In a recent editorial Jack Conrad (CPGB) argues (Weekly Worker 498 October 2 2003) that "the SA could commit itself to the aim of a new workers' party. Not an old Labour mark two; rather a revolutionary party basing itself on a clear Marxist programme." As if to disprove himself he turns to the Scottish Socialist Party as his example. He says "riddled with left nationalism though it is, the SSP can nevertheless be used to illustrate what can be done". He then goes on to show how the SSP's intervention in the anti-war movement has enabled them to benefit in contrast to the Liberal Democrats in England. All this is fine except for the obvious point. The SSP is neither 'old Labour Mark two' nor 'revolutionary party basing itself on a clear Marxist programme.' Surely there is another alternative.
Given the powerful conservative grip of Labourism on the minds of the British working class movement, the first and in many ways the 'easy' option is a Labour Party Mark 2. This is the option favoured by the Labour left, and strangely at first sight the SWP. But they are divided on whether this can be achieved inside New Labour or outside through the Socialist Alliance.
The second option is a mass revolutionary party, the aim of all the Marxist groups. But they subdivide into 'transitionals' and 'idealists'. The ëtransitionals' recognize that there is as yet no prospect of such a party. Simply making abstract 'calls' for this is leftist posturing, and what Lenin would rightly have called 'revolutionary phrase mongering'. In contrast the ëtransitionals' focus on how we can take real concrete steps to such a party, taking account of the objective conditions in the class struggle.
The third way, if we can use that famous phrase, is to organize a militant party of the working class. This seeks to unite all working class militants in one independent fighting political organization in opposition to New Labour. Whether militant democrats and trade unionists consider themselves 'reformists' or 'revolutionaries' is not the key question at the moment. Consequently this type of workers party should be described ideologically as 'centrist'.
The RDG considers a militant workers party as 'transitional' to the mass revolutionary party all Trotskyists would like to see. But we have gone one step further to identify its ideological and programmatic character as a 'republican socialist' workers' party. Republican socialism draws not only on the Labour and Marxists traditions, but also on Chartism, the first mass democratic movement of the working class. In Britain today the Scottish Socialist Party, despite its nationalism, is the best example we have so far.
In some ways we are back in the situation at the end of the 19th century, when workers were arguing as to whether the Liberals could best represent working people or whether they needed a new party. The launching of a Labour Representation Committee by the trade union bureaucracy stirs the folk memory of the class. Yet at the start of the 21st century that old argument must be restated on a higher level. The case for a new workers' party cannot be related to the Victorian empire, but to the current crisis of the Elizabethan welfare state and the bankruptcy of parliamentary democracy. Political change, for example the Scottish parliament and the emergence of the Scottish Socialist Party, mean we are already beyond any idea of recreating the Labour Party of Keir Hardie.
Over the last 20 years the failure of parliament has been recognised by wider sections of the people. There is an increasing disconnection between people and the political institutions. Corruption, lies and spin mean that cynicism about government is rife. The war has sharpened up this reality. Blair committed troops to George W Bush's war in a secret agreement at least nine months before it began. He could do this confident that royal prerogative powers would enable him to go to war regardless of the parliamentary arithmetic. As the Hutton inquiry has shown, there was no gap between Downing Street and MI6 when it came to ësexing up' documents and manipulating parliament and the people into a war.
Mass protest struggles expose the real nature of parliament, concentrating the minds of millions. Like the poll tax over a decade ago, the recent Iraqi war sharpened and widened the sense that parliament does not represent the people. As the anti-war protesters pointed out in the run-up to the war, there was no democratic legitimacy or democratic mandate for war. There was no referendum, nor any general election, in which these life and death issues could be put before the people. Parliament simply keeled over and backed Blair. It was no different when Thatcher imposed the poll tax. Parliament proved a useless talking shop, in the pay or the pocket of the Executive.
The parliamentary fish is rotting from the head. The stench is infecting the whole body politic. The loss of trust in the political system shows itself in poor turnouts in elections. The stench is very pungent in places like Burnley, where poverty and alienation are breeding grounds for racism and the growth of the British National Party. The more obvious the bankruptcy and degeneration of the so-called democratic system becomes, the larger will be the pool of people prepared to vote for the BNP.
Republican socialism is not about challenging New Labour with the ideas of old Labour. Blair's constitutional reforms and the integration into Europe have changed the political landscape forever. There is no going back to the 'good old days', by resurrecting the House of Lords or abolishing the Scottish parliament. If socialism is going to be revived it will be through seriously addressing the crisis of democracy and building a mass movement for radical democratic change. Something that socialists have conspicuously failed to do so far!
Dave Craig (RDG)