Scottish separatism or workers' unity

The Scottish Socialist Party held its annual school, Socialism 2002, over the weekend of October 26-27 with more than 200 people attending. Sarah McDonald and Ronnie Mejka report

If you had attended the SSP annual conference and listened to the debate on the national question, you could be forgiven for thinking that the membership feels the question is settled - carved forever in tablets of stone in the aims and principles. But thankfully you would be wrong. Comrades packed into the session on 'Why the Scots should rule Scotland' to participate in what was a heated debate. The session was supposed to have been led off by Alistair Gray, author of a book with the same title, but Alan McCombes had to fill in at short notice. He was quick to point out that the SSP would not have chosen such a title otherwise. A considerable section of comrade McCombes's opening alluded to articles published in the Weekly Worker or, as he put it, "constant jibes in O-level Marxism". But we are sure the comrade is aware that there is a reason for the CPGB's consistent critique of the SSP leadership on the national question. It would be unprincipled for us to keep quiet on our opposition to a position that we consider to be not only wrong but also dangerous for the working class movement. To refrain from criticising on an issue so crucial for British politics in the current period would not further the key aim of forging the united working class party we need. As comrade McCombes correctly pointed out, the national question is a burning issue - particularly in Scotland and Wales. He referred to statistics that show a rise in the support for independence in particular among the working class and youth. Developing the argument further, the comrade stated that in an opinion poll participants were asked a series of questions that placed them on the left, right or centre of the political spectrum. Those on the left were more likely to be in favour of Scottish independence, whereas those on the right tended to be against the break-up of Britain. No one doubts that there is more than a grain of truth in these findings - although pollsters often phrase questions in a way that guarantees the desired outcome. However, the turn to nationalism is not progressive. On the contrary, it arises from the years of working class defeat. So it is in some ways not surprising that significant sections of the working class, youth and those on the left of society have turned to nationalism. Not surprising, but not progressive either. Comrade McCombes noted that the SSP had been compared to Pilsudski's Polish Socialist Party - a comparison made by the CPGB's Jack Conrad, of course. Comrade McCombes considers this to be unfounded, since, although he recognised the PSP had a nationalist programme, he suggested it was a rightwing nationalist organisation, socialist only in name. Yet the PSP was admired by democrats and progressives across Europe. It adopted a programme which sought to reconstitute Poland out of the Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian empires, but preached internationalism to keep its leftwing credentials. It brought together large sections of the Polish working class and had a significant membership - including a certain Rosa Luxemburg. Yet Luxemburg fought against the PSP's nationalist programme in favour of working class unity against the existing state. Lenin wrote extensively on the right of nations to self-determination, and took issue with Luxemburg, who played down the importance of the question. However, Lenin's priority was the unity of workers, illustrated in his stance over Norway's secession from Sweden. Lenin stated that the duty of Norwegian social democrats (communists) was to fight for unity with their Swedish comrades, whereas for Swedish social democrats the main question was the recognition of Norway's right to self-determination. This was no contradiction. Socialists campaign for the unity of the working class and nations as a principle. But this unity must be voluntary and based on the right to secede. We certainly do not campaign for the breaking up of a historically constituted working class along national lines. That is why we criticise John Maclean, the SSP's favourite revolutionary. Towards the end of his life, having previously been a member of the British Socialist Party, fighting for a British revolution, Maclean called for a Scottish workers' republic. If a socialist Scotland were to secede, it would weaken British imperialism. The SSP leadership uses the same argument to justify its call for an "independent socialist Scotland" and is backed up by the extreme nationalists of the Scottish Republican Socialist Movement, who were quite vocal during the session. There is certainly a comparison to be made between Maclean's final turn to separatism and Pilsudski's attitude to the Russian empire. But we do not seek to weaken the state: we seek to destroy it. A Scottish breakaway would indeed weaken the UK state, but it would also weaken the working class movement and its ability to strike as a fist against that state. But comrade McCombes claimed that breaking up existing states into smaller units was more democratic and would serve to weaken the power of globalised capital. Marx, Engels and Lenin, by contrast, foresaw the system of capital creating larger states and regarded this as objectively a positive thing. The formation of larger states - eg, a United States of Europe - would unite workers by breaking down national boundaries and as a result national chauvinism. Communists are generally in favour of the biggest possible units. Indeed we are ultimately in favour of world socialist republic. In his summing up comrade McCombes stated that those who argue in this way should also favour a 'yes' vote on the euro. Actually we favour an active boycott of the euro referendum - we refuse to choose between two wings of the bourgeoisie. Those who are against the break-up of Britain should by the same logic favour the USA merging with Canada or Mexico, said comrade McCombes. Well, why not? If there was a popular movement for such a merger, why on earth would we oppose it? It would make the working class movement in these countries stronger. Or should we instead demand separate states for US native Americans, French Canadians and Mexican Mayas? Comrade McCombes finished by arguing that the SSP's position on independence is popular - but even if it was not, it would still be the right position to take. The mood for Scottish independence is significant, although it is far from a majority position. It is an issue that must not be ignored but is something that the left must fight against, not advocate. The secession of Scotland from the rest of Britain would weaken the working class. Organising separately in Scotland, England and Wales already weakens the left. Varied debate Sessions at Socialism 2002 were organised under the broad headings of 'Events that shook the world', 'Radical Scotland', 'International viewpoints', 'Discrimination and equality', 'Cultural issues' and 'Socialist regroupment'. The weekend began with a rally, addressed by two SSP candidates for the Scottish parliament, Colin Fox and Carolyn Leckie, as well as a representative from the Fire Brigades Union and the ex-Scottish National Party MSP, Dorothy Grace Elder, who thankfully limited her contribution to a speech in support of the firefighters. In the session on 'Labour and the trade unions' the SSP's trade union organiser, Ritchie Venton, argued that we must look tactically at the link between Labour and the unions with the eventual aim of disaffiliation. He argued that we must not allow the unions to become depoliticised and that members should be able to vote for their money to be redirected to pro-trade union parties: ie, the SSP. Comrade Venton also argued that the Labour Party will never again adopt a left face, although he put forward no reason why this was impossible. To take an extreme example, if there was a revolutionary situation, the Labour Party would surely pose left in an attempt to diffuse the situation. The ensuing discussion centred around the nature of the beast: is Labour still a bourgeois workers' party or is it now a purely capitalist party? The session entitled 'Witchcraft and the demonisation of women', introduced by SSP equality coordinator Catriona Grant, saw contributors link the oppression of women to "patriarchal society" and the "hypocrisy, duplicity and malevolence of men", while another on the media held up Scottish Socialist Voice as a beacon of working class journalism - the opinion of Mark Brown of the Socialist Worker platform notwithstanding. The session on 'European left regroupment' was opened by Frances Curran (the Socialist Workers Party's Chris Harman was also supposed to speak, but unfortunately was ill). This proved more interesting than the session on 'Socialism and the ESF', which provided nothing more than an opportunity for the SWP to get excited about the anti-capitalist movement. 'European left regroupment' dealt with the socialist alliance movement across Europe, of which the SSP is a part. This obviously raises the question of what sort of party is needed. Comrades debated whether the SSP should call itself a revolutionary party or not. Comrades argued that the majority of SSP members would define themselves as revolutionaries, although that is not a prerequisite for membership. How the party describes itself or the members regard themselves as really irrelevant. The nature of a party is ultimately determined by its programme and the SSP does not have a revolutionary programme. There were other interesting discussions, such as '9/11 - one year on', led by Phil Hearse, who examined the role of imperialism in the current period. In most sessions the debate was lively and on quite a high level.