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“British politics urgently needs a new force – a movement on the Left to counter capitalism’s crisis. If a new, networked movement of the Left could agree on some key principles, and avoid creating another battleground for ultra-left sects, it could give a voice to million … a movement uniting all those desperate for a coherent alternative to the tragedy of austerity, inflicted on this country without any proper mandate”. (Owen Jones ‘Independent’ Sunday 20 January 2013)

Austerity, Democracy and the Social Republic

The tragedy of austerity flowed from the global financial and economic crisis of capitalism, the policies of the Tory Coalition and the employers’ offensive against working people. The policy of combining inflation and austerity shifted the burden of the crisis from the rich to the working class and the unemployed. The government has continued Labour’s neo-liberal policies of privatization and deregulation and applied them to the NHS and welfare provisions. The working class movement remains on the defensive as the government seeks new ways to limit workers rights and attack the unemployed and welfare claimants

A proper mandate is a democratic question. The programme of the Coalition was never put before the electorate. It was a very British ‘coup’, cobbled together after the 2010 general election. But this is no minor issue. The reactionary policy of a ‘top down’ reorganization of the NHS was overwhelmingly rejected by the people before the election. The lack of a proper mandate was not exceptional but part of a pattern of unaccountable behaviour which includes the denial of civil rights to miners and their communities in 1984, the abolition of the GLC, the anti-union laws, the imposition of the poll tax, the treatment of the Hillsborough victims and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq etc.

The United Kingdom is not a democracy. The Crown is a liberal oligarchy whose rule is legitimized by parliament and supported by a powerful democratic ideology. People may not like or believe in austerity but if the majority thinks it is ‘democratic’ they will tend to accept it as legitimate. The left has tended to turn a blind eye to the importance of this. Some of the left do so because they want to play the same parliamentary game. In a political system in which power is concentrated in the institutions of the Crown, violations of democracy and civil rights are the norm not the exception.

From 1942-48 following the publication of the Beveridge Report the UK adopted a policy of what can best be described as ‘social monarchy’ – as the British constitutional monarchy became a ‘welfare state’. Again this policy was implemented from above by the Crown. It was a response to growing pressure from the working class, expressed in the 1945 general election, and in the face of instability and the danger of revolution across Europe as a result of the defeat of fascism. The ‘social monarchy’, now associated in the minds of the post war generation with the NHS and the reign of Elizabeth II, remains popular. But it has been virtually destroyed by Thatcher and Blair, by neo-liberal globalization and the policies of Washington and Brussels.

There will be no return to a ‘social monarchy’ as ‘One Nation Labour’ seems to suggest. There must be a coherent alternative. A modern democratic welfare state will not come from the Crown but ‘from below’ by the democratic mobilization and organization of the people and the establishment of a ‘social republic’. The ‘Commonwealth of England’ is the historic link to the first and failed attempt at a social republic during the English revolution of 1647-49. Today this recognises the new political realities of the national question. The republican left in England has no interest and should have no intention of imposing a social republic on Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. National self determination and the spirit of ‘internationalism from below’ must stand for an ever closer voluntary union of the people of these countries.   

Levellers, Chartists and Suffragettes         

Three great democratic movements have shaped the UK’s parliamentary democracy. The first came out of the democratic revolution and the struggle of the Levellers between 1647 and 1649. It culminated in 1649 with the declaration of the republic and the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords. Two hundred years later the Chartist movement fought for the right of working people to have the vote and be represented in parliament. This struggle was continued in the early twentieth century by the Suffragettes.

Chartism was the first mass working class movement. It put the struggle for democracy at the heart of working class politics. The six point People’s Charter was moderate in its demands. But constitutional change was seen as a threat to those in power. Opening up parliament to the working people would change the nature of politics and enable the working class to demand and win social reforms. For the ruling class Chartism conjured up the spectre of French republicanism.

Chartist movement had two wings – reformist and revolutionary. Although they stood candidates for parliament on forty occasions, it was, in the main, an extra parliamentary movement for constitutional change which organised petitions, strikes and demonstrations. In Newport in 1839 the Chartists attempted an insurrection. Chartism had a broad appeal partly because it did not require supporters to commit to particular tactics as expressed in the terms of non-violent versus armed struggle, legal or illegal activities and parliamentary versus extra-parliamentary action.  

The Levellers, Chartists and Suffragettes did not finish or complete the struggle for democracy. The present economic crisis highlights the magnitude of the failure of democracy. The overwhelming concentration of power in the hands of the Crown has enabled support and protection to be guaranteed to the City and the major corporations. Parliament as currently constituted proved unable to represent and defend the interests of the people. In the 21st century the left must produce its own Great Reform movement, one which can forcefully make the case for democracy, not only in politics and law but in the workplace and local communities.

The new republicanism  

In the UK post-war republicanism grew out of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement. In the 1980s the Hunger Strikes transformed republicanism into a mass movement led by Sinn Fein based in the nationalist working class communities of Belfast and Derry. Subsequently Sinn Fein was incorporated into the constitution through the Irish Peace Process. The anti-poll tax movement provided the seeds for a new republicanism in Scotland. The poll tax struggle fed into the establishment of a Scottish parliament which in turn proved to be a step on road to self determination. In 2008 the Scottish Socialist Party organised the first Republican Socialist Convention in Edinburgh with supporters from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

In 2008 the financial and economic crisis has transformed the situation, provoking popular anger and democratic protests and uprisings. In Iceland in 2009 riots and protests produced demands for a new democracy. A constituent assembly was set up to draft a new constitution. By May 2010 the crisis spread to Greece. It took on a new dimension with the protests in Tunisia in December 2010. The Arab spring began as mass democracy movements spread across North Africa and the Middle East. The Egyptian pro-democracy movement organised a mass occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo.

In 2011 the Arab spring inspired the protests in Spain beginning on ‘15 May’. Various social networks organised with the ‘Real Democracy Now’ [Democracia Real YA] group. In September 2011the Occupy movement began in New York when ‘Occupy Wall Street’ set up camp in Zuccotti Park. The central democratic slogan was “We are the 99%”. By October 2011 the protests spread to 95 cities in 82 countries. The Occupy movement showed that demands for real democracy were not limited to authoritarian regimes but embraced a section of the people disillusioned with liberal democracy.

Occupy London began on 15 October 2011 when a march to the Stock Exchange ended at St Paul’s Cathedral and maintained a ‘permanent’ camp until it was closed by legal action on 28 February 2012. Occupy London organised using a model of consensus democracy developed in the US. The ‘Initial Statement’ agreed by over five hundred people on the steps of St Paul’s has ten points, which begins “The current system is unsustainable. It is undemocratic and unjust. We need alternatives”. The Statement of Autonomy defines Occupy as “a people’s movement….. by the people and for the people” – the same passed by the General Assembly at Occupy Wall Street in November 2011.

Occupy was not a socialist or class based organization. Its ideas of citizen’s activism, direct action and real democracy and slogans about “a people’s movement” should be seen as a new kind of republicanism-from-below. This was extended by the establishment of the People’s Assemblies movement, in the campaign for a new constitution or ‘Agreement of the People’ and in various active citizenship campaigns such as 38 Degrees and UK Uncut.

Republican Socialist Party

A republican movement will draw support from all democratic forces, such as those people campaigning for civil liberties, women’s rights, environmentalism, and against racism, fascism, and the imperialist wars. The republic should become the focal point for the democratic aspirations of all who suffer oppression in its many and varied forms. The question is how should working class activists relate to the movement? The answer is that we need a new type of party.

A republican socialist party is the party of working class republicanism. It is the voice of working class activists in the broader democratic movement. The party builds the movement and the movement grows support for the party. This is a new type of party because it aims to unite social democrats and communists into one party. This is a departure from the historic traditions of the British working class since the Russian revolution which divided the left into a Labour Party and a Communist party. More than this, it takes us back to the Leveller party and the Chartist party, which made democracy a priority and fought for it by militant means.

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  1. Philip P says:

    This reads likes a vaguely Eurocommunist tract. I also think things have moved on since the Levellers and Chartists.

    Isn’t the rest of the left republican? I can’t see why you can’t just support the Left Party platform, I don’t see much difference between the two platforms.

    Personally I’m for the socialist platform.

    • Steve F says:

      The Left party platform is not republican otherwise the word would appear in their platform. Of course virtually all the left is anti-monarchist and when socialism arrives they will sweep it all away. But in the present it is tolerable and not worth doing anything about because it may upset those who love royalty etc. The Socialist platform is not republican either since it does not mention it. But of course when socialism arrives and money is abolished the monarchy will go too.

      The Labour Party and the ultra left share a common view in opposing republicanism or opportunistically kicking it into their socialist long grass. Republicanism for the ultras is very future not present. This is the traditional politics of the British left which is dying if not dead. Republican socialists have a different approach by making the struggle for democracy the priority. It is ok to say we are European but we are not a communist platform although it is supported by revolutionary communists.

      The socialist platform is a communist platform and revolutionary. It just doesn’t have the honesty to say so. The CPGB minor amendments tidied it up and called it communist. I think the charge of Euro-communism might be pretending to be communist when you are not or being communist and pretending you are not. Don’t know yet which way it is.

      The creation of Revolutionary Marxist Communist Left Unity party alongside the SWP and the Socialist Party is non starter. All the communist revolutionary fragments will be in one party in opposition to the SWP and the SP. The 3 revolutionary party model is not a solution. Neither does the United Revolutionary Fragments Party have much prospects. As soon as all the non-revolutionaries have gone there will be a big punch between rival revolutionaries followed by a three way split.

  2. John Collingwood says:

    This piece makes a strong appeal to the spirit of the Leveller and Chartist movements, and also appears to welcome the appearance of the Occupy movement as a genuinely new face on the present scene – as an exemplar of the sort of fresh approach that is needed to reinvigorate real democracy.

    But in the final paragraph it drops straight back into the old-style working class struggle, party-political framework, apparently abandoning any ambition to learn from past experience. How is it a ‘new type of party’ just by aiming ‘to unite social democrats and communists’ when the pre-Bolshevik Russian left already did that over a century ago?

    This is a pity because there are a lot of good points in the preamble, which signal the need to take hold of the political initiative wherever possible, rather than merely slot another opposition party into the existing capitalist state system.

  3. Steve F says:

    Dear John

    We are pleased that you have recognised we are proposing something new, even if you are disappointed with the final para. So lets try to explain further.

    The aim of setting up a republican socialist party is new. There has been no such party in England in the post war period – dominated by the Labour Party, Communist Party and later the Trotskyist parties. A republican socialist party is none of these. In our view the time is right for a new direction, not new versions of the old formulae. The Left Party Platform is not new but another attempt at building a version of the SLP, Socialist Alliance, Respect, or TUSC. Neither is the Socialist/Communist Platform more than trying to unite the revolutionary fragments into another Marxist party.

    Many people think we need something new. If it turned up we wouldn’t recognise it or we would scratch our heads in disbelief. Still the idea of a republican socialist party is not really new since it has its roots longer historical traditions. Those roots mean the idea can be ignored but it not easily defeated.

    The RSP will only succeed if it is taken up by young people who will create their own kind of republican socialist party. The current left is relatively experienced with many decades of accumulated knowledge in the politics of Labourism, Communism and Trotskyism. The foundation of a republican socialist is not simply a gathering up of accumulated dogma. It does require and demands some rethinking about politics in the specific conditions the old left finds itself in.

    We cannot invent a different left to the one we have, even if we don’t like it. A republican socialist party will be created by the thinking part of the existing left, warts and all. Old theories about the Labour Party and the Trotksyist party will have to crash and burn. This is what is happening as we speak.

    At the same time we cannot write off the old left unless we have a sectarian mentality. Hence we have identified the sources of left unity in the Labour left, those attracted to LU and the SWP, SP and TUSC. This list of all the groups that everybody hates is not likely to make our ideas popular. Yet we need the best parts of all these tendencies if the right kind of Broad Left party is created. This idea of a united front tells us a republican socialist party will not be created on November 30 even if our platform had majority support. It doesn’t. In Left Unity the main battle is between the traditional politics of Left Labourism (LPP) and Revolutionary Trotskyism (SP)

    LU is the best opportunity the left has had to test out of ideas, some old and some new. At the beginning of the process the old ideas will be king. New ideas will appear on the fringe. It will take a long time for the idea of a republican socialist party to become mainstream.

    [Contact us at RSPlatform@hotmail.co.uk ]

  4. John Penney says:

    You really are impervious to facts which contradict your peculiar bee in the bonnet obsession with the Monarchy , Steve. This article seems to add absolutely nothing to the earlier one from the peculiar and misguided “Republican Socialist Platform – so I’ll simply repeat what I said before. I will add though my surprise that the proponent of this “Platform” seems to lack an even basic understanding of the crucial real world differences between a “Bourgeois Democracy” and an “Oligarchy”.

    It’s a vital difference – between, say, the current UK political reality , and that of Mubarak’s Egypt. To those living in the safety and comfort of a Bourgeois Democracy the undoubted “behind the scenes” power structure of the capitalist class in both types of system may suggest the systems are identical. However any socialist or trades unionist who has tried to agitate and organise in a real Oligarchy would quickly, and painfully, grasp the difference ! Similarly to suggest that the mainly symbolic functions of the Monarchy in the UK (or Holland, Spain, etc, ) makes some made up term like “social monarchy” in any way a useful descriptive term with any meaningful consequences for immediate political action, is laughable.

    You need to be a lot more rigorous in your use of terminology I’m afraid. Despite your insistence to the contrary – all of the other Platforms – yep, ALL of em, simply assume as a basic principal that doesn’t require stating, that a future socialist UK state would have abolished the daft feudal hangover of the Monarchy. It’s just an irrelevant distraction to think that campaigning on this issue NOW – in the midst of the most vicious Austerity Offensive since the 1930’s, has any mobilizing potential within the working class.

    Your entire series of paragraphs under the title of “The new Republicanism”, is complete historical drivel, Steve. You bundle together a series of completely unrelated struggles with completely different aims and historical roots, eg, Irish Republicanism, The Arab Spring, The Occupy Movement, The Poll Tax Campaign, The campaign for Scottish Independence, The unrest in Iceland caused by the post 2008 economic collapse of the Icelandic banks, and then try to co-opt these struggles into some vague “they’re all about mass struggle from below” catch all category of struggle. It doesn’t hang together , Steve. It leads nowhere politically as an analysis. Each of these struggles is too different and too specific to bundle up as examples of one single type. You are all at sea with your windy generalised political rhetoric ,Steve. Give it up mate, it’s actually embarrassing.

    The working class in the UK is in full retreat in the face of a growing capitalist offensive which is hell bent on destroying all of the Welfare State gains of the post 1945 era, smash trades unionism as a potential resistance organiser, reduce the unemployed/disabled unemployed to total destitution, and force wages and conditions of workers generally to the “competitive” levels of migrant workers in Guandong Province or Vietnam. But you want us to prioritise a struggle about the UK “constitution” ! Without anywhere specifying what this struggle should aim for .

    OK. Point one . The UK is not an “Oligarchy”. It is a pretty conventional Bourgeois Democracy. This is fundamentally different to an “Oligarchy” . This is not to deny that the rich haven’t got hugely more social power than the rest of us – but that’s because it is a bourgeois CAPITALIST society in which even the most “democratic” constitution will be manipulated by the capitalist class with the hugely unequal economic power to manipulate/own the press, bribe politicians, pay for massive lobbying of the political process.

    Let’s imagine a bourgeois democratic state with no ridiculous hereditary Monarchy – even a “constitutionally limited” one like ours, but instead a head of state elected by everyone. Let’s imaging a state with a constitution guaranteeing a wide range of rights to all citizens – enforced by an independent judiciary. Let’s imaging a state with a federal structure, each federal unit with its own legislature, free to make a wide range of tax and revenue and other important decisions to suit each local federal area. You see where I’m going with this ? If I was to go into even more detail about the constitutional structure of the USA it would , on paper, appear to be a perfect constitutional model for a democratic society. But of course the USA is a capitalist society, with an incredibly unequal distribution of wealth. With this wealth the US capitalist class are able to manipulate the entire political and judicial process to suit their own minority ends, and always have done – since the state’s foundation. The fine detail of a bourgeois democratic state’s “constitution” isn’t the actual problem.

    It is capitalism which is the problem, specifically currently worldwide and in the UK, the multi aspect battle against the Austerity Offensive, whether against the privatisation of the NHS, Workfare, benefit cuts, trades union struggle in the workplace, against the scapegoating of the unemployed, anti racism/anti fascist activity, that Left Unity needs to be drawing the working class into struggling against at this point in time – not some very abstract debate about “constitutional structures”. Do you seriously believe that “independence ” for Scotland, or Wales, would in itself significantly shift the balance of economic, and hence, class, power away from the globalised capitalist class to the Scottish, or Welsh, working classes ? If you do, your “Platform” needs to explain this in concrete terms. Would abolishing the Monarchy , in itself, do this ?

    Your peculiar, naïve, and empty rhetoric-rich “Platform” has absolutely nothing to say about any of the vital real world issues facing real working people today. And of course nothing concrete to say about any proposed “constitutional reforms” either ! It is abstract windy posturing, with no clearly spelt out tactical or strategic aim or purpose. It is a distraction from the real struggle, ie, a waste of everyone’s time !

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