'Socialism' or 'democratic republic'?

Redrafting the CPGB's Draft programme: Mike Macnair calls for a change in terminology

Section 4.2 of the CPGB Draft programme, on ‘The socialist constitution’, was discussed at the June 29 communist forum in London. The section is a particularly important one. As a couple of comrades said in discussion, the large majority of the left defends wholly economistic approaches which ignore the question of democratic political forms - leaving them politically disarmed when these questions come to the fore.

Comrade Jim Moody introduced the section. The introductory part explains the socialist constitution as growing out of the working class’s struggle for political power, so that the organs of working class struggle become organs of working class state power. But the aim of this constitution is to facilitate its own negation, as the state withers away with the abolition of classes. The constitutional demands therefore describe a process, not a fixed state. Comrade Moody suggested that this introduction could perhaps be made shorter in order to allow more detail in the substantive demands.

In relation to the specific bullet points, he said that much of the content of these was uncontroversial. He drew our attention specifically to five of them, and the discussion centred on these.

The first bullet point was that “supreme power in the state will be in workers’ councils, composed of delegates who are elected and recallable”. This had been discussed usefully by Nick Rogers in previous articles (Weekly Worker November 23 2006January 25 2007). The class struggle would, in fact, throw up a wide range of forms - factory committees, street committees, etc. There was some danger of the text appearing to commit us to a schema, based on the Russian Revolution and popular on the far left,1 of a hierarchy of workers’ councils (the elected factory council delegates to the local council, which delegates to the regional council ... and so on). As comrade Rogers had pointed out in his article, such a hierarchy raised practical problems both with accountability to the base, which would be diluted by the multiple levels, and with the idea of proportional representation, raised in the fourth bullet point.

In discussion, comrade Phil Kent and I both made the point that the introductory part, in which the organs of working class struggle become organs of working class state power, can also be read as appearing to commit us to the ‘All power to the soviets’ schema. Comrade Kent made the point that if ‘workers’ councils’ meant delegates from workplaces, retired workers, the long-term sick and homemakers would be politically excluded. I suggested that the programme should focus on the principles - election and recallability, accountability, transparency and so on - rather than the specific organisational forms(delegates from factories).

Comrade Kent made the point that the expression delegatestended to imply imperative mandates, which the CPGB actually opposes. On the issue of the tension between proportional representation and recallability, which comrade Rogers had raised in his articles and comrade Moody brought up in his introduction, I said that recallability was more important than exact proportionality.

On the third bullet point, comrade Moody stated that limiting the right to stand in elections to “all parties which accept revolutionary laws” was problematic: the formula should be something like ‘accept the revolutionary constitution’. In discussion, comrades generally agreed with comrade Moody’s critique of the original formula but differed on what should replace it. Comrade Stan Keable said that the question is, who decides which parties “accept revolutionary laws” or “accept the revolutionary constitution” in order to be allowed the stand in elections? The formula could be a vehicle for bureaucratic tyranny. Comrade Kent made the point that Sinn Féin had been able to stand in Six County elections while the IRA armed campaign was ongoing. He argued that a workers’ regime should have a similar attitude, aiming to draw into the political process petty bourgeois parties, even if they were engaged in active sabotage.

Comrade Moody said that the fifth bullet point, “Local organs of power should have a broad degree of autonomy”, was important for the question of accountability and recallability, since this was easier to implement at the local level. In discussion, Phil Kent said that the formula begged the question: what were the ‘local organs’? I suggested that we should use Engels’ formulation - self-government of the localities, which applied equally to self-government of workplaces.

The seventh bullet point was correct, comrade Moody argued, to insist on abrogation of international agreements which were against the interests of the working class. But the second half of the bullet point, promising referendums on “key constitutional, international and other questions” was problematic: what was meant by that? And if we were going to have referendums to decide “key” questions, what was the point of the councils? In discussion, several comrades criticised the proposal for referendums as potentially anti-democratic: too much power is given to the people who set the question. Witness Hitler’s plebiscite in 1934 and witness Khomeini’s in the Iranian revolution. Comrade Ben Lewis suggested that referendums might be acceptable as a way of testing public opinion, provided they did not immediately make law.

The ninth bullet point called for the armed forces and police to be “dispersed” and replaced with a workers’militia. Comrade Rogers in his article had raised the question whether we should also demand a people’s militia as an alternative to the standing army: perhaps as a transitional phase in the course of the revolutionary movement. This would not be inconsistent with the demand, elsewhere in the Draft programme (section 3.7), for a workers’ militia based on workers’ organisations. Comrade Moody said this was an important issue to discuss.

Comrade Kent made the small but important linguistic point that we are for the existing army and police beingdisbanded, not “dispersed”, as the current draft mistakenly puts it. He preferred the slogan of a workers’ militia to that of a people’s militia. I said that the shift from ‘people’s militia’ to ‘workers’ militia’ was made by the Comintern. The context was that ‘people’s militias’ in the 19th century often had property qualifications (like the property qualifications which then existed on the right to vote). The essential minimum demand was universal military training and the right to keep and bear arms; the forms of the militia are a separate question. In relation to the constitution of workers’ power after the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, it would be more appropriate to call for a people’s militia.

Comrade Yassamine Mather said that workers’ militia was better. While Britain did not, unlike some countries, have a large peasant class, there would be likely to be reactionary tendencies concentrated in the countryside, and we should not promote the arming of our enemies. Comrade Stan Keable said that the main distinction was between a standing army and a militia: the question was simply how best to pose this issue. Comrade Ben Lewis argued that we should avoid trying to be too concrete. The eventual shape of a workers’ constitution would depend on the course of a wide range of political developments.

In relation to issues which are not in the existing text, I raised something which I had proposed several times before: the rotation of officials, or term limits on holding public office, after which officials should return to a ‘grunt level’ job. I said that, though this idea was not in the classical minimum programmes or the 1918 Soviet constitution, it was present in Karl Marx’s comments on the Paris Commune in The Civil war in France and in Lenin’s State and revolution. The idea had real practical significance, given that we are fighting both ‘parliamentary’ regimes and a workers’ movement which are actually run by an oligarchy of career officials.

This suggestion was criticised by comrade Peter Manson, who argued that there is a need for continuity of experience as well as for ‘fresh blood’: the real means of keeping bureaucracy under control are accountability, transparency and removability of officials, not a bureaucratic restriction on terms served. Comrade Stan Keable also made the point that term limits are a restriction on the rights of the electors to choose who to elect.

On the other hand, it was supported by comrade Mather, who said that the uncodified skills of public office are part of the information which needs to be free, and can only be made free by rotation of officials. Long-term officials develop the skill of avoiding accountability. The constitution should reflect what communists are aiming for, not the practical limits imposed on our present small organisations. This last point - that rotation of officials should be part of our aims for workers’ power, even if our own limits make it impractical immediately - was echoed by comrades Mark Fischer and Ben Lewis.

There is one rather important issue which we did not discuss on June 29. This is the title of the section: ‘The socialist constitution’.

At the Campaign for a Marxist Party fringe meeting at Marxism 2008, comrade Hillel Ticktin criticised the CPGB’s use of ‘socialism’ for the first phase of communism. He said that this usage was absent from Marx and Engels, and even if it was common in the Second International, it had become very problematic after the claims made by Stalin and his allies in the 1930s that ‘socialism’, meaning the withering away of classes and the collective appropriation of the means of production by the freely associated producers, had been achieved in the USSR. In this context the CPGB’s use of ‘socialism’ for the first phase of communism suggested, as did our use of ‘bureaucratic socialism’ to describe the USSR, that we in some way endorse the claim that the USSR (and so on) were ‘socialist’.

In the subsequent discussion at the fringe, comrade Mark Fischer said that he accepted comrade Ticktin’s point on this front. In the time of The Leninist, comrades now in CPGB had used ‘socialism’ and ‘bureaucratic socialism’ in ways which accepted the claim of the bureaucratic regimes to be in some way ‘socialist’. This history meant that we now needed a cleaner break with the terminology in order to express ourselves more clearly.

In this context, the title ‘The socialist constitution’ is particularly problematic. The withering away of classes and the collective appropriation of the means of production by the freely associated producers also implies the withering away of the state. What we mean by the constitutional proposals in section 4.2 of the Draft programme is proposals for - as the section says - a state form that will “facilitate its own negation”. That is, in standard Marxist terms, not ‘socialism’ at all, but the ‘revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat’: or, if we are to avoid the frightening word ‘dictatorship’, working class rule.

We could perhaps call the section ‘The democratic republic’, if we want to follow Marx and Engels and exasperate Trotskyists and anarchists alike. Or perhaps we could call it ‘The constitution of workers’ power’. We should, however, change it from ‘The socialist constitution’ l


1. Comrade Moody said “Trotskyist” and so did comrade Rogers in his articles. But the ‘hierarchy of councils ’ schema is, in fact, shared by Maoists, together with left and council communists.


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