challenge for the Socialist Alliance of the first order. And one that must be met successfully. In this context comrade Thornett's call for the Socialist Alliance to open a discussion on the subject is welcome - in due course we will produce a pamphlet which fully describes our historical assessment as well as the strategy and tactics that should be pursued by the Socialist Alliance. Proletarian socialism - the first stage or phase of communism - is international in content but begins on the terrain of the given national state formation. Comrade Thornett is therefore quite right when he says, "to weaken the struggle at the national level is to weaken it at the international level" (Socialist Outlook February 2002). However, the historic task of the revolutionary working class is not to stand guard over the existing national state, let alone create smaller ones from them. Unfortunately comrade Thornett cannot bring himself to grasp that latter point. As a general principle Marxists seek, and tirelessly work for, the merger of all nations and all nationalities throughout the world. It is in this light that Marxists view, assess and champion the right of nations to self-determination. It is not a knee-jerk demand for the break-up of states, as left nationalists and their co-thinkers suggest. Essentially it is a negative demand; a demand for a democratic solution raised against the concrete reality of inequality or oppression - national tensions and resentments, let it be noted, tend to create and maintain conditions which obstruct the voluntary union of peoples that we favour. Hence, faced with the evolving reality of a EU superstate, the role of Marxists should not be to vainly try to turn back the wheel of history by pulling Britain out. On the contrary, our task must be to exploit the wider conditions created by the EU in order to organise the working class across the whole continent into a single, hegemonic, force. True, as comrade Thornett states, the EU is a reactionary, anti-working class project. That is ABC. But to conclude from this elementary, and uncontroversial, observation that therefore the internationalist duty of the working class is to weaken the EU by pulling away various constituent parts is a profound mistake. The shallowness of comrade Thornett's kind of thinking stands exposed if we apply his method to Britain itself. It is surely, to quote the words used by comrade Thornett in a Socialist Outlook pamphlet, a "capitalist club" designed to "organise the restructuring and concentration of capital to the advantage of the bosses" (Even more unemployment: the case against Emu p11). Should we call for the "dissolution" of Britain, as do Welsh and Scottish nationalists, or even a working class "withdrawal from it"? Frankly the suggestion is as reactionary as it is stupid (though it does not stop comrade Thornett and co from promoting the 'break-up' of Britain). Interestingly, before the October Revolution of 1917, Lenin confronted similar manifestations of national socialism. The tsarist empire was a vast prison house of many nations. Nevertheless, while the Bolsheviks fought for the right of these nations to self-determination up to and including secession, their overriding, central, strategy was aimed at cementing the highest and most extensive workers' unity throughout the tsarist empire - in order to overthrow the tsarist empire. Unwittingly comrade Thornett and co have placed themselves outside the international communist tradition. A tradition represented by his claimed mentors Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. Unflattering though it is, comrade Thornett actually stands in the camp of Joseph Pilsudski and his Polish Socialist Party. Formed in 1892, it adopted a national socialist programme for the reconstitution of an independent Poland out of the German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empire (which between them all but partitioned it out of existence at the 1815 Congress of Vienna). Rosa Luxemburg and Julian Marchleweski split with the PSP in 1893 over this perspective. Objective conditions, they rightly said, demanded the unity of workers - Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Georgians, Latts, etc - against the tsarist empire. In defence of the past, in particular in defence of the welfare state and the post-World War II social democratic concessions, comrade Thornett and the ISG present a progressive-conservative programme that would at best weaken the EU. It would, however, also weaken the European working class movement if its strongest detachments forced upon their capitalists a policy of withdrawal - a road that would lead not to a national socialist paradise but in all probability the hell of increased national exploitation and eventually counterrevolution. Maximum democracy The CPGB stands for extreme democracy under capitalism. Concretely that means fighting for the maximum democracy in the EU: eg, abolition of the council of ministers and the unelected commissioners, a constituent assembly of the peoples of Europe, an armed working class and substantive equality for all citizens. Without such an approach talk of socialism in Britain or a socialist Europe is but empty economistic chatter. A democratic EU won by a powerful, working class-led movement from below creates the best conditions for an uninterrupted transition to the united socialist states of Europe advocated by Comintern in 1923. The realisation of that aim is well within the capabilities of a combative European working class. In Germany, Italy, France our forces have a proven willingness to fight. What is needed for success is working class unity - beginning with trade unions but quickly reaching the level of a single party and a single revolutionary strategy. Towards that end, when it comes to the euro versus the pound sterling referendum, we will refuse to take sides. Being for European unity does not commit us to support every measure that comes from the EU bureaucracy and the reactionary integrationists. Not at all. Our Socialist Alliance 2001 general election manifesto was undoubtedly correct when it said we should "neither advocate the euro nor defend the pound" (People before profit p19). And, as we must, that formulation is one we will defend, even against comrade Thornett. Essentially the pro-euro camp argues that workers will be better off if we are exploited by European capital; the anti-euro campaign with equal cynicism says we will be better off if we are exploited by British capitalists. Revolutionary socialists and communists must constitute themselves as the third camp, the camp of independent working class politics. Blair's referendum on the euro will, of course, be timed to get exactly the right result - for Blair. The catch-22 question on the ballot paper will also be carefully crafted. To vote 'yes' will be to vote against the interests of the working class. To vote 'no' will be to vote against the interests of the working class. We will not be given a third option where we can put our mark in favour of a massive extension of democracy in Europe and a working class agenda. Referendums need not be like that. The citizens of Switzerland can table their own referendum questions simply by securing a certain level of popular support - 300,000 signatures. There is no such right for subjects in the United Kingdom. Her majesty's government exercises a monopoly over referendums and they use them in the manner of a Hitler of a Mussolini. They always get the result they want. That is why, in the name of independent working class politics, the Socialist Alliance should launch an active boycott campaign. Incidentally the Bolsheviks firmly distinguished between a "passive abstention" and an "active boycott" which implies, as Lenin explained, "increasing agitation tenfold" (VI Lenin CW Vol 9, Moscow 1977, p182). Against the twin reactionary 'yes' and 'no' camps the Socialist Alliance must increase its agitation "tenfold". Through an active boycott campaign we can carve out a political space for our programme of extreme democracy under capitalism and the vision of socialism. There is, we will explain, certainly no need to choose between two evils. The Socialist Alliance must therefore set itself the practical task of organising the most militant campaign against the non-choice objective circumstances allow - from simple agitational posters to symbolic occupations of key sites in the City of London, from local public debates to appearances on nationwide TV, from motions in trade union branches to political strikes, from door-to-door leafleting to mass demonstrations against the Europe of capital and for a social Europe. The energy we put in, our imagination and innovation are obviously factors. Success will certainly not be judged by upsetting the government and inadvertently strengthening Iain Duncan Smith's Tories. Rather our criterion of success will be the organisation we build on the ground, the extent our message is heard and layers of the working class engaged. Comrade Thornett is an intelligent man and knows our position on strategy and tactics full well. Despite that, he insists, for his own reasons, on describing an active boycott campaign as an "abstention", which is by definition a passive stance, that would, yes, "leave the left wringing our hands on the sidelines, with nothing to say, while the Tories held forth" (Socialist Outlook February 2002). That such a comrade is forced to completely misrepresent the position of the CPGB says everything about the his own tactics and programme of substitutionism. Jack Conrad