Accommodation to nationalism

SSP and SWP Duty to speak out

Weekly Worker was pleased to publish an extensive piece by Neil Davidson, a member of the Socialist Workers Party and author of The origins of Scottish nationhood (December 7). The article was an edited version of a talk presented to last summer's Communist University, the annual school of the CPGB.

Comrades who attended the school will remember that a feature of comrade Davidson's speech was his staunch defence of the unity of the British working class and his opposition to the nationalist break-up the United Kingdom state. No doubt many will wonder whether their recollection of his talk was faulty, since the version appearing in our paper seemed to be totally at odds with the conclusion he drew last August.

No, their memory has not failed them. After we produced a 13,000-word transcript of his taped presentation, it was reduced to around 5,000 words - the size of a normal Weekly Worker double-page article - and sent to comrade Davidson for his approval and amendment. Naturally, speakers frequently need to rephrase remarks that have perhaps been made without the degree of considered thought that would precede a written article. It is also possible for the meaning to be inadvertently misrepresented during editing. For that reason, whenever possible in such cases we attempt to give the author the final say.

Comrade Davidson made an excellent and thorough job of reworking the speech, clarifying and adding examples, and generally producing a convincing historical account to back up his thesis of the development, side by side, of a Scottish and a British nation. But his closing comments were substantially changed - not just for style and fluency, but for meaning. Here are the final paragraphs of the version he returned to us, the one we reproduced in the Weekly Worker:

"Where does this leave the question of socialists and Scottish independence? In the absence of any national oppression this is a tactical question, not a matter of principle. If there was a massive SNP or SSP vote and a Scottish administration intent on separation was formed, but the British state refused to recognise it, then clearly there would be a question of national oppression. Scottish independence would have to be supported.

"That is an extreme example, but let us assume a more likely one where Blair holds a plebiscite and it was posed in such a way that the Blair project was on one side and Scotland separating was on the other. In these circumstances socialists would say we were for independence.

"More generally, however, there are situations where the slogan of independence would be irrelevant or even damaging, particularly if the anti-capitalist mood takes shape as a general wave of struggle on an all-British basis.

"The unity of the British working class was forged in the struggles at the time of industrialisation. Most of the subsequent victories for our class have been a result of that unity. Where the working classes have been defeated in the different component nations, it has often been where they have entered into struggle separately, or accepted nationalist arguments (think of those used against picketing Ravenscraig during the miners' strike of 1984-85 about the need to save 'Scotland's' steel industry, etc).

"What it would be impermissible for socialists to do in the pursuit of maintaining that unity, however, is to allow the slightest suggestion that maintaining the unity of the British working class also involves maintaining the unity of the British imperialist state. Avoiding that trap will be one of the biggest challenges facing socialists in Scotland in the coming period."

And here is the version we had produced from the tape of his speech:

"The SWP is opposed to arguing for independence for Scotland. We are not in favour of independence, or think that it is something that we would casually toss in, in negotiations with the Scottish Socialist Party, for example. If you reject the idea that Scotland is oppressed, you therefore do not stand on a principle of independence. If we do join the SSP, we will argue against their nationalism, and for a linking up with English and Welsh workers. Our argument is that Scotland has the right to self-determination. Within that argument, we would argue against Scotland separating from England. That is the Leninist tradition.

"When Chris Bambery said he could live with an independent Scotland, I think he was talking about a very specific situation. If there was a massive SNP vote and a Scottish administration intent on separation was formed, if the tanks were sent in, then clearly there would be a question of national oppression. Scottish independence would have to be supported.

"But let us assume that Blair held a plebiscite - and I imagine this is what Chris said - and it was posed in such a way that the Blair project was on one side and Scotland separating was on the other, then we probably would say we were for independence in those circumstances. But it is a tactical question, not a matter of principle.

"However, I do not think that a federal republic would resolve anything, because it would not make the Scottish national question go away. It would provide an option for bourgeois and petty bourgeois people in Scotland to get out of the British state and establish their own state, and they would hope to suck in the working class into that argument.

"The unity of the British working class is something that has been fought for, and most of our victories have been a result of that unity. Where the working classes have been defeated in different nations, it has often been where they have entered into struggle separately. This unity must be defended as the possible basis for going forward. It is not something that we want to throw away, simply on a voluntaristic whim."

Now, it is true that during the course of transcribing comrade Davidson's speech we incorporated comments he had made in response to questions and points raised from the floor. We reordered some of the remarks, but stuck faithfully to his meaning and, wherever possible, his exact words. Clearly comrade Davidson made stylistic amendments, but what is most noticeable are the changes of substance. Gone is all mention of the SWP joining the SSP, opposition to Scottish independence, the "Leninist tradition" and the reference to Chris Bambery's view that SSP policy on this question was "not a problem".

In fact what we now have is not merely an expression of agnosticism over the question of Scottish independence, but, if anything, a positive preference for it. How else can you interpret comrade Davidson's final remark that "one of the biggest challenges facing socialists in Scotland" lies in "avoiding [the] trap" of equating the unity of the British working class with the unity of the British imperialist state?

Surely the biggest challenge is to stand steadfastly against the divisive nationalism that is sweeping the left, taking the form in the SSP of its policy for an "independent socialist Scotland" - a stand that comrade Davidson seemed prepared to make in his original speech. Of course it would be wrong to equate working class unity with imperialist unity, but principled opposition to nationalism has nothing whatsoever to do with the interests of imperialism. Far from "maintaining" the British imperialist state, we want to smash it, not merely weaken it through breaking it up according to its component nationalities.

That is why the position outlined by comrade Davidson in his speech to Communist University was absolutely correct. Scotland, like all nations and historically constituted nationalities occupying a distinct territory, must have the right to self-determination, up to and including the right to secede. But Leninists advocate that this right be exercised in favour of separation only in the most exceptional circumstances: specifically, when national oppression effectively precludes continued unity.

In order to support Scotland's right to self-determination in practice the CPGB called for a boycott of Blair's rigged referendum over devolution in September 1997. We demanded a "parliament with full powers" - ie, including the power to determine Scotland's relationship with the British state - as opposed to a toothless talking shop with narrowly prescribed rights. By contrast, the SWP thought Scottish workers might as well vote 'yes' on the grounds that something is better than nothing. This was in line with the organisation's consistent refusal to take the national question seriously.

But for us self-determination was not an add-on extra. Our campaign was perfectly in accord with our call for a federal republic - a call which encapsulates both the abolition of the UK constitutional monarchy state and the right of Scotland and Wales to self-determination.

But comrade Davidson has clearly not considered this option at all - an option which would enable socialists to put the "Leninist tradition" into practice. This can be seen from the brief comments he made during his address. A federal republic would not, he said, "resolve anything, because it would not make the Scottish national question go away". On the contrary: through providing a permanent, constitutional guarantee of self-determination, it would disarm the nationalists and end their employment of the unresolved national question as a weapon to be wielded against the working class.

Note that in his speech comrade Davidson rejected the call for a federal republic because of his opposition to any drive by "bourgeois and petty bourgeois" forces to "establish their own state ... they would hope to suck in the working class into that argument". It is, unfortunately, an argument which comrade Davidson now appears willing to countenance.

For opportunists like those on the SSP leadership, internationalist principles are something to be paid lip service to, while in practice it is nationalism that guides their action. While they claim that the struggle for an independent Scotland would open up the road to socialism, in reality it would act as a huge barrier. Scottish national aspirations are positive, in that they expose the anti-democratic nature of the state that tries to snuff them out. But Scottish nationalism is a negative phenomenon, which, in comrade Davidson's words, "provides an alternative form of collective identity which is both an expression of and a partial consolation for the alienation endemic under capitalism" (Weekly Worker December 7). In other words it is by and large an alternative which undermines the fight for workers' power.

In order to forcefully stress its opposition to nationalism, while throwing its full weight behind the maximum working class unity, the Third International of Lenin and Trotsky stipulated the principle of 'one state, one party'. The reasoning for this remains the same today as it was then. Our task is to overthrow the state under which we live and we must adopt organisational forms to reflect that. There must be a single working class political force in opposition to the might of the state. Of course, those who advocate separation as a principle see nothing wrong in forming separate working class organisations according to nationality. Indeed they usually view this as positively desirable.

But principled Marxists treasure working class organisational unity. It is "not something that we want to throw away, simply on a voluntaristic whim". But all this is being jeopardised, as we can see, for example, in the reluctance on the part of many on the left even to pursue a united England-Scotland-Wales general election challenge. It is perfectly principled for international socialists to work within the separatist SSP, but their main task as members must be to combat the nationalism of its leadership, not accommodate to it.

And accommodation to nationalism is exactly what is occurring within the SWP. Comrade Davidson was expressing that organisation's previous formal opposition to it when he said, in his speech to Communist University: "The SWP is opposed to arguing for independence for Scotland. We are not in favour of independence, or think that it is something that we would casually toss in ..."

As we can see, that opposition was skin deep. Every report to the SSP membership on the current negotiations over SWP entry stresses the repeated assurances made by SWP leaders that the SSP policy of an "independent socialist Scotland" is no longer a problem. Up to very recently it most certainly was a problem and was actually rejected as unacceptable. But that was before comrade Bambery et al came to adopt their so-called 'united front' policy of trying to attract disillusioned Labourites and working with the rest of the left. However, while in England the SWP is clearly hegemonic, in Scotland it is the SSP which is the main force on the left. The decision to negotiate entry was correct, but unfortunately SWP 'principle' has been the first casualty.

But what of comrade Davidson? It could be of course that he has simply changed his mind since he addressed Communist University. That is no crime, but if that were the case he would have a duty to explain the reasons why he now considers that it would be acceptable for socialists to call for independence "on a voluntaristic whim" - such as if it seemed like a good way of getting at Blair in a plebiscite.

But I do not believe comrade Davidson has changed his mind. The logic of his whole thesis tells me he has not. He has, I believe, rewritten his words simply to bring them into line with the SWP leadership's opportunistic turn, so as not to cause problems in its diplomatic approaches to the SSP.

Comrades, working class unity is far too important a question to treat in this manner. Genuine democratic centralism means that those who disagree, those who see valuable principles being discarded or rejected, have an obligation to speak out.

Peter Manson