A Chartist trade union party?

Steve Freeman

Trade unionists and socialists approach the issue of party from a different angle. Over the last few years the Rail, Maritime and Transport trade union has become the most active and militant representative of the trade union movement. The RMT is prepared to take on the employers with industrial action. On this year’s May Day in London the RMT had the most impressive section on the demo. A large contingent of transport workers marched behind an excellent display of banners and flags that stood out for its organisation.

The RMT has been in the forefront of challenging New Labour. Because of its militant opposition to Blair it is now disaffiliated from Labour. In Scotland the RMT has affiliated to the Scottish Socialist Party. In January the union called a conference to discuss the issue of working class representation. Bob Crow, RMT general secretary, addressed the conference with a plea not to see the issue of working class representation in the narrow terms of party.

Unfortunately the vast majority of socialists took little notice. They had come to promote either Respect or the Socialist Party’s call for an alternative Labour Party. Only the speakers from the Green Party and Forward Wales spoke about how parliament worked. The Green Party speaker raised the issue of proportional representation and John Marek (FW) made the case that parliamentary rules and red tape acted as a barrier to MPs proposing progressive legislation.

Trade unions are concerned with representation at work. But they also need to have real influence over legislation. They need a seat at the top table, whether in negotiations with employers or making laws in parliament. In the 1970s the TUC would be invited to Downing Street for ‘beer and sandwiches’. Those days are long since gone. But trade unions still need real influence in changing laws that affect workers. This may be reformism, but it is not something that socialists should ignore or dismiss.

Trade union and working class political representation has therefore two sides to it. First is the question of whether parliament and the constitution enable trade unions and the working class to have real influence over government and the state. Second is whether there is a party that can properly represent and defend the interests of trade unionists.

In the 19th century these two sides of working class representation can be found in Chartism and Labourism. Chartism was the first mass, working class, democratic movement. It demanded the right to vote and annual parliaments. Working class representation meant first and foremost political reform. Male working class suffrage, achieved between 1868 and 1884, and later the women’s suffrage movement, opened up parliament to the working class and trade unions.

Constitutional change made a trade union party possible. The Labour Party grew out of a long and successful struggle for political reform. Whereas Chartism put political reform on the agenda, the rise of Labourism removed it. Labour now accepted the reformed Tory constitution as setting the boundaries of working class politics. Social reform would be won within the framework of the Tory constitution.

The monarchy symbolised a stable constitution. In 1923 the first Labour government took office. Ramsay MacDonald went to Buckingham Palace, as convention required. He went down on bended knee before king George. Labour swore its oath of loyalty to the crown and hence to the British establishment. Labour’s attitude to the constitution remained conservative until 1997.

As Professors Kavanagh et al say: “Constitutional change was a live issue before 1918, indeed until the partition of Ireland in 1922. Thereafter, constitutional issues virtually disappeared from the agenda. The two main parties had a vested interest in preserving the winner-takes-all system of sovereign parliament, first-past-the-post elections and strong government” (D Kavanagh, D Richards, M Smith, A Geddes British politics Oxford 2006, p177). The latter, seen as a virtue of the British system, refers to the ability of government to impose itself on parliament and the working class.

For 80 years the labour movement accepted ‘British democracy’ more or less unchanged. For different reasons the Trotskyists were equally uninterested in parliamentary reform. Militant would introduce an enabling bill to carry out nationalisation. The Socialist Workers Party believed that parliament was a diversion and intended to abolish the whole thing anyway. What was the point in changing it? Political or parliamentary reform was simply absent from the discourse of the socialist movement, whether reformist or ultra-left.

Today’s parliament is widely understood as a weak and feeble institution, incapable of exercising any real control over government. It is tied up by bureaucratic rules and ancient rituals. What is the point in trade unions being represented in parliament if it is useless? When Bob Crow tells the RMT conference there is more to working class representation than a new party, he is making a very valid point. But for the assembled socialists it made no sense at all. The blinkers are on. All that can be envisaged is another Labour Party and another 80 years of constitutional conservatism.

The present system of parliamentary democracy is a barrier to working class and trade union representation. Political reform is a prerequisite for workers and their trade unions to be adequately represented in parliament. Parliament must be radically reformed and this points to the kind of party associated with Chartism. The trade union movement does not need the reheated politics of old Labourism. What is needed is a ‘parliamentary reform workers’ party’ or a ‘Chartist trade union party’.
When Trotsky wrote about Britain in the 1920s, he suggested that the working class would give birth to a new Chartist movement. This would be “on new, immeasurably broader historical foundations”. Trotsky’s insights into the importance of Chartism for the future of our movement are profound. Now that Labourism is played out, the time is ripe for the trade unions to create a new Chartist party: “On a new and higher basis it will inevitably return to many of the ideas and methods of Chartism” (L Trotsky Writings on Britain Vol 2, London 1974, p84).

Socialism starts with different motives from those of trade unions. We do not begin with working class representation, whether in parliament or the workplace. Our aim is to end capitalism altogether and replace it with socialism. For this aim a democratic, secular republic is essential. This is why we need a party that is republican and socialist.

The classic example of a republican socialist party was the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Its tasks were defined as “waging war on two fronts simultaneously: one against the tsarist autocratic system of government, the other against the owners of capital” (N Harding Lenin’s political thought London 1977, p51). These stood for the political and economic sides of the class struggle.

The word ‘Democratic’ in the RSDLP’s name refers to its aims in the political struggle. The autocracy would be replaced with a democratic republic. The democratic revolution would precede the socialist revolution. The republic would lead towards socialism either through the more rapid development of capitalism or through permanent revolution.

Consequently “Russian Social Democrats set themselves the task of propagating democratic ideas among the working masses” and the need to achieve “political liberty and the democratisation of the Russian political and social system” (VI Lenin CW Vol 2, Moscow 1977, p332). The working class was the only resolute champion of democracy and vanguard of a democratic revolution.

The RSDLP’s militant and revolutionary republicanism flowed naturally from its democratic aims. In 1905 Lenin wrote the classic text on Marxist tactics for winning a republic by means of a provisional government and constituent assembly, Two tactics of social democracy. The RSDLP’s emphasis on political struggle stood in sharp contrast with the Russian ‘economists’. Like their cousins, the British Labourites, they wanted to prioritise the economic struggle and convert the party into an appendage of trade union reformism.

The late development of capitalism and the working class movement in Russia meant that Marxism gave birth to a republican socialist party. However, such parties can be formed under different national and historical circumstances. James Connolly founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party in 1896. He understood correctly the relationship between republicanism and socialism. As a leader of the 1916 Easter Uprising in Dublin, he supported the proclamation of a provisional republican government.
In 1974 the Irish Republican Socialist Party was formed by Seamus Costello and his allies: “The word ‘Republican’ was deliberately put first to emphasise the struggle for national liberation” (IRSP website, 1977 article on Costello). The IRSP proclaimed: “We firmly stand by the struggle for a republic. On that we are inflexible, but our struggle for the republic is a means to an end.”

The term ‘republican socialist’ is therefore no accident. It implies a definite relationship between republicanism and socialism. It is the same as that identified by Marx, Engels, the RSDLP, Lenin and Connolly. It is about ends and means. It is a transitional relationship. Where the national question exists, republicanism is inevitably linked to national liberation. The IRSP defines this “as that struggle which seeks to force a British military withdrawal from the occupied Six Counties ... The withdrawal of British political influence from all parts of Ireland” (IRSP website).

The Scottish Socialist Party provides us with a different example. It is committed to fighting for a Scottish republic and socialism. However, whether the SSP is a republican socialist party or very nearly an example of one is open to argument. The SSP’s politics has been evolving towards more definite republicanism. The point about all these examples is that they are not carbon copies. They are not all Marxist parties, let alone the same kind of Marxism. There are a range of such parties - revolutionary, centrist and left nationalist.

In England there is no republican socialist party or indeed any republican party. The CPGB’s Mike Macnair argues on the Socialist Alliance e-list that the perspective of forming a republican socialist party - whether in England, across Britain or the UK - is unrealistic. He argues that Labour lefts will only unite with the far lefts - if the relation of forces demands it - on certain terms. They may leave “open the question of reform or revolution”, but will guarantee that the far lefts practise political loyalty to the existing state regime.

Mike mentions a series of stumbling blocks, including “that such a unity should not openly campaign for the abolition of the monarchy” (let alone for universal military service, a popular militia, and the right to keep and bear arms). He mentions immigration controls, anti-Europeanism and control over the party’s elected leaders. He is surely thinking about Respect.

In fact the perspective of a republican socialist party is at first sight even more unrealistic than Mike initially claimed. We face the massive weight of conservatism in the British working class and socialist movement. Historically we have suffered the ideological dominance of Labourism over the trade unions and Trotskyism over the socialist movement. British Trotskyism, like Labourism, is a major blockage. Of course Mike accepted this.

However Labourism and Trotskyism have been engaged in a long struggle. In the clash between the Titans of British labour, ‘reform’ has confronted ‘revolution’. Thesis confronts antithesis. This massive ‘Berlin Wall’ to republican socialism is not as impregnable as it might first appear. The dialectic is still at work breaking down the permanent deadlock. The clash of thesis and antithesis will produce its own synthesis.

This synthesis of reform and revolution, or Labourism and Trotskyism, will shape any new party. A republican socialist party can be the outcome of such a synthesis. From the side of Marx and Trotsky comes republicanism. Marx and Engels were militant democrats and republicans. Trotsky brings the idea of transitional politics. Socialism is not an event, but a process. From the side of Labourism we have the socialist clause four and the experience of a party linked to the trade unions.

In practice what has actually emerged from the clash of the Titans? In the main the Scottish Socialist Party, Respect and in embryo the Socialist Party’s Campaign for a New Workers’ Party. Are any of these a real synthesis of Labourism and Trotskyism? Can any of them be seen as a republican socialist party? What is clear is that Labourism and Trotskyism are in crisis. Cracks are appearing in the old Berlin Wall.

Recently Nick Rogers discussed the kind of workers’ party we need (Weekly Worker April 6). The strength of his argument is in outlining the crisis and failure of Labourism and the crisis and failure of Trotskyism. He is quite clear that we do not need a new Labour Party and identifies the importance of Marxism and its emerging case for democracy and republicanism. But the weakness of his argument is not identifying the process or dialectic. Consequently he does not seem to see Respect and the SSP as real forces emerging from the crisis.

Let us now go back to the issue of party. If we begin with the idea of a mass party based on the trade unions, we can arrive at the need for a new Chartist Party - a working class party demanding political or parliamentary reform. If we begin from the side of socialism, we can arrive at a synthesis of Labourism and Trotskyism as a republican socialist party. This means that the potential exists to bring the advanced sections of the trade union movement and advanced sections of the socialist movement into a new relationship to the mutual benefit of both.




June 2006

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