The determination of revolution
Jack Conrad discusses strategy and contrasts Scottish national socialism with the communist demand for national self-determination
Communists do not fondly look back upon, promote or have any desire to re-invigorate British nationalism. A well gnawed bone that can be left to the Con-Lab-Lib royalist establishment, the Morning Star, British National Party and other such jackals to scrap and yap over. Of course, Britain's 300-year history as a blood-splattered, class-divided, imperialist state must be discussed, dissected and analysed because that reality, including its inbuilt dual national consciousness, has to be taken into account by serious revolutionaries - crucially those living and therefore politically operating within its territory.
Coupled with that, we also discuss, dissect and analyse Britain in order to wield a polemical scythe. My Weekly Worker articles on Scotland are certainly intended to cut away the Scottish Socialist Party's socialist verbiage and lay bare the divisive nonsense cultivated by Alan McCombes and co ... and thus serve to warn against the danger of a split in what is an objectively constituted working class. Created out of an amorphous, deracinated human raw material by rising capitalism - manifested in abstract labour, labour mobility and labour interchangeability - workers achieved a nascent level of all-Britain class consciousness in the early 19th century.
By definition, Scottish nationalism, from right to left, must deny the historical reality of the British nation - dismiss it as fake, imposed and artificial, compared with the supposedly pristine and authentic Scotland of William Wallace, Jacobitism and Alex Salmond. Equally by definition, Scottish nationalists act, no matter how underhandedly, or even subconsciously, to weaken, break apart and effectively destroy hard-won all-Britain bonds of workers' solidarity.
Cynical, naive, instinctual or otherwise, that is the objective meaning of the SSP. Comrade McCombes, its chief ideologue and de facto leader, courts and promotes the Scottish National Party as his key ally. Not the left and the workers' movement elsewhere in the United Kingdom and internationally. He banks on an SNP government unlocking the gates to independence. Politically the SNP is, though, a petty bourgeois nationalist party which long ago sold itself body and soul to monopoly capital. Its model is the Irish 'tiger'. In other words by setting his sights on an SNP intermediate stage, in service of his tawdry goal of national socialism, McCombes effectively prepares the ground for a horribly damaging setback for working class unity and, in a worse-case scenario, a bloody massacre. That is why we feel obliged to implacably oppose the SSP's politics and criticise its motley band of vicarious admirers who praise, pander to or make light of its nationalism. The latter being of global dimensions, but sadly disorientated, gullible and, yes, discordant. Eg, in Britain a once caterwauling pro-SSP claque included the likes of the International Socialist Group, Democratic Socialist Alliance, Socialist Alliance mark three and the Revolutionary Democratic Group.
Marxists start programmatically not with the nation, but the world economy and the contradictory system of competing capitalist states. Within each state we seek to organise advanced workers - whatever their nationality, whatever their specific origins, whatever their ethnicity - into a single revolutionary party. Not to promote patriotism - obviously - but internationalism (we look towards building a new Communist International with subordinate or at least associated state sections).
The first decisive battle could be fought within a nation-state: eg, Britain, Germany, France and Italy. By the same measure it could be within a multinational state like Switzerland, Belgium, India or Canada. In general communists, it should be emphasised, simply take as a given what history has handed down to us. Communism is not a project to carve out new countries or redraw state boundaries. We do not rule out such measures in particular, exceptional circumstances. Just that in each case the aim must be maximising working class unity. Frankly, communists want the whole filthy business of nationhood junked: wars, jingoism, customs posts, passports, detention centres, deportations, borders themselves. Hence, though the communist revolution begins with the state - ie, the site of our first decisive battle - its essence is international.
Our programme is crystal clear. Having united workers as a political class to make revolution against the state, we must proceed energetically, determinedly, as swiftly as possible, to the global level, where alone our class can supersede the dominance of capital.
World revolution is unlikely to be a simultaneous event, however. A handful of countries, perhaps even one, will take the lead. But no socialist revolution can survive in isolation for long. A year or two, perhaps 10; surely no more. Sooner or later counterrevolution will burst in on us from without, or well up from within. So, to the highest degree manageable, the revolution must be coordinated internationally.
The tempo of class struggle and therefore class consciousness is, and for some considerable time to come will be, markedly uneven from country to country. Some move faster, others slower. That said, there are broadly common tempos and similar levels of consciousness brought about by all manner of historically determined cultural and political factors, including agreements by capitalist governments to partially pool what they loftily call their sovereignties in an attempt to enhance global standing, impact and power to greedily rob and exploit others.
With that in mind, we have presented a broad perspective of achieving the closest regional unity of working class organisations objective circumstances permit: eg, the Indian subcontinent, Latin America, the Arab-speaking countries, but most importantly the European Union. Given its economic weight, relative prosperity, size of population and long history of class struggles and substantive gains by those below, an EU ruled by the working class has the potential to audaciously roll back US superimperialism, not least by lending unstinting moral and practical aid to the spreading flame of self-liberation - first Asia, South America, Africa and finally North America itself.1
As things stand today, and for the foreseeable future, no single country, or even some other realistically envisageable regional grouping, could remotely hope to do that. While America will in all probability carry the everlasting honour of completing the world revolution, surely only Europe can decisively begin it. Hence the Weekly Worker's masthead calling for a Communist Party of the EU.
Unfortunately, most of the left in Britain - Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party in England and Wales, the Morning Star's Communist Party of Britain, Labour Representation Committee - is hopelessly mired in reformism and economism. Trade union-type demands around health and welfare spending and grand old Duke of York anti-war protests are the main diet. That is what workers spontaneously campaign for and readily grasp. Consequently much of the left suffers from a constricting, narrow-minded, even nationalistic outlook, which goes hand in hand with backward-looking dreams of a British withdrawal from the EU and the 'restoration of national independence'. Socialism must remain a disembodied future.
From such a pinched method - without communist leadership trade unionism is sectional and a form of bargaining within the system of wage-slavery - it directly follows that the left denies, or downplays, progressive constitutional demands. Abolishing the monarchy and the House of Lords, calling for a people's militia, disestablishment of the church of England, Irish unity, proportional representation and the secular, democratic republic hardly register on their programmatic radar screens. Hence the vital political struts needed to bridge where we are now to the socialist future are either spindly afterthoughts or totally absent.
The economistic left in pre-revolutionary Russia reasoned along similar lines. As trade union organisation grows, so would socialist consciousness. Or so the strike-chasers thought. The tsarist monarchy, the fake parliament, demands for a constituent assembly, the right of self-determination for the innumerable oppressed nationalities, peasant land hunger, women's equality, etc were patronisingly described as being above the workers' heads or issues that would be solved by the liberal bourgeoisie.
In contrast, Lenin and the Bolsheviks understood that socialist consciousness could never grow through the essentially circular struggle to improve workers' pay and conditions. That is not how the human mind moves to a higher level. Marxists do not belittle or dismiss attempts to better living standards. Necessary guerrilla actions. But for socialist consciousness what we require is a qualitative leap.
Let us take a brief detour by discussing writing. I think it will prove instructive, not least when it comes to those deluded, but all too numerous folk on the left, the flotsam and jetsam independents - ie, the sects of one - but groups big and small too, who are mesmerised by the so-called 'transitional' or 'halfway house' method when it comes to the programme of the working class and party-building. Instead of an unadulterated Marxist party, they advocate a reformed reformism: eg, Respect, SSP, Solidarity, Campaign for a New Workers' Party, Labour Representation Committee, a red-green alliance, a party of recomposition. The list of projects goes on and on multiplying, despite the growing list of failures. A clear sign of lost bearings.
Anyway on to writing. The first system, that of the Sumerians in Mesopotamia, took several thousand years of trial and error before it arrived at a form that would today be recognisable and possibly a thousand years more to fully develop its expressive capacity.
For some considerable time before the invention of writing the theocratic and bureaucratic elite in Mesopotamia faced a frustrating problem of keeping accurate records of incoming tribute, outgoings and reserves. Small clay tokens were used for counting and that eventually led to placing multiple tokens in clay containers, which were then sealed and stored away. Then, of course, the problem arose of recalling how many tokens were in them and what they represented. The solution was to impress pictures on the container's surface with a stylus when the clay was still wet. Logophonetics. Subsequently, the containers gave way to flat clay tablets. Moreover, instead of repeating the same picture over and over again to represent multiple objects of the same type, they used different wedge signs.
Examples of this early writing system date from around 3300 BC and have been unearthed in the Sumerian cities of Uruk and Jamdat Nasr. By 2800 BC the system largely consisted of wedges: ie, cuneiform. Around 1000 BC, albeit as a 'learned' language, Sumerian writing had also incorporated signs for sounds - the consonantal and syllabic system.2
As soon as the first great leap had occurred, though, "the details and principles of writing spread rapidly to other societies".3 The Akkadians and the Babylonians were in the front rank, then pre-dynastic Egypt and the Indus civilisation of Pakistan and India followed. The idea of writing rippled out in ever-expanding, concentric circles. What had taken the Sumerians a thousand years could be easily emulated. An example of differential time. All that was necessary was to have a handle on what was being done - using signs to denote objects, concepts and speech-sounds - and the same social need for written communication. People copied the Sumerians and the people who copied them were in turn copied - despite the fact that each spoke an altogether different language.
It is the same with socialist consciousness or what we call Marxism. There is no need to re-invent. Once Marxism had been created as a scientific, rigorous, logically consistent, and yet flexible and open-ended body of thought - crucially through the long intellectual labours of Marx and Engels - it could be grasped by any intelligent, attentive and determined student.
The approach taken by the Bolsheviks relied on a leap in consciousness. In contrast to the economistic left, then and today, Lenin and the Bolsheviks believed that workers had to be trained and organised first and foremost to take state power. Instead of routine trade union politics, that meant 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 anti-tsarist revolution.
Such an ability of the working class to think and act strategically comes from Marxist education and building a mass proletarian party solidly based on a Marxist programme. What took Marx and Engels 40 painstaking years to develop was eagerly taken hold of by Russia's first generation of Marxists and then successfully imparted to advanced workers in the early years of the 20th century till it became a material force in its own right. By the autumn of 1917 virtually everything that was honest, everything that was far-thinking, everything that was fine in the working class was to be found in the ranks of the Bolshevik Party.
The CPGB seeks to emulate the best of the past: eg, the Communist Party of Marx and Engels, the German Social Democracy of August Bebel, Wilhelm Liebknecht and Karl Kautsky, the Bolshevik Party of Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and Grigory Zinoviev. Not as mimicry. But in order to make a qualitative leap both organisationally - by positively overcoming the sects - and programmatically. Obviously, making a party of several millions - necessary for revolution in a country like Britain - is the work of many years. Outlining a programme is another matter. Whatever the inadequacies - inevitable due to the absence of constant testing and fine-tuning, which is provided only by practical engagement in large-scale class battles - it can be the work of a handful of communist militants, if they have schooled themselves well in the theory of Marxism.
So, although the CPGB is not yet a party - that remains our central aim - it has equipped itself with a party programme, albeit in draft form. The Rough guide to revolution. Instead of the narrow economism that passes for common sense on the left, the CPGB takes a Marxist approach to the United Kingdom state. Here stands our main enemy. In our minimum programme - ie, within the technical limits imposed by the capitalist system - communists emphasise, bring to the fore, class (as opposed to sectional) demands that challenge the logic of the market, such as the provision of health, education and benefits based on need; and political demands that challenge how we are ruled.
The abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords, demanding a people's militia, disestablishment of the church of England, etc have already been mentioned above. But, as our present discussion is focused on Scotland, we shall elaborate upon the CPGB's programmatic demand for the abolition of the acts of union, self-determination for Scotland and Wales, and a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales (the initial form of working class rule in Britain).
Incidentally, during his time as prime minister Tony Blair has unwittingly done us a great service. In reforming the UK constitution - in order to strengthen the system of class rule - he shows that the constitution is neither timeless nor natural. It is plastic, a product of historical making and contemporary remaking. What Blair tinkered with from above we can transform from below.
While I insist that there must be an objective dimension when it comes to assessing what is and what is not a nation - eg, a common territory - that does not mean discounting what people think. The scientific assessment that there is a British nation must not be put before the palpable feelings of masses of people in Scotland and Wales. Hundreds of thousands sincerely believe they are nationally disadvantaged or even oppressed. A subjective factor that only a hopeless dogmatist would dismiss and therefore fail to harness by offering positive solutions.
Those who adhere to a tick-box approach - the most obvious example on the left being a refusal to even countenance national rights for Israeli Jews or the British-Irish in the six counties of Northern Ireland - take a stance which is utterly alien to the spirit of Bolshevism. Self-determination was seen by them not as a sop to petty bourgeois reactionaries; or a panacea, a cure-all, for capitalism's social ills. Rather self-determination is a weapon wielded in the hands of communists: a red wedge to split the nation into classes, dividing the led from their misleaders and thereby helping to bring the masses - workers, but the middle classes too - over to the side of those who are the best, the most consistent, fighters against oppression: ie, the communists.
In this light it therefore matters not a jot that the Bolsheviks were forced to militarily sort out Ukraine in order to crush white counterrevolution or that they counter-invaded Poland in a forlorn bid to re-ignite the German revolution. Such instances can be the subject of detailed, forensic examination. However, they most certainly do not prove that Bolshevik support for national self-determination was a sham or that communists today should discard the weapon. The Bolsheviks never said that national self-determination was the overriding determination. That was always the interests of the world revolution.
Nor does it matter a jot that rapturous elections, which crown this or that Bonaparte in Latin America, Asia and Africa, are mournfully followed by continued subordinate economic development, increased poverty and social retrogression. Blaming the Bolsheviks' policy on national self-determination, on the basis of such 'evidence', would be like blaming the movement of Sylvia Pankhurst for the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. There is a tortured connection. The Women's Socialist Federation demanded votes for women. But such a premise and such a result are not identity. Communists hardly need apologise for helping to bring about universal suffrage because the UK's first female prime minister happened to be an anti-working class crusader, a homophobic bigot and a dyed-in-the-wool anti-communist. Historic accident, not inevitability.
One can legitimately debate whether or not the Israeli Jews, the British-Irish or Scotland for that matter fulfil all the requirements of a classic bourgeois nation. The question we ask in each and every such case is, however, what people inhabiting a specific territory think. We neither invent nor ignore national differences or antagonisms. Positively deal with them where they exist. Overcome national divisions by ending involuntary unity and move towards voluntary unity through the struggle for socialism. That is the communist approach, and through building a wider and wider democracy the substantial majority needed to secure the proletarian revolution is thereby organised, educated and made ready.
Having left no room for doubt that the right to self-determination is fundamentally a political question, let us proceed. To state the obvious, when communists advocate Scottish self-determination, it is not the same as advocating independence. An oft-used metaphor is divorce. Saying a women should have the right to divorce her husband is not the same as recommending that happy, contented wives should end their marriages. Of course, some just do not get the elementary distinction. Nationalism clouds the brain. Eg, Bob Goupillot of the SSP's Republican Communist Network.
This is what the poor fellow writes: "In my experience the CPGB only champions the Scots right to self-determination to the extent that they exercise it in favour of participating in a federal or unitary UK or British state. Any other expression of self-determination - ie, independence or confederation - you attack as 'nationalist'. In other words you 'champion' the Scottish right to self-determination as long as they express it in a way of which you approve. Some 'champions'; some 'self-determination'."3
Confusion in buckets, but perhaps a tincture of poison too. The CPGB has an outstanding record of highlighting Scotland's right to self-determination, full stop. Consistently - that is, over many years - the CPGB has explained, agitated and fought for this demand in our paper, in pamphlets, in books and in forums such as the old Socialist Alliance and before the electorate in local, Westminster and European manifestos. There is no "to the extent" about it. A pejorative phrase and one for which there is no excuse. After all comrade Goupillot is a long-term subscriber to the Weekly Worker. He knows, or should know, what we have said and done.
As to the Scottish people exercising self-determination in "favour" of a "federal or unitary UK or British state", this is crude sleight of hand. A silly attempt to paint the CPGB in the red, white and blue of the Union Jack, presumably so as to divert attention away from the SSP's blue and white Saltire nationalism. It does not work. Our flag is red. The CPGB wants to overthrow the UK state as an integral part of an EU-wide revolution. Attempts to break apart the UK by splitting away Scotland are a diversion born of parochialism, frustration and desperation.
Scotland ought, as a matter of principle, to have the right to freely decide its own future. That is elementary democracy. However, it does not follow that communists are indifferent about how that right is exercised. Communists are partisan about how the Scottish or any other people exercise national rights. Marxism favours the closest possible voluntary unity of people in general and workers in particular. That means accepting the right of people in Scotland to vote for whatever constitutional option they happen to choose. But at every stage - whether they be in Glasgow, London or Timbuktu - communists will resolutely fight for their programme.
Our 'federal republic' slogan fits the bill perfectly. It encapsulates the democratic right to self-determination and the unity of the working class in Britain in opposition to Blair's rejigged constitutional monarchy system. In addition it encapsulates the unity of the working class in Britain against petty nationalism.
Nationalism and Marxism, it hardly needs saying, are antithetical. Marxists view nationalism as at best an unstable, untrustworthy and potentially treacherous ally. In general though, there can be no doubt that nationalism is a pernicious and deadly enemy. Especially in this, the last, declining, moribund phase of capitalism.
Nationalism was responsible for the fracturing and tragic failure of the socialist movement during World War I. Social democracy became a form of nationalism. Workers were urged to slaughter their class brothers. The Stalinite counterrevolution within the revolution was nationalist too. Socialism in one country being a cruel oxymoron, be it in the Soviet Union, China, Korea, Cambodia, Angola or Cuba. With the agonised screams of the 20th century still ringing in our ears, the SSP's programme for an 'independent socialist Scotland' is not only insensitive and forgetful, but retrogressive. Socialism is seen through the portal of SNP parliamentary legislation and one tiny kingdom with a population numbering barely five million. History has shown us the gory results of national roads. Why add to the mountain of skulls, the sea of blood?
Nationalists consider national cultures positively. Nationalists stress the shared history and myths of all classes within the nation, no matter how baseless and fictitious. National characteristics or distinctions are celebrated as essentially natural, healthy and something to be sustained into the distant future. Marxism, on the other hand, stresses internationalism and universalism. Hence we are duty-bound to expose the limitations and dangers of every nationalist ideology, whether it represents an established state or those forces striving to create a new state through a separatist breakaway.
I have argued that the relative decline of British imperialism - within an overall decline of capital as a system - laid the basis for a novel Scottish nationalism (certainly not the revival of a nationhood going back to Kenneth MacAlpine, Macbeth or Robert de Bruce). From the mid-18th century onwards being Scottish - with the obvious exception of worst-paid labour - was to share in the "lucrative" booty of the British empire.5 Under Thatcher it meant cuts, the poll tax and a denial of rights. Identification with the British nation-state perhaps enjoyed an Indian summer in World War II and in the subsequent long boom. Now, however, there is widespread alienation. Blair's constitutional reforms have only partially reversed that trend.
Given the perceived absence of a viable socialist alternative, petty bourgeois nationalism comes to the fore. In the form of the SNP it promises to secure a better position in the world pecking order through the formation of a new, independent Scottish capitalist state. Separatist sentiments are undoubtedly widespread, certainly wider than the SNP vote. Not only opinion polls tell us that. Every political and social campaign is tinged with the national question. And attempts to economistically explain it away by listing the 'primacy' of all-Britain issues like health, education, welfare and union rights miserably fail to get the Scots to forget their Scottishness or their national resentments.
Communists are quite prepared to take self-determination to extremes - if there is a genuine sense of grievance that grips the masses, as opposed to the elite - let Orkney, Cornwall, Shetland, the Isle of Man, etc decide their own fates, up to and including independence. But try to persuade people to unite. That is our motto. Separation into tiny statelets is a road to nowhere. It is, though, an ideal of anarchism and, 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.6
An Alan McCombes Scottish national socialism would be no different. Balkanising Britain and withdrawing from the EU is to diminish working class potential. Instead of conquering what is and then reaching to the commanding heights, the aim is backward-looking, dim-witted and paltry from the start. And from nothing will come nothing.
Even given harsh national oppression, communists in general favour voluntary unity and the biggest possible states as providing the best conditions for the eventual coming together and complete merger of peoples. Certainly, under present circumstances there would be nothing remotely progressive about a Scottish army and a customs post at Gretna Green.
Separation can become a communist demand if unity is imposed by force and there is no immediate prospect of the metropolitan working class taking power. Needless to say, though, the relationship between England and Scotland has not primarily been characterised by violence, certainly since the 1707 Act of Union. In fact, England, Scotland and Wales - ie, their ruling classes - were co-sponsors, were joint benefactors of the imperial British project.
The vampire began by draining Ireland of its people and wealth and then moved on to enslave colonies in the Americas, India, Australia, Africa and finally the Middle East. Of course, our common humanity means we demand that the victims be released from their chains. But the how is decided on the basis of different historical conditions and prospects in each case.
Eg, in the early 1850s Marx thought British colonialism would ensure an industrial take-off in India. Incorrect, as things soon turned out. However, Marx was convinced that the Indian masses would only benefit if there was a proletarian revolution in Britain or they themselves had "grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether".7 In the event of a British revolution the Indian masses would have every interest in maintaining unity via some kind of freely entered and equal confederation.
Scotland is, of course, no India, nor is it an Egypt or an Ireland. To suggest or even hint otherwise is to equate victimiser with victim. Morally repugnant. Politically crazy. And yet, and yet ... The 1707 Act of Union had no popular mandate. Rich and powerful men decided on both sides. 'Democracy', if one can call it that, was entirely within their fief. There were only 4,000 voters in the whole of Scotland at the time. It suited their interests to make a British state - as we have said before, massive bribery helped too.
Even with universal suffrage there remains a problem. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is constitutionally the unity of hereditary crowns. Not the voluntary union of free peoples. Sovereignty formally resides with the monarch. And given the huge disparity between the wealth and populations of England on the one side and Scotland and Wales on the other, the UK must be dominated by England (which has no problem with self-determination). It is the peoples of Scotland and Wales who cannot freely determine their own future. Devolution has served to underline the democratic deficit. Neither Holyrood nor the Cardiff assembly can exercise self-determination up to and including the right to separate.
Interestingly Marx, Engels and Lenin spoke favourably about a federation in the British Isles. For example, in his 'Critique of the Erfurt programme' Frederick Engels wrote that federalism "would be a step forward" in Britain, which in spite of its single parliament has "three different systems of legislation". He had in mind a voluntary federation of Britain and Ireland. That would be "a step forward" to the "one and indivisible republic". The form most suited to the needs and struggles of the proletariat.8
Most leftwingers absolve themselves from what they wrongly imagine as the 'bourgeois' task of ending the monarchy and winning a democratic republic. The SWP, SPEW, etc do so by way of a two-pronged reply. The first prong is rightist: workers are marching for higher pay, the protection of their pension rights and job security. That is what they are interested in and understand. The second prong is leftist: nowhere in the UK are workers demonstrating under the banner of a federal republic. Instead of bothering with a republic, let's go straight for socialism.
Excuses, excuses. There is no dialectic that leads from wage struggles to socialism. Nor is the leftist excuse about demanding instant socialism ever applied to the rightist 'wages and conditions' excuse. Why should it? Excuses are excuses.
When it comes to trade union politics, they do not turn up their noses with haughty references to the maximum demand for the abolition of the wages system - which, like calls for socialism, is perfectly correct in terms of propaganda. So, in rejecting the communist minimum programme, these comrades at one and the same time make empty gestures, while practising the capitalist politics of the working class.
A hopeless muddle that urgently needs rectifying.