Republican socialism and Left Unity

Steve Freeman, in rebutting Pete Rowlands in CHARTIST 266, travels from Chartism to the founding Left Unity Party conference

Republican socialism is an idea and a programme which needs a party. Like the Chartists in the 19th century, republican socialists place a high priority on the struggle for democracy. We need new democratic institutions and new constitutional laws and an extension of democracy into many of the dark corners of politics and the economy.

A new democracy will make possible and practical the policy of extending and democratising the public sector and social rights. But without a party this will be pie in the sky. Such a party would mobilise the politically active workers to fight for democracy. This would make possible the support of the broader mass of working class people. How can we build a republican socialist party?

One answer is to take over the Labour Party and transform it into a republican and socialist party. This has not been tried. The Labour left has restricted itself to trying to shift the Party to the left. It has not fought to change the political system which concentrates so much power in the hands of the Crown, its Ministers and security apparatus which so ably serves the City of London.


The alternative is to set up a republican socialist party from scratch. This hasn’t been tried either. Instead there has been what Pete Rowlands calls failed attempts to set up a new party of the left (NLP) beginning with the Socialist Labour Party through Respect to the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition. All attempts to build a socialist Labour Party inside or outside the Labour Party have failed.

Rowlands identifies one major factor in this. The Labour left must break with the liberal reformist monarchist and pro-capitalist right wing of the party. Such a break would require Proportional Representation. Pete Rowlands says PR ‘would have a major effect, and would allow for the emergence of a proper left wing party with substantial electoral support and representation’.

Here is the problem. To get a ‘proper left wing party’ we need radical democratic change. But to get radical democratic change we need a party to fight for it. How can we square this circle? We have to go back to the Chartist party in the 1840s. This was not a ‘normal’ party but a ‘peculiar’ kind of party because it mobilised the working class for constitutional change mainly by extra parliamentary means.

The struggle of the Chartists broke down the constitutional barriers to working class social progress. We need this kind of party today which makes the struggle for democracy a priority

Although Chartism was defeated it changed the political direction and within twenty years suffrage was extended. This made possible a Labour Party in parliament. The struggle of the Chartists broke down the constitutional barriers to working class social progress. We need this kind of party today which makes the struggle for democracy a priority and thus makes possible in the future  a ‘proper left wing party’.
In 1997 constitutional change with the Scottish parliament made possible a ‘proper left wing party’ called the Scottish Socialist Party. Otherwise socialists are locked in the cycle of failure whether inside or outside the Labour Party.

Too dismissive

However Pete Rowlands is too dismissive of the new Left Unity party. He says that ‘those attracted to Left Unity would be best advised to rejoin Labour’. He asks himself whether it is the ‘proper left wing party’ which aided by proportional representation can win significant seats in 2015. The answer is obviously no.
Is it a party like the Chartists which can wage an extra parliamentary struggle for democratic constitutional change? The answer again is no. Yet the jury is to still out and has not returned a final verdict. The game plan is set up a more left wing Labour type party with references back to 1945. This plan, under the name of the Left Party Platform, won the conference with about three quarters of the votes. Left Unity now identifies itself as a ‘radical socialist party’ not a republican socialist party. The majority want a ‘proper left wing party’ but have not recognised the preconditions for success.

However, this is not the end of the story. The founding conference was a representative sample of the politics of the socialist left in England – both its past and its future. There were four strategic platforms as the Left Party (1945), Republican Socialist (1649), Socialist (1918) and Communist (1920). Behind these were three trends – reformist, republican and ultra-left. The latter were rejected. Consequently the next stage of Left Unity will become a struggle between the reformists and republicans or if you prefer between those who want another Labour Party and those who see the necessity for a new Chartist party.

Steve Freeman supports the Republican Socialist Alliance

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