A common analysis on much of the left is that the EU is a capitalist club that pursues an imperialist agenda, just confirmed by its brutal treatment of Greece. The socialist answer is therefore to be in favour of leaving it.
Many of these same people argue that the UK is a capitalist state that has just re-elected a Tory Government committed to further austerity. The election has shown that it too, just like the EU, is unreformable and should be split up; so for example Scotland should separate from it.
The answer to both is therefore a nationalist one. Let’s not be distracted by the bells and whistles attached. The objective is a change in the nature of the state but in both cases this means a return to the nation state, a smaller state, is the answer.
Ironically, as a recent post I read noted, while the treatment of Greece by the EU in the name of austerity has been acknowledged by more or less everyone to be brutal, the reaction of some nationalists has been much more muted.
Thus the SNP who are portrayed as opponents of austerity have rallied much of the British left around its nationalist argument for separation on the basis of its opposition to UK austerity. It argues that any move to get out of the EU will see it demand a new indy referendum so Scotland can stay in. Yet the austerity inflicted by the EU on Greece is of a magnitude many times greater than that directed from London.
From a socialist point of view it gets worse. Their answer to this exposure to the contradictions of nationalism is to be even more nationalist than the nationalists. Many of them demand that the UK (or the Irish State for that matter) leave the EU. Of course it is claimed all the new states created will not be like their old incarnations but progressive, if not socialist, but if they were there would be no need for them to be separate and if they are separate they will be in the position all nation states are in, which is in competition with each other.
We see such competition in the proposals of the various nationalists and left nationalists to reduce corporation tax. Sinn Fein and the left in Ireland want to keep the low 12.5% rate but want it to be the effective rate while the SNP want a lower rate than the rest of the UK, whatever it is, and the Tories have just cut it to 18 per cent, so it now has to be lower than this. When the Tories took office with the Liberal Democrats it was 28 per cent. If my sums are right I think this makes Sinn Fein, the Irish Left and the SNP softer on the big corporations than Tony Blair. But this doesn’t fit the narrative so let’s stick with it.
In an earlier post I promised I would look at an article notified to me by a friend, on the Left’s attitude to the SNP, just before the UK General Election so I’ll do that here. I’ll also look in a second part at one of the many responses on the Left seeking to learn the lessons from the Syriza U-turn in Greece. What they have in common is an accommodation to nationalism.
What they also have in common is being written from the Socialist Workers Party tradition. As I noted before, this tradition, through their forerunner of the International Socialists, used to have much better positions on both the EU and Scottish nationalism. However the two articles show that accommodation has not yet become capitulation.
The article in ‘Jacobin’ is in the form of an interview and it is revelatory that the first question doesn’t ask the interviewee why he supported Yes in the independence referendum but “what did you see in the movement that made it worthy of support?”
As I noted during the campaign, many on the left voted yes because they liked the campaign for it rather than any very compelling reasons for having a campaign for such an objective in the first place.
In this sense they were guilty of what Marx warned against – “Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life. . “ Instead the Left supported a nationalist campaign, driven by social and economic concerns and desire for an alternative, and having done so declared it left wing. It looked at itself in the mirror and liked what it saw.
Just like Sinn Fein in Ireland it does a grand job at telling itself and anyone else who will listen how great it is. It might be something about nationalism.
I am also reminded by another less glorious figure in the history of the socialist movement who once declared “the movement means everything for me and . . . what is usually called “the final aim of socialism” is nothing.”
I exaggerate? Well let’s look at the interview. Davidson gives three reasons for changing his view to now supporting independence and, in his own words, he says that “the most important change was simply the nature of the campaign itself”
He says that “for many people it wasn’t about nationalism of any sort”. . “It was about how to realise various social goals: an end to austerity, the removal of nuclear weapons, defence of the National Health Service”. The fact that the answer to each of these problems is nationalism seems not to make the movement for it nationalist.
That the problems are not nationalist ones appears to mean that when the solution is national separation (“independence will improve their [workers’} situation immediately”) we don’t have to call it a nationalist solution. Ironically if the problems were nationalist ones (like national oppression for example) a nationalist response might make more sense.
This self-regard leads to an exaggerated view of the role of the Left in the independence campaign, which, he says, dramatically changed its dynamic and drove the entire discussion of independence to the left.
In fact the landslide for the SNP in Scotland in the General election showed just who drove the campaign, who put independence on the agenda for decades before and who then benefited.
That the campaign for independence won the support of many working class people for a party Davidson admits is “on the extreme left of what I call “social neoliberalism” and “which broadly supports the neoliberal economic settlement”, i.e. austerity, is such an admission that it is simply staggering.
He supported separation because of the independence referendum campaign that led a neoliberal party to a landslide on the basis of that party claiming to lead opposition to austerity!
Davidson goes on to say that the SNP has moved to the left in economic terms “above all in rejection of austerity” and “is offering reforms” but also says they took up their “social democratic” position “in order to win votes” because “it would have been difficult to compete with New labour from the right”.
He accepts as good coin SNP claims of opposing austerity but fails utterly to examine its actual record in the Scottish Government, which would blow such claims out of the water. Such an examination doesn’t fit the narrative.
In fact this narrative clashes obviously with reality.
He claims that the SNP sought an alliance with the Labour Party against the Tories, when in reality their strategy depended on destroying Labour in Scotland and keeping it to their right everywhere else. Does he think the SNP would welcome a Jeremy Corbyn victory in the Labour leadership contest?
Why would it, since this would immediately demonstrate the efficacy of fighting together, that the Labour Party was not quite a dead loss and that there did actually exist a labour movement undivided by nationality.
He congratulates the SNP on their honesty, they’ll never do a deal with the Tories he says, which means we can forget the one it had with them when in a minority administration in 2007 reliant on Tory support.
By supporting separation the pro-nationalist left has already separated itself from wider struggles. In so far as there is a fight about austerity and its alternative in Britain today it is centred around the Corbyn campaign for leadership of the Labour Party. I wondered on this blog whether the British Left would be part of it. Were the unthinkable to happen and Corbyn actually win it could hardly be ignored. Would an all-British movement against austerity in such circumstances be better than a purely Scottish one or would the Left insist on introducing national divisions where none were necessary?
It would appear that Davidson would answer the latter in the negative. “We must not give up the question of independence. Unless a revolutionary situation emerges in England . . .”. And of course Corbyn is far from being a revolutionary.
So it looks like English workers will have to deliver a revolutionary situation in England before the Scottish Left will be interested in political unity within one state. (Talk about playing hard to get!) Not, mind you, that they are steaming ahead in the creation of a revolutionary party themselves because, Davidson says, “we are not in a position in Scotland to immediately set up a revolutionary party.”
Of course there are the ritualistic claims of wanting “solidarity” with English workers against the British State but not solidarity with English workers against a Scottish capitalist state which would replace the British one lording it over them come separation. Joining with English workers to overthrow the Scottish state? Now that really doesn’t fit the narrative.
Instead solidarity with English workers will mean we’ll demand the removal of Trident, which means moving these weapons to . . . err, England maybe?
And if the English follow this example and say that we’ll take the same position as you in Scotland and demand they’re not sited in our country, they can stay. . .err, in Scotland maybe?
What a splendid recipe for solidarity!
I mentioned that Davidson has accommodated to nationalism but not capitulated. This is because although the article asks the question how the Left should relate to the SNP in advance of the General election he nowhere calls for a vote for the SNP. The problem is, given what he says, I can’t see the reason for him not to. Why not? given that he claims it opposes austerity, wants to introduce reforms, has moved to the Left and is now full of left-wing working class people who are ‘consolidating’ its position there.
It would be some slight comfort if it could be hoped that the reason for this is that, as a relatively recent convert to Scottish nationalism, at some level he just doesn’t quite believe his own argument.
Unfortunately the real reason may well be political sectarianism. His reason appears to be that an SNP Government bent on reforms would face pressure and intransigence from capitalism when it would try to introduce its reforms.
He doesn’t say how this would not be the case in any other circumstance. He doesn’t say how, what he might call a revolutionary party, would not face the same if not greater pressure. He doesn’t say how it should be dealt with. He doesn’t say why nationalist division prepares workers for such international capitalist intransigence and he does not say why this means that denial of support to the SNP now is justified by a future need for a revolutionary break, especially when he says the alternative party to be built now must not be revolutionary. So how does he prepare all those inside and outside the SNP who must be prepared for this revolutionary break?
But what’s wrong with all this is not that Davidson should follow through on the implications of his analysis of the SNP and join it, but that his view of what is required of revolutionary politics now leads to a nationalist blind alley of supporting nationalist separatism now and being just as exposed to nationalist limitations when the grand day of revolutionary rupture might break out in the future.
His argument for national separation and endorsement of the SNP demand for independence falls apart because he refuses to support that party on the grounds that when it will be faced with international capitalist pressure it will be in no position to resist, most importantly because the working class will be divided by nationality whilst the capitalists won’t.
A convincing narrative or what?
I believe you have left something out in regard to the interview by Davidson. He refers to the British State in terms of capital- imperialism. This is a conventional designation of Marxists analysis. The Irish State by way of contrast is capitalists but it is not imperialist. A reborn Scottish State would be capitalist but would also be post-imperialist. So the element of progress is stipulated by Davidson as the absence of imperialism. The difficulties comes with the designation of imperialism as monopoly finance capital. In the past it was thought that only some States acted as supports or were agents for monopoly-finance capital ie Great Britain, the USA, Germany, France, the Netherlands were the prime suspects. Then it began to look like the European Community as a whole was becoming the prime support and agent of monopoly-finance capital. So to oppose the expansion of the European community was also to oppose the expansion plans of monopoly of finance- capital. If the European Community as a whole represents the historic march of monopoly-finance capital then the Irish and Greek States are already supports and agents of monopoly-finance capital. This would represent a break from conventional Marxist analysis, which confined the designation too only a handful of Great Powers. Recall the famous argument that Trotsky had with the pragmatists of the American SWP who wanted to include RUSSIA in the imperialist club of Great Imperialist Powers. He said no because Russia did not represent monopoly finance capital.
There are Marxists who still study the European Community not as some sort of capitalist- imperialist whole but as a combination of stronger capitalists-imperialist States which they call the core and the other weaker capitalist States that have histories that are capitalist but not imperialist and are said to part of the periphery. It may well be the case that the confusions surrounding left-nationalism have a genesis in an understanding of the politics of States defined in terms of monopoly finance capital. Perhaps this was a useful designation for the Great Powers in the past but is less applicable today? It has been argued that monopoly-finance capital has developed to a point that all States are more or less its agents of its preservation and expansion. I don’t go along without this myself but I think you are not far away from thinking that way.