Allure of centrism
Dave Craig of the Revolutionary Democratic Group calls for a republican workers' party
Bob Crow, general secretary of the Rail Maritime and Transport union, told his audience at the 2003 TUC conference that “parties represent classes but under [Tony Blair’s] leadership Labour is failing to represent working people”. Whilst we can sympathise with this sentiment, it understates the real position.
New Labour never claimed to represent the working class. It can hardly fail in a task it never set itself. The Blair government is a capitalist government. Every day it is actively working for the capitalists against working people and their trade unions. Success is measured by the support of the business class and the continuing confidence of the City.
When Gordon Brown calls for real Labour values, we look to the experience of the governments of MacDonald, Attlee, Wilson and Callaghan. Labour governments have never supported the struggles of the working class. Yet illusions in Labourism - whether real, old or new - are continually reproduced. Labour’s supporters in the trade union bureaucracy and the socialist movement continue to peddle the myths.
Echoing Thatcher’s comment that the “lady’s not for turning”, Blair made it clear to Labour conference that there is no going back. He has “no reverse gear”. His speech to the TUC spoke about “diversity of supply, consumer choice and flexibility of working” - the code words for the primacy of business and profit. Privatisation, supporting the anti-union laws, foundation hospitals and university tuition fees are the central planks of government policy in New Labour’s second term; and, when it comes to foreign affairs, lining up with the neo-conservative Bush administration and its war on Iraq - the last straw for many Labour Party members.
The working class needs its own independent political party. By this we mean a party organised independently of capitalist interests and therefore independently of the Labour Party. Labour is a popular front in which the interests of the working class are subordinated to the capitalists. This is the real meaning of the Marxist formula that Labour is a bourgeois workers’ party. Socialists must stop clinging on to the coat tails of the liberal bourgeoisie and form a new party of the left.
In some ways we are back in the situation at the end of the 19th century, when workers were arguing as to whether the Liberals could best represent working people or whether they needed a new party. Yet at the start of the 21st century the old argument must be restated on a higher level. The case for a new workers’ party must be related not to the Victorian empire, but to the crisis of the Elizabethan welfare state and the bankruptcy of parliamentary democracy. Political developments in the UK - for example, the national question, the Scottish parliament and the emergence of the Scottish Socialist Party - mean that we are already beyond any idea of recreating the Labour Party of Keir Hardie.
Over the last 20 years the failure of parliament has been recognised by wider sections of the people. But the socialist movement has not provided any answers. There is an increasing disconnection between people and the political institutions. Corruption, lies and spin mean that cynicism about government is rife. The war has sharpened up this reality. Blair committed troops to George W Bush’s war in a secret agreement nine months before it began. He could do this confident that royal prerogative powers would enable him to go to war. As the Hutton inquiry has shown, there was no gap between Downing Street and MI6 when it came to ‘sexing up’ documents and dossiers. It was just a matter of spinning and manipulating parliament and the people into a war.
Mass struggles expose the real nature of parliament, concentrating the minds of millions. Like the poll tax over a decade ago, the recent Iraqi war sharpened and widened the sense that parliament does not represent the people. As the anti-war protesters pointed out in the run-up to the war, there was no democratic legitimacy or democratic mandate for war. There was no referendum, nor any general election, in which these life and death issues could be put before the people. Parliament simply keeled over and backed Blair.
It was no different when Thatcher imposed the poll tax. Parliament is a useless talking shop. Its select committees have been exposed as incapable of extracting the truth from a powerful state bureaucracy. The sense of alienation from the political system is reflected in disillusion with the two main bourgeois monarchist parties, the Tories and Labour. They have no solutions and make no difference.
The parliamentary fish is rotting from the head. The stench is infecting the whole body politic. The loss of respect for the political system shows itself in poor turnouts in elections. The stench is very pungent in places like Burnley, where poverty and alienation are breeding grounds for racism and the growth of the British National Party. Many people are voting BNP because it causes obvious discomfort to the bourgeois parties responsible for the mess. But, the more obvious the bankruptcy and degeneration of the so-called democratic system becomes, the larger will be the pool of people prepared to vote for the BNP.
The constitutional monarchy system has outlived its useful life. It is unreformable. Attempts at reform merely store up further problems. It is like a rickety old wooden house, rotten with woodworm, and attempts to shore it up threaten to cause the whole structure to crumble to dust. This situation is as dangerous for a working class tied to the parliamentary monarchy through the institutions of Labourism as it is ideal for the BNP.
This brings us back to Scotland, where socialists have been relatively successful. We need to draw the correct lessons from the SSP experience. First, it is important to remember that the SSP has been built out of a socialist alliance (ie, the Scottish SA). It shows concretely that a socialist alliance can be transformed into a relatively successful new workers’ party. Since the Socialist Workers Party is the main barrier in the SA to moving towards a workers’ party, it is important to recognise that the SWP joined the SSP as the Socialist Worker platform. The SWP has no principled objections to joining and becoming a platform in this type of party.
Second, the word ‘Scottish’ is a very important part of the name of the party. It is not simply a definition of the geographical territory in which the party will wage the class struggle or the constituencies where the party will stand candidates. It refers most centrally to the political strategy by which the SSP seeks to win power. The strategy is built around a struggle for Scottish independence. In ‘Scottish’ the SSP expresses its view of how to get to socialism. The SSP is not simply a name, but a political declaration to the working class of a Scottish road to socialism.
The success of the SSP is not merely down to changing its name and becoming a party or having a coherent (albeit incorrect) strategy for socialism. The transformation of the SSA into the SSP and its relative success is partly due to constitutional change in Scotland. The advent of the Scottish parliament and proportional representation has helped the SSP to gain seats and establish itself as a serious party. In England there has been no comparable constitutional change. The two-party system makes it very difficult for new parties to break through.
The conclusion is that the SA can make the transition to a broad-based workers’ party, provided it develops a coherent strategy for winning power. Such a ‘road to socialism’ is essential if we want workers to take us seriously. However, this party or proto-party must not wait patiently to see if the ruling class will make similar constitutional changes in England. This would be hopeless. We must take our fate into our own hands by recognising that the fight for a new workers’ party has to go hand in hand with the fight for democratic constitutional change.
At the 2001 SA conference the Revolutionary Democratic Group proposed the adoption of the Scottish Socialist Party constitution. Although the proposal was not widely supported, it gave us the opportunity to make important points about the direction the SA should take. We amended the first paragraph of the SSP constitution, which defined the party name, from “Scottish Socialist Party” to “Republican Socialist Party”. In this we were not simply substituting a democratic term for a national one, but pointing to a democratic road to socialism.
A republican socialist workers’ party would be a broad-based party whose programme can unite socialists from the Labour left with those from the Marxist or communist tradition. The term ‘republican socialist workers’ party’ identifies the ideological and political character of the party and not necessarily its actual name. The programme of such a party would not need to depart from the Socialist Alliance’s People before profit, which is in essence a republican socialist programme.
The new party would represent a new direction for the working class movement. Yet it would root itself in the three major traditions of the British working class - Chartism, Labourism and communism (or Marxism) - which provide an important source of inspiration for the new party.
Chartism was the first working class political movement. It mobilised mass, extra-parliamentary, direct action in the struggle for democratic constitutional change. Labourism provides an emphasis on the link with and affiliation of the trade unions and the struggle for the welfare state. From Marx and the First International, through to the early CPGB and later Trotskyism, we take the scientific theories of capitalism, democracy, socialism and human freedom and the commitment to internationalism and the international working class.
How would the ideas of republican socialism stand up against the massive weight of Labourism? Old Labourism was characterised by a conservative attitude to the constitutional monarchist system of government. The party of Attlee, Wilson and Callaghan promised social reforms for the working class on the basis of loyalty to the state and the ruling class, as symbolised by the crown. A republican socialist workers’ party is not therefore a Labour Party mark two or any vain attempt to recreate ‘old Labour’. It stands old Labourism on its head by making the fight for political change as the means of achieving social change.
Under Blair, Labourism has taken the particular form of New Labour. This was the result of two major class struggles in the UK. The first was the 1984-5 defeat of the miners’ strike, which gave the green light to Thatcherism. Politics shifted to the right inside the trade unions and Labour Party. Privatisation, the anti-union laws and a flexible labour force were accepted and adopted by New Labour.
However, New Labour was also shaped by the anti-poll tax movement that led to Thatcher’s downfall. This movement had a major impact on Scottish politics. It produced Tommy Sheridan and the Scottish Socialist Alliance. It gave a real impetus to the democratic movement in Scotland and the demand for Scottish self-government. This firmed up the demand for a Scottish parliament in the 1997 Labour manifesto.
In this way New Labour stumbled across its own ‘big idea’ of constitutional reform. Blair aimed to ‘modernise’ the system of government (eg, Scottish parliament, Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies, repackaging the House of Lords and the monarchy, limited proportional representation, etc). New Labour, therefore, goes beyond the constitutional conservatism of both Thatcherism and old Labourism.
Republican socialism is not about challenging New Labour with the ideas of old Labour. Blair’s constitutional reforms have changed the political landscape forever. There is no going back to the ‘good old days’, by resurrecting the House of Lords or abolishing the Scottish parliament. If socialists are going to halt or reverse privatisation and abolish the anti-union laws, it will have to be in the context of radical democratic change.
This brings us to the question of the other alternatives to Labourism. The Liberal Democrats are not socialists of any kind. But they sell themselves as an anti-war party of radical democrats, who want to reform or improve the constitutional monarchy. As republican socialists we can and must distinguish our democratic programme, based on the mobilisation of the working class, from theirs.
The recent rise of the BNP indicates a growing social crisis and alienation from the rotten and corrupt political system. Fascism uses racism and nationalism to mobilise an anti-democratic movement against the working class. In defending democracy against fascism, we do not defend the existing form of parliamentary democracy, the constitutional monarchy. Republican socialism draws a line between ourselves and the bourgeois parties, which defend the constitutional monarchy.
The case for a republican socialist workers’ party rests on the lessons from the SSP experience and the crisis of democracy in Britain. But we could also go back to 1991 to find a link with the old CPGB. For the sake of clarity let us call this the Centrist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). The political space previously occupied by this party has not been filled since its demise. Our argument can be seen as making a case to relaunch the Centrist Party of Great Britain, as a militant party of the working class.
A new Centrist Party of Great Britain would differ from the old party. First, it would not be called ‘communist’. That would be an act of political fraud and deception. Second, it would need to be based on a democratic and republican road to socialism, rather then the British road. Third, we would not expect it to have a Stalinist majority or a Stalinist view of the former USSR. As in the current Socialist Alliance, Trotskyism would be more influential. Fourth, it would need to be more democratic than the old party.
In the 1980s the forerunners of the Weekly Worker were organising as the “Leninist faction” inside the old CPGB. However, the collapse of the Party was not the result of the victory of the Leninists. Had that been the case, we might have a revolutionary CPGB with 300 or 3,000 members, rather than the very small number that discretion forces me to forget. But in fact the Leninist faction failed. It could not overcome the historic problem of economism and centrism in the British working class.
So now we have to try again and again until we succeed. We need a new Centrist Party of Great Britain (or UK) and a new Leninist faction. That is precisely the meaning of our call for a republican socialist workers’ party and a revolutionary democratic communist tendency.