Part 1 Corbyn, Left Unity and Republican Socialism

Part 1 Corbyn, Left Unity and Republican Socialism

We might start at the beginning. In 2013 I attended the founding conference of Left Unity debating the merits of different platforms. I spoke about the three historical reference points behind the platforms identified with 1945 and 1917 and 1649. This last date was a surprise and the audience laughed. We could all relate to the twentieth century, but surely not the long forgotten seventeenth? There was, however, a small section at the back from Wigan who gave an ironic cheer. They had been involved in organizing the annual Diggers festival. The year 1649 was the high point of the English revolution, when the republic was proclaimed and the monarchy and House of Lords abolished. The Diggers occupied land at St Georges Hill in Surrey and began producing food before being finally driven off by local landowners.

The Digger movement grew from the seeds planted by the new Republic. Ending the autocratic rule of the Stuart Kings and the landowners, the Commonwealth, a constitutional revolution, gave inspiration and freedom to a few farmers to occupy land and feed themselves. This was made possible from 1647 with the emergence of rank and file democracy in the New Model army and the growing influence of the Levellers, the republican party of the revolution. The achievement of a republic created conditions for the socialization of land. Between the Leveller party and Digger movement we have the origins of a republican road to socialism before the industrial revolution and the working class made the democratic case stronger. This is a story long forgotten because it ended in defeat. We have been living ever since under the shadow of that defeat.

Left Unity conference voted to become a new party. The official name “Left Unity Party” expressed the intention of the majority to unite the left outside the Labour Party. It described itself as a “radical socialist party”. The conference made two strategic decisions. The main decision, or the first fork in the road, was whether the new party would be a broad left party (social democrats and Marxists) or a Marxist-communist party. Conference attention was focused on this. The second fork in the road was just as strategically important for the success of the new broad left party, to choose between ‘radical socialism’ and ‘republican socialism’. This decision was taken almost by default.

In “The potential for Left Unity” (2020) comrade Andrew Burgin starts reviewing what went right and wrong. His critical assessment concentrates only on the first fork from 2013 in the Marxist party, reignited by the reappearance of Socialist Resistance in the Anti-Capitalist Resistance (ACR). He does not recognise nor address the second strategic decision between radical and republican socialism. The question is how ‘radical socialism’ performed in relation to subsequent major political developments such as the 2014 Scottish referendum, the 2015 Corbyn movement, the 2016 EU referendum and Brexit, the 2017 and 2019 general elections, which ended in Corbyn’s defeat.

Left Unity’s democratic process

Left Unity was formed through a democratic process with the support and encouragement from Ken Loach’s ‘Spirit of 45’. Founding members were invited to submit proposals for debate and decision. We were all agreed to set up some kind of socialist party but did not agree on what kind it should be. The following platforms were put forward roughly in order of estimated support – the Left Party Platform, the Socialist Platform, the Communist Platform, the Class Struggle Platform and finally the Republican Socialist Platform.

These platforms can be sub-categorized as ‘broad left’ supporting a party with social democrats and communists (Left Party Platform and the Republican Socialist Platform) and the Marxist-communist platforms, which wanted some kind of Marxist party (Socialist Platform, Communist Platform, Class Struggle Platform). Today seven years later, in a smaller and weaker Left Unity, there are still ‘radicals’ and ‘republicans’ in Left Unity. Supporters of the three Marxist platforms went off to join the Corbyn Labour Party. Some have now re-appeared outside Left Unity in Anti-Capitalist Resistance.

Left Unity had an important advantage in its democratic approach – the open competition of trends and a democratic process to decide the majority and minority and then a continued democratic process of correction. If the majority is wrong, or in error, the democratic process provides opportunities for this to be recognized and minorities to grow and replace the previous majority. A healthy democracy enables a process of successive corrections.

The danger arises if this cycle of democratic self-correction doesn’t continue and is replaced by bureaucratic degeneration and substitution. If the bureaucratic mind-set takes over then the founding programme becomes set in stone. Defeated minorities are seen as an irritant and not a source of future change. The 2013 policy and subsequent manifesto would not simply be the starting point for political change but the end of it. In bureaucratic regimes the majority liquidates the minority and liquidates the possibility that any of the minorities might have better answers and thus politics is ‘frozen’ at the moment of birth.

There are merits for the wider left of a democratic process, which invites a section or sample to openly put forward its proposals. It provides an historic record of where the socialist left was in 2013. What were they thinking back then? How has the subsequent evolution of the class struggle proved or disproved these platforms and how did they relate to future unexpected changes? Of course, the conference votes to decide which of these five platforms will become the face of Left Unity. This does not guarantee conference will make the best choice but merely the one that can gather the most votes.

The democratic process is open to new politics but still has some in-built bias. The founding conference was no equal contest between different trends because naturally the founders were in pole position to gather support for ‘their’ project. But the democratic method had the merit of allowing other voices or outsiders to get a hearing. This was how the republican socialist platform entered by the open ‘back door’ with its supporters in favour of left unity in a broad left party. At the same time the majority of the English left was still shaped by the dominant ideas of Labourism, Stalinism and Trotskyism and not ready for republican socialism.

Gather a random sample of the post Thatcher-USSR-Blair left in one conference. This will bring all the mistakes in one place and ‘unite’ them on the basis of the lowest common denominator of the average mistakes. If Labourism, Stalinism and Trotskyism are in error in some way then we are likely to bake this into the new cake. So there is a danger of conservatism in continuing to do the kind of politics, which has been failing and thus not preparing us for a future, which although unseen is just around the next corner. If republican socialism is on the right lines it will be able to cope with unexpected political tests, for example, of the Scottish referendum, Corbynism and Brexit.

Working class theory is the best guide we have to predicting the next direction rather than continuing on the last road that was already leading us in the wrong direction. The democratic method doesn’t prevent us from repeating the past. What we can say is that the majority Left Party platform had little theoretical rationale. It was a nod to the practical-empirical method valued by English culture. Get some bullet points together of the obvious things we all agree on, like a better NHS, and that will be the programme but only one without any theory behind it.

There is a real danger of theory-lite and well-intentioned opportunism, which flows from trying to construct a programme, which maintains the broad unity of the coalition built by the founding ‘fathers’. This is encouraged by the need to take short cuts because of the desperate state of the pre-Corbyn left and the need to do something, indeed anything being better than nothing, in the face of Tory austerity and New Labour. Theory-lite politics is encouraged by the false idea that only communist parties need theory and broad left parties are liberated from all that boring stuff. On the contrary broad left parties can only survive or succeed if they rest on strong theoretical-historical foundations.

Reformism, republicanism and ultra leftism

Among the English socialist left we can discern three trends – reformism, republicanism and ultra leftism. Republicanism stands to the left of reformism and to the right of ultra leftism. By far the dominant ideas are reformism, associated with Corbyn and ultra leftism represented by the SWP. If the battle between these terrible twins is thesis and antithesis then republicanism is a synthesis of ‘reforms with revolutionary implications’. Neither Corbyn nor the SWP were present at the 2013 founding conference so their shadow teams fought it out. The reformists claimed that that ultra leftism was too far removed from the reality of working class life and incapable of winning a mass audience and mass support. The ultra lefts countered that reformism was a compromise with Marxist principles and thus opportunism in search of members and votes.

Tony Benn, the most prominent advocate of republicanism on the English left wasn’t present either, but his shadow stretching back to 1649 hung over the republican socialist platform. Of course Benn comes from the reformist tradition of the non-republican Labour Party. Equally there are republican Marxists who have come from the ultra left SWP for example from the Revolutionary Democratic Group, the Republican Communist Network in Scotland and from the CPGB tradition as the Weekly Worker group. [The differences between these republican socialists are outside the scope of this paper.]

Reformists argue that republicanism is too extreme for the English working class and will not be popular enough to justify supporting it. If the working class is enthralled by monarchy it is better to avoid any ideological confrontation. Ultra lefts come to the same conclusion from the opposite direction. They argue that republicanism is bourgeois and too trivial to bother with. They demand ‘revolution not reform’ and the full Monty of a socialist workers state not a democratic republic. Working class republicanism, therefore, confronts a pincer movement from reformism and ultra leftism, a united front of hostility to the republican socialist programme.

‘Radical socialism’ does not exist outside this framework. It is not a new theory but a flag of convenience for those who reject the ultra leftism of the SWP type and the republican socialism of Tony Benn and republican Marxism. Radical socialism may try to claim it is something new. In fact it was the form or disguise taken by reformism in the epoch of New Labour. It was therefore a trend naturally sympathetic to the Corbyn movement. Whilst republicanism can form a united front with the Corbyn movement on the basis of clear political differentiation, radical socialism cannot because it is not programmatically distinct and thus likely to liquidate. In 2020 radical socialism hopes that with the end of Corbyn’s attempt to revive the 1945 social monarchy, the time for LU’s resurrection from near death has arrived.

Not Republican Socialist Parties (NRSP)

Comrade Andrew’s critical assessment of Left Unity begins by considering the whole range of ultra left sects. He says the left is littered with “organisations that are trapped in the routines and formulas of past decades. There are periodic attempts to unite them in a new project or campaign but these reunification projects are invariably unsuccessful, largely I think because their component parts do not interface with the reality of working class struggle”. This “reality” depends on the objective reality in which it takes place – capitalist economic relations under the political power exercised by the state – not the French, German or Chinese state but the long evolving UK state combined with changing forms of international capitalism. Reality is not, or should not be, a narrow understanding of every day economic and social life but politics, democracy and the state, culture, national identity and internationalism. This seems directed at revolutionary groups like Anti-Capitalist Resistance.

Left Unity was not founded as one of these ultra left sects. The founding conference decided what LU was and what it was not – broad left but not a republican socialist party. Negatives are as revealing as positives. LU should have been called “Not the Republican Socialist Party”. It did not, therefore, adopt the strategy of a republican road to socialism. It did not make the English revolution its historic reference point nor recognise the relevance of the Leveller party and the Digger movement or Tony Benn for today. It did not have a republican social democratic programme. Left Unity was not, however, the only attempt to build a broad left party based mainly in England to reject republican socialism.

Andrew cites other failed attempts to form broad left ‘Not Republican Socialist Parties’ (NRSPs). He says “several attempts to unite parts of the left through different models, beginning with Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party, then the Socialist Alliance, followed by RESPECT, the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) and ending with the Corbyn movement in the Labour Party expressed via Momentum”. There are two conclusions from this experience. The first is that the perspective of broad left parties is incorrect and doomed to failure. In which case, all Marxists should proceed directly to a communist party and not waste time in these ‘half way’ houses. In which case the ACR is a better prospect and LU is doomed and has always been a waste of time. The alternative view is that there is a need for a broad left party but these series of NRSPs are misconceived projects. The English patient is sick and the doctors prescribe leaches. Now the patient is close to death and the doctor prescribes more leaches! Nothing has been learned in twenty four years.

NRSPs have failed time and time again. Occam’s razor suggests that in seeking the solution to a problem the simple and obvious answer is more likely to be true. The answer to NRSPs is staring us in the face and yet remains unseen. The leaders of Left Unity have to find a radical answer to the decline of Left Unity, which is not simply waiting for refugees from the Corbyn movement to turn up and save our bacon. There is one thing of value that Left Unity has – the idea of a broad left party linked to the European Left. A republican socialist version of Left Unity would maintain or indeed strengthen these links by rejecting the ‘reformist’ politics of ‘radical socialism’. [The failure of “the Corbyn movement” expressed in Momentum is connected but different and addressed later.]

Andrew passes a scathing verdict on these NRSPs and ultra left communist sects. He says these “broader groupings eventually do disappear and fade but the small groups, which are in essence parasitic on the wider movement continue to exist in a Zombie-like state, always on the look out for their next political snack”. Since 1996 every attempt to form a broad left parties ended in failure and the communist sects haven’t made progress either. Strangely, Left Unity is missing from Andrew’s list. It has to be included because its success or failure needs explaining. All these NRSPs had basically the same or similar programmes. There is no programmatic justification for separate organizations. Sometimes this reflects leader-cults, like Scargill and Galloway, or sectarian attitudes of component communist sects (e.g. SWP) or the disorientation of disillusioned ex-members of various sects.

TUSC and Left Unity were the last in a line of attempts to build NRSPs before the arrival of the Corbyn movement in 2015. TUSC and Left Unity had more or less the same programme with different constitutions. LU had a democratic membership structure and TUSC had a federal structure with no members. These differences in organization are real and important but not fundamental. As rivals they appear like two bald men fighting over a comb, each with the self-justification of having more members, more activity, better organization and more seats won in parliament etc. Both suspended electoral activity after 2015.

Serious criticism of the multiple attempts to build NRSP’s has to start at the level of programme and strategy and not petty squabbling, hurt feelings, violations of democratic process, and the cult of leader-personality that characterize sect-like parties and groups. The defense of LU and the reason it deserves to exist, even in a very weak form, comes down to the theoretical validity and rationale for its programme. This does not exist in splendid isolation but has to relate to the objective conditions, which govern “the reality of working class struggle”.

Programme first

What distinguishes a party from a sect is in its programme. A party is the organization of part of a class united around a programme, which articulates its short term and long-term interests. In the Marxist tradition this is not simply a list of policies or bullet points but has a structure (for example minimum, transitional and maximum), which embodies a strategy for winning power. As Trotsky said, when addressing various small sects, “Programme first, your political passports please” as if he was standing at the border post demanding to see the bona fides of various sects before letting them in.

Republican socialism is a programme built on the strategy of a republican road to socialism and not the British road. We would happily show Trotsky our passport and he would have stamped it as a real one, even if he disagreed with some of it, and waved us through. Left Unity as a party is no stronger or weaker than the strategy and programme it is founded on and is fighting for. By contrast sects are built around the charisma of leaders and wanna-be leaders and their particular shibboleths, for example theories of the USSR or attitude to the EU, which are set as the acid test for true believers. The question of whether Left Unity is a party or just another sect lost in its own hubris has to go back to a critical appraisal of its 2013 programme as reflected in its 2015 Manifesto.

Left Unity did not invent the differences between reformism, republicanism and ultra leftism. They can be seen in the previous attempts to found broad left parties. This merely registered the pre-existing state of ideological disintegration and fragmentation of the post war left. So what was the Anglo-British left thinking in 2013. The majority supported the social monarchist programme of Old Labour for a variety of motives. Some exiles from Labour believed in it. For others it was consistent with traditional trade union politics of steering clear of constitutional matters. Then others simply thought this was the only way to get a mass following. For ex-Trotskyists this was a kind of transitional politics. The more orthodox ultra lefts were, however, having none of this. Their aim was to set up a communist party to rival the existing Marxist parties such as the SWP and the Socialist Party and end the SWP-SP duopoly.

The republican programme

Republican programme is a minimum programme of immediate reforms now. This is not the republican equivalent of Labour’s socialist Clause IV, which kicks the republican can down the road and over the long distant horizon. It is a programme of democratic and social reforms to be carried out or achievable through a democratic republic. This radical extension of democracy provides the political means of carrying out these social reforms. The republic represents a shift in the balance of power and influence to the working class majority.

How far this extension of democracy can go cannot be known in advance because it depends on the class struggle. Democratic power is not handed down but grows before the republic is declared. Its arrival is a qualitative shift or transitional moment from a growing democratic movement to a new epoch of democratic change. This will make social reforms more achievable ‘by and with the working class’ rather than the reformist promise to act ‘on behalf of the working class’ with social reforms ‘from above’ through the state bureaucracy of the old regime protected by the existing antiquated constitution.

We can give three examples of republican programmes beyond the Levellers ‘Agreement of the People’. The programme of the communist party in Germany (1848) begins with the slogan “Proletarians of all countries unite” and then the first demand is “1. The whole of Germany shall be declared a united, indivisible republic” and demands (2) and (3) are democratic demands and (4) is that “Maintenance of justice shall be free of charge” and (11) is that “All means of transport: railways, canals, steamships, road posts etc. shall be taken in hand by the state. They shall converted into state property and made available free of charge to the class without financial resources”. (Demand of the communist party of Germany – Marx and Engels March 1848 – source German text from Marx and Engels Werk Vol. 5 East Berlin 1975)

Another example is the 1903 programme of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. At the end of the introductory section we arrive at the demands which say “Therefore, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party takes as its most immediate political task the overthrow of the tsarist autocracy and its replacement by a democratic republic, the constitution would ensure: 1) sovereignty of the people – that is, concentration of supreme state power wholly in the hands of a legislative assembly consisting of representatives of the people and forming a single chamber”.

At first sight Trotsky’s “Programme of Action for France” published in 1934 is an example of a transitional not a republican programme. But appearances can be deceptive. As an application of his transitional program he calls for “the abolition of business secrets” and “Workers and Peasants control of Banks, Industry and Commerce” and the “nationalisation of banks and key industries”. However towards the end, in Section 16 “For a Single Assembly” he addresses supporters of a “Workers and Peasants state”, which “will take power from the exploiters”. (Wither France Leon Trotsky New Park publications 1974 p156). He tells them to wait because something must be done now.

He says “Meanwhile” and then proposes a republican minimum programme, which is important because “as long as the majority of the working class continues on the basis of bourgeoisie democracy we are ready to defend it with all our forces against violent attacks from the Bonapartist and fascist bourgeoisie”. Yet this ‘defense’ is not presented as a defensive struggle. Trotsky appeals to social democratic workers and demands “that they draw inspiration for ideas and methods, not of the (current) Third Republic but the Convention of 1793”. This was the National Assembly of the France’s First republic, the equivalent of the England’s first and only republic of 1649. He defends bourgeois democracy with more radical democratic demands, which aim to replace the Third republic by a Fourth. This is expressed through the slogans “Down with Senate” and “Down with the Presidency of the republic.”

Trotsky’s new republican constitution is based on “A single assembly”, which “must combine legislative and executive powers. Members would be elected for two years by universal suffrage at eighteen years of age, with no discrimination of sex or nationality. Deputies would be elected on the basis of local assemblies, constantly revocable by their constituents, and would receive the salary of a skilled worker”. He is clear about the strategy here that “A more generous democracy would facilitate the struggle for workers power” which is another way of describing a French republican road to socialism. (Wither France Leon Trotsky New Park publications 1974 p156)

This is not an argument that we should copy these examples and transpose them from different times in different countries. They merely show there is nothing peculiar about the idea of a republican programme in the socialist tradition. The problem is English exceptionalism, which thinks that radical democracy isn’t relevant here because of the “world beating” Mother of All Parliaments. The republican programme is not a single issue or a single bullet point but the summation of a whole set of democratic and social demands, which sum up what the party is fighting for. The demand for a republic is the first demand or headline news about the party’s aim to change the political system and the constitution of the state. As a working class party, this is more like the Chartist party whose six democratic demands were seen as a prequel to radial social reform and the very opposite of Labour Party economism.


In 2013 Left Unity was set up as another in a line of pre-Corbyn broad left parties. On the plus side, it was established through a relatively democratic process and became a pro-European party linked the European Left Party. It adopted an ideology of radical socialism, which drew on ideas from Labourism (social monarchy), Stalinism (the British Road) and Trotskyism (transitional demands). None of these ideologies understood the centrality of democracy and republicanism in the self-emancipation of the international working class.

If England is to become an advanced democratic country and reclaim a place at the heart of European democracy as the starting point for socialist transformation then we must look not to Russia but in the democratic revolution from the 1640’s. This is what Trotsky pointed out in his Writings on Britain where he goes back to Oliver Cromwell, the Lion of the seventeenth century. He wasn’t saying ignore the experience of the Russian working class, but take serious notice of your own history. In 1649 England became a republic before the Levellers and Diggers were defeated. Cromwell robbed the English republic of its democratic potential and the counter-revolution ended with the victory of the Whigs in the ‘Glorious Revolution’. Republicans have inherited the defeat of 1649 and the Labour Party inherited the victory of the Whigs. Now it is time to reverse all that and turn England and the world upside down.

17 October 2020

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