R for republicanism

Dave Craig urges respect for republicanism

‘Respect’, the proposed name for the new Galloway coalition, is at first sight a bit odd. Certainly I have no problem with ‘E for equality’, ‘S for socialism’, ‘P for peace’, ‘E for environmentalism’, ‘C for community’ and ‘T for trade unions’. It is a crap name for a party, but for a coalition it might fit the bill for the time being.

It is obvious to me that the R is for ‘republicanism’ and hence democracy - moving on from 1688 to a new democratic revolution. In fact it is so obvious that I feel embarrassed to have to point it out. No doubt somebody will accuse me of making a fetish out of republicanism. ‘R for Respect’ is better, our royalist ‘friends’ will argue!

But if R is for ‘respect’, then respect for what? Respect for the constitutional monarchy, the so-called benefits of 1688, the bowing and scraping before royalty, and the honouring of the class system symbolised by the Windsors? Does it mean we respect the rotten, corrupt monarchist parties - the Tories, New Labourites and Liberal Democrats? Does it mean we lack the will and determination to put clear blue democratic water between the royalists and ourselves? No self-respecting unity coalition would go along with this.

I would be amongst the first to sign up for a Republican Unity Coalition, providing there was freedom for Marxists to work within it. But if the real R-word is missing, then all talk of extending democracy will be indistinguishable from that of the Liberal Democrats. It would be better if the Coalition simply joined the Lib Dems and stopped wasting everybody’s time, money and energy. On the other hand, if the Unity Coalition is not republican, but merely ‘socialist’, then it is no more useful than old Labourism or some sort of Lib-Lab pact.

Of course formally adopting the demand for a democratic republic does not mean that anything will be done to campaign for it. We have the experience of the failure of the Socialist Alliance to take up the issue of democracy either in the 2001 general election or in the anti-war movement. Remember the political blunder made by the Socialist Alliance, which stood in the 2001 general election on a programme of going back to 1984. Twenty years ago we had a nationalised British Rail, index-linked pensions, free higher education, etc. Respect for the royal family was so high that no party was calling for a republic. The SA decided to go along with this in its priority pledges.

If R is for ‘respect’ and not ‘republicanism’, then the blame rests with the Socialist Workers Party. This organisation is the major barrier to republicanism within the British socialist movement. Behind all its revolutionary rhetoric the SWP is quite a conservative group, still rooted in the 1970s. In those days the ‘social monarchy’ was not in crisis and the SWP felt no need either in theory or practice to mention the ‘R’ word. Plus ça change. The same old leadership still has not managed to catch up with the crisis of democracy.

Now even the middle classes talk about republicanism. It is a sort of radical chic for dinner party conversations. But like the SWP there is no question of taking this onto the streets or into election campaigns. Sections of the middle classes consider republicanism as progressive, but dangerous. It would be politically destabilising and open the door to working class radicalism and communism. The middle classes may be drawn to republicanism as much as they fear it. It is this fear of republicanism that weighs on the minds of the SWP cadre, whose ex-student leadership largely comes from the same social milieu. They feel instinctively that the dreaded ‘R’ word is to be avoided wherever possible.

George Galloway takes up the question of the failure of democracy in the Weekly Worker. He says: “Every MP who voted for the war did so knowing that their constituents were against it. And most did so knowing it was wrong. This is a crisis in bourgeois democracy. The mask has slipped. We have a chance - if we properly grasp what democracy actually means - of being the movement for democracy in this country. And that’s an extremely powerful position to be in for a progressive left movement” (December 4).

He goes on to describe what the RDG calls the “elected dictatorship”. He says: “We have a political system that is completely unresponsive in the face of public opinion on a whole range of issues, not simply on the war. Things happen now on the electoral level, on the civil liberties front, across a whole swathe of issues that would never have happened over most of the past 100 years.”

The reason for this is “because the countervailing force against them [the ruling class] - the democratic counterweight from working people and progressive organisations - was too great … Precisely because the labour movement has been in decline, socialism as an alternative system seemed to have disappeared. The people who run our society thought they had carte blanche to roll our democracy back.”

The conclusion Galloway draws is that “any new left movement has to prioritise the concept of democracy and live by it internally and insist on it externally. We need democratic control of the economy, of parliament, of society itself.” This is very close to the analysis that the RDG has been making for many years. The underestimation of the democratic question by the socialist movement was one of the reasons why we chose the name ‘Revolutionary Democratic Group’. Our approach to the question of democracy is through the theory of democratic and permanent revolution.

We have sometimes had to use different terminology from the orthodox left because of the need to highlight or emphasise certain aspects of the “crisis of bourgeois democracy”. “Bourgeois democracy” for us is concretely a constitutional monarchist state. But even this is too abstract, because our state was reorganised during and after World War II into a ‘social (constitutional) monarchy’. Consequently the “crisis of bourgeois democracy” is linked to the crisis in the welfare state. They are not separate issues, but interconnected.

The global crisis of capitalism and the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1984-85, the policies of Thatcher and Blair have moved the country into a new stage of ‘degenerate social monarchy’. As the constitutional monarchy breaks down and the welfare state is privatised, society becomes increasingly unstable and prone to crises which bring people onto the streets. On the one side we have the Countryside Alliance and on the other we have the mass anti-war movement.

The constitutional monarchist state is therefore in transition. In one direction it will become a more authoritarian state, bringing with it the growth of fascism. In the democratic direction, we will be moving towards a federal republic and a united Ireland. Which direction our society takes will depend on the class struggle, political consciousness and organisation of what Galloway calls “the democratic counterweight from working people and progressive organisations”.

The Socialist Alliance minority has formed themselves into the Democracy Platform. Last Saturday the committee elected to organise the platform met and discussed its attitude to the Galloway movement. The first question was, is there a movement out there? If there is, then it is not a matter of whether to intervene but how. In the past we intervened where we could in the anti-poll tax movement, the Scargill movement, the Socialist Alliance movement and the Stop the War movement.

Both we and the CPGB joined Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party to fight for our politics. We had no illusions in Scargill or his politics, but recognised the fact that he was a focal point to unite those who wanted to fight Labour. Scargill’s record as a militant class leader was better than Galloway’s. But the Scargill movement came out of the defeat of the National Union of Mineworkers and the removal of clause four in the Labour Party. The Respect movement has arisen out of mass mobilisation against the war in Iraq, which succeeded in putting the Blair government under pressure. It is potentially more significant than the Scargill movement.

Some comrades have come to focus too much on Galloway himself. I am reminded of Lenin’s attitude to the Gapon movement in Russia in 1905. Mass movements throw up all sorts of leaders and not usually the ones that we Marxists approve of. Father Gapon was a priest from a peasant background. He was the protégé of Zubatov, the chief of the Moscow police, who promoted non-political trade unions. Bolsheviks such as SI Gusev called him “a shady character” who knowingly worked with the police-sponsored trade unions (T Cliff Lenin Vol 1, London 1975, p158).

However, Gapon led the mass demonstrations on January 9 1905, when the tsarists troops killed over a thousand people - known as ‘bloody Sunday’. Krupskaya explains the different attitudes of Lenin and Plekhanov towards the priest. She says: “One could simply have ignored Gapon, reckoning in advance that nothing good will ever come from a priest. That is what Plekhanov did, for instance, receiving Gapon extremely coolly” (N Krupskaya Reminiscences of Lenin New York 1970, p 111). But Lenin’s attitude had no trace of moralism because of his desire to connect with the masses and understand what moved them. Lenin was not only non-sectarian in his attitude to the mass movement, but went out of his way to meet Gapon and try to influence him.

The Democracy Platform is therefore quite right not to be swayed by those whose main point is that Galloway is a shady character. Our platform decided not to tie ourselves to a position that was either pro-Galloway or anti-Galloway, both of which would take away our freedom of action. We would concentrate on issues of programme, democratic organisation and accountability. For the RDG the key issue is the struggle for a republican socialist party around the Socialist Alliance programme People before profit.

This brings us back to the disagreement with the CPGB, as reflected in the debate with Mike Macnair (Weekly Worker December 4). Our difference is over how a new revolutionary communist party will be built. During the 1990s we came to the conclusion that, given the objective situation in the working class movement, including the shift to the right of the Labour Party and the collapse of the old CPGB, building a genuine, mass, revolutionary communist party would involve transitional stages, including a transitional workers’ party.

There is no theory to suggest a transitional party is a necessary stage, although historical experience shows this has happened. The Communist Party of Germany came from the Independent Social Democratic Party, which had a right wing led by Kautsky and a left wing led by Liebknecht and Luxemburg. Life has thrown up centrist formations such as the Socialist Labour Party, the Scottish Socialist Alliance, the Scottish Socialist Party and the Socialist Alliance itself. We need to learn from the real world and theorise about it.

A key task for Marxists is to understand the current stage concretely in order to intervene and facilitate the most rapid transition to a revolutionary party. Simply posing the revolutionary party in opposition to the current stage is an ultra-left, propagandist method. An ultra-left line leads to sectarian isolation from the movement or produces opportunism (when switching to the right to avoid the very isolation that the leftist logic demands).

We believe that the slogan of a ‘republican socialist party’ identifies that transitional stage scientifically, because it relates to the situation in the real world in which we have both a “crisis of bourgeois democracy” and a vacuum on the left as a result of a centre-right Labour government and the collapse of the old Stalinist CPGB. It is the same situation described by Galloway that I quoted previously.

Consequently it is impossible to relate correctly to the SLP, the SSP, the SA, to recent shifts by the RMT in the trade union movement, and now to the Galloway movement without this perspective. If we are serious about building a revolutionary communist party, we must be in the vanguard of fighting for a republican socialist party and being in a position to ensure that there is the freedom for communists to work openly and democratically within it.

The Socialist Alliance, despite the leadership of the SWP, has been a small step towards a republican socialist party. It is the SA programme People before profit that marks that step. Mike Macnair notes that I claim People before profit is a republican socialist programme. But his determination to defend the CPGB at all costs means he cannot bring himself to recognise the truth about PBP. It is a fact that PBP is a socialist programme with its own ‘clause four’ moment. And of course nobody, but nobody, is claiming that PBP is a revolutionary communist programme. Its maximum political demand is a democratic republic. It has a set of immediate policies or minimum demands which constitute a social republic. This is not to deny that in the hands of the SWP its ‘priority pledges’ were reduced to the old Labourite policy of the social monarchy.

The CPGB must tell truth about PBP and not duck it or avoid it. This question is now of central importance because of the Galloway movement. If I was a member of the CPGB right now, I would be expelled for defying the party line on an issue of republican slogans, which are of fundamental importance to the working class.

There is no possibility of the Galloway movement forming itself into a revolutionary communist party. That is really what the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty is saying - we cannot form a revolutionary communist party with its MPs paid on a workers’ wage around the Galloway movement. Of course, that it true. But it is a false perspective. Respect could become a step towards a republican socialist party. It is not likely, but it is possible. Either we can win Respect to that perspective or we can win workers attracted to that movement to the Socialist Alliance. That would require determined and united intervention by revolutionaries around the slogan of a republican socialist party. The Democracy Platform must become a means of carrying that forward.

If the CPGB had only one slogan - ‘For a revolutionary communist party’ - then it would have a sectarian attitude towards the Galloway movement no different from the current AWL position. But in the past the CPGB has always been more flexible and capable of relating to the real world. Hence we find that for its intervention in the SA, the CPGB had a second slogan: ‘For a Socialist Alliance party’.

What is the difference between the CPGB advocating a Socialist Alliance party and a republican socialist party? It should be obvious that the word ‘alliance’ is not the problem. If the CPGB was really determined to have the word ‘alliance’ included in any joint slogan with the RDG, we would surely propose a compromise ‘republican Socialist Alliance party’. No - it seems the CPGB have a problem with the inclusion of the word ‘republican’.

This is such an obvious contradiction with the CPGB’s own programme and what Jack Conrad writes in Weekly Worker editorials that it is almost unbelievable. There are only two ways out of this contradiction. The first is to adopt the slogan of a republican socialist party as your own and become its champion. The other way is to reject militant republicanism and retreat into the kind of liberal republicanism which you identify in your criticism of Sean Matgamna. It seems to me that Mike Macnair is attempting to theorise the latter course as an intellectual justification for CPGB backwardness on republican slogans.

In conclusion, what do we need to do? First, intervene in the Galloway movement through the Democratic Platform of the SA. Second, make full use of the SA’s republican socialist programme. Third, campaign for a republican socialist workers’ party. Fourth, take up the question of whether R stands for ‘republicanism’ - and if not, why not?

We should not join anything or endorse anything until we get satisfactory answers on these matters and the question of Respect’s democratic organisation.