For republicanism and Marxism

The March 12 conference on left unity produced some unexpected and interesting results. The 59 individuals who signed up for the afternoon in Birmingham's United Services Club passed two motions bearing on the future of the socialist unity project that has been initiated by the Socialist Alliance Democracy Platform. The motion in the name of a number of individuals - from the Revolutionary Democratic Group, Republican Socialist Tendency, Red Party and Socialist Unity Network - called for setting up a new (provisional) socialist alliance. The aims and objectives section of the motion places republicanism and the struggle for democracy at the heart of the new alliance's politics. A conference in the autumn will try to pull in more forces with the intention of establishing permanent structures. The ultimate objective is a republican socialist party. But also passed was the CPGB's motion setting out an aspiration towards "a workers' party based on the fundamentals of Marxism". This motion similarly emphasised "a political struggle for the fullest possible democracy". We should not get too carried away with the significance of what happened in Birmingham. We are still talking about pretty small numbers. And it is not clear whether groups such as the United Socialist Party, Alliance for Workers' Liberty and Workers Power, who made up some of those numbers, will stay on board for the autumn. Nevertheless, some key arguments do seem to be making headway about the kind of socialist initiative we need in order to connect with the working class and challenge capitalism. A commitment to fighting sectarianism in our ranks does not mean surrendering to the politics of the lowest common denominator. The conference supported the concept of a pluralist, multi-tendency socialist party. But it has to be a party that is open and democratic. Only if the most advanced ideas are made available to the whole party can we all participate in a vigorous debate about ideas, theory and strategy. Some envisage a party in which committed revolutionaries observe a self-denying ordinance on their politics. The opportunism of the SWP within Respect in voting down core principles such as open borders and republicanism is only the most extreme example of this tendency. In practice, most revolutionaries prefer to dispense a 'safe' diet of bread and butter economic demands for refugees from the Labour Party, ordinary trade union activists and the wider electorate. This is not only a patronising and elitist (and downright dishonest) approach towards the supposed 'reformists', but fails to engage the 'revolutionaries' in the challenging debate we desperately need about what we mean by socialism and how we intend to get there. As Hillel Ticktin observed on Saturday, for the best part of a century there have been only the most sporadic developments of Marxist theory. The ideas of most of the socialist sects have been preserved in aspic for decades now. Bureaucratic and extremely undemocratic internal regimes have encouraged a culture of dull conformity. It is these traditions that a new party will have to smash before it can contemplate "smashing the capitalist state". It is by emphasising demands for a continual extension of democracy in all spheres of political, social and economic life that we can bridge the gap between the reformist ideas prevalent in the labour movement and the revolutionary ideas needed to build socialism. In Britain that means elevating the demand for a secular republic to the top of our agenda. The silence of most socialist groups on the question of abolishing the monarchy is striking. The monarchy is a perfect expression of the unaccountable and undemocratic accumulation of power at the heart of the capitalist state - not to mention an accumulation of (untaxed) wealth, social power and prestige. Yet the socialist movement has still to land a direct hit. We seek to build a society based on the democratic rule of the working class and the conscious democratic planning of economic life. We cannot bring such a society into existence without the radical transformation of political institutions - it is not possible to will the aim without the means. However, it would be a mistake to commit ourselves to a particular schema. The process of political change itself will determine, for instance, which institutions of working class democracy will be based on workplace and which on geographic representation. The key at this stage is to place no limits on the democratic reforms we seek. No institution of the capitalist state - not the police, not the army and certainly not the monarchy - should be safe from this logic. For it is by breaking with economism that we place the question of state power on the political agenda l Nick Rogers