Republican slogans and the CPGB

Socialist Alliance: I claimed in a previous article that the CPGB was ducking the question of republican slogans in its intervention in the Socialist Alliance

I claimed in a previous article that the CPGB was ducking the question of republican slogans in its intervention in the Socialist Alliance (Weekly Worker November 6). Shortly after, the SA minority met in Birmingham and set up a democratic and republican platform, but avoided the word ‘republican’ in the official name by voting for ‘Democracy Platform’.

Sure enough, it was the votes of CPGB members, including Mike Macnair, that were key in the decision not to include ‘republican’ in the title of the platform. Had four CPGB members voted with us, our proposal would have won the first round vote by 13 to nine instead of the other way round. What we would have got was a platform with the courage and honesty to make clear we were not confined to the narrow politics of internal SA democracy.

On its own, the failure of the CPGB in this vote does not amount to very much except that it is part of a consistent trend. The CPGB has refused, or simply failed, to recognise the fact that People before profit is a republican socialist programme. This is a particularly shocking retreat, when you remember that the CPGB played a major role in ensuring that People before profit was a republican socialist programme in the first place. At the SA conference in 2000 which decided the programme, the CPGB put forward only democratic republican demands. Now it has flipped over.

This is even clearer on the question of party. The CPGB is lined up with the Socialist Workers Party in opposing the struggle for a militant republican socialist workers’ party. The CPGB has no problem with the call for a ‘workers’ party’, a ‘socialist workers’ party’ or a ‘Socialist Alliance party’. And now the CPGB points to the Scottish Socialist Party. It is only the word ‘republican’ that is causing the CPGB political difficulty. This sounds suspiciously like liberal republicanism, which says, ‘Of course we are republicans, so we do not need to mention it in our practical political interventions’.

There are only three possible reasons for the CPGB’s retreat. First, it could be a failure to recognise the great importance of republican slogans, as identified in the minimum programme. Second, it could be a bit of petty sectarianism in which the CPGB leaders do not want to be seen supporting republican slogans promoted by the Revolutionary Democratic Group. It would be a serious failure of political leadership if personal ego stood in the way of developing the political consciousness and serving the interests of the working class.

The third reason could be that the CPGB is now fearful of openly going head to head with the SWP - the immediate consequence of taking up republican cudgels.

Mike Macnair’s reply is therefore interesting in trying to pin down why the CPGB is ducking republican slogans (Letters, November 12). Mike seems to indicate the third reason. His letter contains both a fundamental truth and a fundamental error. Mike begins from where we agree. He identifies “the central political contradiction in contemporary British politics” as the “democratic deficit” (ie, the republican question). Later he says: “The Socialist Alliance’s practical policy has been to attempt to evade this [republican] question by presenting its programme as a series of minor social reforms, as opposed to fundamental political change” (ie, republican democracy). Here Mike is absolutely correct.

The SA programme is a republican socialist programme, reduced to “a series of minor social reforms” by the SWP-International Socialist Group leadership. The strength of a republican socialist programme is precisely that it addresses the “democratic deficit” and the “central … contradiction” and seeks “fundamental political change”. This is why it is very different from the programme of old Labour social reforms promoted in the SA by the SWP.

However, Mike’s fundamental error is to fail to recognise the connection between programme and party. A republican socialist programme provides the basis for a republican socialist workers’ party. This means the rejection of Labourism. A programme of old Labour social reforms can only lead to a Labour Party mark two - a bankrupt exercise, given the “central political contradiction” identified by Mike.

The SA’s republican socialist programme is not something simply to look at. Like a rugby ball, we need to pick it up and run into our opponents’ half of the field, and force it over their try line. What is the point of talking about a “democratic deficit”, “central contradiction” and “fundamental political change” if we do not turn this into practical slogans to use in our interventions in the SA? Republicanism reserved for Weekly Worker articles and editorials is simply not good enough for any militant or revolutionary organisation.

The CPGB’s reluctance to identify the SA’s programme as ‘republican socialist’ leads to a serious error on the party question. It is an error that neither Mike nor the CPGB could continue with if they were honest and open about People before profit. The disconnection between programme and party means that Mike slips into despondent leftism. He claims it is the RDG’s failure “to confront the objective relation of forces in the workers’ movement and its left” that is the source of our mistake. In fact this is exactly the error the CPGB has been guilty of in its fantasy politics of converting the SA into a revolutionary communist party.

Mike helps us to identify the reason for the CPGB’s retreat from republicanism in what he sees as the forces ranged against us. He identifies these as “the majority of the British organised left”. This bureaucratic-economistic bloc is so overwhelming that it is “quite illusory to suppose that the tiny forces of the CPGB, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty … and the Revolutionary Democratic Group can appeal over the[ir] heads” to the “broad millions who could be energised by a democratic [ie, republican socialist] alternative”.

This is a council of despair. There is no point in raising republican slogans and demands because our opponents are too strong and too well entrenched! But even on Mike’s analysis they are not as well entrenched as might first appear, because Mike’s “central contradiction” will create an earthquake under their feet that will shake the very foundations on which they stand. Second, the republican socialist vanguard is relatively strong because it has seized hold of that central contradiction. Third, whilst we cannot yet appeal to “the broader millions”, we can connect with militant sections of the class. Militant workers may not see themselves as revolutionary communists, but they have no problem with ‘republicanism’ or ‘socialism’ or even a combination of the two.

The backward element is not the republican socialist vanguard nor the militant sections of the class. It is the bureaucratic left sects that are big enough to interpose themselves between the two. But that means that they are surrounded and can potentially be opposed from both sides. In order to fight the bureaucratic-economistic sects, even with our tiny forces, of course we can and must appeal over their heads to working class militants.

It is the only way we can defeat them. A republican socialist programme is the most powerful weapon we can unite around because, as Mike has already identified, republicanism relates to the “democratic deficit”, the “central contradiction” and the need for “fundamental political change”.

Republican socialism is the only means by which our tiny forces can have any hope of challenging the bureaucratic-economistic left. The republican socialist vanguard should not lose heart or lose confidence. On the contrary we need to be clearer, sharper and more focused on the democratic deficit and the central contradiction. The CPGB has nothing to fear from this, except fear itself.

Mike’s last paragraph gives the game away. He claims that “Dave’s proposal that we should give up on the SWP’s limited openings towards unity and set up shop with a direct call for a ‘militant republican socialist party’ is therefore - in the concrete situation - a proposal for a step away from, not towards, what is needed.” This is completely mistaken and false.

First there is no proposal for the RDG to give up on the SWP’s limited openings for unity represented by the Socialist Alliance. We have had more reasons or excuses to leave the SA than most, given the war that the SWP has waged to expel our comrades from the SA. There is no question of us leaving the SA, even in its current unhealthy state.

Second, appealing for a “militant republican socialist party” is not opposed to, nor does it give up on, the struggle to unite the left with militant sections of the class into a workers’ party. On the contrary the slogan provides the only scientific basis for such unity, because it is connected to Mike’s “central contradiction”. Of course, if Mike’s claim was true, the same logic would apply to the Scottish Socialist Party. Is Mike really saying the SSP is “a proposal for a step away from, not towards, what is needed”? Mike’s whole argument here against the SSP and its twin sister, the republican socialist party, is patently false.

Mike is like someone who sees Excalibur lying on the ground, but is too frightened to pick it up and use it. He sees the central contradiction merely intellectually in his head, but cannot convert it into a militant, fighting political slogan and apply it in practice. Our job is not to point to contradictions and then run away from them, but to seize hold of them and apply them as our most potent political weapons.