The interview with Sandy McBurney in last week’s paper was an excellent exploration of the issues posed by the Scottish independence referendum (‘Don’t march with nationalists’, May 22). It also somewhat inadvertently exposed the weakness of the position being put forward by the CPGB comrades for the coming referendum, advocating an ‘active boycott’.
The coming referendum is a very straightforward question involving whether Scotland separates from the current UK state or not. It is not a sop or an adjustment in the relationship between different parts of the existing UK state, as was the referendum on devolution in the early period of the first Blair government. Then it was arguably correct to boycott the referendum, as it was a cosmetic change and did not put the question of self-determination onto the agenda. No-one could vote in that referendum as to whether or not the component nations which make up the UK state should remain attached, and what form that attachment could take. That was completely excluded from the debate, and the outcome of the proposed tinkering with the UK state that was proposed by Blair and co was something in which the working class, considered as a political class, had no decisive interest either way.
This is not true in this referendum. If Scotland does declare for independence, it will de facto lay the basis for a breakdown of the unity of the working class on this island, as comrade McBurney notes. This is something we as communists need to oppose in current circumstances loud and clear. The fact that the Scottish National Party and its ‘left’ camp-followers are struggling to succeed in their crusade for independence shows that the divisions in the working class, which is what counts for us, are nowhere near at the point that it would be correct for communists to advocate independence in order to undermine those divisions. The project of the nationalists, and their despairing ‘left’ tails, is therefore to win their demand for independence by actually promoting ‘left’ illusions in nationalism and thereby deepening those divisions. As communists, we should be opposing that by openly advocating a ‘no’ vote.
Of course, we cannot have anything to do with the official ‘no’ campaign, Better Together, which is driven by English chauvinism and brazenly attempting to bully Scots by telling them that, if they do vote for independence, they will face exclusion from the European Union, a breaking of currency and other economic ties with London, almost a blockade, etc. We cannot associate with this ‘no’ campaign of our class enemies, both because of simple class principle and also for the pragmatic reason that their bullying chauvinism is the best recruiting sergeant that the ‘yes’ campaign could hope for. As communists and democrats, we should make it abundantly clear that, if the Scottish people do vote for independence and any attempt is made by Westminster to deny that right, we will take sides with the Scottish people unconditionally and even actively support the resort to armed force to resist such anti-democratic coercion.
But the chauvinist, bullying official ‘no’ campaign does not mean that we should advocate a boycott of the referendum. What kind of purchase do the comrades think this could ever have? Only those indifferent to Scottish independence either way could consider doing that. But, if you are indifferent to Scottish independence either way, why bother to conduct any special propaganda against Scottish nationalism? In fact, I know full well that the comrades are not indifferent to this - they are flatly opposed to promoting national divisions in this way. Which makes the demand for a boycott even less explicable, except perhaps as a flinch from the smears of pro-British unionism, etc, that will inevitably come from the left nationalists against anyone on the left who advocates a ‘no’ vote.
Sandy McBurney points out that this has no purchase at all, that the advocates of boycotts in previous referenda have capitulated to the ‘yes’ camp. Hardly surprising, as this referendum poses the national question point blank, unlike previous ones which elaborately avoided it. The minority who refuse to vote are more likely to do so through anti-politics sentiment than a worked-out class position. And abstaining on the national question when it is posed so clearly is not a class position in any case.
I know the CPGB comrades have no presence on the ground in Scotland. But they are missing out on both a duty and an opportunity to help and encourage a working class, socialist ‘no’ campaign. This should at least involve encouraging principled Scottish socialists like comrade McBurney to take whatever initiatives are feasible along these lines.
And it should also involve coverage, and a critically sympathetic attitude towards, George Galloway’s ‘Just say naw’ campaign, which, as comrade McBurney himself points out, is just about the only attempt to put forward working class arguments against the Scottish separatist campaign in front of a working class audience. The Weekly Worker should be encouraging Scottish socialists to work with comrade Galloway in this endeavour.
It is not easy to smear comrade Galloway as a unionist, given his long record of opposition to Nato (which is supported by the SNP) and his strident and principled opposition to British imperialism over the Iraq war, being expelled from Labour for demanding stiffer Arab resistance to the imperialist invasion, among other things. On this question, as over Iraq, despite his reformism and his mainstream illusions about World War II, Galloway stands out as the most principled, if somewhat maverick, figure among traditional left reformists, who is prepared to swim against a reactionary stream. Sometimes he puts others, who are formally far to his left, to shame.
Finally, comrade McBurney is wrong when he states that the slogan of a federal republic “has no purchase in the present debate”, and that “Since Scotland is not an oppressed country and is not being denied self-determination - hence the referendum … the call for a federal republic is abstract and does not really deal with the matter under discussion.”
Actually, the slogan of a federal republic could be injected into a socialist, working class ‘no’ campaign as our alternative to the twin nationalisms on offer: English/British chauvinism and Scottish separatism. It is the counterposition on the national question to both of these reactionary trends - a voluntary union of nations incorporating the right to secede. A socialist ‘no’ campaign could arguably argue along the lines of the slogans: “Vote no to Scottish separation! Fight for a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales, and for a united, independent Ireland! Fight for working class unity and socialism!” This could profitably be injected into a socialist ‘no’ campaign by communists.
Sandy McBurney says it is “British nationalism versus Scottish nationalism and you are being encouraged to take your pick between these two evils”.
This is indeed the observation of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, which has branches in Glasgow and Edinburgh, plus a smattering of individual members throughout Scotland, but failed to get a mention in the Becker/McBurney interview.
Those who know the SPGB will not be at all surprised that we suggest the third option to either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in the referendum and that is to spoil the ballot paper by writing ‘World socialism’ (or words to that effect)) across it.
Apart from that bit of nit-picking, the general gist of the article criticising the typical faulty logic of the left nationalists is one we concur with and frequently echo in the Scottish branches’ blog at http://socialist-courier.blogspot.com.
The Public and Commercial Services national conference took place last week in Brighton and the main issue hanging over all the decisions was whether PCS is to merge with Unite - with the national executive committee suffering a setback.
Standing orders had allowed emergency motions to make this a three-way debate. Conference could vote for no-precondition talks and a special delegate conference to debate the terms; or minimum conditions and a special conference; or a motion, which I favoured, calling for merger talks to cease. The NEC fielded all their conference big hitters in favour of a merger - sorry, special conference - and also had five-minute speeches on all three motions, plus a right of reply.
I pointed to Unite’s practices, which compare badly to ours (to the horror of delegates, who have not been told what is in Unite’s appalling rule book). PCS has membership authority to stand anti-cuts candidates to the left of Labour (but has still not done so to date), but Unite rules are crystal-clear - only Labour Party candidates can be supported by any part of Unite. The NEC and their followers once again ignored my questions on why they now no longer have a democratic accountability bottom line.
Unite’s affiliation to the Labour Party was also a big issue. The NEC and their supporters referred to the Collins report, which would allow members to opt out of the political levy. But I said that Unite had already decided to top up Labour funds to make up for any monies lost due to opt-outs. Even some Labour members opposed PCS taking us into a Labour-affiliated union without any mandate from our members.
The NEC called for a card vote and lost its motion by 30,000 votes. I heard that a Unite delegation present in the observers’ gallery stormed out of the hall on declaration of that result. Conference then voted in favour of the Socialist Workers Party’s favoured motion, so the NEC still have their special conference and can offer a few minor concessions to get the merger through - so they hope.
It will be interesting to see how the Socialist Party now handle the special delegate conference and what Unite general secretary Len McCluskey will offer as a sweetener. It is clear that most PCS activists value our far better democratic practices and structures than exist in Unite. They also greatly value not being affiliated to the Labour Party and the independent PCS leadership continually calling for maximum trade union united action against austerity and for a pay rise. That voice will be snuffed out if we are taken over by - sorry, merge with - Unite.
On Scottish independence the NEC’s motion reaffirmed the decision of Scottish branches that PCS adopt a neutral stance in the coming referendum. In my speech I stated once again that the independence vote will take place under capitalism, that you cannot have socialism in one country, that no-one can reliably predict the economic consequences of independence and that those claiming an independent Scotland will be far more progressive and beneficial were adopting an ‘I’m alright, Jock’ attitude (to some laughter and some po faces). I pointed out that we feel unease at being in a sea of English flags, but not amidst a sea of saltires. The president interrupted near the end, admonishing me for speaking against independence rather than sticking to neutrality.
Clearly riled by my comments about the incredible pull of nationalism, some delegates decided to state that self-determination is not nationalism and that they were raising legitimate trade union demands, not pandering to nationalism. (I was impressed with the interview in last week’s Weekly Worker, which noted how certain Scottish socialists are desperately trying to play down their nationalistic opportunism).
A motion on immigration, clearly from an SWP member,committed PCS to defend immigrants and to support mobilisations by Unite Against Fascism against the English Defence League’s racist marches. I wanted to know if the motion committed PCS to support open borders/uncontrolled immigration. I also repeated the point that if all immigration controls are racist, then all nations with immigration controls are racist too. I mentioned that the way to deal with the UK Independence Party is not simply to accuse them of racism (and those who vote for them), but to stress they support privatisation, are anti-public services, anti-union and pro-big business.
The president, chairing conference, rather tetchily stated the motion did not mention open borders and the moving branch did not need to reply! Conference, and my delegation, were therefore able to support the motion that does not support open borders. Speaking to the mover afterwards, she also stated the motion was not about open borders and was also rather tetchy (she had seen my letters in the Weekly Worker and disapproved). So both the SP (who are against open borders) and the SWP (who are for) did not want to publiclydeclare their stance when I gave them a clear opportunity to do so! I think they both know even a PCS conference would not endorse an open borders policy.
On industrial strategy PCS has not called a strike in a year now, but debates mentioned a number of unions calling for united strike action on July 10 over pay. The NEC stated they’d consider this and would contact those unions, but mentioned we’ve seen unions declare action, then pull out at the last minute, leaving PCS high and dry.
In the NEC elections the Democracy Alliance between the SP-controlled Left Unity and the mainly Labourite PCS Democrats achieved a 100% clean sweep. It seems that Left Unity had culled the number of SWP candidates to a bare minimum - I do not know if this is to do with the splits within the SWP or some tactical falling out. My own vote, as the sole Socialist Independent, increased by 800 votes despite a lower turnout.
When the 1923 German revolution was crushed, the degeneration of the Soviet state accelerated. Some communists attribute this to the brute shock of defeat (leading them to overstate the consequences of other defeats), but hindsight supports a different principle: the level of the proletariat’s political consciousness in a degenerated workers’ state in the periphery depends on the communist possibilities in the core.
Mike Macnair accurately pinpoints the (heretofore) explanatory weakness of Trotsky’s ‘degenerated workers’ state’ theory: the quiescence of the Soviet workers before and during the dismantling of the Soviet Union (‘Exploitation and illusions about “anti-imperialism”’, May 15).
The lacuna is important (and will be filled shortly), but I also note that Trotsky’s theory explains developments that aren’t explained by comrade Macnair’s theory - he takes the view (along with others who differ with him on some specifics) that the Soviet Union had no mode of production. The no-mode-of-production theory makes it a remarkable coincidence that Russia stumbled into a historical dead end that just happened to create (uniquely, in the 20th century) an industrial country out of one mired in landlordism, a basic historical task. It also fails to explain why the Soviet workers defended for decades certain socialist rights (like the right to a job) unheard of under capitalism. Comrade Macnair’s no-mode-of-production theory explains Soviet proletarian rights as being rigidified ideological rationalisations, but Marxists should know that, where the rulers’ material interests are at stake, ideology is flexible. ‘No mode of production’ fails to explain the rigidity of the dominant ideology or the authorities’ practical respect for it.
Comrade Macnair’s theory loses its only explanatory advantage, that regarding Soviet proletarians’ quiescence, once we recognise that the proletariat’s political horizon in the periphery is limited by the absence of communist possibilities in the core.
During the 1950s and 60s, workers should have sought state control over the rapid automation driving speed-up and overtime, but instead shamefacedly pursued (as ‘featherbedding’) limited control at the plant level. Among socialists and communists, the disorientation stemmed from failure to adjust classical Marxism to the era of capitalist decay and to a lingering belief that capitalist growth brings a better life for the masses under decaying capitalism: the same kind of political error as, today, refusing to demand capital and immigration controls.
In 2013 two Asian men and an Asian woman were arrested in Stevenage and charged with trafficking underage girls for sex, and at a preliminary hearing in February the case was adjourned and the defendants bailed.
There have been a number of anti-Islamic incidents in the town - in particular, some recent attacks on the central mosque, which serves its small Muslim population - and now it seems that the fascist EDL has decided that it is ready to start the next step on its glorious struggle to save that poor oppressed minority: the English!
The actual support for the league in the town is thought to be very low, and comments on the group’s social media suggest that a number of the marchers will be coming for a day trip on June 7 from outside Stevenage. Comrades from the town’s trades council and long established Socialist Party branch are making plans for a counterdemonstration. The police presence is likely to be heavy, and this will no doubt become one of those familiar scenes, where supporters of the EDL and their opponents find themselves encircled by police for a few hours.
This event does, however, mark possibly the first attempt of any rightwing organisation to demonstrate in the town, which isn’t particularly known for its political demonstrations - but, whenever they do take place, they are leftwing in character. Support for the miners in 1984-85, and again in 92 was consistent, and a march and rally against the Criminal Justice Bill of the early 90s was also strongly attended.
Although the EDL’s appearance on the streets here is likely to be a small affair, comrades are of course welcome to come and join the counterdemonstration on June 7. The EDL are scheduled to start their march at 1pm on a route close to Stevenage train station.
The ‘15 Now’ campaign was initiated in the mood of euphoria which prevailed shortly after the victory of Kshama Sawant, who openly campaigned as a socialist and, in a historic victory, was elected to the Seattle city council.
At first, it appeared to many that all Seattle workers would soon be making at least $15 an hour. Both mayoral candidates in the November 2013 election had supported $15. The city council was favourable also. And the city’s hip, cool Stranger newspaper (which had worked so hard to get Sawant elected) and the powerful trade union bureaucrats were backing the $15 campaign to the hilt.
More than this, Sawant’s Socialist Alternative organisation, which created the ‘15 Now’ organisation in January, had a foolproof ‘back-up plan’ if the promises of the mayor and city council turned out to be empty: a city charter amendment that could be taken to the voters in November and which could harvest the overwhelming popular support for a big hike in the minimum wage, as reported in a poll announced by the Stranger.
What could possibly go wrong? It turns out that all the usual things could go wrong. The proposal backed by the mayor and the city council is widely known for having more holes than Swiss cheese, and growing new holes daily, as the mayor and city council scramble to get approval for the plan from the corporate moneybags who really run the city. Instead of 15 Now, the current plan is more like 14 in 10 years, and may not even apply to things like training wages - which would be widely applied in the fast food industry, which typically has a 90% annual turnover in its workforce.
How about the back-up plan? Well, it turns out there is a problem with that also. 15 Now avoided collecting signatures until recently in order to avoid offending the mayor and trade union bureaucrats - who complained that launching such a ballot initiative would amount to ‘class war’.
At this time it is unclear if the 15 Now organisation will even be able to collect the 50,000 signatures necessary to qualify for the ballot. And even if enough signatures are collected it appears likely that the 15 Now leadership has little stomach for a serious fight against corporate interests, which would challenge the ballot measure with truckloads of money.
And the poll results breathlessly announced by the Stranger showing overwhelming support for $15 an hour? It turns out the poll was not based on realistic conditions. More realistic would be to first subject people who answer the poll to dozens of hours to slick, lying TV, radio and newspaper ads (such as we would be bombarded with this fall) that dramatically describe how a higher minimum wage would wreck the economy and cost the poll-taker his job, home and family.
There is another, more important reason that the 15 Now organisation is unlikely to go forward with a ballot initiative: their ‘allies’ would desert them in a heartbeat. The trade union bureaucrats, whose entire careers are based on their ability to sell out workers, have made clear that they oppose the ballot initiative and will side with the mayor.
It would be great if 15 Now, against the internal logic of everything they have done so far, went ahead with a ballot fight this fall. Win or lose, an open fight would raise the consciousness of a large number of people and open up space for independent work in favour of a higher minimum wage. That is what I am hoping for. But I expect to get disappointed. We must recognise, on the basis of political sobriety, that 15 Now is more likely to settle for the crumbs they can get from the mayor and city council. They could still call it a big win. Here is Al Jazeera: “Observers expect the bill to pass by the end of May. If it passes, the win - though imperfect - will validate Socialist Alternative’s approach, swell its ranks and crack open more space for socialist politics in the United States.”
It must be said that “socialist politics in the United States” are increasingly looking to be indistinguishable from good, old-fashioned social democracy. One might think (and this author certainly does) that the ruling bourgeoisie in the US got frightened by the independence and militancy of the Occupy movement, and has decided to experiment with opening up a little space for social democratic trends nominally independent of the Democratic Party, as long as they are well-trained and well-behaved. What we are witnessing right now is the process of training.
Laurie Smith’s dreary review of the Manchester Spring conference 2014 paints a fairly dismal picture of a lively and exciting event, quite contrary to the experience of its organisers and the enthusiasm of the vast bulk of those in attendance - insofar as our immediate feedback was concerned (Letters, May 22).
I am pleased to note that Laurie appreciated our numbers (not at all bad considering we were competing with one of the sunniest days of the year). I am similarly pleased to note that he sees potential in our largely young and organisationally unaligned demographic. I should further note that I feel no general compulsion to defend the performance or ideas of our panellists. Our event is designed to present a plurality of views from the left in a rigorous and productive discourse, so it is no surprise that any individual in the audience would find it impossible to agree with every speaker.
That said, Laurie’s analysis of the discussions is at best uncharitable and at worst confused. In particular, his assessment of Billy McKinstry’s opening discussion - in my opinion - entirely missed the point. Billy’s argument - that the working class exists in an objective, economic relation, which entails no innately progressive cultural perspective - has been warped into an argument that racist and sexist views should not be tackled. Not an argument which Billy made at the time, nor one I know he holds. Billy argued for the centrality of class at the heart of left strategy due to its strategic location in relation to the means of production and distribution, as opposed to a vague idea of its cultural superiority - an argument Laurie crudely dismisses as ‘economism’.
Laurie uses quotation marks to quote the phrase, “we need to ‘keep doing what we’re doing’”, as an indicator of Billy’s position. Until I go through the audio recording I cannot verify the accuracy of that quote. I can, however, say it runs completely contrary to the direction of the actual discussion, as it was happening in the room. Billy argued against pointless strikes and tired symbolic actions - the direct opposite of Laurie’s assertions - and argued instead that the left should win support in showing its strength: building communities, winning tangible everyday battles, plugging the gap created by the retreating welfare state. Perhaps to Laurie’s mind this is “keeping doing what we’re doing”. If that’s the case, I for one disagree with him.
His offhand dismissal of our last session, ‘The commodification of radical aesthetics’, says more about his patience for topics which don’t directly cater to his niche interests than it says anything about the fascinating discussion which was had. In particular, Angela Nagle’s defence of abundance and consumer prosperity over poverty, even at the expense of cultural purity, went down as one of the most discussed contributions in our post-conference drinks session, and numerous delegates - unprompted - referred to the session as a ‘surprise favourite’.
To my mind, Laurie’s review smacks of a determination to box the event off in the safe and controllable arena of his practised criticisms of the left, regardless of content. No doubt he would have considered the event more of a success had we filled every panel with members of the CPGB, and all had espoused the positions he already agreed with in line with the party programme. Alas, we do not operate to satisfy his particular mores. Spring is an open and ongoing discussion on issues of culture, strategy and philosophy. I would encourage him to approach our future events on this basis, and yet live in hope that I might live to see a positive review of an event I have helped organise in the pages of the Weekly Worker.
For anti-sectarianism’s sake, comradely congratulations are in order for the European United Left/Nordic Green Left in the European parliamentary elections, to Germany’s Die Linke, to Greece’s Syriza and KKE, to Spain’s United Left and Podemos, to France’s Front de Gauche and Alliance of the Overseas, to Italy’s The Other Europe with Tsipras, to the Czech Republic’s Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, to Ireland’s Sinn Féin, to the Netherlands’ Socialist Party, to Cyprus’s Progressive Party of Working People, to Portugal’s Democratic Unitarian Coalition and Left Bloc, to Sweden’s Left Party, to Finland’s Left Alliance, and to Denmark’s People’s Movement against the EU.
London Rare Book Week has just finished and its flagship event was the International Antiquarian Book Fair at Olympia, with 180 exhibitors from around the world. Rare books, first editions, illuminated manuscripts, old maps, photos and the occasional poster or handbill. A first edition James Bond for £10,000 may not be surprising; a first edition Harry Potter for £37,500 is.
Tucked away on the bottom shelf of a glass display cabinet, one bookseller had by far the most expensive item at the fair - 49 small manuscript pages, scribbled in ink and written in 1845, mostly in French, this item was a fragment of Karl Marx’s notes for his forthcoming book, Capital. The price? £2 million.
It’s good - I think - to know that capitalists are prepared to pay an astronomical sum for the work of someone so hostile to their political philosophy. Good too, to realise that Marx is not forgotten at the speculative commodity end of the market and that his name remains a heavyweight, even among those whom one would not imagine having a relish for the person or his ideas. One wonders what kind of rarefied collectors’ circle competes among itself to pay this kind of price.
Oh, and if you have less to spend, how about a letter - a single sheet of two brief paragraphs from the same author, for £110,000?