Proceeds of crime
The referendum exposed the economism of what still passes for the left, argues Paul Demarty
“I can handle the despair,” says John Cleese in Clockwise. “It’s the hope that’s killing me.” Similar perhaps to the sentiments of the Scottish (and indeed British) left on the eve of the September 18 referendum - a left which has almost unanimously, over the course of the last two decades, hitched its wagon to nationalism.
The common species of leftie is accustomed to dealing with big defeats and small victories - in a period in which retreat has been as constant as it has been disorderly, we have had to find ways to cope. Some take an optimistic view of the long-term prospects of the movement, concluding that these dark days will end; others smother every small victory with official optimism, and take heart from that. The latter are rather greater in number, alas, and prone to identifying anything as an ‘inspiring’ development: Scots nationalism being a case in point.
The cruelty of the result, then, is not that it went the ‘wrong’ way for such comrades - after all, how many other things go the wrong way? It is that it looked - just for moment - that they might win; that their great ‘grassroots’ movement had won the day, that the parties of Westminster, for once, were in a blind panic and throwing concessions around like confetti (when so often it is trade unions doing the same).
The momentum was there; the energy and panache was there; and, let us be frank, the not insignificant resources of a sitting party of government in Edinburgh were there. A gullible crowd, the British far left in its overwhelming majority succumbed to the audacity of hope. It is hardly the greatest illusion to have clouded its judgement these past years, but, despite some present bullishness, we have reason to suspect that this hangover will not lift quickly.
Not that the official optimism has dried up, naturally. Sure, the more libidinally invested left-nationalist hard-liners plunged directly into despair: “I spent Friday wrapped in a duvet soaked in my own tears, oscillating between silent anger and hopeless weeping”1, said one. From the main left organisations, however, the main cry is to build on the ‘yes’ vote - after all, 45% is the sort of minority percentage the left could get used to.
Socialist Worker provides its readers with a collection of ‘yes’ activists, all of whom talk suspiciously like Socialist Workers Party hacks, expostulating notionally on the question ‘Where next?’2 Their approach can be summed up simply in the subheadings over each: “The left must unite to offer a lead”, because “the SNP is not the answer”. “This isn’t the end by a long way” and, what’s more, “we can unite with ‘no’ voters” … and so on. Taken together, the headings become a kind of Vogon poem. The final randomly-selected mouthpiece for the ‘yes’ campaign, listed as “FE lecturer Angela McCormick”, closes her spiel with the killer line: “build the Socialist Workers Party”. Presumably this lecturer is speaking in a personal capacity.
The comrades are not just planning to tend their own garden, however: “It’s now imperative that the Radical Independence Campaign, Labour for Independence and the socialists all come together,” says “Dundee bus mechanic” George Gray. “This can’t become a power game between different left parties trying to attract the same voters,” says “social care worker” Nicola Leighton.
Similar noises can be picked up from Socialist Party Scotland, Peter Taaffe’s much-diminished Caledonian operation: “Had a mass working class party existed, it could have mobilised far greater support for a ‘yes’ vote, based on a clear policy to end austerity, for public ownership, a living wage, etc,” writes Philip Stott, who characterises the ‘yes’ vote as “a working class revolt against austerity”.3
Whether the sudden enthusiasm for unity among the Scottish Nationalist Party’s leftwing bag-carriers amounts to anything is rather in doubt, however. Calls for a new party have already resulted in peripheral scuffles over who exactly is to be included - specifically, one Tommy Sheridan, the former Militant firebrand who became figurehead of the Scottish Socialist Party, and whose nauseating cult of personality collapsed spectacularly, as he tried to scotch rumours surrounding his sex life through the courts. The SSP never recovered, although many of its remaining ‘leading lights’ - Colin Fox, for example - found roles for themselves in the ‘official’ Yes Scotland campaign, and many others will have washed up in the Radical Independence Campaign.
For all that the Scottish left likes to project itself as the most dynamic and forward-thinking element of the independence movement, the sad and obvious truth is that both sides of the SSP split despise each other not much less bitterly than they did when their common party fell apart in 2007. The picture is further complicated, in that some of Sheridan’s biggest supporters are to be found in the SWP, who do not like his recent call for an SNP vote in 2015 (and are themselves damaged goods since the Delta scandal - RIC activists have baited them on this issue).
Thus SWP national secretary Charlie Kimber gently chides the former icon: “Tommy Sheridan played an astonishing role in the campaign, speaking to over 25,000 people at meetings and inspiring many more. He ought to play a leading role in building the left, not giving cover to the SNP. His proposal seems to confirm one of the lies that was spread about the referendum - that a ‘yes’ vote was a vote for the SNP.”4
But this is the nub of the matter - the underlying weakness of the various factions of the Scottish left, even if they do manage to get together in some way or another, is that there is more or less no reason for their existence. Yes, Tommy Sheridan is “giving cover” to the SNP. That is not his main crime, however (and nor is it his failure to keep his trousers on). It is that he has encouraged, for decades, working class people to identify their interests with Scottish nationalism.
Supporting the SNP is simply a sensible conclusion to draw from that set of premises. The SNP delivered a referendum. The SNP provided the resources to bring the ‘yes’ camp to the brink of success; articulate and competent leaders in Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon; and, as the government in Holyrood, an unignorable profile for the BBC and other news outlets. If you believe that Scottish independence would be a huge step forward for Scottish workers, then you should vote SNP. Thus, Marx supported Abraham Lincoln, and Lenin supported the Easter Rising. (Speaking of the Easter Rising, such was the truly hilarious comparison drawn by an editorial in The Socialist.5)
Complaining that Sheridan wants support for the SNP to go with his ‘yes’ vote is like complaining that a burglar failed to wipe his shoes after jemmying the back door. The decision of first Sheridan and his comrades in Scottish Militant Labour, and then almost every other left group over the subsequent period, to encourage Scottish nationalism is a direct and conscious assault on class politics. That working class people were won in large numbers to vote ‘yes’ is not an achievement. It is a crime, in which the left has played a truly shabby and, at times, not insignificant role.
In choosing to tail nationalism, the left has inflicted the gravest injuries on itself. The reality of a ‘yes’ vote would have been the exposure of Scotland directly to international financial markets, and thus a programme of austerity that would make George Osborne blush (not that Osborne would have time to blush, since the economic destabilisation in the rest of the UK would bring similar, if weaker, pressures to bear).
In order to pretend otherwise, the various groups - many of whom would still call themselves Trotskyist - have necessarily succumbed to the Stalinist doctrine of socialism in one country. From the Mandelites of Socialist Resistance to the state-capitalists of the SWP, all have defined their politics through distance from and criticism of Stalinism. Look at them now.
Stalinist absurdities rarely travel alone - nationalism corrupts general politics. A peculiarly clear example comes in a letter to this paper from the perennial Steve Freeman, a relatively recent convert to cheerleading the nationalists. In an exercise in truly astonishing self-delusion - the froth about Scotland’s “revolution” spreading throughout Europe is touching - he makes a telling argument against exposing the depredations of left nationalism:
It would be like ‘discovering’ that in the middle of the miners’ strike Scargill had some dodgy Stalinist views on socialism. Most miners would be unimpressed and see in it an act of scabbing. Criticism of Scargill’s conduct of the strike is one thing, and absolutely necessary for victory, but exposing Scargill’s “false colours” during the high point of the strike would be seriously ‘wrong time and wrong place’.6
Well, Steve, as it happens, the forerunner of this paper, The Leninist, did frequently attack Scargill and the leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers during the 1984-85 Great Strike. And, while towards the beginning the reaction of NUM activists was often cold, the criticisms began to seem rather more sensible, as defeat loomed. Miners are not stupid - they tend, like most human beings, to prefer those who do not lie to them.
There was, of course, one party at least which absolutely refused to expose any “dodgy” views on the part of Scargill, or any other union top - which would have described such behaviour as “scabbing”. That was the ‘official’ Communist Party (those wings of it, at least, which were not actually scabbing).
Almost any phrase from Steve’s letter could have dropped from the lips of some 60s Stalinist hack, sneering at ‘Trotskyites’ or some such. Dressing the ‘yes’ campaign up as a “national democratic movement”; pointing out all the enemies which will be aided by ‘untimely’ criticism; and so forth. We have come to expect less and less from comrade Steve over the years, as he endlessly tries to kick-start his dead-on-arrival republican Labourite halfway-house idea. Now he has come to promoting it by enthusiastically advocating a vote for a constitutional arrangement that includes the queen.
The Scottish question presents, in synecdoche, the story of the British far left as a whole. Having failed to take constitutional questions at all seriously, concentrating instead on trade union militancy and narrow workerism, Militant Tendency - after the break with Labour in the early 1990s - found itself jerking violently back in the other direction, and thus touting nationalism; when the SSP took off, other groups proceeded directly down the same path. So it has been on many issues - decades of economistic philistinism in relation to a democratic question gives way suddenly to whatever backward notions look like getting popular. Capitulation to Scottish (and other) nationalism, pacifism, feminism and other such things are all of a piece here.
The crucial insight of Marxism - that these questions are themselves ‘working class issues’ of the most paramount importance, and thus need to be tackled through class political action - is seldom grasped. And so, despite the euphoria of the final days of the ‘yes’ campaign, the left has only contributed to its own weakness.
2. Socialist Worker September 23.
4. Socialist Worker September 23.
6. Letters Weekly Worker September 18.