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A Better Bourgeois Britain?

Republicanism and the National Question

The SLP Republicans advocate a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales and a united Ireland. Supporters of the Marxist Bulletin believe that without specifying the class content, this slogan merely calls for a different form of bourgeois state. After informal discussions outside the SLP Congress in December it was decided that the two groups should debate the question. This took place on 4 March 1998, attended by past and present SLP members and representatives of other organisations. Below is an edited version of the presentation given by the Marxist Bulletin representative.

This debate raises issues that are of crucial importance for socialists. The position of the Marxist Bulletin on the national question, I would like to argue, is one that stands firmly in the tradition of orthodox Marxism. We are consistent opponents of all national oppression. We are opposed to all privilege for any nationality. We are in favour of the defeat of British, American or any other imperialism, of them being driven from those countries that are oppressed by imperialism, from Ireland to Iraq.

But we are not nationalists, we are not nation builders. We see the national question as basically a bourgeois democratic question, that raises its head in many different forms and circumstances around the world. However, the contradiction is that in this epoch of reactionary imperialist capitalism, despite this being a bourgeois democratic question, the capitalists are the main agency of national oppression in the world, particularly, though not exclusively, in the form of colonial and neo-colonial forms of national oppression. Therefore, it logically follows that the only real way to take the national question and national oppression off the agenda is to overthrow the capitalists. That is an abstract, but useful, starting point for this debate.

However, the concrete reality is that Marxists cannot simply say that the only way to solve questions of national oppression is to smash capitalism. This is because national oppression is often a massive, poisonous obstacle to class struggle, contaminating the relations between workers of different nations and ethnic groups. Therefore, the attitude of Marxists is to seek ways, as much as possible under capitalism, to remove the national question from the agenda so that class antagonisms can come to the fore.

Such demands are almost always negative, and are generally posed in terms of the right to self-determination. For example, if the Scottish people decide to secede from the UK, workers particularly in England must support their right to do so arms-in-hand if necessary. That is the logic of support to the right to self-determination. But does that mean we advocate that the Scottish workers should exercise the right to secede? No! We do not advocate that this right be exercised in present conditions. We would not advocate this unless relations between Scottish and English workers had become so poisoned that joint working class struggle had become impossible. Only then would we advocate separation, to dissipate the national hatreds and re-create conditions where joint class struggles become possible.

Our attitude to the Irish question, which is not really the subject of this debate, is related to this, with one difference.

Unlike Scotland, which is a component of the British imperialist robber state, the question of Ireland is in part a colonial question. We are for driving British imperialism out of all its colonies. We are for troops out of Ireland now, irrespective of what the situation is in Ireland itself. But unlike Ireland, we do not demand that the English capitalists ‘leave’ Scotland and Wales, unless the Scottish and Welsh people themselves clearly wish for separation. This is because, unlike Ireland, these nations are not oppressed by imperialism, but have historically benefited from British imperialism’s plunder of peoples such as the Irish, Indians, etc.

And that, generally, is our position on the national question, as applied to these islands. Our position is negative, in the sense that we oppose all national oppression, and not positive, in the sense of actively promoting any ‘nation-building’ type project.

We advocate a socialist solution to these national questions, a voluntary socialist federation of the British Isles, as part of a broader European and international revolutionary perspective. We do not advocate any kind of positive solution to these questions under capitalism. This is because we do not believe such questions can be really solved under capitalism.

On many of the foregoing considerations the SLP Republicans will no doubt express some level of agreement. Yet the core of these comrades’ perspective is to provide a solution to the national question under capitalism. At least that is what their propaganda appears to say. For instance, the Republican Platform, a document by the SLP Republicans that was circulated in the SLP before the December 1997 Congress, argues for a strategy to achieve socialism that I can only describe as one of two-stage revolution. That is, first we need to perfect the bourgeois-democratic state that we live in, and only later can we struggle programatically for the overthrow of capitalism itself. They demand a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales, and separately a united Ireland, with no statement of the class nature of this federation. It appears that they advocate, as a main point of their propaganda, a reformed bourgeois state.

There is nothing wrong with raising negative demands within the framework of capitalism for the abolition of particular anti-democratic institutions such as the monarchy. But this goes further and recommends some sort of improved capitalist rule to the working class as a positive goal to strive for. The job of socialists in the late-twentieth century is not to seek to perfect the bourgeois state apparatus.

Our job is to fight for a replacement for it. Even Marx, in the aftermath of the Paris Commune in the late nineteenth century when capitalism was still barely in its middle age, argued that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.’

From this Marx and Engels drew the conclusion that, rather than seeking to perfect the existing state machine, or to ‘transfer the military bureaucratic machine from one hand to another’, it was necessary to ‘smash’ the existing capitalist state machine.

The number of occurrences of the term ‘republican’ in the SLP Republicans’ propaganda is rather odd for a socialist grouping, as indeed is their name. Of course, any would-be socialist who is not a republican, is not a socialist either. Any real socialist is for the abolition of the monarchy, and all hereditary privilege. This is an elementary democratic question that is not exclusive to socialism, indeed it is the legacy of the bourgeois revolution, of the regicides Robespierre and Cromwell, as well as Lenin and Trotsky. But it is not enough for a socialist to declare himself/herself a republican. Though all genuine socialists are republicans, it does not follow that all republicans are socialists, or partisans of the working class. The SLP Republicans, who come from the tradition of the Revolutionary Democratic Group (a 1980s splinter group from the SWP), regard this label as in some way a badge of revolutionary tradition, derived from the history of republicanism in Ireland.

Many on the British left have considerable illusions in Irish republicanism. It is worth considering, however, that both of the main parties of Irish capitalism have their origins in this republicanism, a fact that itself speaks against the idea that socialists should indiscriminately identify themselves with ‘republicanism’. Many republicans are open enemies of the working class. I have no interest in adopting a label that identifies me with the likes of Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich, not to mention the fascistic German Republikaner party.

In Britain it is quite unusual at this point for overtly anti-working class reactionaries to proclaim themselves republicans. This is because of the prolonged reactionary role of the monarchy as a prop of British capitalism. The monarchy has done a good job for the British ruling class because of the myth that it is ‘outside’ the class struggle. But if the monarchy were to lose its mass support (and recently there have been signs of that) then the more far-sighted capitalists would consider changing the clothing of the British state. In such a circumstance, which is not hard to imagine (indeed it is already happening in Australia), the SLP Republicans’ call for a bloc of all ‘Republicans’ should logically put them in a popular front with a wing of the ruling class. This is the logic of Menshevism, when social struggles erupt and the bosses manoeuvre to maintain their power.

But even today, the Republicans’ politics lead to utopian (and therefore ultimately reactionary) conclusions on how a working class party can be organised. For instance, the Republican Platform states:

‘A republican SLP must be a new type of anti-capitalist party, within which both socialists and communists can work together and openly debate their differences. We do not see any future for the SLP as the party of old Labour. Nor do we see the SLP as an old-style communist party of the 1950s and 1960s. A republican SLP has the potential to unite ex-Labour Party socialists with those from a communist and Marxist tradition. Whilst socialists and communists have important political differences, republicanism can provide a focal point for party unity’. (emphasis added).

Even worse, later on they write:

‘We accept that the SLP is not a communist party. But we want communist aims and principles to be accepted as a legitimate component of the SLP. This should be identified in the SLP constitution’.

This is a hopeless centrist schema. Revolutionary Marxism (‘communism’) and reformism (‘socialism’) are utterly incompatible programs, that have fundamentally counterposed aims. One wants to preserve the existing state and social order, in order to at best make it nicer for the working class. The other seeks the overthrow of the existing social order, and the smashing of the existing state.

No reformist leadership will sit back and passively tolerate a revolutionary current winning influence within their party. They will use every means possible to stop this, including every bureaucratic measure imaginable, to smash revolutionary influence in the party. That is natural, it is the logic of the two counterposed programmes. The idea that there can be ‘party unity’ between Marxists and reformists around the programme of something as vacuous as ‘republicanism’ is a betrayal in theory of Marxism.

Marxists are not cowardly sectarians; we do not abstain from seeking to advance our programme in an organisation led by reformists when an opportunity arises (as it did with the SLP).

But we do not propagate the idea that there can be ‘party unity’ between fundamentally opposed programmes. We never did ‘accept’ that the SLP is not a communist party. The idea that a party dominated by reformists can ‘accept’ communist aims as ‘legitimate’ is nonsense. We fought to advance our programme in the SLP, in a serious, organisationally loyal manner. But we never believed in this nonsense about a hybrid ‘communist–labour party’ – one or the other programme had to prevail in the party.

Fighting for a revolutionary programme means waging a struggle to defeat reformism in the organisation we are struggling to influence. Scargill at least understood, from the other side of the barricades, this political logic. The logic of his refusal to break with reformism was to struggle to smash the subjectively revolutionary elements in the SLP. Scargill was prepared to wreck the whole party project rather than allow revolutionary ideas to gain influence. The co-existence of reformism and revolutionary Marxism in the same party is an episode, an exception, not a stable state of affairs. There can be no ‘party unity’ between Marxism and reformism.

The SLP Republicans’ programme is a variant of the maximum–minimum programme, which is characteristic of social democracy and those reformist/centrist groups that orbit it. They put forward minimum demands, centred around the monarchy, the need for constitutional reforms of the British state, etc. They also raise, in a possibly genuinely confused manner, demands that are in fact transitional, such as workers’ control of industry, workers’ councils, etc. And finally, they talk abstractly about the need for a workers’ republic, for world communism, for a classless society.

Yet they attack the Marxist Bulletin as ‘ultra-left, and therefore reactionary’ for advocating the replacement of parliament by a workers’ state, based on workers councils, as a strategy for this epoch. The SLP Republicans do not see that demands for workers’ control of industry, if seriously advocated when an opportunity arises, immediately pose the need to control the state as well. That is, they pose the need for the dissolution of the capitalist state. Our supposedly ‘ultra-left’ Trotskyist programme is based on a conscious recognition that any serious challenge to the economic power of the bosses must also challenge state power. Otherwise, any gains made will be short-lived. It is this approach, linking everyday demands of workers with the need to challenge the bosses for state power itself, that the Marxist Bulletin became known for in the SLP. It was the main thrust of our criticism of Scargill.

In a slightly different way, it is the thrust of our critique of the SLP Republicans as well. It is important to understand we are not talking about immediate armed insurrection, which is a caricature of our position that has been used before and no doubt will be used again. The consciousness of the working class at this point is far from revolutionary. However, we are talking about what perspective socialists should advocate as the goal of the labour movement in this period. Should socialists advocate as the goal of the labour movement, and all its demands and struggles, the goal of a workers’ republic? Should we seek to link the demands of the present to more advanced demands that, while not in themselves amounting to the overthrow of capitalism, point to the need for the class to take power in this historical epoch?

Should we fight for a system of transitional demands, seeking to build a bridge that, however long its span, points to the need for revolution?

Or should we advocate a reformed ‘Republican’ capitalism in the here and now, and talk airily of socialism and revolution in a different historical period? In other words postponing the struggle for socialism to another age while we tinker with the existing capitalist state? That, I believe is the nub of this debate, and of our differences with the SLP Republicans.