Republicanism, the left and mass politics

Chris Jones of the Revolutionary Democratic Group joins the debate

At the risk of entering into what is becoming a private argument between Mike Macnair (Weekly Worker November 12 and December 4) and Dave Craig (November 6 and November 27), I want to comment on the place of republicanism in the programme of revolutionary socialists.

It is well known amongst the revolutionary left that the Revolutionary Democratic Group puts an unusual stress on republicanism in relation to the programmatic development of revolutionary politics in the United Kingdom. What is less well understood is the way that these republican politics relate to a wider understanding of the place of democracy in the struggle for socialism. The RDG position is republican in the UK but in France for example we support those revolutionary democrats that call for a Sixth Republic. The reason for our emphasis on republicanism is not, then, some strange local obsession with the queen or the House of Windsor: it is related to our analysis of revolution, late capitalism and the failure of both the social democratic and communist traditions to achieve socialism and working class political power.

A second misunderstanding relates to how we view the current political situation in relation to the launching of the Respect coalition and the lack of development of the Socialist Alliance under the leadership of the Socialist Workers Party. Dave Craig has already made the case for Respect to be a republican coalition (‘R for republicanism’, December 4). I will not repeat those arguments here. The failure of the left to grasp the need for republican politics has been at the centre of the failure of the Socialist Alliance leadership dominated by the SWP. Unable to exclude republican demands from People before profit, the SWP simply removed these elements from the bullet points used to sum up the Socialist Alliance programme. Just as significantly, the programme of the Socialist Alliance was reduced for all practical purposes to a manifesto.

If you look at the Socialist Alliance website you will not easily find our programme. It is not drawn to your attention at the top level. Instead you will find it buried in the material from the last general election. The SWP has not had a programme since the mid-1970s, although it was only in the mid-1990s when reference to party programme was removed from SWP membership cards - in part as a consequence of the embarrassment of having members pledging adherence to a programme that no longer had any real existence. As the SWP does not have any programmatic basis we cannot expect them to see the value in the Socialist Alliance programme. This programme records the agreement and unity achieved in the Socialist Alliance. If it is reduced to a manifesto, it ceases to guide action over the longer term and may indeed need to be abandoned at every turn as the conditions change for each election.

The SWP failure to lead the Socialist Alliance is related to its cavalier attitude to programme. In particular to its failure to value any struggle over the political structure of the state. Social and economic issues and the immediate political struggle always take priority over issues that relate to the nature of power and the state.

The RDG argues that republicanism is a key divide in revolutionary politics between those who want to make the working class a political class and those who want to confine politics to immediate social and economic issues. We claim this dominant, apolitical stance is a result of an historic compromise between capital and the labour bureaucracy in Britain. We call this compromise Labourism. We use the term not just to describe the politics of the Labour Party and the trade unions - the ‘labour movement’, as it is commonly called - but to indicate the way in which the working class has been incorporated into the very fabric of the UK state in a subservient position. It is the pervasive focus on only those issues that can be addressed within existing political structures and the failure to deal with issues that might require a reform of the existing constitution, let alone its overthrow, that characterises Labourism.

Mike Macnair claims that republicanism “is not an existing contradiction in mass politics” and goes on to state that the policy of emphasising republican demands “reduces all present political problems to the problem of the monarchy” (December 4). This argument is both mistaken and inaccurate. Firstly it is not true to say that the RDG reduces all political problems to the monarchy; and secondly it is incorrect to suggest that republicanism is not an existing contradiction in mass politics.

The RDG argument suggests that republicanism is the particular form that a more general crisis of bourgeois politics takes in the UK context. Far from reducing all political problems to the monarchy, the RDG say that the monarchy is the focus and lynchpin of UK politics. For example, the UK opposition to the war in Iraq is not reducible to the monarchy, but the war has raised serious questions related to the monarchic system of government - in particular the question of the royal prerogative and the immense powers wielded unaccountably by the prime minister on behalf of the monarch.

What might it mean for a political position such as republicanism to be an existing contradiction in mass politics? My guess is that Mike is suggesting that republicanism can safely be placed on the back burner until workers are demonstrating on the streets against the monarchy or calling for its abolition as part of their strike demands. This is a tail-ending argument that suggests that issues such as the monarchy are OK in the party’s programme, but they are not to be placed centre stage. In current circumstances Mike is justifying the current name of our platform within the Socialist Alliance against the suggestion that it be sharpened up with the inclusion of the term ‘Republican’. In practical terms Mike uses the current lack of political consciousness to justify a policy that accommodates to this backwardness and does not challenge it in the most trivial of ways. Even if republicanism is not an existing contradiction in mass politics, the RDG argues that it should be made a focus for our propaganda.

Mike goes on to take aim against the standard “British and international far left”. He claims that groups have taken one of the central contradictions in politics and then appealed “over the heads of the existing organised militants to a supposedly existing unorganised layer”. This line has characterised a range of groups from the International Socialists to Militant. Mike clearly thinks this criticism applies to the RDG. Using a quote from Dave Craig, he suggests that the RDG policy is similarly to recruit ones and twos over the heads of existing leaders. Anyone who has followed the practice of the RDG knows this is not the case.

The RDG has never tried to build itself or to portray itself as an embryo of a party. We are criticised by Martin Thomas of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, along with other groups, for being organisationally spineless, incapable of standing alone. We would argue that we are not incapable: rather we interpret our task as working with others to build a new workers’ party in the UK. We were an external faction of the SWP, later we joined the Socialist Labour Party and later still the Socialist Alliance. In all cases we have tried to engage constructively with the attempts to build working class parties. We have been critical and politically and organisationally capable of independent action. Our view is that republicanism is the best way to build a mass workers’ party in current conditions. But our practice has been to work within and around existing organisations of militants, not to go around them or appeal over their heads.

Mike earlier wrote: “The fundamental error is comrade Craig’s failure to confront the objective relation of forces in the workers’ movement and its left. This failure is reflected in his complaint that the CPGB’s opposition to the deliberate creation of an ‘intermediate’ party is an obstacle to the radical-democratic turn that is and has been needed” (Letters, November 12).

Mike’s claim amounts to this. The RDG focus on republicanism is a call on the left, organised in the CPGB, AWL and other groups in the Socialist Alliance Democratic Platform, to ignore the SWP and appeal over their heads to a new layer of workers. This contradicts the entire argument that the RDG has had with the CPGB about how best to characterise and relate to the forces engaged in the Socialist Alliance. The RDG characterised the grouping as a communist-Labour alliance. That is, the RDG recognised the pre-existing nature of the politics and organisation that militants arrived with and carried into the Socialist Alliance. As a consequence we argued that the SA should aim to form itself into a Scottish Socialist Party-like formation, making republicanism an open and public commitment in its name - the Republican Socialist Party.

In contrast the CPGB argued for a Socialist Alliance party - a single, democratic and centralist party. The CPGB argument was that the Socialist Alliance was in fact an assemblage of existing revolutionary left groups and individuals and that they could immediately begin to form a single, centralised organisation. The CPGB argument was that militants could be won directly to full-blown Marxism.

Mike Macnair’s personal characterisation of this was: “The strategic problem is to persuade broader layers of militants - especially the organised militants, who, because they are organised, can outweigh the unorganised radical-democrats - to break politically with bureaucratic-paternalism” (ibid). The CPGB’s formulation, unlike Mike’s, was an invitation to directly organise a new layer of militants - over the heads of existing organisations. Mike’s argument is that a precondition for such a party is a political break by existing militants within their current organisations.

The argument that Mike tries to parody as the RDG appealing over the heads of organised militants turns out to be one about how best to relate to the existing organisations. Indeed the quote that Mike Macnair uses to illustrate his claim about the RDG includes this sentence: “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” (my emphasis). The RDG position is like the CPGB’s, in that we agree on the need to draw militants directly into a new party based on the Socialist Alliance. It is like Mike’s, in that we agree we need to mobilise these militants in a political battle to break with their own political traditions. We disagree with both on the type of party we need to build in the immediate future.

We believe our approach is a realistic assessment of the relation of forces. It is an appeal to fight against the politics of the bureaucratic sects alongside working class militants. It is a policy of organising different tendencies together in a single party in a way that recognises persistent differences in a form we have called democratic federalism.

Where does this leave the CPGB and the RDG, now that we are faced, not with an expanded or developed Socialist Alliance, but with the Respect coalition that includes non-socialist and anti-Marxist elements? The Respect coalition is something of a united front and cannot be seen as the embryo of a democratic and centralised workers’ party. It is clear that the RDG stands for the formation of a Republican Socialist Party, not a united front of working class organisations. The RDG is in favour of a constructive engagement with the Respect coalition on the simple condition that socialist and working class organisations must retain their organisational and political independence.

The RDG argues that revolutionary socialists should not pretend that they could move directly to a centralised revolutionary organisation. We argue that in the foreseeable future the task is to unite reformist and revolutionary socialists from both the communist and Labour traditions in a single party, and that the politics that can unite these two traditions is militant republicanism and a focus on reconstituting the state. We view our engagement in the Respect coalition in that light, as a part of building an independent working class politics.

For us the issue of republicanism remains central to that task.