Communist Party ducks the question

The SA's 2001 general election manifesto, People before profit, is a republican socialist programme, argues the RDG's Dave Craig. Militant republicanism should be the basis of the alliance's opposition pro-party democracy platform

The coup in the Tory Party and the coronation of Michael Howard will surely create more pull on workers to support Labour. The pressure on the trade union bureaucracy to toe the Labour line will increase if the Tories now become a more credible opposition. This makes it more important than ever that the SA has a strong programme which provides an alternative to the values and policies of old Labourism.

The way the Tories fell into line behind Howard was a miracle of class instinct and self-preservation. They showed the country how disciplined they can be when it comes to the question of political power. On November 8, when dissident members of the Socialist Alliance gather in Birmingham to discuss a democratic platform, they will need the same sort of focus.

A democratic platform which concentrates solely on internal SA democracy will not have any relevance to workers outside the SA. Our central focus, like the Tories, must be on how to get rid of Labourism, but in the context of destroying the Tory constitution and Tory system of government. We therefore need to unite our forces in the fight for a republican socialist party. It is not so much that the SA needs new policies or democratic rights. We need to call the SA leadership to account on the basis of the existing programme and constitution.

Certainly there is a broad popular front against such a republican socialist party. It starts from the monarchy and spreads through Blair and New Labour to the Labour left, and then ensnares the Socialist Workers Party, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and even the Communist Party of Great Britain. This popular front is far more damaging to the interests of the working class than anything the SWP and Galloway could conjure up. Despite the CPGB’s undoubted republicanism, its ultra-left line on the party only helps Labour maintain its royal popular front.

Labourism is the main barrier to democratic working class politics. But the war in Iraq, the crisis of ‘Tory democracy’ and New Labour’s attacks on the working class provide a real opportunity for a mass democratic movement. Since the defeat of the miners in 1984-85 there has been a significant shift to the right in British politics. New Labour is part of that story. The fate of Scargill, Livingstone, Nellist, Galloway and less well known members of the Labour left like Liz Davies and Dave Church is one result of this shift to the right.

But added to this is the collapse of the ‘official’ CPGB in 1991 and the failure of Trotskyism to fill to fill the large political vacuum on the left. The Workers Revolutionary Party and the Militant Tendency - both significant organisations in the early 1980s - have split or disintegrated. The leaders of Militant - Ted Grant, Peter Taaffe and Tommy Sheridan - went their different ways. Only Sheridan has made any real progress by adopting the perspective of building a republican socialist party - even if the democratic demands of his Scottish Socialist Party are couched in nationalist terms.

The Socialist Alliance is a political response to this vacuum. It could only become an effective response in so far as it is able to unite the left and militant workers into a party. At present the SA has failed on both counts. The exit of the Socialist Party, the Green Socialist Network and more recently Workers Power indicates that the unity project is failing. At the May 2003 SA conference the defeat of a moderate motion to add the aim of a workers’ party to the objectives of the alliance indicates that the SA has become part of the problem and not the solution.

At the centre of this is the politics of the SWP and its shenanigans in Bedfordshire and Birmingham. The SWP is the main barrier on the left to a republican socialist party, which is at the root of the political stagnation of the alliance. The answer is not to run away like Workers Power, but to organise an effective opposition on the basis of an alternative perspective for the SA. That must begin with the question of programme and party.

We need a militant workers’ party to fill the vacuum on the left and provide independent political representation for the working class. By ‘militant party’ I mean one that intervenes militantly in the class struggle, fights militantly for its programme and unites all militant workers. But please note the use of the term ‘militant party’, and not ‘revolutionary party’, is quite deliberate.

A militant workers’ party can be launched in the current period. In Scotland the SSP has already done it and we can follow that example. But we cannot form a mass revolutionary party. First the working class is not (yet) revolutionary. Second the advanced workers are militant and reformist, not revolutionary. Third the largest revolutionary group, the SWP, does not have the necessary programme and therefore the necessary politics. Because of its economistic theory of class struggle, it has a tendency to shift between ultra-leftism and centrism. Whether this means the SWP is too rightwing or too leftwing to act as militant republicans is a moot point.

The CPGB cannot form a revolutionary party with the SWP. But neither can they form one without it. A mass revolutionary party is not on the cards. When the CPGB was leafleting outside Marxism 2003 some SWP dead-heads disgracefully crowded these comrades and tore up their leaflets. I do not know if the leaflets were calling on the SWP to form a revolutionary party. But CPGB members should understand that on that day their perspective of forming a revolutionary party with the SWP was torn up, shredded and chucked in the wastepaper bin.

It is not that the CPGB should abandon the aim of a revolutionary party or indeed the fight for such a party. But the CPGB needs to recognise that a militant republican socialist party is by far the best environment for the development of a revolutionary party.

It is the hothouse for a revolutionary party. The heat generated in such a class struggle party will quickly show if the seeds being planted by the CPGB are the best in the greenhouse. The CPGB need only take the fight for its own minimum programme seriously to understand why.

The CPGB has got to give up its reluctance to call for a militant republican socialist party. It has in practice moved in our direction by making the SSP its reference point. Yet its failure to positively fight for such a party leaves it as the rearguard, holding back in case the SWP changes its mind and agrees to form a revolutionary party.

The SWP is not going to commit political hara-kiri by admitting it is not already the revolutionary party, as demanded by the CPGB. A major catastrophe of WRP proportions would have to be visited on the SWP before it would rethink the question of the revolutionary party. But if one day that happened we would also need to change our perspective.

The SA platform meeting in Birmingham must therefore be judged by the benchmark of a republican socialist party. We will see whether this gathering is a step forward or a waste of time. The SWP will no doubt bill this as a meeting of SA sectarians. Whether that is true will very much depend on what we come up with.

Certainly it is quite possible that we will not be able to unite. Even the order of the agenda is controversial. The AWL wants to start the meeting by deciding our attitude to the ‘popular coalition’ promoted by Yaqoob-Monbiot and Galloway. The Revolutionary Democratic Group thinks the starting point should be the platform itself and its connection to the SA programme People before profit.

Trotsky was right to remind revolutionaries of the centrality of programme. ‘Programme first, your political passports, please’ is very good advice. We should adopt it if we do not want the meeting to be a failure. If we are going to confront the crisis in the Socialist Alliance we must start with its programme. It is the only serious approach and is the only basis for any serious discussion of the Yaqoob-Monbiot-Galloway initiative.

People before profit (PBP) is what the SWP, RDG, CPGB, AWL and SA independents all agreed to unite around and fight for. The importance of PBP was recognised in the motions passed on ‘SA democracy’ at the meeting of September 13, which also included the issue of a workers’ party and internal democracy. But programme must come first.

Dave Church asks the basic question about who ‘we’ are. If ‘we’ are going to take a position on the Galloway ‘popular coalition’ we need to know who the ‘we’ is. In this context ‘we’ must be those of us prepared to fight for PBP and the SA constitution. The starting point for any democratic platform must be calling the SA leadership to account over these two questions.

The PBP issue is not as straightforward as some comrades like to pretend. It is a republican socialist programme. It has three basic sections. First is a series of democratic demands, which, taken together, constitute the call for a democratic republic or republican democracy. The section in the programme entitled ‘Real democracy’ demands:

l Abolish the monarchy, the House of Lords, the privy council and crown powers - these archaic institutions have no place in a society of free and equal human beings.

l Establish fixed-term democratic elections, based on proportional representation and accountability of all elected officials and all MPs to their constituents.

l Disestablish the churches of England and Scotland - a democratic society requires the complete separation of church and state, not least that we all enjoy the freedom to worship, or not, as we choose.

l For the right of self-determination to Scotland and Wales - it is up to the people of Scotland and Wales to decide where they future lies.

l Abolish the lord chancellor’s office - all judges to be elected and accountable. Create a free national legal service (similar to the NHS) to ensure equal and effective access to justice for everyone. Establish the right to sue any official before a jury.

l Disband special branch, the secret services, and all surveillance agencies and operations. Our government’s job is not to spy on its citizens - these unaccountable and secret bodies undermine democracy.

The second part contains demands for social reform in favour of an expanded public sector, an improved welfare state, redistribution of income and greater rights for trade unionists. The third section is a series of policies which constitute a foreign policy based on international democratic and working class principles.

There are two quite different interpretations of this programme. The SWP-International Socialist Group have reduced PBP to a set of social reforms. On their own, this lines them up with the Labour left in a way that is advantageous to the latter. The SWP is seeking to build the SA on the model of the Anti-Nazi League or Globalise Resistance. The SA is conceived as something like an ‘Old Labour Electoral League’, which seeks to draw ex-Labour activists into joint electoral activity with the SWP.

The SWP has been largely responsible for reducing People before profit in practice to a programme of old Labour social reforms. It imposed a restricted list of SA ‘priority pledges’ which deliberately excluded all democratic and republican demands from SA leaflets, propaganda and campaigns.

In the 2001 election campaign the SA failed to fight for any democratic and republican demands. During the mass democratic protest movement against the war in Iraq the SA again failed to intervene and win support for its programme. When two million people are mobilised against the war and are demanding democratic answers, the SA was incapable of providing any. No wonder the Liberal Democrats have been the main beneficiaries.

The SA is in reality split over its programme - even if that split is covered up by the weakness and disunity of the opposition. On one hand there are those who recognise the full programme and are not frightened to call it a republican socialist programme. On the other side is the SWP and ISG, which have liquidated the democratic demands in order to appear as an old Labour alliance. I tend to see the AWL and CPGB in the middle and I have no idea which way they will turn.

In 2000 the CPGB intervened at the SA conference with a proposal that the ‘priority pledges’ should consist of purely democratic and republican demands. Three years later the CPGB submission for November 8 speaks of the need to “defend and enrich our manifesto People before profit”. These weasel words are about as democratic and republican as it gets. I remain to be convinced that this is not a capitulation to Labourism and the SWP. The AWL submission is more or less the same, speaking only in abstract generalities about “the main principles of PBP to be preconditions for any electoral coalitions”.

We can now link the question of programme to the issue of the Galloway ‘popular coalition’. Alan Thornett’s recent SA pamphlet Building a socialist alternative ends with a call for realignment. He says: “While there would need to be detailed discussion on the policies in order to launch any new coalition, we think that the kinds of policies which the SA stood on in the last general election and set out in our manifesto People not profit have stood the test of time very well. We put these forward as the basis for discussion.” He then sets out a list of 13 Labourite policies for social reform, plus “saving the planet” and “cancelling third world debt”.

No doubt readers of the Weekly Worker will already have guessed that amongst this list is not a single democratic demand. But what is absolutely correct is that you have to start from programme if you are to have any serious policy towards coalition.

In the last few weeks the Weekly Worker has had some excellent editorials on the monarchy. We have to turn militant, uncompromising republican pronouncements into a fight for a militant republican socialist party. On Saturday we will see whether the CPGB is going to back its words with deeds or, as its motion implies, duck the question altogether.