Liberals and Democrats

Last week Jack Conrad, writing in Weekly Worker (12 July 2018), made a case against a ‘peoples vote’ on the Tory Unionist deal to Exit the EU. He argued that all referenda should be opposed on principle. If any take place they should automatically be boycotted. He argued that behind the present call for a referendum stood the liberals and behind them various capitalists who wanted to halt Brexit.

In a short letter there is no time to deal with complex issues about whether it is right for communists to call for a “peoples vote” in the present conditions of the class struggle in July 2018. If we are opposed in principle then there are no circumstances to agitate for one. If we are opposed in principle then we do not need to waste time discussing which way to vote.

Jack makes valid critiicisms of referenda. But he crosses the road into ultra leftism when he tries to make a general principle out of his criticism. He says “our objection to a second EU referendum is exactly the same as our objection to the first. And it has nothing to do with opinion polls. Referendums are by their very nature undemocratic”.

Self determination referenda

Jacks arguments seem to rest on Kautsky’s views. Kautsky makes strong criticism but does not rule out referenda. Jack notes that “Kautsky claims that referenda might be useful in the weaker, less autocratic states” and says these “Maybe in the US, England and the English colonies, even under circumstances in France”). This is not principled opposition.

The big gap in Jack’s argument concerns the question of self determination. The Bolsheviks demanded the national question be settled by peaceful rather than violent means. The peaceful separation of the Czech and Slovaks is much better that than violence inflicted on the Iraqi working class by the ruling class trying to impose the Iraqi Union on Kurds, Shia and Sunni.

The RSDLP’s 1913 “Thesis on the National Question” (Lenin Collected works 19 p244) says Social Democrats should “b) demand the settlement of the question of such secession only on the basis of a universal, direct and equal vote of the population of a the given territory by secret ballot”. A referendum provides for a peaceful resolution of the national question. No principled opposition here just the opposite.

Democratic demands

Working class democrats are consistent champions of every kind of democratic demand. This does not mean being uncritical. There has to be critical appraisal of all forms of democracy under the rule of capital, such as elections, republics, universal suffrage, referenda and parliaments. This is not an argument to oppose them.

Working class democrats are critical of referenda. Jack gave us historical examples. It is the same approach that Lenin took to the republic. When Engels supported republican slogans he did so by reminding everybody of the limitations of a democratic republic. He had no illusions in universal suffrage or indeed any democratic demands in capitalist society. Criticism of the dangers and limitations of referenda is not, however, the same as opposing all and every one on principle.

Referenda are, like elections and other examples of universal suffrage, an opportunuity for millions to engage in political struggle. They are an opportunity for parties to engage, as the CPGB has done, in class struggle. They are of course political weapons, like elections, which are used by the capitalist class against the working class. Working class parties have learn the threats, dangers and opportunities.

Universal suffrage has been used in referenda and elections to bring dictators to power. Jack reminds us of the anti-democratic coup by Louis Bonaparte “endorsed by a rapidly called referendum, followed by a second in 1852, which made him emperor”. Hitler came to power in January 1933 after an election made the Nazis the largest party in the Reichstag. We cannot stop fascism by abolishing universal suffrage.

Who will decide? – Crown, parliament or people

When 100,000 people march through London demanding the right to vote on the Tory deal we are dealing with a mass democratic demand. Why should 46 million voters not have this right? I was expecting that communists, as the most militant democrats, to be in the vanguard of fighting for the right to vote by demanding working class demonstrations and more decisively political strikes.

Liberals have always been elitists who naturally prefer decisions to be taken by clever and educated people. They feel it is dangerous to allow the ignorant masses to have a say. If they had to choose between 635 MPs and over 800 Lords to decide on the EU or 46 million voters, the liberal elites prefer the former. When liberal Cameron posed as a ‘democrat’ by offering a referendum on the EU it was intended to be ‘advisory’ to parliament.

The ruling class are not going to concede another referenda if they can avoid it. This is clear from the Tory and Labour leaders. It is too risky. At present CPGB is supporting Tory-Labour front bench parliamentary leaders position that ratification of the Tory deal must be carried out by the Crown-In-Parliament alone and that working class people should not be allowed to vote. Their opposition is based on naked class interests and risk assessments.

The CPGB has based their position on a non-principle which negates the right of nations to self determination referenda. We might assume that the CPGB aggregate will discuss their view on the Tory deal and quite possibly vote against it or take no view.

Without any sense of irony, the same communists will vote to oppose the right of working class people to have a vote. Voting is just for Cabinet meetings, the Commons and Lords, or CPGB aggregates. It is a class question and we must demand the rights of the working class to ‘interfere’ with the prerogatives of the Crown and Parliament.


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