Communists and transitional forms

A republican socialist party meets the needs of the hour, writes Dave Craig of the Revolutionary Democratic Group. That is why communists must lead the fight to achieve one

We are living through a new epoch. It is a period in which the working class is being reorganised politically. To understand this we need to go back 25 years. In 1980 the labour movement was dominated by the Labour Party and the Communist Party of Great Britain. These two parties had real influence on politically active workers and Trotskyism was also making an impact in the late 1970s. But the miners' strike and the defeat of the National Union of Mineworkers began to accelerate the process of decay and decline. The Labour Party began moving further and further to the right. The CPGB finally collapsed with the liquidation of the USSR in 1991.The two-party system that dominated the post-World War II labour movement was destroyed. However, the world has not stood still. New and sometimes unexpected developments unfold before our eyes. I need only mention Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party, and the Scottish Socialist Alliance, which became the Scottish Socialist Party. Then there was the Socialist Alliance. Now we have Respect with its elected MP and Forward Wales. Nor should we forget the Labour Representation Committee. All the England-based initiatives - the SLP, SA, Respect and the LRC - had or have Labourite politics. They are searching for their love as Labour lost. The exception to this is the SSP, which has taken a different trajectory. The process taking place under our feet is the political reorganisation of the working class. It starts from the vacuum on the left of New Labour, made painfully clear by the policies of a rightwing Labour government. Reality feeds the desire amongst socialists and active trade unionists for a new workers' party. It is this situation that created organisations like the SA and Respect. The question is, how do we apply communist politics to this situation? How do we intervene to shape the process of reorganisation that is going on? My argument is that we should adopt the slogan of a republican socialist party and conduct agitation around it. This is the means for communists to conduct pro-party agitation without falling into the trap of crude propagandism and sectarianism. First we need to consider the question of method. We should distinguish between a genuine Leninist communism and ultra-left sectarianism which poses as communism. Communists use the transitional method. We need to know where we want to go and where we actually are. We must bridge the gap between the two. We have to find the transitional forms and intermediate steps. We have to grasp the necessary steps from the first to the last. Discovering this is a matter of science, not guesswork. It is not enough to know that we need an international communist party. We have to work out how to get there in today's conditions. The sectarian ultra-left method rejects intermediate steps. It poses the ultimate goal against transitional steps. This is the politics of propagandism. Politics is reduced to making propaganda - in this case issuing calls for a Communist Party. Intermediate steps are seen in moral terms as betrayals, sellouts, and delaying tactics. But supporting the aim of a Communist Party is a matter of finding the transitional forms and steps that take the movement in the right direction. Take the slogan of a democratic republic as an example. An ultra-left would argue against it on the grounds that communism is the only answer. A republic would be presented as a betrayal, sellout or delay. We should proceed immediately to communism without passing 'go' or collecting £200. Lenin encountered this argument in 1905 from the anarchists, who opposed a democratic revolution and republic on the grounds that socialism was the only answer. Lenin says: "Replying to the anarchist objection that we are putting off the socialist revolution, we say, we are not putting it off, but are taking the first step towards it in the only possible way, along the only correct path: namely the path of a democratic republic" (VI Lenin Selected works Vol l, Moscow 1977, p435). Note that the first step is not putting off or delaying anything. It is the very opposite. Far from a republican socialist party delaying the development of a genuine international Communist Party we can borrow Lenin's words to say: 'We are not putting it off, but are taking the first step towards it in the only possible way, along the only correct path: namely the path of a republican socialist party.' This is not to say that a republican socialist party will automatically become a Communist Party. Neither will a democratic republic automatically lead to world communism. There is no determinism at work. One may lead to the other only on the basis of struggle. But it is more likely to do so with sound communist leadership, not ultra-left propagandism. The second point about method is the united front. The transitional method ties in with the united front. Using intermediate demands, we can link up and unite with workers to the right of us. We can fight in alliance with workers who don't go the whole way with our programme and are not communists or revolutionaries. The slogan of a republican socialist party seeks the unity of communist and non-communist or socialist workers. Thirdly we have the question of spontaneity. The political movement has already thrown up new developments. Respect, for example, has arisen in response to the war in Iraq and its impact on socialists and muslim 'public' opinion. It is a spontaneous development. It was not planned nor does it conform to any Marxist theory. Should Marxists simply follow along behind this? Or should Marxists just say no like some latter-day king Canute? The purpose of transitional slogans is to enable us to intersect with such developments and divert them from their natural course into a Communist Party direction. The slogan 'republican socialist party' is an application of the transitional method and the united front. It is a proposal to non-communist workers - the vast majority - that we form a party together. It is a party which provides the best circumstances in which to take the movement towards communism. In 2001-02 the CPGB published Towards a Socialist Alliance party. SA members did not disagree with the words 'Socialist Alliance' in the call for an SA party. The controversial word was 'party'. The purpose of the slogan was to conduct agitation for a party without laying down the condition that it had to be a Communist Party. This can be seen as the CPGB seeking to apply a transitional demand and a unity method with wider forces. The slogan of the republican socialist party is an application of the same approach. If we agitate around the slogan of a republican socialist party, what will people say? Some may say, 'We don't need a party.' That will provoke one sort of argument. Others may say, 'Why should it be socialist?' We will need to answer that too. Last, but not least, some socialists will question why republicanism is important. This means that communists have to confront the historical baggage of economism, which has politically paralysed the working class movement. But republicanism does not come out of thin air. It means applying the communist minimum programme. Let us now turn to the dialectic of history and go back July 7 1646. This was the date that the Levellers published a pamphlet called Remonstrance with the sub-title The liberty of the freeborn Englishman, conferred on him by the House of Lords, June 1646. It was a revolutionary manifesto. On the front cover was the face of a man behind prison bars. On page one it declared for the sovereignty of the people. On page four it rejected the monarchy and page five the House of Lords. From this point the Levellers seized the political initiative, which they held until 1649. In 1647 they were building a party. It was the first modern political party. It was the republican party of the English revolution. Party members were typically cobblers, weavers, printers, lead miners, copyhold tenants and better-off tradesmen. Women played an important role, made easier by the influence of the Anabaptists. This religious sect prominent among Levellers viewed women as having an equal standing, equal right to pray and speak at meetings. In 1648 they produced a weekly paper called The Moderate. In 1649 the House of Commons abolished both monarchy and the Lords on the grounds that they were "useless and dangerous". Although the Levellers did not win power, they were a major factor in shifting opinion and bringing a republic. The party had a strong base in the New Model Army amongst the rank and file soldiers and their elected spokesmen, called agitators. Without the Levellers England would not have become a republic. A republican party is the instrument for organising effective republicanism. The Republican-Leveller party played a decisive role in shifting opinion and bringing down the monarchy. Let us fast-forward to 1902 and the first Marxist party in Britain, the Social Democratic Federation. It was the year of Edward VII's coronation. So the SDF decided to write an 'Open letter to the king'. This recognised that "the great and growing popularity of the king is not undeserved". They called upon his royal highness to use his position to "improve the well-being of Englishmen at home and to save from utter ruin their greatest dependency abroad". If the king did this he could make "a name in history which mankind will look back to with admiration and respect". The SDF leaders were 'Labourite' in their support for traditional political institutions. Fortunately the left wing of the SDF took a rather different position. They referred to the king as "the little corpulent man who is the legal head of the capitalist state of Great Britain" and concluded by saying: "Away, kinglet, hie you home and set your house in order. Soon we, the workers, shall come to visit your palace and on the topmost turret raise the red flag of the socialist republic" (R Challinor The origins of British Bolshevism London 1977, p16). The left wing was based in Scotland. It involved George Yates and the great revolutionary republican and socialist, James Connolly, a leading member of the Irish Socialist Republican Party. In 1900 Connolly and Yates had fought with police and loyalists in Dublin during mass protests against queen Victoria's jubilee. The republican spirit was alive and well. The contrast between the 'Labourites' and 'republicans' was so divergent as to indicate a potential split. In April 1903 the left, through the Scottish committee of the SDF, disaffiliated and held a conference in Edinburgh to form a new party. When it came to choosing a name, two were proposed - the Republican Socialist Party and the Socialist Labour Party. Should we choose 'Republican' or 'Labour'? The dialectic was posed. Many delegates supported 'RSP', but Connolly favoured 'SLP' and this carried the day. The new party wanted to link with Daniel DeLeon and the American SLP. This was ironic, given that Connolly would lead the 1916 republican uprising in Dublin. If we fast-forward again to the 1920s we find the same dialectic posed by Trotsky in a pamphlet entitled Where is Britain going? He goes straight to the heart of the matter. He contrasts Labourism with the democratic and republican tradition. In his polemic against MacDonald, Snowden, Lansbury et al he contrasts their pacifism, hypocrisy and reformism with Cromwell, "the dead lion of the 17th century "¦ who is greater than many living dogs". He thinks of Cromwell as a 17th century Lenin who decided the future of parliamentary democracy by extra-parliamentary action. Cromwell's 'holy squadrons' decided the outcome at Marston Moor and Naesby. Trotsky goes on to link this to Chartism, the mass democratic movement in the 1840s. This has many lessons for working class political action. On one side Labourism and on the other we have the republican and Chartist tradition. The former accepts the political system of constitutional monarchy and seeks economic and social reforms within its boundaries. The latter puts political action first and fights for radical democratic change in the system of government. Now on to the 2001 Socialist Alliance conference. There the SA agreed a programme which contained the demands for the abolition of the monarchy and House of Lords. However, when the question of political priorities arose, the conference divided into 'Labourites' and 'republicans'. The former faction, led by the SWP, put forward a limited set of economic and social reforms, which reflected the values of the old Labour left. The republican trend, led by the CPGB and supported by the Revolutionary Democratic Group and to some extent the Alliance of Workers' Liberty, put forward a set of democratic republican demands as the priority. Today that contrast exists between the Labourite Respect and the new (republican) Socialist Alliance. Democratic secular republicanism is not a serious force in British politics and cannot become so without a republican party. A republican party is the instrument without which there is no possibility of a republic. In Britain the working class is the only class that can form such a party. The republican Leveller party was transformed through the historical process of class struggle into the monarchist Labour Party. Now, as Labourism reaches the end of the road, we can predict it too will be negated. A new Leveller party will not simply be a repeat. The negation can only mean transcendence to a higher level. The Leveller party was not a working class party. There was no mass industrial working class. Neither were the Levellers a socialist party, despite the fact that socialism is often called 'levelling' by its enemies. A modern republican Leveller party would be a party of the working class. It would have to be a socialist party. It would stand in opposition to the constitutional monarchist state which manages and defends a capitalist market economy. A republican socialist party is not something to be invented. It already exists within the womb of present-day society. That is the power of the slogan as a transitional form. We have to ask, is there any evidence for the birth of a republican socialist party? We need to turn to the SSP, which is a working through of this historical process. It provides us with a concrete example. Despite recent setbacks the SSP has established itself as the working class party to the left of the Labour Party. The SSP was a spontaneous response to political developments in Scotland. The economistic theory of the old Militant Tendency was changed through the struggle against the poll tax and growth of the democratic movement for a Scottish parliament. Scottish Militant Labour combined the old Labourite politics of economic and social reform with the new nationalism. The SSP adopted the long-term aim of an independent socialist Scotland. However, this was not the end of the SSP's evolution. More recently independence moved into the minimum programme, and was no longer dependent on socialism. It is now seen as a step towards socialism. This poses new questions. Will Scottish independence mean a republic or a constitutional monarchy? The answer is a Scottish republic. The SSP is embracing republicanism in a way it did not before. This is reflected in the issue of swearing the oath of allegiance in the new Scottish parliament and in the republican declaration of Carlton Hill. Moving the question of a Scottish republic up the agenda brings the SSP to a similar position held by James Connolly that a republic is a step on the road to socialism. What we have here is nationalism combined with republicanism. The SSP is a nationalist republican socialist party. In England we should take inspiration not from the SSP's nationalism, but from its republican socialism. We must work with our allies in the SSP to overcome nationalism. The best way to do that is to build a sister party, a republican socialist party in England. Then the SSP will recognise its main ally as the working classes in England, not the Scottish National Party.