What's in a name?

Mike Macnair takes issue with Dave Craig on republicanism. Dave Craig’s article, ‘Republican slogans and the CPGB’, which shows a remarkable lack of understanding of the arguments CPGB comrades have been putting forward

Dave Craig’s article, ‘Republican slogans and the CPGB’ shows a remarkable lack of understanding of the arguments CPGB comrades, including myself, have been putting forward (Weekly Worker November 20). As a result comrade Craig, the most prominent member of the Revolutionary Democratic Group, almost talks at cross-purposes to us.

How do we fight for republicanism?

Comrade Craig charges the CPGB with reserving our republicanism “for Weekly Worker articles and editorials” and with, conversely, failing to turn republicanism into “practical slogans to use in our interventions in the SA”. Looked at objectively, this charge is topsy-turvy. The Weekly Worker was read by above 8,000 people in the week of November 12-20. This is more than four times the formal membership of the Socialist Alliance, about 20 times the number in attendance at the alliance’s last AGM, and is nearly 300 times the number in attendance at the November 8 meeting to set up the opposition platform in the SA. The Weekly Worker is genuinely the central political instrument of the CPGB and our prime means of fighting for our ideas. We do not reject putting up resolutions to small meetings as a means of fighting for our ideas, but our main effort is on the paper. The fact that the Weekly Worker exists - among other things allowing comrade Craig to write articles in it - reflects the political choice made by CPGB comrades to prioritise the paper. It is in the paper that our democratic republicanism comes across loud and clear.

Behind this charge there is, however, a deeper political difference.

Republicanism and democracy: CPGB retreat?

Comrade Craig’s article quotes extensively from my letter on this issue (November 12). It is a peculiar feature of the article that comrade Craig finds it necessary to add a load of ‘explanatory’ parentheses. Thus:

“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).”

The problem with these explanatory parentheses is that the “democratic deficit” is not the same thing as “the republican question”.

If we are to take “the republican question” as ‘getting rid of the monarchy’, the “democratic deficit” is found just as strongly in bourgeois republics like the USA, France and Italy, as in bourgeois constitutional monarchies like the UK, Japan and the Netherlands. This should, in fact, have been apparent from my letter, which described the democratic deficit in terms of “corrupt payments to politicians (‘party political contributions’); by ‘judicial review’ and long-term contractual commitments to private business; and by forms of top-down control both of local government, and of the major political parties” - all of which are found in republics as well as monarchies.

If, on the other hand, we take “the republican question” to be republican political theory as an alternative to rule-of-law liberalism (cf my review of Iseult Honahan in Weekly Worker May 29), then we are no longer talking about a central contradiction in British politics, since republicanism in this sense has not been a major strand in British politics since the defeat of Chartism in the 1840s. (In France or the USA matters are somewhat different). Republicanism in this sense is - as I argued in my review - an important component of Marxist politics. It is not an existing contradiction in mass politics.

Why does comrade Craig in this way use parentheses to misrepresent what I was saying in my letter? The answer is that he is engaged in self-deception. He wants to believe that the CPGB agreed with the RDG on “the republican question” at the time of the adoption of People before profit, but has since engaged in a “shocking retreat”. The trouble is that the evidence for the original agreement of the CPGB with the RDG is rather weak. Yes, we do agree with the RDG that republicanism is a necessary element of a communist (socialist, etc) political minimum programme. This was reflected on November 8 in our vote for the RDG’s resolution which emphasised the political and democratic demands contained in People before profit - see, among other comments, my report of the meeting in the same November 12 issue of the paper. No retreat there.

But this is not the same thing as agreeing with the RDG that republicanism is the central political contradiction in British politics or the necessary centre of a minimum programme. On the contrary, we have consistently emphasised the question of democracy. See, for example, Jack Conrad’s article ‘Extreme democracy and the limits of capital’ (Weekly Worker April 4 2002). Our republicanism grows out of this commitment to systematic and generalised democracy. No retreat there, either. Our primary commitment to the struggle for extreme democracy and secondary commitment, in consequence, to republicanism, is unchanged.

Strategic gamble

The RDG comrades have formulated a strategic analysis in which the “social monarchy” is central to the British bourgeois political order. The overthrow of capitalism thus involves a two-stage process. First, we fight for the overthrow of the monarchy and the creation of a “dual power republic”. Then the instability of this republic will enable the creation of a soviet republic, a republic of workers’ councils.

The merit of this strategic perspective is that it takes seriously the place of the monarchy in the British state order. Its disadvantage is that it reduces all present political problems to the problem of the monarchy. The RDG’s strategic perspective may turn out to be how things happen. It may not. It may turn out, for one among many possible examples, that corruption and sleaze, rather than monarchism, is the rock on which the present political regime founders. By reducing everything to the problem of republicanism, RDG comrades want us to gamble on the possibility that their analysis and perspective is correct, rather than charting a perspective which gives the role of the monarchy in the constitution its due importance, but allows for other paths to the fall of the current regime.

Comrade Craig thus puts an equals sign between the problem of the overthrow the monarchy (“the republican question”) and the problem of democracy. But the problem of democracy is not only a problem in the British political order (to which the monarchy is intimately related), and in the EU and international political orders (to which the British monarchy is only rather distantly related). It is also a problem in the present structure and functioning of the workers’ movement. This Labour, Stalinist and far-left bureaucratism is, in fact, a more immediate problem of the workers’ movement than the problem of monarchism. This, of course, brings us back to the original question of the name of the minority platform in the Socialist Alliance. ‘Democracy Platform’ is in our opinion clearer, more accurate, and more precisely addressed to the full range of the problems the platform needs to address than ‘Democratic and Republican Platform’.

The party question

Comrade Craig argues that the CPGB’s “retreat” reflects our original failure to understand (a) that People before profit is a “republican socialist” programme and (b) that what is/was possible is the creation of a “republican socialist party” (comrade Craig has elsewhere described it as a “centrist” party) on the model of Rifondazione or the Scottish Socialist Party. He says that the CPGB has been guilty of engaging in the “fantasy politics of converting the SA into a revolutionary communist party”.

It is necessary to be clear what this difference is about. The CPGB’s view has been that the Socialist Alliance was objectively a move towards the unity of the existing Marxist left. The role of the groups in the alliance, and the actual relation of forces in its political decision-making, supports that view. Then the obstacle to a move towards a Socialist Alliance party - whatever sort of party it was to be - has been the belief of the several groups - not least the Socialist Workers Party - that they themselves were ‘the revolutionary party’ and the alliance some sort of ‘united front’. Our view has been that the SA should stop pretending to be something it was not (a ‘united front’ of Marxists and left Labourites) and start to recognise the reality of what it was (an alliance, with the potential to grow into a party, of the existing Marxist left).

We are, of course, now in a rather different political situation from the situation of those debates. The Socialist Party and Workers Power have successively walked out of the SA. The SWP has turned to its ‘Galloway initiative’, hoping to cash in politically on the strength of the anti-war movement. In order to help with its manoeuvres on this front, it has attacked the internal democracy of the alliance. Nonetheless, the underlying political situation remains unaltered. The SP is, in its limited geographical bases, able to poll as well as the Socialist Alliance. Unless the SP and Socialist Labour Party are brought in, the same is likely to be true of the ‘Galloway initiative’. Just as, in France, the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire and Lutte Ouvrière need to form a bloc in order to fulfil their political potential, so in England the unity of the existing organised Marxist left is the fundamental requirement of a broader party. The principal obstacle to this unity is the false conception of what a ‘revolutionary party’ is, which is held by the majority of the existing organised Marxist left.

Comrade Craig accuses me of holding a position which would oppose the initiatives which led to the Scottish Socialist Party. In fact, my letter said explicitly that the objective situation was different in Scotland because of the historically lower weight of organised Trotskyism in Scotland. I would add that, in that underlying situation, Militant was able to build a real local mass base in Glasgow round the poll tax struggle, and used that base to nurture first the Scottish Socialist Alliance and then the turn to the SSP. I have made this point about the structural problem of organised Trotskyism in English, French and Argentine politics in discussion with comrade Craig in more detail before now. The only answer he has offered to it is that it is a “counsel of despair”.

Counsel of despair?

Comrade Craig argues: “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.”

This argument repeats the error which has been committed over and over again by the British and international far left: the belief that it is possible to change the relation of forces in the workers’ movement by grasping the central contradiction in politics and using it to appeal over the heads of the existing organised militants to a supposedly existing unorganised layer of militants, who will thereby either force the existing left onto your line, or marginalise it. This approach has been tested repeatedly and has, just as repeatedly, failed.

The International Socialists thought the central contradiction was that between bureaucracy and rank and file, and aimed to open it up by ‘rank and file movements’. The International Marxist Group thought it was the emergence of the “new mass vanguard” and strike committee/proto-soviet forms. Militant thought it was the internal contradictions in the Labour Party ... and so on. Meanwhile, every real explosion in the political situation both internationally and in Britain has thrown up growth of the far left, but also growth of the bureaucratic left and the social democracy. Comrades have set out on this path without the intention of creating sects, but have ended by creating them nevertheless.

There is an intimate link between this error and the bureaucratic errors of the organised far left: ie, efforts to create ‘homogenous’ organisations and premature splits. If you think that the way to persuade the existing organised militants of the correctness of your views is to bring into play the ‘fresh forces’ who, somewhere out there, actually ‘objectively’ agree with you, then internal discussion within an existing organised group is a waste of time and an obstacle to persuading others of your political views. You will be willing neither to act as a disciplined minority, nor, when in the majority, to put up with the time-wasting minority.

Given the failure of this traditional far-left approach, what is called for is a fight to persuade the existing organised left that they are wrong and we/you are right. The only route to this task of persuasion is through unity in action on points of agreement and open discussion of points of difference. At one end of the spectrum this policy is the real democratic centralism for which the CPGB fights. At the other, it is the various tactical forms of the policy of the united front. In between are formations like the Socialist Alliance and like the Democracy Platform.

Is this a counsel of despair? Only if you believe that there is no chance of persuading the militants of the SWP, SP, International Socialist Group, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, the Labour Party, etc to break from their political errors. Actually we are less pessimistic than comrade Craig. We think that the relationship of forces in the workers’ movement can be changed by close engagement and political debate with the existing organised left, in the context of participating in common action on those issues on which we have agreement.

... and ‘Democracy Platform’

This in turn relates back to the question of the name of the ‘Democracy Platform’. The democratic deficit is far more clearly a major contradiction affecting the existing organised left and the majority in the Socialist Alliance than is the question of monarchism. It, rather than republicanism, is the really effective sword waiting to be used.