Debunking the myth - part two

Neil Davidson The origins of Scottish nationhood Pluto Press, London 2000, pp264, pbk, £14.99

As will have been readily apparent from part one of this review article, I believe that Neil Davidson has written an excellent book. It deserves to be widely read and seriously debated - and not only in Scotland, but throughout the United Kingdom and beyond. The national question is after all a worldwide phenomenon. Davidson has done us all a great service by thoroughly exposing the intellectual fragility and dishonesty of Scottish nationalism, right and left. Furthermore he convincingly shows how a mythologised notion of nationhood has been projected back into the mists of time. In short, the idea of a medieval Scottish nation, or a Scottish nation pre-1707, is a modern invention with, Davidson proves, no solid foundation in fact.

However, as made clear in part one, while I concur with Davidson's general thrust, not least with his recognition that the British nation is no mere imperial construct, that should not be taken as full agreement on every nuance. Indeed I have a number of important differences which can be fruitfully discussed. Let us begin here in part two with the nation and why a correct definition is vital.

1.1. Scotland as a non-nation

Davidson readily admits that the "most famous definition" of what constitutes a nation was "given by Stalin" in his 1913 pamphlet Marxism and the national question (p8 - all quotes, unless stated otherwise, are from Davidson's The origins of Scottish nationhood). Yet, like a Mark Antony, Davidson comes to bury Stalin, not praise him. Unfortunately, but predictably - as a loyal member of the Socialist Workers Party - comrade Davidson feels it a point of honour to dismiss Stalin's theoretical merits on this subject as "slight". Something of an irony. We showed in part one that to all intents and purposes the comrade soundly demolishes bourgeois nationalist and left nationalist claims of a Scottish nationhood prior to the 1707 union with England, using the very criteria which make up Stalin's five-fold definition.

The Stewart kings (of Norman French origin) ruled a definite territory called Scotland. However, there was no common economy. An "integrated economy connecting all regions within the state territory was absent" (p56). In the highlands things were extremely backward and parochial. Raiding and cattle-rustling were common and the mark of a military society. Agriculture produced a minimal surplus and was still bound up with a fragmentary and conflictive clan system. In the "corporate" south and east, especially in Edinburgh, the "bourgeois elements" formed an economy which was in comparison dynamic and commercially orientated and locked in with the huge market represented by England. Between 1603 and 1707 the Scottish currency was pegged Emu-like to the English pound - the 12:1 ratio was maintained throughout.

The lowlands were still held back by the "Malthusian" barrier to agricultural development in the 17th century - unlike England. Famine ravaged the population: in the 1690s between 50,000 and 150,000 lives were lost in Scotland. Nevertheless socially it was on the move.

What of language and culture? "The inhabitants of Scotland were not united, but divided by language" (p56). Besides the residual Scandinavian survivals in Orkney and the Shetland Islands the kingdom was split between Gaelic-speakers in the highlands and the "vast majority" whose mother tongue was even in 1688 a dialect of English (Scots or Lallans), which was originally a version of the English spoken in Northumbria and brought to the Lothians and beyond "by trade and conquest from the 10th century onwards" (p56). That is, long before the border was established.

The Gaelic-speaking highlands were oral and viewed by lowlanders as culturally far closer to barbaric Ulster. The highlanders were painfully divided internally. They were riven with murderous clan rivalries and feuds. The Campbells hated the MacDonalds, and the MacDonalds hated the Campbells, etc. Effectively the highlands were still medieval and non-historic in 1707. Their people thought of themselves as Scots "only in the sense of being notionally subject to the Scottish crown" (p72). Not surprisingly the highlanders classified all English-speakers, both in lowland Scotland and England, as sassenachs: ie, Saxons.

In the lowlands the reformation was powered by the translation of the bible into English and produced a puritan ascendancy - protestantism was accepted in the highlands but failed to dig deep roots. Knox was initially backed by England and nearly succeeded in making the kingdom of Scotland a theocracy. So the lowlands were commercial, literate, English-speaking and Sabbath-observing. The highlands were another country. There was not, in other words, a single Scottish nationality.

Not surprisingly, the socio-economic-cultural divide manifested itself politically. Scotland was plagued with civil wars in the 17th century. The last attempt by the Stewarts to regain their dynastic hold over the United Kingdom in 1745 had as much the character of a Scottish civil war between the highlands and lowlands, which Davidson believes was "beginning to develop a sense of national consciousness" (p62). This was exhibited in popular hostility to the English state and was based on "the difference" between church organisation and fear of higher taxation. Such feelings were more than overshadowed by a profound loathing of the highlanders. The lowland bourgeoisie was the active partner pushing for the union between Scotland and England in 1707.

1.2. Stalin's definition

Before reiterating Stalin's 1913 definition let me emphasise the necessity of Marxism developing and honing definitions. All too often I hear half-educated leftists prattle on about definitions in terms of mental straitjackets. Suffice to say, without a correct definition of a thing, or an agreed meaning of a word, all we have is eclectic, woolly thinking and complete mental confusion. Definitions are a must if we are to distinguish one thing from another and specify the significance of a category and the actual movement from the simple to the complex and thus opposite, new and higher categories. So what is a definition? A definition can be defined as a brief and logical description highlighting the essential distinctive properties of a thing, showing its determining content and boundaries.

This is exactly what Stalin did. A nation is a "definite community of people", Stalin writes. They are invariably formed through the merger of the most diverse tribes, nationalities and ethnic groups, brought about in the first place by the dynamic of capitalism. A nation must have, "strictly speaking", a "common economic life" and "economic cohesion" (JV Stalin Works Vol 2, Moscow 1953, pp305, 306). Primitive, feudal and ancient societies left the mass of people, including those in Scotland, with narrow, parochial lived relations and consciousness.

So nations are not a universal category which date from Shem, Ham and Japheth - the three sons of Noah by whom the "whole world was peopled" (Genesis 9, xix). They come into existence at a specific moment in history. Eg, the birth of an English nation was associated with the rise of agrarian capitalist relations of production during the 17th century. The integrated home market and the law of value; a standard print-language, the vernacular bible and the spread of literacy; protestantism and the perceived threat from the catholic other - all these factors combined to make England the world's first nation.

Nations as a category have a beginning; they must therefore, stresses Stalin, have an end. In the meantime that also goes for particular nations. Nations come into existence out of the non-nation or by cleaving away from an existing nation-state. Equally they can pass out of existence through merger and assimilation. In other words, whatever Davidson sillily says to the contrary, nations for Stalin are not fixed categories. Rather they are fluid and transient.

Stalin cites "the British, the Germans" as a "historically constituted community of people" that were forged into a commonality as the result of economic development, ease of communications, state sponsorship, assimilation and merger, and, of course, the class struggle from below (ibid p303). Nations, he insists, must never be confused with sprawling empires such as that of Alexander the Great or the Ottoman Turks. Such loose state conglomerations have little more than a common territory which itself constantly waxes or wanes according to the fortunes of this or that army. Nor in more recent times should nations be confused with stable, multinational state communities such as Belgium, Spain or the former Soviet Union. These possess a definite common identity, institutions and territory but have no "common language". Stalin sums up the "characteristic features of a nation" in the following pithy manner: "A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture" (ibid p307).

No one is suggesting that Stalin supplied the last word on the subject of what constitutes a nation. His definition should be seen for what it is. A useful starting point or framework within which specific experiences and paths of development can be concretely studied and evaluated. Davidson will have none of it. He dismisses Stalin's definition out of hand. It is, he sneers, purely "objective" (p8). A strange reading, given Stalin's inclusion of a common "psychological make-up" and an insistence that the nation manifests itself "in a common culture".

Other 'thunderbolts' hurled by the comrade fall equally wide of the mark. He writes disparagingly of "Stalinist criteria": as if the Stalin of 1933 was the same Stalin of 1913. For Davidson Stalin appears to be a fixed category. It is presumably because in later life Stalin became a monocrat and a killer on the scale of Genghis Khan that Davidson indignantly mourns the influences exerted by his definition over the left.

With a sad heart he reproduces a passage from an article on the Scottish national question by Robert Mulholland - who Davidson assures us has "nothing to do with Stalinist politics". Stalin's "succinct definition", reckons an innocent Mulholland, "makes sense and undoubtedly applies to the national characteristics of the Scottish people" (R Mulholland, 'What is the national question?' Socialist Scotland No1, autumn 1989). Davidson tut-tuts. Stalin's "succinct definition" is nothing more than a "check list" against which can be "matched the attributes of those people seeking the status of a 'nation'" (p8).

1.3. Anti-Stalinism becomes anti-Leninism

Whatever value one places on Stalin's 1913 definition, it ought to be remembered that he wrote his Marxism and the national question as a tested Bolshevik militant and rising star in the Party organisation. In attacking the 1913 Stalin Davidson actually attacks Lenin and the tradition of Bolshevism. In his hands anti-Stalinism becomes anti-Leninism.

Lenin thought very highly of the 1913 Stalin and his work on the national question, and in all probability played a key role in supervising the research. In his The national programme of the RSDLP Lenin explained that the "principles of the national programme" of the Bolsheviks "have already been dealt with recently in theoretical Marxist literature (prime place must here be given to Stalin's article)".

Before that he wrote to Maxim Gorky in February 1913 in glowing terms: "We have a wonderful Georgian here who has sat down to write a big article for Prosveshcheniye (Enlightenment) after collecting all the Austrian and other material." Hence learning that it was proposed to print Marxism and the national question with the sub-head reservation that it was for discussion only, Lenin vigorously made his own opinion known. He protested: "Of course, we are absolutely against this. It is a very good article. The question is a burning issue, and we shall not yield one jot of principle of the Bundist scum." Soon after that, in March 1913, Stalin was arrested and Lenin penned the following message to the editors of Sotsial Demokrat: "Arrests among us are very heavy. Koba [Stalin's first cadre name] has been taken .... Koba managed to write a long article (for three issues of Prosveshcheniye) on the national question. Good! We must fight for the truth and against separatists and opportunists of the Bund and among the Liquidators".

Leave aside the fact that in 1913 Stalin wrote as a Bolshevik and earned plaudits from Lenin. What about the charge that what I shall call the Stalin-Lenin definition of the nation is no more than a crude "check list"? In my view one might just as well describe Marx's definition of a commodity as a use-value produced solely for its exchange-value as a check list. After all, take away exchange-value and the commodity ceases to be a commodity and reverts to being a simple product. Likewise with Marx's definition of capitalism as generalised commodity production taken to the point where labour-power itself becomes a commodity. Without labour-power characteristically and necessarily presenting itself as a commodity a social formation cannot be capitalist. Eg, in classical Athens, imperial China, medieval England and the USSR wage-labour only appeared on the margins of the system.

Furthermore, if the Stalin-Lenin definition was a quality-controller's "check list", designed to refuse rights to real nations, then one would presume that the Bolsheviks, both in opposition and in power, would have used it as such. Needless to say, they did nothing of the sort. The Bolsheviks, crucially Soviet Russia's first commissar of nationalities, put politics in command.

Hence against the wishes of their sometime ally, Rosa Luxemburg, the Bolsheviks stood by Poland's right to self-determination. In 1917 independence was granted to Finland and all tsarist secret deals and territorial claims were unconditionally abrogated. The peoples of the east were actively raised to the level of nationhood. Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kirghizia, Tadzhikistan, etc. Even the Don Cossacks, a military caste of oppressed-oppressors, were encouraged to establish their own soviet republic in the immediate aftermath of the October revolution. It gained instant recognition and the supreme constitutional body in the land changed its name to the Congress of Cossack, Soldiers', Peasant and Workers' Deputies. Where was the "check list"?

The constant theme in Lenin's countless articles and pamphlets dealing with the subject is not on some "objective" check list, as in this respect a woefully unoriginal Davidson suggests. On the contrary Lenin deals with the national question in political and class terms. He was willing to see nation-states with the tiniest populations: 50,000 was a figure he once used. For Lenin and the Bolsheviks the national question was primarily a democratic question, a question over which the proletariat, crucially the proletariat in the oppressor countries, must take an active lead.

1.4. Davidson's pure subjectivism

The real issue is not the supposed pure objectivism of Stalin-Lenin, but Davidson's pure subjectivism. In the name of combating vulgar objectivism he throws the baby out with the bathwater. Hence we read Davidson declaring that "the most obvious deficiency" with the Stalin-Lenin definition is that "many nations which are currently recognised as such would be denied the title", including Scotland.

Foolishly Davidson wheels out Switzerland as an example. His 'argument' consists of little more than a potted history from the 'original' Confederation of Schwyz, Obwaldemn and Nidwalden in 1291 to the founding of the modern state of Switzerland in 1815 and its subsequent linguistic federalism. Apart from this Davidson supplies an uninformative and lightweight note from Trotsky, where he too states that the Swiss "feel themselves to be a nation".

Actually the history of Switzerland is one of containing profound contradictions through institutionally freezing them. Its famed internal stability owes more to the outside pressures, interests, contingent needs and balanced rivalries of the surrounding European system of states than to Alpine invincibility and solidarity, as celebrated in William Tell and other such national origin myths.

From 1815 to 1848 religious antipathy was enforced in each canton. In catholic cantons protestantism was illegal. In protestant cantons it was catholicism that was unlawful. Today, we note, there is a narrow catholic majority over the protestants - 48% to 44%. But what is now mainly a private matter was then about incompatible freedoms.

Even after the revolution of 1848, when religious restrictions were abolished, the country was "divided on a linguistic basis instead" (p8). Swiss German is the dominant language. However, in Graubunden (Grisons), Romansch and Italian are spoken, while in the western cantons and half-cantons of Jura, Bern, Fribourg, Vaud and Valais French-speakers form a majority.

Nevertheless the constitution enshrines equality between the religious and national groups regardless of strength. All four languages enjoy official status. There is complete religious toleration and state schools are undenominational. Within the Swiss confederation there are 20 full cantons and six half-cantons, each with their own parliament, administration and education system. Representatives of eight cantons or a set quota of petitioners can combine to demand a referendum. Plebiscites are frequent.

It should be clear from this brief account that there is no Swiss nation: rather a Swiss multinational state community, which due to its extensive measures of democracy secures the loyalty and identification of its citizenry so that externally, to others, they "feel themselves Swiss", besides retaining the internal commonalties and divisions of protestant, catholic or freethinker, German, French, Italian or Romansch.

Revealingly Davidson goes on to approvingly quote the Russian Zionist philosopher, Ahad Ha'am, and his purely subjective definition of a nation. The spirit of "Jewish nationality" exists "in me" and its "existence is not at an end even if all my Jewish contemporaries should cease to feel it in their hearts" (p9). Davidson welcomes the fact that here he finds no "superfluous" appeals to biology, religion, language or territory. No doubt the "specific reasons" why the Jewish, Swiss or Scots or any other people originally "came to feel themselves a nation" (however we define the term) have to be separately discovered in each case. But this "subjective" feeling of identification "is the only attribute which all have in common", Davidson wrongly claims (p9).

Obviously with Jews there is a community of tradition and, to a degree, of culture. With practising, Jewish Jews, there is also religion; the Hebrew script, taboos and the law, the bible and the Talmud. In the case of the Swiss there is a common territory, state history and economy. As to the Scots, they not only possess those features, but nowadays have a common language - Scots English.

1.5. Nations and states

What of the Stalin-Lenin definition supposedly denying the national "title" of "many nations which are recognised as such"? Leave aside 'titles': my main complaint here is that comrade Davidson appears to fuse together the categories of nation and state. An elementary error. Not all nations are states and, more to the point, most states, even the most democratic ones, are not nations. In fact the vast majority of contemporary states are not nation-states. Evidently neither Canada, Ukraine, India, South Africa, Iraq nor Switzerland are nations. They are what Lenin called, specifically in the case of Switzerland, multinational states. To state what should be ABC, that does not disbar any of them from having a high degree of common consciousness.

How should communists regard multinational states? As long as it does not mean the national oppression of others we do not for one moment deny their right of self-determination. Nor for that matter does the United Nations charter - which specifically upholds the rights of states, not nations. As internationalists we communists do not stipulate that nations or nationalities do or should constitute the basic constituency of the modern world - a purely nationalist formulation. Indeed we positively favour big, democratically constituted, and centralised multinational states and we recognise the rights of these state communities to freely determine their own futures.

Our task then is neither to denigrate nor to break apart multinational states like Canada, Ukraine, India, South Africa, Iraq, Switzerland, etc into their national pieces. While for us the self-determination of nations is a general principle, we only raise such a demand in the interests of socialism and working class unity: ie, when a pressing national question exists and divides the masses.

Hence in Canada or Iraq the communist who does not militantly and wholeheartedly stand by the right of Quebec or Iraqi Kurdistan to freely determine their own future up to the point of separation is in fact an out-and-out reactionary who deserves our scorn and contempt. Concretely at this present moment in time we would argue against separatism in both Canada and Iraq. However, when it comes to Switzerland, perhaps we communists might be well advised to call for the end of the federal system of cantons and fight for a centralised republic. Communists do not invent or seek to perpetuate national divisions, but to democratically resolve them and then move on. That is why we only advocate separation under the most exceptional circumstances. Separation as a universal panacea, it hardly needs saying, is the programme of nationalism, not the communists.

1.6. Politics in command

The danger with comrade Davidson's pure subjectivism is all too apparent. He ties himself into hopeless knots over "granting national status" to groups such as Zionists, South African white supremacists and Ulster loyalists (p10). We 'objectivists', of course, have no need to take their claims at face value. Needless to say, Davidson's list consists entirely of reactionary political formations. They are not national categories.

Armed as they were with their Stalin-Lenin definition, which is both subjective and objective, the Bolsheviks had no such logical difficulties. Hence they could confidently go to war against all forms of separatism - not only the bourgeois nationalist Zionists, but, more to the point, the Bund. The Bund - the Jewish Workers Union - gained a substantial base amongst the newly proletarianised Jewish masses in Russia. Membership was counted in the tens of thousands by the end of 1905. The Bund maintained that as a subjectivity the Jews constituted a nation within Russia and should therefore have full autonomy as a separate community.

The Bolsheviks - who incidentally included within their leadership many invaluable comrades from a Jewish background (eg, Kamenev and Zinoviev) - aggressively opposed this demand. They fought for the full legal equality of all people in the Russian empire and the abolition of all forms of discrimination against the Jews. It hardly needs saying, but that did not imply meeting the demand for Jewish self-determination in Russia. Why? For the Bolsheviks the right of self-determination went hand in hand with the right to separate. An ultimate safeguard or sanction against national oppression. That is only practical on the basis of a mapped territory - an altogether objective criterion.

We note in passing that precisely the absence of this essential criterion robs the Afrikaner- and English-speaking South African whites of any claims to nationhood: these two language groups formed an uneasy political bloc under apartheid, but constitute a minority throughout the country and in each of its various provinces (even the once specially designated white suburbs relied on a huge army of resident black and coloured labour). The same goes for the so-called Jewish diaspora - which inhabits, usually as an urban minority, every continent apart from Antarctica.

The British-Irish are another matter. The British-Irish form a clear majority in a historically constituted area of north-eastern Ulster. The CPGB therefore advocates a secular and democratic united Ireland within which there would be a one-county, four-half-counties British-Irish province which enjoys the constitutionally guaranteed right of self-determination up and including the right to freely separate.

Back to the Jews in Russia. They did not occupy a definite historic territory where they constituted a majority or a large minority. Jews in Russia were scattered throughout the tsarist empire. Moreover, with the autocracy overseeing an industrial take-off in the late 19th century, they were sucked from the decayed ruins of the shtetls into the great cities of St Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev and Warsaw. The Jews were thereby undergoing a process of assimilation and proletarianisation and often formed the advanced part of the nascent working class. Yiddish and religious parochialism were giving way to Russian and Polish and proletarian internationalism.

As to the Jews as a definite community of culture-religion, communists have consistently denied that this is enough to constitute a nation. Subjectively many Jewish Jews, especially Zionists, imagine themselves to be what they call a nation - a word used here in a medieval fashion - which has survived in spite, not because of, the supposedly uninterrupted history of anti-semitic persecution. That deeply held conviction is an undeniable material fact. However, because these Jews dwell throughout the world, speak countless languages - English, Russian, Arabic, etc - and have no common economy linking them, they cannot function with the singularity, resolve and sense of purpose of a nation. Put another way, the Jews cannot meaningfully exercise national self-determination.

Another aside. Due to the European holocaust and mass migration into Palestine that is no longer the case in the state of Israel. Here within this definite territory Jews constitute a national majority - most speak a reinvented Hebrew, they have a common economy binding them together and a common psychology which manifests itself in a common culture which is best described as Israeli. Not that we ignore or belittle the legitimate demands of the Palestinian Arabs. Their rights have been violated and trampled underfoot by Zionist nationalists and reactionary religious bigots.

National self-determination is not the only weapon in the armoury of Marxists. The Bolshevik approach of insisting upon equality, not national self-determination, for Jews in Russia has been adopted by communists vis-à -vis the black question in Europe and the Americas. We oppose all forms of pan-Africanism, whether advanced by Marcus Garvey, Louis Farrakhan or Bernie Grant. Until the 1930s the demand for black self-determination in the southern state of the USA might have been correct. Trotsky advocated it and so did the Communist Party of the USA (see L Trotsky On black nationalism and self-determination New York 1978).

Blacks constituted a big proportion of the population over the so-called 'black belt' in the deep south. Nevertheless with the steady exodus of blacks from the southern states in the 20th century, and a significant acceleration during the 1940s and thereafter, such a demand became a reactionary utopia, not least when espoused in the name of Marxism, as was the case with the Black Panthers. The majority of blacks in the USA are no longer rural sharecroppers, but urban proletarians who have settled in the great cities of the west and north-east. Detroit, Washington, New York, Los Angeles.

In Europe and the US black people feel a certain commonality as a 'race'. Doubtless in part this is due to the racialisation of politics, common economic inequality and the vile heritage of slavery, which in the US spawned a rigid segregationist system in the southern states till it was smashed by the civil rights movement in the 1960s. But to espouse the cause of equality one must simultaneously counter the poison pumped out by those such as the Nation of Islam and fight for class unity. That was the powerful message of the unforgettable WEB Du Bois and it retains its political relevance today.

Jack Conrad Debunking the myth - part one