REPUBLICANISM, SOCIALISM AND DEMOCRACY


The following article is from the RCN’s pamphlet published in 2008 and now out-of-print. 


REPUBLICANISM AND THE DEMOCRATIC ROAD TO SOCIALISM


 The role of communists is to develop an awareness of the utility and necessity of democracy - Victor Serge.


As long as democracy has not been achieved, thus long do communists and democrats fight side by side - Frederick Engels


Republicanism in the United Kingdom describes the movement from below for a radical and militant democracy.  For socialists, republicanism addresses those immediate democratic issues faced by the working class in the here and now.  It seeks to develop a programme for expanding democracy under capitalism as far as it will go.  It concerns itself with progressive and in some senses transitional demands. To the extent that we achieve our democratic demands these strengthen our class and weaken the ruling class and its allies.  It is a necessary and unavoidable part of the struggle for socialism.
This democratic struggle is called republicanism in the UK because it highlights that we live in an undemocratic, constitutional monarchy.  The term republicanism also connects us to our own radical history.


Republican struggles in these islands provide a red thread going back to the Levellers in the English revolution, the Cameronians (radical Covenanters) here in Scotland, the struggle of the United Irishmen, the Chartists, and the prospects of Workers Republics raised by James Connolly and John Maclean.  The rise of capitalism and the struggle of the emerging bourgeoisie against the feudal state and church led to a false association between capitalism and the spreading of democracy.  In reality wherever they have achieved power, the bourgeoisie have sought to narrow, limit and impoverish democracy, for the majority of the population.  Consciously or unconsciously they have recognised in the proletariat their future gravediggers.  Hence they have sought to block any democratic path to a genuine republic because, in a truly democratic republic, the bourgeois and their system, capitalism, could not flourish.


Socialists see republicanism today as directly linked to the struggle for the socialist republic tomorrow. However, Republicanism is not a sentimental attachment to yesterday’s struggles.  It helps us develop a strategy and tactics to directly oppose today’s oppressors and exploiters.  To declare for the democratic republic is to declare war against the existing bourgeois state.


 Republicanism in Action


Republicanism in the workplace or trade union means spreading action outwards and upwards from the origin of the conflict or from its most militant site.  It is not about waiting until your faction has won the position of the General secretary-ship of the union or a majority on the party executive.  Industrial republicanism recognizes the sovereignty of the members in their workplaces and branches and not the sovereignty of the Union head office or full-time officials.  Neither is its main purpose to reform the capitalist state and its laws, although it may produce useful reforms such as the legal right to strike or to take secondary action.


Republicanism endorses direct action in the community.  It is not about waiting to ‘win power’ in local or national elections where power is in the hands of the elected few.  Republicanism is about the maximum level of participation in any action with democratic control at the grass roots level. For republicans, contesting local and national elections is not an end in itself. We stand in elections to offer an ideological alternative to capitalism and to challenge the state under which we live.  When the Tories tried to impose their hated Poll Tax in Scotland, tens of thousands (some say hundreds of thousands) took action to resist.  This resistance was spread further, by activists, to England and Wales.  A struggle initiated  in the housing schemes of Muirhouse and Pollok was fought to a famous victory. Tens of thousands of protestors defied the state in Trafalgar Square on March 31st 1990.


When socialists put up candidates for the local elections it was to legitimize actions being taken or considered e.g., campaigning in Council elections on a ‘Don’t Pay the Poll Tax’ slogan. During that titanic struggle millions moved from protesting against an unjust tax to breaking the law and organizing to prevent the rule of the state operating as it wished.  The most militant areas became no go areas for Sherriff’s Officers and representatives of the Labour Party (who’s councils were imposing the tax). This is republicanism in action.
Sometimes latent republican struggles in the community become conscious republican struggles.  In 1969, tens of thousands demonstrated for Civil Rights in (e.g. equal voting and access to jobs and housing) in Northern Ireland.  Their resistance was met by British paratroopers in Derry on Bloody Sunday, January 30th 1972, when 14 peaceful demonstrators were shot down. This was followed by internment without trial.   The republican struggle against the UK state took off.


 Seeing struggles through a republican lens


A republican perspective politicises issues and illuminates a democratic path that leads us beyond capitalism.  It is an energising principle, which brings with it a personal responsibility to think and act like an active citizen rather than a submissive subject.  It allows us to come to grips with the enemy state and thus provides an antidote to passivity in socialist organisations and society at large
Thus campaigns against homelessness and for the building of more council houses are not just about the demand for more homes.  It is an argument about collective rather than private provision of services and about democratic accountability, councillors are elected, Housing Association executives are not.  This then becomes a political not just an economic demand. Similarly the struggle around the defence of asylum seekers challenges the state’s ability to create and control borders and restrict the free movement of people (in contrast to capital, commodities and profits).  Another example is foxhunting.  This can be opposed on the grounds of cruelty to foxes or on the basis of who should control the land.  These examples indicate the militant ways in which revolutionary republicans fight for reforms.


Republicanism is about releasing the latent power of the people, and it means recognising the legitimacy of democratically agreed, direct action taken by ourselves at whatever level.  In short, republicanism is putting the ‘sovereignty of the people’ into action in the here and now.  Republicanism challenges not just the ruling class but also their knowing collaborators in and out of parliament (e.g., trade union bureaucracies)  and their unknowing collaborators (those left organisations that want to restrict class action until it – ‘the chosen party’ – considers the time and tactic is right).  Connolly, for example, acted in true republican fashion when he threw the weight of the Irish Citizen Army behind the Easter uprising despite personally judging the wider organization to be ill prepared.


Making our own organizations democratic


Republicanism is fundamentally about the highest form of democracy.  That is democratic control held by the basic units of the society – workplaces and effective networks within communities.  Elected representatives must always be accountable and subject to recall and dismissal.  If elected representatives are paid, then they should receive no more than the average skilled workers’ wage. This is a vital weapon against careerism and will help eliminate those powerful forces that drive a wedge between the elected and the electorate, the union member and the full timer.


It is imperative that socialists lead the struggle within society to extend absolute democracy to all areas of our lives. To achieve this it is absolutely essential that our own organisations are democratic. This must include trade unions and socialist parties.


The Republican Communist Network’s insist on the importance of republicanism and a democratic constitution within the SSP because we recognise this as the most effective method of decision making i.e. it maximises our ability to produce correct answers to problems we face.  It leads to collective decision making through mutual education and debate.  An active, living democracy allows us to harness the creativity of the membership and honestly reflect on the results of our practice and to quickly amend it in the light of this learning.


A democratic party allows the working class to express itself through its structures.  It is essential to foster a democratic structure that recognises the value of minority views being expressed.  Socialists support elections being conducted on the basis of proportional representation (PR). This is an indispensable demand, both within and beyond our own organisations.  It ensures that minority opinions are always heard and are not silenced, and allows debate between differing points of view; the lifeblood of democracy.
This expresses the essence of the Marxist dialectic whereby our practice develops through the open clash of differing ideas on what constitutes the best way forward..This is an important corrective method for any socialist grouping.  Failure to allow this results in mistakes like the SWP dismissing the 1984-5 miners strike and the Poll Tax as unimportant struggles.  An error of a different nature was  CWI’s prediction of the Red Nineties i.e. that, as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, there would be a massive upturn in working class struggles and through these a politicisation of the class.  In reality the opposite happened.


In each of these cases the lack of an effective internal democratic structure reduced the ability of these organisations to adapt their strategies to deal with reality as it actually unfolded and disproved their earlier predictions.  This inflexibility made them less effective as vehicles to express the needs of the working class.


Ultimately democracy is a living thing.  It cannot be completely captured by constitutions etc.  It can however be enhanced or hindered by such things.  Republicanism embodies such characteristics as openness, egalitarianism and a long term perspective.  Further it recognises that adhering to principle may involve short-term losses.  Republicans within any political organisation will always contest the drift toward bureaucratic control of that organisation by dominant faction(s) whether that control is exerted through the power of their block vote, or via rigging the rules and constitution to stifle dissent.  Republicanism will always challenge those holding office who put their personal interests above those they are elected to represent.


Although republicanism is not communism or socialism it is difficult to imagine how either of these will be achieved without a strongly republican movement and thoroughgoing democracy to guard against the many temptations of managerialism, bureaucracy and totalitarianism.  The struggle for democracy has the potential to unite our class and points the way to revolutionary change and a new form of society.  Indeed socialism can only develop and be maintained under conditions of active, mass, democratic participation in the running of society.  In its absence we have by definition another, non socialist, form of society e.g. as in the former USSR.


Republican consciousness and practice brings the possibility of revolutionary change into the sphere of everyday life.  Revolutionary social change is understood as the culmination of an ongoing and developing revolutionary process rather than a one off event.


The Paris Commune and the workers councils (soviets) in the Russian Empire did not spring out of nowhere. They were the culmination of long struggles to assert popular and workers’ control over people’s lives. Today’s workers’ and popular struggles to retain control of our own organisations and to win and try to establish control over reforms which will improve our lives, are the bridge to this socialist or communist future.  The republican desire to assert our self-determination is but a step on the way to creating a society based on the principle, ‘From each according to their ability; to each according to their needs’.


 Bob Goupillot

 

 

 

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