Matgamna's platonic republic - part 5

Our rejoinder to the Alliance for Workers' Liberty's Sean Matgamna continues; in this part the subject is monarchy and the democratic struggle for republicanism. According to the patriarch, "all monarchs are monarchs, but some are less monarchical than others" (unless otherwise stated, all quotes from comrade Matgamna are from his 'Critical notes on the CPGB/WW'). In his account the alpha and omega is represented by Russian tsarism on the one hand and present-day Britain on the other. Polar opposites easily illustrated by providing our own thumbnail sketch - the reader should though be forewarned that comrade Matgamna demagogically claims that we in the CPGB habitually, crudely and exactly equate the two monarchical systems. Is this oft repeated allegation due to dotage? Surely not. Envy? Perhaps. Sectarian dishonesty? In all probability. Worrying? Certainly. Wrong? Without doubt. However, in the interests of developing the argument, we shall once again resist the temptation of disentangling comrade Matgamna's murky motives and psychology. So what about the examples of Russia and Britain? The tsar of all the Russias was a semi-Asiatic autocrat who exercised sweeping and arbitrary powers. During the reign of Ivan IV - the 'terrible' - the aristocracy were forcibly reduced to a caste of state slaves, albeit a highly privileged one - at a whim the tsar could confiscate landed estates or order the immediate execution of boyars, no matter how high-born they were. Medieval Russia combined the social forms of the Mongol east with state-religious trimmings adopted from Byzantium. Moscovy imagined and projected itself as the third Rome. Imposed 'late', at the end of the 16th century, serfdom was formally annulled only in 1861. Subsequently the tsarist state bureaucracy and capitalist development, sponsored from above, formed a single metabolism. Unsurprisingly Russia's parliament - the duma - lacked any meaningful powers. A sop to popular anger, granted amidst the stormy revolutionary events of 1905, it served as a fig leaf for tsarism and the system of bureaucratic-tributary-capitalist exploitation. As will be readily appreciated, to overthrow tsarism and establish a radical democracy was also to strike at the capitalist class. While the anti-tsarist revolution began with the state, it could, and had to, proceed uninterruptedly towards higher vistas and the tasks of socialism. What of Britain? After the Cromwellian and Williamite revolutions of the 17th century - and the later explosive take-off of industrial capitalism - there comes into existence what is commonly, indeed accurately, called the constitutional monarchy system. The 'crown in parliament' goes hand in hand with the rule of law and the making of the triple-headed British nation-state. In the last analysis, albeit through a complex web of contested mediations, this arrangement promoted the production and reproduction of capital. In that respect Britain held up a gilded mirror to the world's future. The constitutional monarchy system is a definite historical phenomenon, a break from Tudor and Stuart quasi-absolutism; but it is not a discrete package, a fixed model. At various plateaux of stability, or equilibriums, the constitutional monarchy system represents, in institutionalised form, the balance arrived at between various rival, and often highly contradictory socio-economic interests - yes, of course, channelled and restrained by historically constituted socio-economic conditions in Britain. Initially the main innovative features involved various reciprocal relations and compromises between the crown on the one side and the aristocracy and rich merchants on the other; then between the landed aristocracy and the rising bourgeoisie. These exploiting classes, we should add, could, and publicly did, regard the mass of the population - rural labourers and the urban poor - with utter contempt. Democracy was unnatural and ungodly, confirmed the establishment's well rewarded ideologues. The Church of England's theology, Adam Smith's political economy and Thomas Malthus's sociobiology combined to legitimise the status quo. Needless to say, with the second half of the 19th century, the social weight and centralised organisation of the modern working class unmistakably makes its mark. This huge, but inchoate physical force not only took the form of trade unionism. From 1869 the franchise was fitfully extended - sometimes as a pre-emptive measure, sometimes in the face of irresistible popular pressure. By 1930 there was for the first time what could be described as universal suffrage. So the ruled had of necessity to be ruled in new ways. Material concessions, credible lies and compulsory childhood miseducation provide far greater social leverage than sabres, muskets and cannons. The masses must be pacified and persuaded to vote for harmless, moderate and thoroughly responsible candidates. And as an extra safeguard all manner of constitutional 'checks and balances' are erected, reinforced or modified. Democracy therefore comes into existence, but is hollowed of content and kept as undemocratic as possible. This formal democracy not only leaves capitalist exploitation intact - which quintessentially relies on economic, as opposed to political or military, extra-economic means. Formal democracy is both a major concession and paradoxically a novel way to undermine, dissipate or divert initiative and control from below. Effective political power is nowadays concentrated in the House of Commons and, through that electoral college, the cabinet - chosen and personified by the almost presidential prime minister. The House of Lords functions as a sort of delaying mechanism, a safety valve, a means of thwarting popular demands. Tony Blair will prune but certainly not uproot the second chamber. What of the monarchy? The British monarchy constitutes what Walter Bagehot, in his 1867 treatise, famously called the "dignified" part of the constitution, which is designed to befuddle and beguile the "vacant many" (W Bagehot The English constitution London 1974, p34). The monarch is supposed to be politically neutral and represent the whole nation. Yet besides the appearance of standing above party squabbles and the undoubted propaganda value provided by royal continuity, pageantry, local visits and nationwide broadcasts, the monarch retains certain powers that could serve the interests of capital well in an emergency situation. Eg, the monarch symbolically chooses the prime minister, can dissolve parliament and no bill can pass into law without royal assent. Behind the scenes the monarch can also exercise real influence. Bagehot summed this up under three constitutional rights: "the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn" (ibid p67). To ensure and facilitate this right the monarch is given privileged access to cabinet papers - all agendas, minutes and reports of cabinet committees, etc. Queen Elizabeth II is therefore well informed about all major decisions and can argue about them with the prime minister before they are taken. She can at the same time confer with the leaders of the opposition and "intrigue with them if occasion arises" (J Harvey and K Hood The British state London 1958, p75). So the constitutional monarchy system is not reducible to the monarch. Nor for that matter the monarchy. It is the whole interlocking political system of institutions and laws which impede, relegate or void democracy. From the point of view of Marxism - ie, consistent and extreme democracy - there can be no doubt that the United Kingdom and its constitutional monarchy system is riddled with shortcomings, when it comes to democracy (by which we mean rule of the people by the people and real, effective control from below). Leave aside the socialist future and the abolition of wage slavery. Let us contrast what is with what could be technically achieved under the socio-economic conditions of capitalism. The people are unarmed while the state possesses monstrously destructive weaponry. We say - abolish the standing army and introduce a network of popular militias. Despite pay and sex discrimination acts, women are still grossly socially disadvantaged - put in place measures of substantive equality. Capitalism continues to operate secretively and ruin the environment - open the books, access the computers and demand workers' supervision and control. Migrants and asylum-seekers are demonised and turned into worst paid labour - unionise all workers and fight for open borders. What of the constitution? Northern Ireland perpetuates the national oppression of the 40% catholic Irish minority and the division of Ireland. We say - fight for the withdrawal of British troops and the unity of Ireland. There should be a federal solution, whereby the British-Irish minority have a two-counties, two-half-counties province which exercises the right to self-determination. There are palpable national questions in Scotland and Wales, but no right for these semi-nations to self-determination - which to be meaningful must include the guaranteed right to separate. Westminster elections are scandalously unfair and leave millions effectively unrepresented. There is no system of proportional representation nor the right to recall MPs. The European Union is increasingly influential over every sphere of life in Britain. Yet the European parliament is a powerless appendage. Judges are appointed from above, not elected from below. We could go on ... and on. But there is no need. The point has been made. Given this rudimentary outline of the British constitutional monarchy system, which we routinely and almost ritualistically reiterate, and often considerably expand upon, it is amazing, to say the least, that comrade Matgamna maintains that the CPGB, and its leading spokespersons, fail to distinguish between Russian tsarism and the British constitutional monarchy system. Russia was once a monarchy, yes, Britain is still a monarchy, yes, - therefore, he reasons, in our simple, parched minds, as opposed to what comrade Matgamna believes is his own towering intellect, the conclusion is eminently, albeit cretin-ously, simple. A carbon copy strategy must be pursued. All we need do is mimic Lenin and the Bolsheviks and victory is assured. Supposedly we in the CPGB are in the "habit of operating by transcribing Lenin literally". Presumably the Weekly Worker will soon be issuing fiery calls to rouse the peasant majority in the British countryside. Perhaps what is even more amazing is that comrade Matgamna writes this drivel and dross under the rubric of championing "concrete analysis". Lazily, pompously, dishonestly, tediously, comically - I cannot quite make up my mind which it is - though preaching from the book of "concrete analysis", he brazenly practises the exact opposite. The patriarch does not deign to actually cite any evidence to show where the CPGB equates tsarist Russia and the British constitutional monarchy system. Why? One reason might be that he cannot. No evidence exists that will actually stand up to serious scrutiny. The notion that tsarist Russia equals modern-day Britain is just too absurd. So it follows that it is hard, if not impossible, to treat comrade Matgamna's 'Critical notes' and his other polemical tirades with anything other than ridicule and derision. In fact comrade Matgamna shows once again that he is a buffoon - at least when it comes to the CPGB. More than that. He once again proves that he is mired in economism: ie, the downplaying of democratic demands in favour of the narrow politics of trade union consciousness. This is indeed what lies at the root of what divides the CPGB and AWL. Doubtless that is why, drunk on his own rhetoric, he willingly places himself in, or trailing behind, the bourgeois republican camp. Here is what the patriarch writes: "We too, of course, want to get rid of the monarchy. (But so does Rupert Murdoch ...)" He could add, so does The Guardian and not a few other influential anti-monarchist voices one hears from the outer reaches of bourgeois liberalism. No one is disputing that some monarchs are less monarchical than others. In other words that some monarchies are autocracies with subordinate parliaments, while others are constitutional and subordinate to parliament. What is in dispute is comrade Matgamna's republicanism. Is he a militant republican or a liberal republican? As Dave Craig quipped in his rebuttal, some republicans are "less republican than others" (Weekly Worker November 28 2002). Comrade Matgamna is prepared to admit that in a revolutionary situation the reserve powers of the monarchy might be used as a "weapon for the reactionaries". That said, he is firmly of the opinion that "the British monarchy could be sloughed off tomorrow with little else of importance changing in British society". He would happily let The Sun claim, 'It was us what done it.' Hence in comrade Matgamna's brittle schema the chance that "communists could put themselves at the head of a vast anti-monarchist movement so roused up on 'the democratic questions' that a profound social reorganisation might thereby become possible, is nil. Absolutely nil!" So what does comrade Matgamna prioritise? The "real movement of the working class" - in this case a euphemism for the trade union movement, of course. And the man calls himself a Leninist! How the rulers in Britain politically rule and how the ruled are politically ruled is secondary for comrade Matgamna. No need to overly concern ourselves with such minor, trifling matters. Our priority is to cheer on pay disputes and give them a communist coloration. Martin Thomas - the patriarch's closest lieutenant and heir apparent - innocently writes of economic disputes containing an inner logic which goes all the way to the socialist order. Ironically then, it is he, comrade Matgamna, not the CPGB, who ignores the prevailing conditions in Britain; and yet at the same time he has fallen under the deadening spell of British liberalism. Comrade Matgamna's operative conclusion when it comes to monarchies is this: Lenin was right and just to prioritise the overthrow of Russian tsarism - it was nasty, brutish, backward and undemocratic. We on the other hand should not bother ourselves too much with the constitutional monarchy system in Britain. By implication it is comparatively benign, of third-rate significance, a feudal relic which a modernised, bang up-to-date, capitalist constitution could not conceivably miss, but would in all probability greatly benefit from shedding. The establishment mobilises a million people onto the streets of London to mourn the passing of the queen mother and buttress the status quo. No need to fret. Elizabeth II's golden jubilee turns into a resounding and unexpected success for the political, aristocratic, entertainment, church and military establishment. What does that matter when the firefighters are about to strike against their employers? In the meantime let bourgeois republicans speak for and give their version of leadership to the widespread, albeit minority, sentiment that objects to the monarchy. Opinion polls regularly record between 15% and 20% favouring a republic. Of course, when that deliberately unorganised and therefore inert and muted republican mass opposition fails to manifest itself in any militant, or even noticeable, fashion, comrade Matgamna lets out a knowing sneer. Nothing is possible from below, is it? Absolutely nothing! Naught, zero, zilch! Well, certainly not with Murdoch and The Guardian being unchallenged or unopposed by the left and the working class movement. Comrade Matgamna's stance is in fact a self-fulfilling prophesy, a contemptible handing over of responsibility and initiative to the bourgeoisie, which will do nothing under present circumstances, not a thing, to organise and give republicanism a practical cutting edge. Of that you can be absolutely certain. Here, with Matgamna's approach, we see revealed economism in almost chemical purity. Quite clearly, when it comes to the constitutional monarchy system in Britain, it is not the AWL but the CPGB which has conducted a concrete analysis in a manner befitting Marxists and Leninists. Comrade Matgamna, in contrast, simply cannot get it into his thick economistic skull that the central plank of the communist minimum programme - ie, in British capitalist conditions - must be the fight to replace, not the individual monarch, Elizabeth Windsor, but the entire constitutional monarchy system using working class methods. That is, the existing constitution must be swept away using the most militant methods objective conditions permit. Certainly the British political system could survive intact the abdication of Elizabeth Windsor in favour of her stupid, slightly barmy, ultra-reactionary son. Of course it all depends on circumstances. George VI replaced Edward VIII; but that caused what Robert Graves reports, in his contemporary account, a "grave constitutional crisis" (R Graves The long weekend London 1991, p363). The whole affair - though speedily resolved - was bound up with the coming war with Germany. If Edward Windsor had chosen to resist, rather than acquiesce, the outcome would without doubt have proven far more messy and far more dangerous for the ruling class. However, comrade Matgamna's conviction that the "monarchy could be sloughed off tomorrow with little else of importance changing in British society" is a myopic delusion worthy of a dry-as-dust constitutionalist. It is the sort of Whiggish nonsense you would expect to read in a Guardian editorial, not a document promoted by a Marxist group which boasts of its commitment to revolutionary socialism - 'Critical notes', we should mention, enjoys semi-official status in the AWL. A transition from monarchy to republic in Britain - with its dynastic history, its royalist cult, oaths, institutions and armed bodies, its pseudo-feudal knighthoods, orders, gongs, etc - is hardly akin to a former colony, a Commonwealth country, swapping the geographically distant British monarch for a native and resident head of state. Think for a moment about China, Russia, Germany, Austria, Turkey, Spain, Italy, Egypt, Iraq, Greece, Iran and other countries in the 20th century when they became republics. End of monarchy usually coincides with revolution. So comrade Matgamna's depiction of the monarchy being quietly, painlessly and peacefully "sloughed off tomorrow with little else of importance changing in British society" in as unconvincing as it is revealingly naive. A much more likely outcome is that, as the republic makes the leap from fringe to mainstream politics, Britain's social fabric comes under enormous stresses and strains. Certainly once the idea is enshrined as case-hardened governmental policy, the political temperature would be at melting point. Imagine, then, a different scenario. Royalists take to the streets of London. Numbers and social composition compare with the Countryside Alliance; ominously they are joined by small detachments of fascists dressed in paramilitary uniform. In the House of Commons the official opposition accuses the government of treachery; Charles III makes it known that he cannot with good conscience assent to a bill abolishing the monarchy. Meanwhile the House of Lords rejects abolition for the third time. The Daily Mail then publishes a secret letter proving that the anti-monarchist movement - which has just handed in its four-million-signature petition - is dominated by dangerous subversives. The Church of England demands to have its say; threats of mutiny come from the officer caste. Admittedly all fancy, of course. But far more solidly based on political reality than comrade Matgamna's platonic republic which requires no mass movement, which leaves the system undisturbed, which sneaks up upon society like a thief in the night. What we are targeting, comrade Matgamna, is not some minor feature of the existing political system: rather the whole legal-institutional construct in which the monarchy plays a pivotal role. Remove the monarchy and the whole edifice is endangered. Remove the monarchy and every other plank of our programme become easier to fulfil. The social revolution encompasses all aspects of life, not least the capitalist monopoly over the means of production and the system of wage labour. But it begins politically and can only begin politically. The dialectic runs from politics to economics, not the other way round. It is through political struggle that the capitalist division of politics and economics into two separate social spheres begins to be overcome. There is, in other words, no other way to socialism and the expropriation of the exploiters other than by extreme democracy. Indeed without extreme democracy the expropriation of the exploiters simply turns into a new form of exploitation. Extreme democracy is therefore the state form that will be taken by socialism; it is the domination of the working class which is beginning the transition from capitalism to communism. In Britain the main target must of necessity be the constitutional monarchy system because that is how we are politically ruled - our immediate programme is designed to train and equip the working class to practically raise itself from trade union to political consciousness. And through the breadth, momentum and self-making successes gained during the various stages, or phases, of this ongoing process, there comes into place a wider and wider democracy and consequently ever more extensive possibilities for the class struggle. The semi-democracy that now exists - won by us, but turned against us - thereby gives way to the extreme democracy necessary for the working class to make the qualitative, epochal leap from being an exploited class to a ruling class that is already ceasing to be a class. That is the essence of the immediate, or minimum, programme of the communists. The same general approach should be adopted elsewhere and, despite comrade Matgamna's dishonest, or misdirected, charges to the contrary, we are hardly unaware of the national conditions that determine the exact strategy to be pursued. In the USA the monarchical-presidential, bicameral, supreme court system inherited from 1787 must go. Complete the American revolution with an extreme democracy moulded by the working class. Ditto in their own ways France, Australia, Ireland, Zimbabwe, etc. Take a look at what we have put into print, comrade Matgamna. In every case we have studied, albeit to varying degrees, the concrete circumstances in these countries, the exact constitutional blocks on democracy and the cultural traditions of those below. That is, for example, why in Britain and Ireland we propose a federal republic, while in Australia we call for a centralised republic. An aside. On December 5 2000 the AWL executive committee endorsed the demand for a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales. The word 'federal' was duly inserted into the dusty, filed away, 1977 AWL programme as a lone amendment. The relevant section now reads as follows: "The monarchy is a degrading fossil - a permanent insult to the 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' on 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" (our emphasis Weekly Worker December 21 2000). A step forward. Yet this change was introduced with neither public debate nor an accounting for the history of stubborn, mocking opposition by AWL leaders - the patriarch included - to this very demand. Having debated the question with comrade Matgamna some half a dozen times, I can testify to his consistent hostility to the federal republic slogan. So why the about-turn? I would suggest that the comrades found themselves totally disarmed in the Scottish Socialist Party - nonetheless comrade Matgamna still belittles the national question in Scotland. There was also constant pressure from the CPGB. On balance, however, I think the honour goes to Dave Craig. He has made it his job in life to convert the AWL to revolutionary democracy and the necessity of prioritising democratic politics over trade union economics. And there is the rub. Not only has the AWL abjectly failed to carry out a concrete analysis of Britain and British conditions (as shown by the tardy, half-hearted and untheorised adoption of the federal republic demand). The AWL's top leaders - above all the patriarch, comrade Matgamna - make it perfectly clear that when it comes to practice the struggle for a federal republic will be played down, not given what is described as overemphasis. To all intents and purposes the matter can be left to liberals to handle as they see fit. There is no need for working class leadership or militant republicanism. After all - whether they be warm or cold, hard or soft - for economists that is a chimera, an impossibility, a diversion. Result - comrade Matgamna's republic is both bourgeois and platonic. Another, related, aside. Comrade Matgamna and co recoil, as an almost reflex reaction, from the Leninist method of dividing the communist programme into immediate, or minimum, and maximum sections (inherited from German communism from the time of Marx and Engels). Staying true to the demagogy of Matshachtmanism, the AWL executive committee passed a resolution on the CPGB which puts down our commitment to a minimum-maximum programme as being something else "that they preserve from their Stalinist past". Rubbish, and libellous to boot! A puzzle. Following their minimum-maximum programme, and whenever necessary renewing and revamping it - not abandoning it, as the old fable alleges - the Bolsheviks steered their way to the world-historic moment of October (November) 1917. Dogmatists and the ignorant will protest. But history shows the truth. Nowadays, sadly, Matgamna's prejudice passes for orthodoxy amongst a wide range of leftists. Not that he invented the Trotskyite antithesis towards the minimum programme. It is a stock and standard hand-me-down. Indeed in that thoroughly slavish and conventional spirit comrade Matgamna attempts to frighten his AWL children with the mere fact that the CPGB's draft programme consists of two parts - minimum and maximum sections. Cowered they might be for the moment. But that cannot last. Thankfully children grow up. And they become adult first and foremost by learning to think for themselves. Dangerous stuff for comrade Matgamna and his inner circle of chosen Matshachtmanites. The minimum programme is a concept derided and dismissed by every half-educated Trotskyite. In the venerated, almost mystical name of Trotsky's - totally outdated, deeply flawed and frankly economistic - Transitional programme, every group, sect and nano-cult advances either formally or informally what is billed as a radical alternative. It ain't necessarily so. Indeed, instead of a revolutionary minimum programme, what they unfailingly substitute is totally abstract propaganda for socialism on the one hand, while on the other their practical politics consists of a smorgasbord of minimalist campaigns - increased wage levels, abolition of the anti-trade union laws, restoration of student grants, no war against X, Y or Z, etc. Unquestionably, in the main, the demands of these campaigns are eminently supportable. Yet they leave the existing state and constitution completely untouched. Capitalism continues to operate through the market and politically ruling in the old way. Such is the muck, myth and nonsense that has accreted around the minimum programme that in most leftwing circles this honourable and proven concept dare not speak its name. To even utter the phrase is to bring down a torrent of invective, curses and damnations. In the minds of the devotees the point-blank refusal by their masters to even consider the minimum programme represents the highest achievement in Marxist theory. In reality it is philistinism, economism and a marked regression. Of necessity then the minimum programme must be rescued from the geriatric clutches of social democracy and 'official communism' and restored to its proper place in the basic armoury of the international working class movement. To hammer out and adopt a minimum programme is not to repeat the sins of German social democracy which, true, in part stemmed from its minimal minimum programme. Both Engels and Marx lambasted their German comrades for what was a fearful and cowardly refusal to include abolition of the kaiser monarchy and a centralised democratic republic in the SDP's programme. Just like monarchies and republicans, there are minimum programmes and minimum programmes. Remember, as just mentioned above, the Bolsheviks had a minimum programme which aimed to replace the tsarist monarchy with a workers' and peasants' republic - a programme honed and developed by Lenin in his 1917 'April theses'. The authentic, Marxist minimum programme crystallises and logically presents those demands in the communist programme that are technically achievable under the socio-economic conditions of capitalism, yes. More to the point, these demands, through the mass, militant and conscious fight for them, and of course in their practical fulfilment, ready the working class for the tasks of the maximum programme: ie, superseding the capitalist system in its entirety. What begins nationally must be completed globally. So say it. Say 'minimum programme' (say it out loud till the fear vanishes). Leave behind atavistic prejudice and take up the militant struggle for a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales. Jack Conrad * Leeds, lies and Owen MacThomas - part 1 * Afghanistan and Owen MacThomas - part 2 * National questions and the AWL patriarch - part 3 * Sectarian amateurism and the complacent world of Sean Matgamna - part 4