Determination of revolution
Jack Conrad contrasts the Scottish left-nationalist demand for separation with the communist demand for self-determination
Communists do not fondly look back upon, revere or have any desire to reinvigorate or reinvent official British nationalism. A well-gnawed bone that ought to be left to Alistair Darling, Michael Gove, Gordon Brown, Jeremy Paxman, Nigel Farage, Nick Griffin and other such jackals to scrap and yap over. No, Britain’s 300-year history as a blood-drenched, class-divided, imperialist state must be ruthlessly exposed ... so that official Britain can be put behind us as soon as possible. Towards that end we can usefully highlight the other Britain. Leveller Britain, Chartist Britain, Triple Alliance Britain. If we do that rigorously, if we do that successfully, history goes from an apologia, a dull fact-grubbing exercise, to being a weapon - and one of the sharpest at that - in the struggle for socialism.
As well as taking on official Britain, we are surely obliged to combat the myths, nonsense and poison peddled by Scottish left nationalists - home-grown, of course, but vicarious too. My articles on Scotland are certainly designed to cut away the verbiage of anti-imperialism, national liberation and socialism used to excuse left-nationalist support for Alex Salmond’s rather prosaic bid to establish an Scottish National Party-ruled, royalist, Nato, European Union, sterling area, anti-working class state.
We have argued that workers throughout Britain achieved a nascent level of class-consciousness in the early 19th century.1 A reality Scottish nationalists must deny, belittle or denounce. British national identity - official and unofficial - is contrasted with the supposedly authentic Scottishness of Kenneth Mac Alpin, Robert de Bruce, John Knox, Charles Edward Stuart, John Maclean, Margret Ewing, Sean Connery, Tommy Sheridan and Brian Souter. Equally, by definition, Scottish nationalists act, even if it is only unconsciously, to weaken, break apart and effectively dissolve hard-won all-Britain bonds of workers’ solidarity, no matter how attenuated they are nowadays.
Cynical, naive, unintended or otherwise, that is the objective meaning of the Radical Independence Campaign. Robin McAlpine, Pete Ramand, James Foley, Neil Davidson, Cat Boyd, Gerry Hassan and other leading lights provide Alex Salmond and the ‘yes’ campaign with invaluable left cover. Necessarily this takes the form of issuing empty future threats. To justify their scab role they claim that September 18 will release an ever rising curve of progressive demands, struggles and results. Salmond will be forced into one concession after another. Austerity will, of course, be sent packing. The SNP government will sooner rather than later lose control to a reinvigorated left. Needless to say, most are committed to a Scottish national socialism. Meanwhile, those south of the border are breathlessly told that a ‘yes’ vote in Scotland will create conditions for far-reaching change. Allan Armstrong of Edinburgh RIC seriously claims to believe that “democratic reform” will be “difficult to resist” in a weakened UK.2 Without a hint of irony he boldly declares: “We live in interesting times” (the so-called Chinese curse).
Why the widespread desire in Scotland to create a new capitalist state through a separatist breakaway? I have argued that the relative decline of British imperialism - within an overall decline of capital as a system - laid the basis for a thoroughly modern, separatist nationalism in Scotland (which like most nationalisms seeks to project itself back into the deep past: ie, medieval times). In Leninist terms, the crumbs from the imperialist table became recognisably fewer and further between.
From the mid-18th century onwards, being Scottish - with the obvious exception of worst-paid labour - was to share, at least to some extent, in the “lucrative” booty of the British empire.3 Under Thatcher that same national identity meant the poll tax. Today the SNP has replaced the Tories and Labour as the dominant force in Scottish politics. Yet politically it is a petty bourgeois formation, which long ago sold itself body and soul to monopoly capital. Salmond pledges to slash corporation tax by 3% and to all in all promote capitalist interests. Hence, following his first TV debate with Alistair Darling, he sought to recover lost ground by insisting that independence would be a “golden opportunity” for business.4
Once Salmond’s arc of prosperity included Ireland. Now the ‘Celtic tiger’ hardly ever gets a mention. Given present circumstances, it ought to serve as a dire warning of what might happen: net migration, economic regression, huge debts, swingeing public spending cuts. Under post-2008 conditions the likelihood is that an SNP-governed independent Scotland would feel compelled to impose ever harsher austerity measures to placate the big banks, credit agencies and money markets. Put another way, left nationalists urge a ‘yes’ vote on the basis of a self-serving fantasy.
That is why we can only but take issue with the motley band of vicarious admirers - the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party in England and Wales, Socialist Resistance, Counterfire, Revolutionary Communist Group, etc. Their standard story goes something like this: “The break-up of the British state could significantly weaken British imperialism, its reactionary unionist ideology and its ability to intervene militarily in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.”5
It is doubtless true that Scottish secession would be a big blow to the British establishment. Not for nothing have Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton intervened to express their concern for the unity of their No1 ally. But it hardly follows that a British imperialism trimmed of 8% of its domestic population would cease being the No1 ally of the US. The argument is difficult to take seriously. A declining US superimperialism will surely continue to lash out militarily and wreak havoc. And more than likely UK armed forces will still be found on the front line (conceivably alongside Scottish regiments).
Socialism is a positive historic movement. It requires working class political independence, a working class political party and working class mass action. Hence what is bad for our enemy is not necessarily good for us. What is bad for them can be bad for us. Eg, mobilising throughout Britain would encounter all manner of new hurdles and difficulties with the secession of Scotland. In general we prefer big states. They provide the wide arena needed to conduct the class struggle to the maximum effect. Hence if Wales too seceded and was followed by Cornwall, Yorkshire and Northumberland, that would hardly be something for socialists to celebrate.
As for ideology, it is not hard to imagine a carnival of reaction on both sides of the border. The SNP would surely not miss any opportunity to blame London for its problems. English people living in Scotland already experience a certain hostility. That could easily turn venomous. A backlash would then be a real danger. So, arguably, a somewhat lacklustre British unionism would be replaced by a vengeful, snarling, unhinged English nationalism. Only a masochist could describe that as progress.
Incidentally, Left Unity declined to endorse the ‘yes’ campaign. However, worryingly, revealing the shallowness of its politics, the organisation’s Manchester policy conference on March 24 2014 adopted a neutral, non-committal approach. An elementary failure of programme and leadership.
Marxists - real Marxists, that is - start, not with the nation, but the world economy and the contradictory system of competing capitalist states. Within each state we seek to organise advanced workers - whatever their nationality, whatever their specific origins, whatever their ethnicity - into a single revolutionary party. There is nothing narrow or parochial here. Our aim is to promote internationalism (we look towards a new Communist International with subordinate or, at least to begin with, associated state sections). By contrast left nationalists do their damnedest to fan, or alibi, division and a patriotic sense of grievance.
The first decisive battle could be fought out within a nation-state: eg, Germany, Japan, France and Italy. By the same measure there could be a breakthrough in a multinational state like Spain, India or South Africa. In general, communists, it should be stressed, take as a given what history has handed down. Despite the massacres, torture and expropriations associated with colonialism, we accept the existence of the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Communism is not a project to reverse history. Given exceptional circumstances separation should not be ruled out. Eg, Ireland in the late 19th century. Though it may appear paradoxical to members of the Talmudic left, communists raise the demand for separation solely in order to achieve the highest possible voluntary unity that objective conditions permit.
Communists want an end to the whole filthy business: national wars and oppression, borders and customs posts, detention centres and deportations. Hence, though our revolution begins with the state, its essence is universal. Having united workers as a political class to make revolution against the state, we must proceed energetically, determinedly, as swiftly as possible, to the global level, where alone the dominance of capital can be superseded.
However, the tempo of class struggle and therefore class-consciousness is, and for some considerable time to come will be, markedly uneven from country to country. Some move faster, others slower. That said, there are broadly common tempos and similar levels of consciousness brought about by all manner of historically determined cultural and political factors, including agreements by capitalist governments to pool what they loftily call their sovereignties in an attempt to enhance global standing, economic weight and ability to exploit others. In such a grouping of countries - needless to say, I have the EU in mind - the working class would be well advised to move as one.6 But - and this is the point - no socialist revolution, even if it triumphs on a continental scale, can survive in isolation for long. A year or two, perhaps 10, surely no more. Sooner or later counterrevolution will burst in from without, or well up from within. Therefore, to the best of our abilities the fight for revolution must be coordinated on a global scale.
The CPGB seeks to emulate the best of the past: eg, the Communist Party of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, the German Social Democracy of August Bebel, Wilhelm Liebknecht and Karl Kautsky, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party of Vladimir Lenin, Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev. Not as mimicry, but in order to make a qualitative leap by positively overcoming the confessional sects.
Obviously, building, training and steeling a party of several millions - necessary for a revolution in a country like Britain - is the work of two or three decades. Outlining a programme is another matter. Whatever the inadequacies (inevitable due to the absence of constant testing and fine-tuning, which is provided by deep social roots and practical engagement in parliamentary, mass-strike and other such large-scale class battles) it can be done by a handful of communist militants - if they have thoroughly schooled themselves in the politics of Marxism.
So, although the CPGB is not yet a party - a key objective - it has equipped itself with a draft programme. Unlike the narrow economism that passes for common sense on too much of the left, the CPGB takes a Marxist approach to the UK state. In our minimum programme - ie, within the technical limits imposed by the capitalist system - communists emphasise, bring to the fore, class (as opposed to sectional) demands that challenge the logic of the market, such as the provision of health, education and benefits based on need. They give no less emphasis to political demands which challenge how we are ruled. Briefly, the abolition of the monarchy, the secret state and the House of Lords, a people’s militia, disestablishment of the church of England, election of judges, etc.
What about the national question? Once again our programmes seeks to forge class unity and challenge how we are ruled. Hence the demand for the abolition of the acts of union, self-determination for Scotland and Wales, and a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales (how we envisage the initial form of working class rule in Britain).
Incidentally, John Major, Tony Blair, Peter Hain, Gerry Adams and Alex Salmond have unwittingly done us a great service here. They show us that the UK constitution is neither timeless nor natural. It is plastic, a product of historical making and contemporary remaking. What has been rearranged from above can be transformed from below.
While there must be an objective dimension, when it comes to assessing what is and what is not a nation - eg, a common territory - that hardly means discounting what people think. The coming into being of a British nation in the 18th century cannot be put before the palpable feelings of masses of people in Scotland and Wales today. Millions sincerely believe they are nationally disadvantaged, held back or even oppressed. A subjective factor that only a hopeless dogmatist would discount and therefore fail to harness by offering positive solutions.
Those who rigidly adhere to third-worldist anti-imperialism cannot possibly bring themselves to countenance self-determination for ‘unworthy’ peoples - the most obvious example being Israeli Jews and the British-Irish in the six counties of Northern Ireland.7 Given its junior role in founding, administering and exploiting what was a vast British empire, that should logically include Scotland too. After all, historically even “left-of-centre”8 Scottish nationalists sought not to end that empire, but, as a “mother nation”, equal rights with England to rob and plunder it.9
Interestingly, though the motivations are transparently different, a similar argument can be heard coming from cosmopolitan liberals. According to the ethical philosopher, Allen Buchanan, calling for self-determination for non-oppressed nations risks endless fragmentation. Unless there has been “a long train of abuses”,10 there ought to be no justification in international law for the “right of self-determination”.11 Only if “serious injustices” have occurred can a case be made for secession as a “remedial right”. Without that safeguard, without that restraint, every region, every community, every street could claim their right to self-determination and thus bring about the complete breakdown of society. Territorial integrity must therefore be upheld.
Communists are not interested in preserving the unity of capitalist states, but winning allies and neutralising enemies. After all, the Bolsheviks were prepared to grant self-determination even to the Cossacks. Not, of course, because the Cossacks were deserving, kind and suitably oppressed. No, on the contrary, they were the tsar’s chosen oppressors. A privileged military estate or caste. But that is exactly the point. The Bolsheviks needed to split, if possible win over, the Cossacks. Hence they started to treat them as “an ethnic or national group”.12 Without such a shift the camp of revolution could only but be weakened and the counterrevolution strengthened. In March 1920 Lenin can be found delivering a thoughtful speech on the international situation to the first all-Russia conference of working Cossacks.13
So the demand for self-determination is not some unwarranted sop to petty bourgeois reactionaries, or an unrealisable panacea, a cure-all for capitalism’s national antagonisms. Rather, self-determination is one of many weapons in the armoury of communism. If properly applied, it advances the interests of the working class.
In this light it matters not a jot that the Bolsheviks were forced to invade Ukraine in order to crush the white armies of Kornilov and Denikin, or that they counter-invaded Poland in a vain attempt to reignite the German revolution. Such instances can be the subject of historic re-examination. However, none of that proves that Bolshevik support for self-determination was a sham or that communists should discard the demand today.
Nor does it matter a jot that ecstatic independence celebrations in Latin America, Asia and Africa were followed by subordinate economic development, corruption and widening social inequality. Blaming the Bolsheviks’ demand for national self-determination, on the basis of such ‘evidence’, would be like blaming the working class suffrage movement of Sylvia Pankhurst for the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979.
There is a tenuous connection. The East London Federation of Suffragettes did, after all, demand votes for women. But such a premise and the election of Thatcher hardly amount to identity. Communists should never apologise for helping to bring about universal suffrage because the UK’s first female prime minister was a breaker of trade unions, a homophobic bigot and a dyed-in-the-wool British chauvinist. That is what Aristotle called an “accidental unity”, not an essential outcome.14
One can legitimately debate whether or not the Basque country, Kosova, Quebec, Kurdistan and Scotland tick all the boxes of a classic bourgeois nation. The main point in each and every such case is what people inhabiting each specific territory think. We neither invent nor ignore national movements. Positively deal with problems where they exist. Overcome national resentments, conflict and antagonisms by ending involuntary unity and move towards voluntary unity through the struggle for socialism. That is how the positive dialectic runs, and through winning a wider and wider democracy the majority needed to secure the proletarian revolution is engaged, organised and made ready for decisive action.
Having left no room for doubt that the right to self-determination is fundamentally a political, not a moral, question, let us proceed. To state the obvious, when communists advocate Scottish self-determination it is not the same as advocating independence.
As Lenin explains in 1903,
[O]ur unreserved recognition of the struggle for freedom of self-determination does not in any way commit us to supporting every demand for national self-determination. As the party of the proletariat, the Social Democratic Party considers it to be its positive and principal task to further the self-determination of the proletariat of each nationality rather than the peoples or nations. We must always and unreservedly work for the very closest unity of the proletariat of all nationalities, and it is only in isolated and exceptional cases that we can advocate and actively support demands conducive to the establishment of a new class state or the substitution of a looser federal unity, etc, for the complete unity of a state.15
An oft-used metaphor is divorce. Saying a woman should have the legal right to split from her husband is not the same as recommending that contented wives should end their marriages. Of course, as opinion polls amply testify, Scotland is far from contented. The very fact that the September 18 referendum could still go either way shows that in no uncertain terms. If Scotland is really ‘better together’ with England, why do so many want to finish the 300-year union? What was a marriage of convenience has soured. There is hostility, resentment, an icy-cold chill.
Scotland, as a matter of principle, ought to have the right to freely decide its own future. That is elementary democracy. However, it does not follow that communists are indifferent as to how that right is exercised. The unacceptable status quo must be ended. Nowadays it demonstratably fuels division and disempowers the working class. That is why the left-loyalist ‘no’ campaign is so badly mistaken. The marriage has to be renegotiated and renewed on a democratic, socialist basis. Voting for no change, voting for September 19 to be the same as September 17 is to be part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Marxism favours the closest possible voluntary unity of people in general and workers in particular. That means accepting the right of people in Scotland to vote for whatever constitutional arrangement they happen to chose. But at every stage communists resolutely fight for their own programme.
Under our specific circumstances the federal republic slogan fits the bill perfectly. It encapsulates the democratic right to self-determination and the radically transformed unity of the working class in Britain against the Cameron-Miliband-Clegg ‘devo max’ constitutional monarchy. In addition, the demand for a federal republic encapsulates the unity of the working class in Britain against the divisive nationalism of Salmond, Sauter and Sheridan.
Nationalism and Marxism, it hardly needs saying, are antithetical. Marxists view nationalism as at best an unstable, untrustworthy and potentially treacherous ally. In general though, there can be no doubt that nationalism is a pernicious and deadly enemy. Especially in this, the last, declining phase of capitalism.
Nationalism was responsible for the fracturing and tragic failure of the socialist movement in 1914. Social democracy became an enemy within. Workers were urged to slaughter their class brothers. The 1928 Stalinite counterrevolution was nationalist too. And the Soviet Union inspired other such horrors: China, North Korea, Albania, Cambodia and Romania. Despite all that, the 20th century still clouds brains. “Scotland’s road to socialism” is seen as a two-stage schema beginning with September 18.
Nationalists promote and derive sustenance from the idea that all classes within the nation are bound together by vital common interests. That, surely, is the only explanation as to why the Scottish Socialist Party’s main spokesperson, the miserable Colin Fox, sits on the ‘yes’ campaign’s advisory board. Predictably, he views national characteristics and distinctions as essential, natural and something to be sustained into the indefinite future. Marxists, on the other hand, work towards overcoming national differences and the merger of all nations and nationalities.
1. ‘More than a union of two crowns’ Weekly Worker August 14 2014.
3. L Colly Britons London 1992, p373.
4. The Guardian August 8 2014.
5. K McKechnie Scotland: yes to independence, no to nationalism London 2013, p3.
6. We have presented a broad perspective of achieving working class regional unity: eg, the Indian subcontinent, Latin America, the Arab-speaking countries, but most importantly in the EU. Given its economic weight, relative prosperity, size of population and long history of class struggles and substantive gains made by those below, an EU ruled by the working class has the potential to roll back US superimperialism, not least by lending moral and practical aid to the spreading flame of self-liberation - first Asia, South America, Africa and finally North America itself (see J Conrad Remaking Europe London 2004).
7. Note, when it comes to self-determination for the Israeli-Jews and the British-Irish, the CPGB perspective is based on ending their role as oppressors. Eg, a united Ireland under the rule of the working class should offer the British-Irish the right to self-determination up to and including the right to separate. To raise that as a practical demand, to be exercised within the Northern Ireland box, would, however, be to perpetuate the oppression of the large Irish-Irish minority.
9. The policy committee of the National Party of Scotland - one of the forerunners of the SNP - passed the following resolution on November 17 1928: “The party, having regard to the large contribution made by Scotland in building up the British empire, is desirous of increasing the affairs of the empire to the extent her contribution warrants and, as a mother nation, thereby demands complete recognition of her rights as such in the empire ... the party cannot, in these circumstances agree to acquiesce in any situation that does not permit of a mother nation excursing her right to independent status and her right in partnership in that empire on terms equal to that enjoyed by England.” In other words, Scottish nationalists wanted a partnership based on the model of Austria-Hungry after 1867 (resolution quoted in C Kidd Unions and unionism: political thought in Scotland 1500-2000 Cambridge 2008, p287).
10. American declaration of independence 1776.
11. AE Buchanan Justice, legitimacy, and self-determination Oxford 2003, p331.
12. P Holquist Making war, forging revolution Harvard Mass 2002, p121.
13. See VI Lenin CW Vol 30, Moscow 1977, pp380-400.
15. VI Lenin CW Vol 6, Moscow 1977, p452.