CPGB aggregate: Arguments strengthened

Micky Coulter reports on an impassioned debate between CPGB members

The June 28 CPGB members aggregate was almost entirely devoted to a debate on our position on Scottish independence and the September 18 referendum.

Even a short while ago no-one in the organisation would have predicted this - the position of an ‘active boycott’, of saying ‘a plague on both houses’ had been the position adopted in Weekly Worker articles without any dissent or controversy for over three years. Indeed, it was precisely the fact that doubts had appeared so late in the day that caused a degree of consternation amongst some comrades. Following a series of lengthy and generally well thought out exchanges on the party’s internal list, five comrades put their names to a motion calling for a change in the CPGB’s position to one of a clear socialist ‘no’ vote, to be accompanied by propaganda for a federal republic. Against this the Provisional Central Committee had set out its own motion reaffirming the present policy, which clearly still commanded the support of the majority.

Speaking first and for the PCC motion was comrade Jack Conrad. He began by repeating his surprise at the fact that this discussion was being had, and gave his diagnosis of the motivations behind it. Clearly the comrades had either just not being paying attention or, alternatively, they had been infected with the politics of fear radiating from the reactionary Better Together campaign. Though the issue of whether to advocate a boycott or to vote ‘no’ was in itself only a tactical question, he stated, the debate since and the arguments used by comrades to support the position of a socialist ‘no’ had revealed deeper differences that exposed a slide into left loyalism and the equating of the unity of the UK state with that of the working class.

For starters, he went on, the referendum is itself a sign of the disunity of the working class, a sign of its virtual non-existence politically. Whatever the outcome, he continued, the problem will be worse after the vote, and even if the ‘no’ wins, Salmond is hardly going to go away: nothing will have changed. He wondered with whom the proposed socialist ‘no’ campaign was meant to ally. Aside from the official, bourgeois campaign, we have only a mix of left loyalists around the Labour Campaign for Socialism, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, small, thoroughly economistic groups, such as Socialist Appeal and Workers Power, and a number of individuals.

Comrade Conrad also dealt with the question of referenda - their general utility, political character and role - which had come up repeatedly in the CPGB’s internal email exchanges, and were discussed extensively during the meeting. He emphasised that, although, as the PPC motion stated, “referenda are typically undemocratic and a tool of dictators and Bonapartists”, whether or not one advocated a vote in one was purely a tactical matter, although for very good and obvious historical and political reasons they should always be viewed with deep suspicion.

However, in this instance, whatever the result, we will see continued attacks on the working class and all kinds of nationalist fallout on both sides of the border. We are not obliged, like a schoolchild in response to their teacher, to answer the question on the ballot paper simply because it has been asked. In place of choosing the butcher, he added, we advocate independent working class politics.

Proposing the opposing motion, for a socialist ‘no’ campaign, was Sarah McDonald. The comrade began by stressing the basis of her changed view. Although voting in referenda is a tactical issue, and we are not obliged to vote in them, in this case there were good reasons for doing so. She stated that the long-held position of the CPGB on the national question was that, though we support the right of secession, we also urge the affected population not to exercise that right. In addition she was concerned that some of the arguments in support of the PCC motion displayed a worrying nonchalance about national break-up, especially when involving “a historically constituted working class”, whose further weakening in the face of rising nationalism could only make the future tasks of communists fighting this tide and re-establishing unity even harder, and would represent a defeat as such. As communists, she continued, we favour the “largest, most centralised states” - a phrase comrade Tina Becker was later to quote from one of comrade Conrad’s own books. And, although she accepted that either result in the referendum would represent a setback of one sort or another, comrade McDonald questioned whether the effects of a ‘yes’ victory would really be comparable to those of a ‘no’. A new state, after all, could be played off economically by capital against the rest of the UK, to the detriment of Scottish workers, in a race to the bottom.

Commenting on what exists so far of any even vaguely leftwing ‘no’ campaign, the comrade agreed that it consisted of open left loyalists like George Galloway and of economistic socialists such as Sandy McBurney of Glasgow Left Unity. But comrade McDonald was insistent that this would in no way lead to our own demands being automatically submerged in, or seen as a simple amalgam with, the politics of these kinds of people; and indeed this was exactly the case when the CPGB has called, for example, for a Labour vote - people do not confuse the programme of the CPGB with that of Ed Miliband. While she conceded that the boycott position was superior in terms of highlighting our demand for the federal republic, a ‘no’ was better in terms of expressing our opposition to separatism.


A number of themes arose in the debate which followed: the political character of referenda in general, our attitude to the national question and the concrete case of the Scottish independence referendum. Whether or not there had been some slippage into left loyalism on the part of the supporters of the opposition motion was another theme - a charge angrily rebutted by some of the signatories to the motion, in particular Tina Becker.

This comrade also contested any implication that the “historically constituted working class” in Britain was dead and gone. She said that if there was no remaining sense of political unity between workers in England and Scotland, then neither was there between workers within England, given present conditions. Using the example of the 2002 referendum on abortion rights in Ireland, comrade Becker argued that you could legitimately vote for a bad status quo in order to prevent something worse.

Paul Demarty made a vigorous contribution, criticising comrade Becker’s statements on the CPGB email discussion list that referenda could be usefully employed by the working class. This reflected, he said, exactly the kind of deeper differences in political method that comrade Conrad had alluded to in his introduction. In contrast to Bonapartist referenda, said comrade Demarty, we support representative democracy. He noted that after the referendum the same situation - not least the relative decline of the UK and its undemocratic state arrangements - would remain, so that a ‘no’ victory would solve nothing. In fact by backing a ‘no’ vote we would be taking political responsibility for the poisonous consequences inflicted by UK nationalism and the Cameron government. He drew an analogy with those sections of the left that supported the Irish Good Friday agreement, the consequences of which now dirty their hands and reputations.

Yassamine Mather agreed that, although there are rare exceptions, referenda have almost always been used by reactionaries and have had reactionary consequences. In the case of Scotland, comrade Mather stated that the planned punishment of the population through harsher austerity from London via adjustment of the Barnett formula would keep the independence question live, and further inflame secessionist sentiment far beyond any immediate-term ‘no’ victory in September.

Part of the internal email discussion had focused on a quote from Lenin’s 1913 ‘Theses on the national question’, which for a minority of comrades laid out a straightforward and democratic approach: social democrats “demand the settlement of the question of such secession only on the basis of a universal, direct and equal vote of the population of the given territory by secret ballot”.1

Mike Macnair sought to shed some light on the background of the quotation above, explaining that Lenin had most probably got this via the Social Democratic Party of Germany, which put forward the demand for a referendum in relation to Alsace-Lorraine. Though it was probably a workable demand in this instance, it subsequently had become an “orthodoxy” on the left. In the present situation there was no point in picking between two rotten sides, and the national question can in fact be solved in a variety of ways: for example, by a constitutional convention. He noted that on one side stood SNP nationalism, attempting to flog an uncertain future, and on the other UK nationalism, seeking to win confirmation for the present undemocratic organisation of the UK state. Given that really existing capitalism actually organises at the level of the European Union, the national question presently posed between Scotland and England can only be solved at the level of Europe. Thus the politics of both the SNP and the UK Independence Party, etc are all, in the end, distorted reflections of anti-Europeanism.

I commented that a sense of political class unity, even if much weakened, will not have utterly disappeared between workers on both sides of the border and that, given the capitulation of the left to nationalism and the apparent indifference of the PCC motion to the break-up of states, it was necessary to call for a principled ‘no’ vote in order to give some backbone to the left, which has abandoned its positions. It could begin to stem the tide of secessionism, even if only demonstratively, which would buy time for the left to recover some political health (acts of god were welcomed here) and work to weaken nationalism. This would solve nothing in the short term admittedly, but would fundamentally result in kicking the familiar status-quo can further down the road, rather than opening up a whole new one of the qualitatively worse consequences of a ‘yes’ victory.

Comrade Conrad disagreed with the minority comrades that there was a “lesser evil” on offer, and stated that - as they themselves had agreed - the best way in this situation to highlight that an independent working class position was needed was through a boycott of the referendum. Indeed, he claimed that in addition to falling into “referendumism”, some comrades were approaching both the Lenin quote and the principle of favouring “the largest, most centralised states” in a dogmatic fashion.

He pointed out that Marx and Engels tended to propose unity within a centralised state when what was at stake was a politically active working class. Prior to the creation of the Labour Party workers were asked to choose between the Tory and the Liberal butcher - much as the minority comrades were advocating in regard to the SNP and the Con Dems at the present moment - whereas the Labour Party represented, in a distorted form, the idea of independent working class politics. The boycott position was trying to achieve the same thing: that is, proposing a strategic alternative.

Tina Becker continued to argue forcefully that the question was not one of “lesser evilism”, but of responding to an attack on the working class; the victory of Scottish nationalism would be a worse outcome and by continuing our propaganda for the federal republic we stood absolutely no chance of being mixed up with the pitiful official ‘no’ campaign. What mattered was the unity of the working class and retaining what remained of the fighting power of the “historically constituted” British working class.

In the end the meeting voted by a margin of just under four to one in favour of the PCC motion and against the alternative. In spite of the claims of some PCC comrades that those who had signed the minority motion had simply been inattentive or “backward”, I found that, in fact, its result had been to clarify our position, precisely because it had previously been uncontroversial. I have no doubt that the arguments for it have now been substantially strengthened, even in the minds of those who already supported it, and that the organisation as a whole has benefited from this debate, even if one is unhappy that it had to take place at all.


1. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1913/jun/30.htm.