Principles, compromises and tactics

In Weekly Worker a debate has begun over a possible future referendum on the Tory ‘Brexit’ Deal. The 2016 EU referendum has divided the UK into reactionaries and ultra lefts on one side and liberals and democrats on the other. The slogan “No to a second (or repeat) referendum and Yes to a Ratification referendum” is not only a democratic slogan but the slogan of working class democracy.

Everybody knows that a people’s referendum means universal suffrage. Hence the members of every class can vote. We also realise that the working class is by far that largest class of voters. On a level playing field working class voters would carry the day. But although the pitch is tilted massively against the working class and the referee has been bribed, working class democracy is not afraid to fight.

A ratification referendum offers the best opportunity to rebuild political unity in a working class deeply divided over Europe. This is opposed by reactionaries and ultra lefts who oppose any referendum AND the liberals who want to repeat the last referendum and overturn the result. Working class democracy does not draw an equal sign between reactionaries who want to leave and liberals who want to remain in the EU.

A second or repeat referendum would further harden the divide in the working class. The liberals are interested in the profits of the big corporations (or ‘jobs’ as they call it) and do not give a fig about working class unity. By contrast advanced workers would relish the opportunity to unite the working class against the Tory government and consign the actual dirty Brexit deal to the dustbin of history.

Hence the task facing communists and democrats is to force the Tories to concede this. The CPGB cannot provide leadership armed with a ‘principle’ of opposing every referendum. It lines up with the Tory government, UKIP and the Tory right and the wobbly Corbyn. It is worse than this. It opposes liberal calls for a second-repeat referendum with an abstract principle.

Let us return to the original debate about the theory of referenda-in-general. Jack Conrad says “Comrade Freeman begins with a bald statement: that Jack Conrad “argued that all referenda should be opposed in principle”. He says “It is certainly true that as a matter of principle the CPGB is opposed to referendums”.

Jack adds a qualification “that this general principle does not translate into one of refusing to call for a referendum under all circumstances. Nor does it translate into a general principle of always responding to a referendum organised by our enemies with a corresponding call for an active boycott”.

Jack illustrates this by reminding us that the CPGB “urged a ‘yes’ vote in Ireland’s May 2015 referendum on gay marriage; the same with Ireland’s May 2018 referendum on abortion. And, in the UK, while being critical of the Liberal Democrat proposal for reforming the parliamentary voting system, the CPGB called for a ‘yes’ in the May 5 2011 referendum”.

At first I had to admit to struggling with this flexible concept of ‘principle’. Maybe we are arguing about the meaning of principles not referenda? I needed to think again. Principles are principles and we have to stand by them on all (or virtually all) occasions.

In Left Wing Communism Lenin reminds us we can compromise our principles. “No compromises” is an ultra left slogan. If we are held up by an armed robber we may have to compromise by handing over our wallet. We live to fight another day. So Jack is right to say the CPGB were not being ultra left when they compromised their principles and handed over their wallets.

Jack confuses the issue by using the word “tactics”. Instead of principles, set aside by honest and necessary compromises, we have principles made meaningless by “tactics”. If every principle can be overthrown by the requirements of tactics we end up with opportunism.

Let us summarise the difference as follows: The CPGB opposes all referenda on principle. This is ‘strategic-programmatic’ opposition. The demand for a referendum cannot and does not appear in the CPGB minimum (or maximum) programme. On the odd occasion that the CPGB is forced to compromise it adopts tactical positions on voting ‘Yes, No, Abstain, or a Boycott’.

Hence the CPGB stood opposed an Irish referendum on gay marriage. Then the CPGB was forced to compromise and drop its opposition and decided to vote yes to gay marriage. This becomes ‘tailism’. Before adopting tactics the CPGB has to disentangle itself from a non-existent Kautskian principle.

By contrast working class democrats do not oppose referenda on principle. The demand for a referendum can appear in the minimum programme. There is no principle to be compromised. It is simply a ‘tactical question’. It is perfectly acceptable to call for a referendum before any other class has done so. It is a matter of analysing the conditions of the class struggle and making a tactical decision (Yes, No, Abstain, or Boycott’).

Let us return from principles to the present. A possible future referendum on the Tory Deal is directly connected to the 2016 referendum. In 2016 the CPGB opposed the referendum and called for a boycott. There was no mass boycott and no mood in the working class to prevent it. It was a theoretical idea based on Kautsky. I doubt if it had a single supporter who was not a member of the CPGB.

A Tory referendum designed by the Tories divided the working class. The interests of the European working class were best served if Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales voted to remain and England abstained. The following votes were cast for remain – Scotland 1.7 million, Northern Ireland 0.44 million and Wales 0.77 million. In England 10.5 million abstained.

Millions of workers voted on these lines. Unfortunately in Wales a majority voted to leave and in England not enough people abstained. Of course I do not claim that anybody read my blogs or letters in Weekly Worker. That would be ridiculous. Workers did what they thought was best in the circumstances. The case for democratic revolution was closely connected with how millions of working people were actually voting.

I did not advocate an All-UK abstention but explained that the working class in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales voting to remain was in the interests of democracy and the wider European working class. The central message was highlighting the link between the European question and the national question. Two years later, this truth shows that Ireland and Scotland (but hardly Wales) present special if not insurmountable problems for the Tory government and Labour Unionists.

Let me turn Dave Macauley’s letter in last week’s paper. He recognises my argument about the EU referendum is intimately bound up with the spectre of the national question. But he responds by standing four square with the Tories and Labour in defending what May called “our precious Union”. He has been taken in by the Anglo-British story in which English socialists defend the annexation of Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

He says my argument “seems analogous to that of ‘any defeat for imperialism is a victory for the working class’ – except that Scotland and Wales have never been oppressed nations. On the contrary, they have been integral parts of the monarchical UK state for centuries”. Slaves are not free because they are happy to be fully integrated into the household of their master.

As Marx said the English working class will never be free while it backs the Anglo-British control of Ireland. This was not separatism but internationalism against the chauvinism of English Unionism. Today we have a variation on the same theme. England will not be free from its Brexit nightmare while maintaining its annexation of Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

The final point concerns Dave’s view of the present conditions. If England voted (marginally) to leave the EU and Scotland, Northern Ireland (and Wales) voted to remain, this would have revolutionary implications for the UK and its constitution. (Crisis of democracy, Weekly Worker – 2 August 2018). Brexit breached the constitutional walls holding reactionary English nationalism and democratic nationalism in Ireland and Scotland in check. Nobody can be sure how the Brexit ‘revolution’ will unravel.

Dave says “the first EU referendum has done nothing for the working class but sow division and stoke anti-migrant feeling”. It got rid of Cameron and Osborne. Now “a Tory Party in disarray has achieved little in talks with the EU, while Labour have been content to watch May squirm”. Both the ruling class and the working class are deeply divided.

The Tories are in chaos. There is no solution in sight. Politics is becoming more confrontational. Is Dave hoping and praying that ‘normal’ politics will be restored sometime soon? Dream on. The genie is out of the bottle. So the question posed by Dave is “How could the left use such a (referendum) vote in a revolutionary, and “not a reformist manner”?

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