Nationalism and tactics
Bob Goupillot, a member of the Republican Communist Network, is the Scottish Socialist Party candidate for Midlothian, near Edinburgh. Peter Manson spoke to him for the Weekly Worker
What is your record in the workers? movement?
I was brought up in very much a Labour Party background. I joined my local branch in Middlesbrough when I was 16, but I wasn?t particularly active. In 1977, when I was in my early 20s, I went to study at Coleraine in Northern Ireland. In 1981 I came to live in Edinburgh and rejoined the Labour Party
The Edinburgh party was very leftwing. It was led by Alex Wood and, in what was for some people a surprising victory in the 1984 local elections, it took over Edinburgh district council, which had always been Tory-controlled. Neil Kinnock described Edinburgh as ?the dirt under the finger nail of the Labour Party? at the time. By the time of the miners? strike of 1984-85 I was chair of Prestonfield-Mayfield Labour Party in the south of Edinburgh.
During the strike I was heavily involved with the Edinburgh Miners? Support Group: collecting money, going on pickets, etc. Here I met anarchists, republican socialists, Trotskyists and members of Fight Racism, Fight Imperialism - all of whom influenced my politics. By the end of the strike I was thoroughly disgusted with the Labour Party leadership, so I left the party. Thereafter I became a full-time political activist. I helped develop Edinburgh Unemployed Workers Centre into a resource for the class, got deeply involved with unemployed struggles and against the apartheid regime in South Africa. At this point I called myself an anarchist. An FRFI comrade used to quote Lenin as saying, ?Anarchism is the price we pay for opportunism.? In my case this was certainly true.
The Irish struggle against the British state also had a big influence on me. My experiences during the poll tax campaign convinced me that anarchism was not the way to overturn capitalism. It was then I got involved with communists - people like Allan Armstrong. In the 1990s I helped form the Red Republicans, which later became a grouping in the Scottish Socialist Alliance.
The movement against the poll tax had very deep roots in the working class and showed the need for a revolutionary working class party. Since then I have been searching for a bigger organisation - a party or an alliance that can unify the working class, or at least its most advanced elements.
Although I spent a lot of my life as an unemployed activist, I am now in the Transport and General Workers Union. I have recently been involved in a successful struggle to get the union off the ground in my workplace, where we have won a union recognition agreement.
What was your attitude to the formation of the Scottish Socialist Alliance?
I was very encouraged. Most people I knew (excluding the Socialist Workers Party) either joined or were actively considering joining - people from different parties or no party, who I had been in united fronts with for years. Here was an organisation which actually had some potential.
Of course there were a lot of difficulties learning to work together. You had people from Militant, the old Communist Party, those who had an anarchist or republican background or who had been in the Workers Revolutionary Party - all these people came together. Most knew each other from the struggle against the poll tax, which had really laid the ground for unity.
It was really exciting, and still is exciting now we have the Scottish Socialist Party. Over the last four or five years we have learnt to work together and respect each other. For example, I was always at loggerheads with people in Militant during the anti-poll tax campaign, but now we have learnt to understand and respect each other better.
We mustn?t be complacent, but I have great hopes for the SSP. The question is how to realise them.
We in the CPGB have been highly critical of the SSP?s nationalist orientation. How do you view this question?
In Scotland nationalism forms a very important strand in the population, including in the working class. There is the conservative brand, which is tartan and anti-English. How to combat this sort of nationalism is something we need to pay more attention to.
But then there is the other brand - part of the Scottish renaissance, a radical nationalism. For example, people like the actor, Peter Mullen, and Kevin William-son of Rebel Inc, both SSP members, have been very good at tapping into and reflecting that positive, cultural side to political struggle. But the SSP doesn?t sufficiently challenge the negative side, which tends to be insular, inward-looking and anti-English, as well as it should. We should be making our links with England, Wales and Ireland stronger and more concrete.
You can understand why people like the comrades from the International Socialist Movement might want to focus on Scotland after their difficult relationship with Taaffe. But we must not be nationalistic. We must turn outwards. Until the rise of the Socialist Alliance the question of making links with organisations in England was much more controversial. But now the obvious answer is to link up with the SA.
How do you view the SSP?s call for an ?independent socialist Scotland??
The slogan combines the negative side with the positive side, but I can understand why the SSP takes that position. I don?t believe it is a nationalist party. It is true that the SSP should make clear how it sees itself in relation to the working class in England, Wales and Ireland (and the Republican Communist Network needs to make its voice heard here).
And I think mistakes are being made. The SSP?s actual position is for a ?confederation of socialist states?. But its internationalism is abstract - we need to make those links more concrete. At the last SSP annual general meeting the RCN (Scotland) moved a motion calling for exactly that: stronger links with England and Wales, along with troops out of Ireland. We were disappointed and bemused that Marcus Larsen chose to report that in such a negative way in the Weekly Worker.
But isn?t an ?independent socialist Scotland? a separatist call that actually weakens those links?
It?s not seen as a separatist call in the SSP. That?s not what underpins it. It?s seen as a way to rally the working class in Scotland and act as a trigger to others. Like Connolly saw the revolt in Ireland or Maclean saw the call for a Scottish workers? republic as a spark. Lenin hoped the Russian Revolution in 1917 would be a trigger for revolution in the west - he hoped that Russia could hold out until workers in more advanced countries followed suit. History didn?t go that way, but it doesn?t mean Lenin was wrong.
The SSP hopes that an independent socialist Scotland can inspire workers elsewhere to take action. We are further along the road than similar organisations in England and Wales. It?s not a question of being arrogant, but simply of stating a reality which goes back to the poll tax.
I am from the north east of England. You could say that socially and economically the north east is very similar to Scotland. But it doesn?t have a common cultural identity (or ?national consciousness?, as Neil Davidson has put it). On the other hand, Scotland sees itself as a nation. Having a national consciousness helps rally people - including the working class. That is the positive side. It?s seen as pushing for greater democracy and freedom. The people?s right to rule themselves.
But Lenin didn?t start from the position of suggesting a separate revolution in Russia, surely? Why start off with the notion of an independent socialist Scotland?
You have to start somewhere. Calling for a world revolution is fine, but you have to make a start where you live.
Alan McCombes has implied that SSP MSPs might cooperate with a Scottish National Party administration in Edinburgh to secure a referendum on independence.
The rights and wrongs of backing the SNP on a referendum have been speculated upon, but it has never been put forward as a policy.
I agree that it?s wrong to see independence in and of itself as a good thing - independent of what? Not of multinational capitalism. If the working class in England and Wales began to organise and move ahead - learning from our experience and going beyond it - then to call for independence would be wrong. But if British society in general was drifting to the right, independence might be appropriate.
There are people in the SNP who call themselves socialist, and for them independence is a principle. But the CPGB makes the mirror-image mistake. It says independence is never a good thing. Actually it?s all a question of tactics and right now it?s not a good thing.
We are not an offshore island like Cuba. Independence is a tactic, not a principle. It?s viewed as a principle by some people, but not by me - I?m not sure that now is the right time for independence. But we are not against independence, full stop. That?s not what we should be stressing. When people hear the call for an independent socialist Scotland they latch on to ?socialist? more than ?independent?. The word ?socialist? is the important part. It?s like demanding a federal republic: where is the class content? It?s a slogan without any kind of class definition.
So the RCN in Scotland and Britain needs to think about the current slogans - none of them are adequate. Not even a ?Scottish workers? republic? is adequate. It doesn?t relate to the wider working class in Britain and the rest of the world.
You seem to be saying that the SSP?s call for an independent socialist Scotland is pretty similar to the demand for a Scottish workers? republic in any case.
I prefer the Scottish workers? republic. It represents a different vision that?s easier to grasp, especially in the context of making links with the working class. But the SSP doesn?t like the word ?republic? because of its associations with Ireland and the question of sectarianism.
But we shouldn?t be afraid of using the word: we?re republicans, whether it?s a Scottish workers? republic, a federal republic or whatever. A republic is about being a citizen here and now - we need to hammer that home. The Weekly Worker is always talking about the working class as being a slave class, and I think there?s a truth in that. Being republicans means that the working class is taking a step away from a slave mentality and towards a communist mentality - being a class for ourselves.
Isn?t the key question all-Britain working class unity?
In theory I?m for the closest links. But at this point in time an all-Britain centralised party is not on the cards. I can understand why the CPGB argues for this, but tactically it?s not the right way. You can come over as unionists rather than anything else, like the Workers? Unity platform in the SSP
Greater unity must develop out of our own experience, not be imposed from above. The whole question is situation-dependant. There is no basis at the moment for an all-Britain organisation. When the Socialist Alliances in England and Wales develop further, then perhaps there will be a firmer basis. Unity is a process, not an event: it?s no use standing on a mountain and shouting for it. It?s about tactics - moving forward in a real way.
We need a single democratic and centralised party to take on the UK state. What on earth is objectively stopping us deciding to unite now?
It goes back to the CPGB?s view on the national question in Britain and Ireland. It?s your Achilles heel: you don?t have a rounded view. There?s been an ongoing debate amongst the working class in these islands about nationalism - its positive and negative sides.
On Ireland, for instance, the British working class hasn?t offered its support for the national struggle. The national question has often sparked off wider revolts. If you believe that revolutionary nationalism is always negative, then that is a wrong view.
There isn?t a magic formula for an all-Britain party. Consciousness is the key - it?s all about developing the appropriate organisational forms that we need as a class at any time. In some circumstances a democratic centralist party would be the right approach: for example, in a pre-revolutionary situation.
But what kind of party can the working class achieve at this point? It?s no good replacing where the working class is with our subjective wishes. And it?s important not to be abstract - truth is concrete. We must attune our tactics to where we are now. Those arguing for a democratic centralist all-Britain organisation will find themselves isolated. Progressive communist elements have a different view.
In the SSP we already have unity in action, freedom of debate. It?s more like a democratic centralist party than people believe, although of course it doesn?t see itself as that. On the big issues like the Faslane protests every wing of the party is united. In this election campaign we are united as a party and standing in every seat. Yet the debate will continue.
What is your view on the entry of the SWP?
I?m massively enthusiastic - 100% in favour. It?s a historic moment. If we hadn?t gone for it, it would have been an opportunity lost that we?d have come to regret.
The SWP is strong on relating to the workplace and should also boost our international work. They have better positions on Palestine, Kurdistan, etc. With the SWP joining there should be wider debate - the SSP is a pretty open party. But of course the SWP doesn?t come from that tradition: it will have faction rights in the SSP, but not internally within the SWP platform. So it could prove a difficult time for the SWP.
But it?s not just about the SWP and SSP: it will have a wider impact on the working class. People at present who are standing on the verges may themselves now be encouraged by a stronger left force. There are many non-members supporting our election campaign, waiting to see how it goes.
The May Day march in Edinburgh was actually led by the SSP - we are now seen as the leadership. Tommy Sheridan is the most well known politician in Scotland, according to the opinion polls.
Our aim is 100,000 votes - and I think we?ll get them. There?ll be areas we?ll do very well in - those places where we?ve put down roots: Glasgow of course, but also Dumfries and other places. And here in Midlothian we?ve been involved in several campaigns and may do quite well. It?s very much old Labour territory, but Labour is seen as having moved to the right, as not being for the working class.
How do you view the role of the RCN?
In terms of the SSP, one of our roles is to argue for making our international links more concrete - that means strengthening our links with the Socialist Alliances. And we could usefully promote the formation of SAs in Ireland. In the SSP, prominent RCN comrades such as Mary Ward and Allan Armstrong are very well known figures.
Secondly, we have a role in terms of our republicanism: encouraging workers to act as citizens, not subjects. In terms of theory we have to explain what communism is, how to get there. And there?s also the question of Ireland - we have a role in helping the working class in Ireland emancipate themselves from British imperialism.
I?d like the RCN (Britain) to be seen as a model of democratic cooperation amongst comrades. If you look at the friction between the ISM and the Socialist Party in England and Wales, it?s obvious that there must be a better way of doing things. So we must be an example of - dare I say it? - fraternal relations.
That?s how we?ll build an effective organisation - through working with each other more and more closely, listening to each other and building trust. That?s how we?ll defeat separatism.