Republicanism or the right to secede?

Dave Craig of the Revolutionary Democratic Group (faction of the SWP) argues that a boycott campaign must unite republicans

Whilst I think the call by the CPGB for a boycott campaign against Labour’s devolution referendum has some merit, the politics behind it are wrong. The ‘Committee for Genuine Self Determination’ being set up to push this forward is adapting to nationalism. I hope comrades will consider an alternative emphasis before their platform becomes ‘set in stone’.

Unlike the various types of nationalists, our starting pointing as internationalist-democrats (ie working class democrats), is not Scotland but world imperialism. World politics now and in the new century is dominated by the global economic war between US, Japanese and European capitalism. Europe is the weakest of the three major super-powers. It is the least economically integrated. It has not developed a common political state. It has no common foreign policy or integrated armed forces. It has no common currency or fully integrated financial markets.

Every day European capital faces US and Japanese imperialism with one hand tied behind its back. Economic and political integration is therefore an absolute necessity for European capital. It is the logical outcome of the laws of capitalist accumulation. Consequently the British, French, German and Italian states are now historically obsolete. We are not nostalgic nationalists. We will not mourn their passing.

Of course what is replacing these old states will not necessarily be any better and may well be much worse. But that depends on the struggle of the working class. Whilst the European capitalists are constructing an imperialist super state managed by the Brussels bureaucracy, European workers must set an alternative aim - a democratic Europe, based on the democratic power of the workers and farmers, exercised through workers councils.

In this context the UK state is the greatest barrier to a democratic Europe. The UK is the most backward and reactionary part of the European Union. Its role in European politics is somewhat equivalent to that played by Russian Tsarism in the 19th century. Yet in the same way our ancien regime has the potential to make a revolutionary leap from the most backward part of European democracy into its most advanced part. Democratic revolution in the UK could transform not only UK politics, but also European and hence world politics.

The significance of Scotland is not that Scotland can go its own way, elect a more left wing parliament and introduce “socialist measures”. That is how national socialists think. Rather Scotland could lead the whole of the UK in a democratic direction. Scotland can and must lead the English working class. The working class in England, by its sheer size and strategic position in the economy is the key to real progress. Winning the English workers into an alliance with Scotland is a key task for Scottish internationalists. Otherwise England will remain a reactionary block to any real progress in Scotland.

Scotland must therefore be understood in a UK, European and world context. Internationalists in Scotland have a duty to emphasise the international aspects of this process. Instead of approaching the national question discussing Scottish parliament, Scottish referendum, Scottish self-determination, Scottish porridge and all other matters Scottish, the Scottish internationalists must bend the stick (as Tony Cliff would say) towards England, Europe and the world.

The nationalist SNP has come up with its own ‘internationalist’ slogan about ‘Independence in Europe.’ The class content of this slogan is the promise of security for the Scottish middle class - ie, it says ‘don’t worry if the British treasury no longer coughs up for your privileges, we will get more money from Brussels’. We must come up with more powerful internationalist slogans which have a working class content. Concentrating on Scottish self-determination means concentrating on Scotland and disappearing down a nationalist plug hole.

The republic is the key to the British democratic revolution. It is the door by which we enter the revolution. We have to kick that door open at every opportunity. We have to unite the whole working class behind that objective. The slogan of the federal republic is in essence an inter-national call for class unity. It is centrally about arguing for the workers of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to unite in a common struggle for common objectives. This must be made central to any campaign.

Internationalists in Scotland must make their prime task to raise the republican question and explain its significance not so much for Scotland, but for England, Europe and the world. Scotland must become the vanguard of the republican struggle for the whole of the UK. A Republic may be a slogan in Scotland, but it is not a Scottish slogan. It is equally a demand for England, Wales and Ireland. By emphasising republicanism, Scottish internationalists speak for us all.

The newly formed ‘Committee for Genuine Self-Determination’ doesn’t mention the republic at all. It has the following aims:

  1.  For genuine self-determination
  2.  For a multi-option referendum which includes the right to vote for a Sovereign Scottish parliament
  3.  No to Labour’s rigged referendum

This Committee is not seeking to carry a Republican message either to Scotland or England. Indeed as reported in Weekly Worker (March 27) this campaign “was not trying to impose a federal republic on the Scottish people”. It is a Scottish campaign for the freedom of choice rather than any particular choice.

Let us examine the idea that the main slogan in Scotland should be “for genuine self-determination”. As the Bolsheviks 1913 thesis (Lenin CW19 p244) says, in concrete terms, self-determination means demanding “the settlement of the question of secession only on the basis of a universal, direct, and equal vote of the population of the given territory by secret ballot”.

Making the central question the right to ballot on secession and forming a separate state, does not mean that we would support separation. But it does mean we are going in the wrong direction.

This would be very useful for the nationalists, but it would hardly assist the fight for a federal republic.

Republicans support the idea of self-determination. But ditching republicanism for a ballot on secession turns the issue into a “Scottish” issue for Scottish people. The national question and self-determination is not the same as the republican question. At every opportunity it is the republican question that must be emphasised. We must not replace the central question (republicanism) by the national question. That is precisely what nationalism does - the Scottish question is more important than the central question of uniting the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish workers

Raising the slogan of self-determination above the slogan of a republic, means putting the Scottish question on a higher level than the central question - the federal republic. This reflects an incorrect theory and an adaptation to nationalism, that is the prevailing nationalist (or self-determinationist) mood in Scotland.

Republican slogans will divide the nationalists, since neither the SNP nor all nationalists are republicans. On the other hand the demand for a ballot on secession is something every nationalist will agree with. It depends on whether you want to divide the nationalists or put forward slogans that they can all unite with? The tactics of lowering your demands to sub-republicanism is an opportunistic concession.

Once we are clear that the strategic thrust of campaigning activity in Scotland should be republicanism, then the purpose of a boycott campaign should be clear. It is simply to advance the struggle for a republic. Republicans would boycott Blair’s referendum because we are republicans who are fighting for a republic.

Self-determination gives a completely different rationale for a Boycott Campaign. If self-determination is the central question then you are boycotting it because you want the right to secede to be one of the questions. It is really an argument for a different ballot. Republicans are not arguing for a different ballot, but a different system of government.

This should make it dear that there are very different types of boycott campaigns. We could have an anarchist, nationalist, sectarian or republican boycott campaign. I am opposed to an anarchist or nationalist boycott. I am therefore opposed to any boycott campaign based on those kind of politics. At the same time there is no communist party with sufficient base in Scotland to run an independent campaign. We need to adopt a united front approach, not a sectarian one.

I am in favour of a republican boycott. We need a united front with all republicans, whether they accept a federal solution or not. We should call on all republicans in Scotland to register their support for a republic by boycotting Blair’s referendum. Only and in so far as the advanced sections of the working class, that is the communists, play a leading role can we begin to conceive of working class leadership of the question of national democracy.

A republican boycott campaign can attract the best of the nationalists and the best of the anarchists to such a united front. However we will be confronting their ideas on the political territory of democracy rather than within campaigns based on their anarchist and nationalist principles. There has never been such a golden opportunity for communists to place themselves in the vanguard in a genuine not a sectarian sense.

A republican boycott campaign is a campaign with a definite political aim. It seeks to change the face not simply of Scottish, but British politics. In terms of Scottish politics our aim must be for the first time to divide Scottish politics into three camps - Tory (No), Labour-Lib Dems, SSA, SWP (Yes) and republicans (Abstain). There will be many abstentions. Some will be a positive act. Some will be of the “can’t be bothered to vote”. In so far as we run a good campaign we will be in a position to claim that of the 10 or 20% that do not vote, the vast majority are republican.

We have a chance, and no more than that, to put republicanism on the political map in a serious way. It is one thing for opinion surveys to say that the majority of Scottish people have republican sympathies. But it is much more significant when it receives a political expression. A Republican Boycott campaign will be the first time that Scottish republicans have an opportunity to express their view at the polls.

If it becomes clear that there are two minorities opposed to monarchist devolution, the Tories and the republicans, we will have made not simply a step for democracy but also for communism. It will be the communists that have played a leading role in the republican campaign. It is a fact that will not be lost on all other socialist forces who are tailing bourgeois liberalism and ‘Voting for Devolution with no illusions’.

It does not seem likely that abstention votes will be decisive in the adoption of devolution. But supposing that they were. For example suppose that a 50% vote is needed. Suppose that the ‘Nos’ win 30% and ‘Yes’ 45% and 25% abstain. The ‘Yes’ campaign will blame the Republicans, who actively campaigned for boycott. Such criticism, which seems to terrify Scottish Militant Labour and SSA, will mean that republicanism is now becoming a real factor. We will be able to say that devolution was defeated because there was no republican option. We will be in strong position to criticise the nature of the referendum and demand that in future there must be a republican option. Republicans will not, on point of principle, go along with monarchist schemes. Yet SML are so desperate to get a seat in parliament that they will sacrifice democratic principles.

Let us remember that the Bolsheviks boycotted the Tsarist Duma in 1906. They were fighting for a republic. Their purpose was to stop the Duma coming into existence. When they were defeated the Bolsheviks dropped their boycott and then sent deputies into the Duma. There is no contradiction between a republican boycott followed by a decision to stand candidates in the first election to a devolved assembly as republicans.

Those who want to set up a “Boycott campaign” without specifying its political character as republican, nationalist or anarchist have something to hide. Nationalists have always argued that first we must win independence and then later we can decide whether it should be a republic or not. Naturally a nationalist boycott will emphasise the right to secede and ignore the question of a republic. As communists our priorities must be the opposite.