Against independence, for a federal republic

Marxists start their immediate programme not with nations, but the enemy state, says Jack Conrad

Within each state we seek to organise the workers into one party (needless to say, we also work for a new international with subordinate state sections). That state could be a nation state: eg, Britain, Germany, France and Italy. By the same measure it could be a multinational state like Belgium, Switzerland, India or Canada. To the extent that it is transformed from a trading bloc into a state, that also applies to the European Union - as good nationalists, the SSP majority might well call us the 'Brit left', the 'Euro-left' or perhaps even Eurocommunists. Either way, the aim of our programme is to unite the workers as a political class in order to overthrow first the existing state, and then, according to the forward march of the world revolution, all existing social conditions. Our entire strategy is designed to achieve that end.

Unfortunately most of the left in Britain is hopelessly mired in economism or strikeism. Pay, anti-trade union laws and health and welfare cuts are their main diet. Socialism is a splendid, but disembodied future. However, the main characteristic of economism is a denial or downplaying of democratic demands. For example, in pre-revolutionary Russia the economists maintained that the task of social democrats (ie, communists) was to support, promote and politicise the economic struggles of the working class. As proletarian confidence, solidarity and trade union organisation grew, so would socialist consciousness. Or so the strike-chasers thought. The tsarist monarchy, the fake duma parliament, demands for a constituent assembly, the right of self-determination for the innumerable oppressed nationalities in the Russian empire, peasant land hunger, women's equality, etc were patronisingly described as being above the workers' heads, or issues that would be solved by socialism.

In contrast Lenin and the Bolsheviks believed that the working class had to be united to smash the tsarist monarchy system. Socialist consciousness would not primarily grow by workers improving their own pay and conditions through economic strikes, but by taking up and fighting for the fullest, most extensive democracy. Every denial of justice, every act of bureaucratic arbitrariness in the countryside, every resentment, every example of national oppression had to be the concern of the workers if they were to become the hegemon of the revolution. Such an ability to think and act strategically comes from Marxist science and building and educating a mass proletarian party.

The CPGB creatively models itself on the Bolsheviks politically and programmatically. Hence in Britain today the CPGB takes a revolutionary democratic approach to the UK state and the constitutional monarchy system. Here is our main enemy. In our minimum programme (ie, within the social limits imposed by the system of capital) we therefore demand the abolition of the monarchy, the second chamber, the acts of union, and call for self-determination for Scotland and Wales, and the voluntary reunification of Ireland. In place of the constitutional monarchy system we pose a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales, and a federal Ireland in which a one-county, four-half-county British-Irish entity exercises self-determination.

Marx, Engels and Lenin wrote favourably about federation in the British Isles. For example, in 1891 Engels advocated a British-Irish federation in his 'Critique of the Erfurt programme'. Federalism would, he wrote, "be a step forward" in the British Isles, which in spite of its single parliament has "three different systems of legislation" (F Engels CW Vol 27, Moscow 1990, p228). Incidentally federalism was considered "a step forward" to the "one and indivisible republic" - those economists who countenance nothing short of a workers' or a socialist state in Scotland or Britain should take note and try thinking.

For us the 'federal republic' slogan in Britain encapsulates the democratic right of Scotland and Wales to self-determination in opposition to Blair's reformed constitutional monarchy system. It also encapsulates the unity of the working class in Britain against nationalism.

Actually Blair has unwittingly done us a great service. In remaking the UK constitution - albeit to strengthen the system of class rule - he shows everyone that the constitution is neither timeless nor natural. It is plastic, artificial, a product of historical making and contemporary remaking. Consequently the call for constitutional change is no longer fringe politics. Constitutional change today lies at the heart of political debate and action. What Blair has begun from above we can complete from below.

The CWI faction instinctively feels threatened by this programme. To save their new-found Scottish road to socialism they eclectically quote John Maclean, Gallup opinion polls, which show only a minority favouring independence, and in general damn the call for a federal republic as a form of "accommodation" with the UK state. Nowadays they jealously guard their national "autonomy" and angrily reject anything pan-British - even working class power.

Marxists, it should be stressed, are not indifferent to state forms: under capitalism we prefer dual power to fascism. Certainly the workers will need their own semi-state for a few decades after the socialist revolution. However, we do not advocate instant communism or socialism. Socialism is a qualitative stage in an ongoing process whereby the working class transforms itself from a slave class into a ruling class - ie, a class for itself. That requires training in and mastery of politics. Hence under capitalism we communists fight to extend democracy to its limits. So what determines the communist attitude towards a state is not whether its borders stretch from John O'Groats to Land's End, but democratic and class content.

Masses of people in Scotland and Wales think they are nationally disadvantaged or oppressed (a subjectivity that constitutes a material factor). We communists therefore raise the demand for self-determination. Our approach puts politics, not dogmatism, in the driving seat and is designed to further democracy and unite the working class at the highest level. Nevertheless, advocating self-determination is not the same as advocating independence. The former is a democratic demand. The latter is nationalism.

For example, Scotland ought to have, as a matter of principle, the right to freely decide its own future. But that does not mean communists are agnostic about how that right is exercised. On the contrary we are very partisan. The CPGB is for the closest voluntary unity of people in general and the workers in particular. That means resolutely combating nationalism in all its many and varied manifestations. In a referendum we would demand that a majority vote for independence be respected. But we have the right, indeed the duty, to argue at every point for the maximum working class unity - and that can include making propaganda against independence.

Nationalism and Marxism are antithetical. Nationalism considers nations and national cultures positively. National differences or distinctions between people are viewed as essentially healthy and something to be sustained into the distant future. Of course, left nationalists like comrade McCombes and the SSP give this 'principle' a socialist gloss. As we have shown, the road to socialism is seen through the prism of the nation and national independence. Marxism on the other hand considers nations and national distinctions negatively. We want to create conditions whereby nationalism, nations, nationality and the nation state quietly wither away, not proliferate. Hence Marxists oppose every form of nationalist ideology, whether this is represented by an established state or those forces striving to create a new class state through a breakaway.

What has been particularly notable about Blair's programme of constitutional reform is the complete absence of any working class input or alternative. Indeed, as we have long argued, it is the atomisation, the (temporary) disappearance of the working class from the political stage that has created the conditions whereby Blair felt safe in carrying through his programme. Though millions are alienated from the state, there is neither pressure nor threat from the working class. That can, must and will be ended.

To that end we consider ourselves obliged to criticise comrades in the SWP and Alliance for Workers' Liberty who downplay, avoid or dismiss the national question in Scotland by appealing for the "unity of the Scottish, English and Welsh workers" around the NHS, routine trade union demands or "true socialism" (C Bambery Scotland: the socialist answer London 1997, p16). Such comrades become in effect English chauvinists. Their socialist rhetoric is not real internationalism. It is nothing else but dumbing down - ie, the other side of the coin peddled by Tony Blair and Donald Dewar.

We communists are quite prepared to take self-determination to extremes - if there is a genuine grievance or antagonism, let Orkney, Cornwall, Shetland, the British-Irish area in Ulster, etc decide their own fates up to and including independence. But we communists would try and persuade people to unite. Separation into tiny statelets is neither a communist method nor principle. Fragmentation is not a road to socialism. It is though the ideal of anarchism. When put into practice, as it was in Spain in 1868-74, it led, as Engels famously illustrated, to "the boundless, and senseless disintegration of the revolutionary resources" and a walkover for counterrevolution (F Engels CW Vol 23, Moscow 1988, p597).

Separation only becomes a communist demand if unity is imposed by force. Needless to say, the relationship between England and Scotland has not primarily been characterised by violence, at least since the 1707 Act of Union. So our policy is decided on the basis of historical conditions and circumstances in each case. Communists in general favour voluntary unity and the biggest possible centralised states as providing the best conditions for coming together and the merger of peoples. Under present circumstances there would be nothing remotely progressive about a Scottish army, a customs post at Gretna Green and the splitting of the historically bonded peoples.