Fight for extreme democracy

Bush and Blair’s war on terror is in disarray. The slaughter of 200 commuters in Madrid last week is the bloody testament and legacy of the US-UK pursuit of global dominance through fear, war and lies.

We were told there were weapons of mass destruction. A lie. Just two days before the invasion of Iraq, foreign secretary Jack Straw told parliament that the world would be a safer place if we just trusted the men in the White House and Downing Street. Instead, we have increased anxiety, more instability and, in Britain, a crisis of democracy. Most people just do not believe Tony Blair any more. Turnout to the European elections on June 10 is likely to be rock-bottom.

Given the absence of any consistent working class representation in Britain and the gaping chasm between popular aspirations and the decline of bourgeois political life, the central task for the left in the anti-war movement and the working class in Britain is to build an alternative political force able to sweep New Labour from office, just as José Maria Aznar’s Popular Party has been dumped in Spain for supporting the war on Iraq.

The Madrid bombs uncovered a deep crisis in Spanish politics. As it became increasingly clear that the perpetrators were al Qa’eda and not the Basque separatists, as Aznar would have them believe, the Spanish people turned on the government. The peoples of Spain never backed its slavish support for the invasion of Iraq; caught trying to pin the blame on Eta, the armed Basque nationalist group, to rescue his election campaign, Aznar and his party were punished and thrown out of government. Of course, the victorious PSOE, though socialist in name, is a neoliberal party as well and is hardly a champion of consistent democracy. But, in the absence of their own political power, the masses in Spain have bludgeoned the pro-war PP with the closest weapon to hand.

A government defeated and Bush and Blair on the defensive. Does this mean that the opponents of the occupation of Iraq should support those behind the Madrid bombings? Absolutely not. While we can recognise that the blasts have damaged the plans of our main enemy, this takes nothing away from the fact that the aims of those behind the devastation are deeply reactionary. They do not struggle for the democratic self-determination of the peoples of Iraq. There is no democratic content to al Qa’eda’s war on the west. Our enemy’s enemy is not our friend. Such disdain for human life flows directly from the reactionary programme of the perpetrators.

Neither should we engage in moralism or the politics of equivalence. Some say that 200 dead in Madrid is nothing compared to the hundreds of thousands killed by sanctions against Iraq throughout the 1990s. While imperialism is the main enemy of the world’s working class and oppressed, the warmongers of the Pentagon and Whitehall are by no means our only enemy. Clearly here in this country we direct our main fire against the British state. Yet as internationalists we know that reactionary ‘anti-imperialists’ are no allies in our fight against our greatest foe.

Communists are apologists for neither islamist fundamentalism nor the christian variety occupying the White House. Some claim that any attack on imperialism is a blow for the world’s democratic and progressive forces. Not so. Just look at the 20 years of despotic islamic rule in Iran. There are others who say that, while the US-UK were wrong to invade Iraq, now that they are there, democratic and secular forces should use the occupation as a shield while they build up their strength: troops out, maybe - but not just yet, thank you.

Both views are wrong and essentially pessimistic. Communists do not put our faith in reactionary anti-imperialists nor do we view the imperialists as a vehicle for democratic change. For us there is a third camp. Our faith and commitment lies with the democratic impulses of the mass of the world’s population: with the working class in the imperialist heartlands and among the workers and oppressed peoples of Iraq and across the world - the vast majority of the people on the planet.

But is the anti-war movement in Britain equipped to deal with this situation and to build the confidence and organisation of this third camp? The mobilisation of millions has been inspiring. No matter how he tries, Blair cannot move the political debate on from the quagmire of Iraq. The Stop the War Coalition has organised and mobilised over months and years with much success. With Blair on the back foot, the anti-war movement needs to push for real democratic change in Britain: regime change begins at home. It is clearly no longer enough to say ‘no war’. The coalition has recognised this. Its main slogan is now ‘Blair out’. But is this enough?

The STWC and the Socialist Workers Party, its main motivating force, have markedly failed to condemn atrocities such as the bombings in Madrid. Implicit in this approach is the idea that any attack on imperialism is of use to those opposing the war plans of the western powers. This is politically very dangerous.

In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on March 10, leftwing journalist John Pilger said: “We’ve always depended on resistances to get rid of occupiers, to get rid of invaders. And what we have in Iraq now is, I suppose, the equivalent of a kind of Vichy government being set up.” The islamist and Ba’athist forces in Iraq are implicitly compared to the French resistance. Pilger says he does not “support” the resistance, but argues that we “rely on it” to achieve a military victory. This is deeply flawed. Such a viewpoint in effect states that the ‘second front’ of the anti-war movement (or even the first) is that opened up by the military struggle of the islamists and Ba’athists inside Iraq.

What about the Iraqi trade unions? The women’s organisations facing attacks from the islamists? The unemployed? The anti-war movement is failing our brothers and sisters in Iraq by not campaigning for solidarity with these forces. There should be material aid, speaking tours, educatio-nals, pamphlets - everything we can do to strengthen them, rather than leave the field open for the reactionary anti-imperialists.

By refusing to organise such solidarity with the secular, democratic and working class forces that oppose the US-UK occupation, by refusing to condemn atrocities such as Madrid on March 11, the anti-war movement severely weakens its message and diminishes its political strength. Of course the daily violence of capitalism and the brutality of global imperialism is a hundred times more deadly than terrorist bombs. That does not mean we are soft on such reactionaries. Vicarious guerrillaism is not a serious response.

There is enormous pressure on Blair. Robin Cook, WMDs, Hutton, Clare Short, and now Spain. There is a political space opening within British society for the construction of an alternative to New Labour - within the Labour Party and without.

Respect, the unity coalition, is an attempt to build such an alternative. It was born out of the struggles of the anti-war movement - but also out of the failure of the Socialist Alliance to intersect with this mass movement. Respect represents the concrete space within which the crisis of leadership of this movement is expressed. It is the duty of communists to operate in that space, fighting to achieve what is actually needed to overcome that crisis and radically criticising the coalition’s shortcomings. As it stands, Respect is completely inadequate, compared to what is needed.

“What you want - baby, I got it,” runs the Aretha Franklin soul classic of the same name. Catchy, but a recipe for political disaster. We should not try to be all things to all people. What is needed is a consistent democratic programme for radical political, economic and social change. Such a programme should not be a set of well-meaning wishes, but a plan of action ultimately aimed at placing control over the running of society in the hands of the working class.

Yet Respect does not identify the working class as the agent for social change, but sees itself as an amorphous coalition of greens, peaceniks, muslims and trade unionists. It rejects republicanism. It eschews standing candidates pledged to take only a worker’s wage if elected. Even in the aftermath of the Morecambe bay tragedy, it refuses to fight for open borders, the free movement of people and an end to immigration controls. These are real failings.

Respect is in danger of being stillborn. It is occupying political space not that different from the Green Party. Yet the Greens have decades of activity, a coherent (if wrong) set of policies, councillors and MEPs. Without the Greens on board and without a clear red line demarcating Respect as a workers’ organisation, the unity coalition could easily fall flat in the scramble to gain a hearing from the electorate.

However, there are other straws in the wind. The Socialist Alliance has had its day, its life gradually squeezed out after the 2001 general election by the Socialist Workers Party. Yet elements of the trade union movement are looking for a political expression after seven years of Blairism. Some find it in Respect. Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS civil servants union, is on the Respect executive. Fire Brigades Union activists are looking to support the coalition, as are RMT transport union branches.

Elements of the union bureaucracy, together with some left groups and Constituency Labour Parties, are also looking at the possibility of a Labour Representation Committee mark 2. It is not simply an initiative from the top - although it is the involvement of the bureaucracy that is giving it some legs. Mick Rix, former general secretary of Aslef, the train drivers’ union, the Communications Workers Union, the FBU and RMT are all looking at the prospects of establishing such a committee. A positive development. Clearly there is much fluidity and communists will push forward initiatives aiming to put the question of working class representation and a workers’ party high up on the political agenda.

The fight for party must go hand in hand with the fight for extreme democracy. Britain went to war against the wishes of the majority in society, yet there was no democratic mechanism by which to call parliament or the prime minister to account, whatever the two million protestors of February 15 2003 thought. Those millions can be united under the banner of democracy. Our representatives should be recallable. The monarchy, the anti-democratic second chamber must be scrapped. The increasing concentration of power in the hands of a presidential prime minister must be ended. We must fight for the abolition of the secret state: MI5, the secret police, special branch and the Official Secrets Act must all go. Communists fight for national self-determination: working class unity through a federal republic in Britain and a united, federal Ireland.

Armed with such a programme of extreme democracy, for real popular control in politics and in the economy, armed with a perspective for a new workers’ party to carry out such a programme, the working class can aspire to become the master of society instead of being a slave class. The opportunities before us are great. As the war on terror unravels and as mainstream politics becomes increasingly detached from the daily lives of the millions, the anti-war movement can be won to fight for working class solutions.