Federal republic

There are three short points I would like to make in response to comrade Paul B Smith’s contribution to the debate on Scottish independence (Letters, July 17).

Firstly, while any Marxist can agree with him that we should be utterly opposed to nationalism, as democrats we also have to recognise that the unity of peoples must be voluntary. Where national questions exist, in our struggle against national narrow-mindedness and utopianism Marxists can and should unequivocally champion the right of peoples to join together with, or separate from, others - even if we argue against the right to separate being enacted (as with the September referendum on Scottish independence). Our overriding principle, of course, is that we should espouse the highest forms of working class unity circumstances allow. Our ‘Trotskyist’ comrades who call for a ‘British road’ withdrawal from the European Union, for example, have precisely sleepwalked into the kind of ‘socialism in one country’ politics comrade Smith usefully critiques.

While internationalism is a cardinal principle, there are circumstances where Marxists correctly call for certain peoples to enact their right to self-determination in favour of separation. It cannot be denied that a Scottish national question exists. Something set to continue, whatever the outcome of the September 18 vote. Marxists must confront this head on with our own programme of radical democracy, without pandering to Scottish nationalism - or defending the anti-democratic status quo as the ‘least worst’ outcome in terms of ‘class unity’ (it goes without saying that the unity of our class, however pathetic it may be at the moment, is not the same thing as the unity of the British state!) This is what is so disappointing about the typically economistic response of some comrades in the ‘no’ campaign. One often gets the impression that no national question exists in Scotland: confronting the world as we would like it to be, not as it is.

Second, comrade Smith is wrong to suggest that calling for a boycott of the referendum on Scottish independence “implies that the calling of the referendum is in and of itself reactionary”. There is not some inviolate principle by which Marxists approach referenda, elections or any other such matter. Firm in principle, flexible in tactics. Yet precisely because of our principles, referenda should always be handled with extreme caution. Historically they have been a reliable means for real and aspiring Bonapartes to dupe the masses and create a semblance of mass legitimacy or support for their projects: the current Iranian theocracy and the experience of German Nazism bear painful witness to this.

Precisely because politics is an art form, most matters confronting our class cannot be boiled down to a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to a question set by a particular regime with its own particular interests. Comrade Smith’s example of a potential referendum on British membership of the EU is apposite. Can Marxists really vote ‘yes’ to the bloated bureaucracy that is the current EU? By the same token, do we want to vote for ‘British sovereignty’ and the purported ‘golden age’ of pre-1973 Britain? Of course not.

Finally, and perhaps relatedly, comrade Smith gets our call for a federal republic completely wrong - surprising for one who has been a reader of our publication for many years. His response is obviously tainted by the malignant experience of ‘official communism’ and its distortion of Marxist republicanism, whereby the call for the ‘democratic republic’ as “the form of working class rule” (Marx) was hollowed out and turned into a key pillar of cross-class popular frontism: one of several ‘stages’ which purport to lead towards socialism, but actually do the opposite, as evinced by the South African Communist Party’s role in the so-called ‘national democratic revolution’, which is making conditions as comfortable for capitalism as possible - with occasionally shocking repercussions for workers’ rights and conditions.

However, it goes without saying that the CPGB’s call for a federal republic for the peoples of England, Scotland and Wales has nothing to do with such an approach. I would refer comrade Smith to our Draft programme, Weekly Worker pieces critiquing popular-frontist ‘republicanism’ or even the very Jack Conrad article comrade Smith was responding to, in which comrade Conrad explicitly states that the federal republic “is, needless to say, the specific form under which we envisage the working class coming to power” - crucially as an integral part of a workers’ Europe. So, yes, comrade Smith, such perspectives are precisely antithetical to ‘halfway housism’ - and to all political projects which gloss over or sidestep the need to defeat the capitalist state.

Comrade Smith assures us that “some of the first measures of a workers’ government” would be, inter alia, to “abolish monarchical forms of government”. This is all well and good (although I think we have to be much clearer about the positive measures this would involve: the experience of ‘official communism’ underlines how there are many different forms of so-called ‘republican’ government). But what about the alternative constitutional outlook we should fight for in the here and now? Can we not uphold radical republicanism today? Is it not possible to win substantial constitutional reforms and concessions which will facilitate the struggle for working class republicanism?

Socialism, the rule of the working class, represents our side’s victory in “the battle of democracy” and as such cannot be achieved without positive solutions to all democratic questions and manifestations of democratic injustice and oppression. Hence the indispensability of the federal republic and the minimum programme. I would urge comrade Smith to have another look at our material.

Ben Lewis
South Wales

Run its course

Last week Paul Smith explained how his view of the national question was informed by the theory of bourgeois democratic revolution. This theory claims that the struggle for democracy is progressive in the early stage of rising capitalism, but is reactionary in the epoch of capitalist decline.

He expresses this idea by saying: “Nationalism within a declining capitalism is of a different nature than during its ascendant phase. In the 19th century, nationalism destroyed feudal relations that held back workers’ movements towards socialism. In a post-Stalinist world, nationalism is no longer progressive”.

Paul’s theory concludes that the right of Scotland to self-determination and the establishment of a republic is objectively reactionary. This is nothing new. Lenin called it the “nascent trend of imperialist economism”. What is new is that Paul makes the collapse of Stalinism the dividing line, after which all nationalism is reactionary. Since the collapse of Stalinism, Paul believes Kurdish nationalism in Turkey is just as bad or worse than Turkish nationalism!

It is true that some nationalism, such as British unionism, is conservative and often reactionary, as clearly represented by the UK Independence Party, the British National Party or the Orange Order. But democratic nationalism still inspires people in Kurdistan, Palestine, Ireland, Catalonia or Wales to seek a more democratic future. It is nonsense to say this is equally reactionary. To do so is to side with imperialism.

Paul says: “Steve Freeman has intimated that Marxists who characterise Scottish republicanism as a form of nationalism are secret agents of the British state.” This is a great invention. I note Paul doesn’t actually quote anything I said. The ‘Donovanian’ method of polemic is spreading.

Speaking of Ian Donovan, in trying to defend his untenable position it has collapsed. He says: “In commenting about the ‘dark side’ of the English ruling class (as opposed to the very light-sided Scottish ruling class) …” (Letters, July 17) This is complete nonsense. There is no “English ruling class”, nor Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish ruling classes. There is only an historically constituted British ruling class.

Ian defends the British unionist ruling class by removing it from view! Yet it is at the very centre of the whole struggle. Then, to add to the absurdity, he says MI5 is not a class institution: that is, not an instrument of the British ruling class. He says: “It is certainly not unlikely (ie, likely!) that MI5, or at least elements of it, will engage in hostile activity to [Scottish independence], though not on the basis of fundamental class interest; rather of bureaucratic convenience”.

So on the national question MI5 is not on the side of the British ruling class, as expressed by the coalition government, the Tory Party, the Whitehall mandarins, Lib Dems, Labour, the crown, the City of London, CBI, etc. First, he thinks there is no British ruling class. Then, if there is, it has no class interests in the referendum. But, if it does have class interests, MI5 does not fight for them. Only ‘elements’ of MI5 are fighting - not for the ruling class, but for their own special bureaucratic interests!

When an argument collapses under pressure into absurdity there is no point in carrying on. I will, of course, continue to claim that the dogs of unionism are ruthless and dangerous enough to stir up fears of anti-English racism amongst English people in Scotland in order to build a ‘no’ vote. I provided evidence from the Scottish Tories. Ian’s answer is to allege I am an anti-English racist and chauvinist for daring to expose unionist plans. This slander is not even worth dismissing. The argument with Ian has run its course.

Steve Freeman
LU Scottish Republic Yes tendency


Whilst I agree with Paul Smith’s overall argument on the Scottish referendum, I disagree with some points he makes. In my opinion, these arise from a one-sided view of history, with specific regard to (a) the national question and (b) the question of nationalisation. Perhaps this is because, for Paul, Stalinism - and its poisonous legacy - have become an idée fixe, which sometimes clouds his otherwise excellent work. What is lacking is a concrete analysis of concrete situations, vis-à-vis modern history. Where convenient, he just leaves things out (and not just for the purposes of his letter).

Paul correctly states that “Nationalism within a declining capitalism is of a different nature than during its ascendant phase.” He goes on to attribute this to the negative effects of Stalinism for the ongoing class struggle. This has, of course, become increasingly distorted - grotesquely so, when one considers what has happened in the Middle East. Therefore he concludes that “there are no instances of struggles for national liberation within the last 70 years that have advanced the struggle for socialism. On the contrary, they have retarded or actively destroyed it.” Whilst this is true, he then ascribes a sweeping and one-sided explanation as to why this is the case.

When Paul implies that Stalinism is the root cause of the failure of national liberation movements over the last 70 years, he leaves out the role of imperialism and social democracy, which is something of an oversight. After all, it was the latter which were jointly responsible for the isolation and degeneration of the Bolshevik revolution in the first place, out of which grew the bureaucracy within which Stalinism took root.

In this regard, nationalisation, in and of itself, was not responsible for the rise of Stalinism. By the same token, imperialism and social democracy were directly responsible for the defeat of the national liberation movement in the latter part of the 20thcentury. How? They physically smashed it up - a genocide to rival that of the holocaust. Stalinism played the role of ‘second assistant director’, due to the fact that its ideology and programme for the rest of the world, including the oppressed colonial peoples, was counterrevolutionary. It so divided the international working class ideologically, on the grounds that bourgeois democracy is better than Stalinist tyranny. (But, given the decline of voter participation, for reasons I can’t go into here, we may also ask, for how long?)

Just to give one example, in my opinion, the degeneration of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation has more to do with Zionist Israel than the corrupt leadership of Arafat and his cronies, simply because the liberation of Palestine constitutes a threat to imperialism and Zionist expansionism in particular. It had to be defeated militarily, by means of overwhelming firepower, collective punishment of the civilian population (its lifeblood), alliances with fascist Christian militia groups and not forgetting assassinations of key personnel. At least the PLO was a secular movement. As a result of this defeat, a vacuum was created, into which the Zionists inserted extremist Islamic groups, such as Hamas, which then took up the struggle for liberation - ie, the slave turned on its master.

The same imperialist strategy has been deployed in Cambodia (out of which came the Pol Pot regime), Afghanistan (out of which came al Qa’eda), and now northern Iraq and Syria. Which brings us to the worst one of all: Isis! By comparison, the democratically elected Hamas government in the Gaza strip appears to be a civilised movement, which it isn’t.

Paul ignores the fact that, in the first instance, it was imperialism which was directly responsible for the defeat of the national liberation movements in places as far apart as Indochina and Palestine (where it relies on its proxy, Zionist Israel). As a result, many millions of oppressed peasant workers, especially civilians, were wiped off the face of the earth, simply because they fought for the basic democratic right to independence. It would appear that the “battle for democracy”, as the Weekly Worker correctly describes it in ‘What we fight for’, is not part of Paul’s programme.

One wonders whether he would have called for a boycott (in terms of looking the other way) of the struggles for national liberation in the past, as well as what is happening in Gaza now.

Rex Dunn

LU democracy

Last weekend I attended Left Unity’s Eastern region aggregate. Jon Duveen gave a brief report ofthe June 7 national council meeting, which focused on contesting next year’s elections and campaign priorities.

Comrade Duveen claimed that LU is the only left party in Britain “in favour of immigration”, but somebody at the meeting was worried about the electorate on the doorstep - many people were concerned about immigration and the pressure on services and thought there was a need for controls. I pointed out that migrants could be turned into militants if we focused on getting them unionised.

Others mentioned the need to work with other left organisations like the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition during elections. The chair, Karen Michael, said that it was right not to stand LU candidates against Tusc. She favourably contrasted LU with the Socialist Workers Party and thought it was a good thing that we don’t have a ‘party line’: “It is chaotic and slower, but that’s democracy.” But the SWP was top-down, which was why she would be against the SWP joining LU (not that they are likely to want to join).

Karen Michael led off the perspectives part of the meeting, emphasising the likelihood of a strong vote for the UK Independence Party in the region, especially in Norfolk. At this point one comrade handed out leaflets from Stand Up to Ukip, which he admitted was an SWP front. I said that, while Ukip needs to be challenged, by focusing solely on Ukip we’re ignoring the rest of the right - for instance, the Tories, who’d probably thank us for taking the heat off them. An Italian comrade also thought we should not obsess over Ukip - at the end of the day it was the Tory government that was administrating austerity and attacking our class. The main issue for him was that the left since the 1980s has been in a long period of crisis - Ukip were just exploiting this.

There was a discussion on LU’s internal structure, when it was pointed out that most branches are more notional than real. Also, a comrade from Southend said that male-female parity wasn’t working in his branch. Two of the five members were women, but they were not interested in being regional delegates, for example.

In conclusion, it wasn’t a bad meeting. There was genuine discussion and a reasonable attitude to disagreement, cultivated by a competent chair. But what is missing is a lack of any political strategy and this is combined with illusions in, for example, the Greens.

Justin Cousins


I appreciate Alan Johnstone’s comments and response to me, but I am afraid Jon D White’s claim that the Socialist Party of Great Britain has never expelled anyone for upholding a minority view made my cat laugh out loud (Letters, July 17).

In 1991, the SPGB suffered a major and debilitating split, when two London branches, which happened to contain some of the most longstanding and prominent party writers and speakers, were expelled for (1) continuing to use the full name, ‘Socialist Party of Great Britain’, in public in contravention to a conference decision to use the shortened ‘The Socialist Party’; and (2) continuing to adhere to and publish prominently the ‘Object and declaration of principles’ which have defined the basis of the party since its foundation in 1904.

Underlying the expulsions and split was something of a generational and cultural shift within the SPGB during the 1970s and 80s, where ‘younger’ members sought to update and modernise the party’s case and appeal, while those in the London branches tended to represent an older generation and a more conservative and traditional approach to politics.

Shamefully, in recent years, a leading member of the Clapham SPGB, as assistant general secretary, carried out a vicious and almost obsessive campaign against the Ashbourne Court SPGB, using institutions of the capitalist state such as the police, the judiciary, the banks and the post office to, in effect, force the shut down and liquidation of the expelled SPGB branches. Fortunately, this character did not have direct access to state power; otherwise the results could have been individually more lethal.

I personally have more sympathy with the politics and presentation of the ‘modernisers’ in the SPGB, but I do think it ridiculous and damaging for socialists and socialism generally for such splits and expulsions to take place within what are claimed to be democratic socialist (as opposed to democratic centralist) parties and over somewhat doctrinal and obscure ‘angels on pinheads’ disputes.

After all, people see two organisations, both calling themselves the SPGB and both claiming to adhere to exactly the same ‘Object and declaration of principles’. What good or use is that to anyone, let alone the working class?

And it is in flat and risible contradiction to Jon’s claim that people or branches are never expelled from his party for publicly expressing different views which are within the scope of their declaration of principles.

Andrew Northall