In this post and the next one I review the arguments employed in a debate carried out by two socialists in Scotland on Scottish independence carried in the latest issue of the journal ‘Critique’. The debate between Sandy McBurney and Neil Davidson is entitled ‘Marxism and the national question in Scotland’ and can be found, with a bit of looking, for free on the net.
The Scottish question remains important and will gain in importance if Jeremy Corbyn wins the leadership of the British Labour Party. It is one thing to reject a right wing Labour party for the fools’ gold of Scottish nationalism (although Miliband was to the left of the SNP) and quite another to reject a groundswell of radicalism in favour of division.
If Corbyn wins it will not be the end of that particular struggle but only the beginning. If the left in Scotland rejects this movement in favour of continued division and alignment with the SNP in prioritising independence they will have to deepen their capitulation to nationalism in order to insulate themselves from the reality of a radical movement made up of those whose passivity has been the purported reason for seeking a separate state.
This review of the arguments therefore doesn’t make any pretence to impartiality with regard to the competing claims and differences.
* * *
Sandy McBurney starts his argument from the need to deepen and defend the unity of the British working class in order that it to move forward and he obviously sees Scottish nationalism as an impediment to that unity.
This nationalism is dominated by the Scottish National Party, which he recalls being labelled ‘Tartan Tories’ in the 1970s and 1980s. He notes its record in office as one of enforcing austerity and notes that it opposes a 50p tax on the rich; opposes rent controls (although there is a promised change on this) and an energy freeze; voted against a motion by the Labour Party in the Scottish parliament that a living wage be paid to those working on Scottish government contracts and did not support the view that blacklisting of union militants should be outlawed.
He therefore points to the disparity between nationalist rhetoric and actual practice. He says that the working class was split in the referendum but that its most organised sections were right to reject the independence con-job.
He rejects as ridiculous the idea that the SNP is in any sense anti-imperialist and therefore rejects the left nationalist argument that the pro-independence movement is by virtue of this left wing and progressive.
He sees no upsurge in radical and socialist politics in Scotland as a result of the referendum campaign but has seen a big growth of tens of thousands joining the SNP. The recent Scottish Socialist Party conference, he says, had 140 people at it and quite a few leftists have left their organisations to join the SNP. “I’ve been on recent anti-war and anti-austerity demonstrations in Glasgow and to recent left meetings and they’re smaller than they were 10 years ago.”
Instead the effect of nationalism on much of the Scottish left is that “many erstwhile socialists in Scotland now oppose a British-wide socialist party on principle and do all they can to stop one developing.” Some of this nationalist left now call for support for the SNP and Sandy McBurney notes that Tariq Ali called for this at a Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) conference.
[It may be noted here, as I mentioned in the introduction, that the development of the campaign around Jeremy Corbyn for Labour Party leader thus exposes the real divisive politics of nationalism. Instead of being part of this reawakening of mass leftist mobilisation across Britain the pro-nationalist left will be forced to explain their hatred of the ‘Red Tories’ after having written off workers joining these ‘Tories’. A Labour Party led from the left, even a quite moderate left, would undercut all their arguments and every purported justification for Scottish separatism from English and Welsh workers.]
Despite the illusions of Ali and the RIC the plans of the SNP would not lead to an end to austerity but massively more austerity as the gaping hole in its budget plans has demonstrated. The SNP is not therefore a Scottish Syriza or Podemos, which were products of the workers’ movement, but is more like the nationalist movements in Northern Italy, Catalonia or the Flemish movement in Belgium, which claim they are being held back by the poor – not a very socialist argument.
Left nationalists in the RIC on the other hand have claimed that ‘thousands of jobs’ in a ‘re-industrialised economy’ would be guaranteed by a Yes vote in the referendum. This, McBurney says, is lying to working class people that even the SNP refrained from, including the claim that the minimum wage would be a living wage, which the SNP had not promised, notwithstanding the invention of the RIC.
Neil Davidson in response starts off by stating that his conception of the working class internationally doesn’t stop at the English Channel. His claim is that his support for Scottish independence is therefore more internationalist in outlook than those like McBurney who support unity of the British working class. His conception of internationalism “also extends to Basra, Gaza and places Britain has bombed in its imperialist alliance with the US over the last 20-30 years.”
The impression given is thus of a more internationalist orientation. But this is only an impression, because what Davidson actually says is not that he is in favour of greater international working class unity but that his conception of this unity is determined by who Britain has bombed in the last 20-30 years. As I shall show, what this is meant to do is not explain how workers unity internationally can be better created by taking a wider view of it, within which a separate Scottish state would play a role, but to provide some internationalist gloss for support for Scottish nationalism and Scottish separation.
Of course, as said and commented on before, Davidson is at pains to claim that his is not actually support for nationalism – supporting Scottish independence does not mean supporting Scottish nationalism. As also noted before, he attempts to turn the tables on such a claim by saying that if this were so then supporting a unitary UK state would equally be nationalism. However since he believes that supporting Scottish independence is not nationalism he must therefore himself believe that supporting, or at least accepting, a continuing UK state is also not nationalism. As I have said before I agree with the latter point but not the former:
“He (Davidson) complains that supporters of Scottish independence are marked as nationalists but those supporting the status quo are not. Why are those who want to maintain the current British state not British nationalists? If they can detach their support for the British state from British nationalism why can’t supporters of Scottish independence divorce their support for an independent Scotland from Scottish nationalism?”
“There are two reasons. Firstly Marxists can advocate a No vote, not by supporting the British state but simply accepting that it is a better framework to advance what they really value, which is the unity of the working class across nations. On the other hand supporters of Scottish separation are compelled to defend the claim that Scottish independence, by itself, is progressive. . . supporters of independence are reduced to calling for creation of a new border and a new capitalist state. What is this if not nationalism?”
“The second reason is to do with the consequences of separation. The argument presented on this blog before is that these would be wholly negative. A new capitalist state would increase division where uncoerced union existed before. It would strengthen the forces of nationalism by giving them a stunning victory that they would be stupid not to exploit. A new state would engender competition, for example on reducing corporate taxes, and give nationalists many opportunities to demand support for ‘our’ new Scottish state and ‘our’ Scottish government. A Yes vote would strengthen nationalism. That’s why supporters of Scottish independence are accused of nationalism.”
Davidson argues however that Scottish independence would be a blow against British imperialism by weakening it. It should be noted that if this argument were true it would be true even if the new Scottish state was led by the SNP, which is why Sandy McBurney rejects the argument that the SNP are in any way anti-imperialist – only the British working class are such a force.
As we have seen, Davidson frames internationalism in terms of who British imperialism has bombed – “maybe we should be thinking about them when we consider these arguments about imperialism.” So even internationalism becomes part of a Scottish nationalist narrative, in which a rather simplistic anti-British rhetoric allows its speaker to elide the Scottish contribution. Maybe we should also be thinking of this Scottish contribution to the bombing when we consider the arguments and whether a Scotland with NATO membership, as the SNP plan, would be any different.
So, along with a number of left nationalists he places great emphasis on the difficulties that would be involved in the British state retaining nuclear weapons if they were forced to move them from Scotland.
It’s hard to resist pointing out the illusions involved in this approach. Davidson notes the contradiction between SNP support for NATO and opposition to nuclear weapons on the Clyde. But why on earth does he think a right wing neoliberal party would resolve such a contradiction by retreating on the right wing policy and not on the left one? Perhaps he discounts the possibility that the SNP would use up political capital gained from achievement of independence to do a U-turn on nuclear weapons, rather like they have already done on membership of NATO itself.
Likewise it’s relevant to point out that this nationalist talisman is not that progressive. While opposition to nuclear weapons at the British level is a demand for their scraping and if successful would involve this; the demand of the nationalist left is that they be moved, presumably to England. In other words it isn’t a demand to scrap them but simply shift them to those who should be allies in getting rid of them. Even if successful this nationalist demand far from guarantees their abolition while in the meantime it can only divide on nationalist lines any pan-British opposition.
Nationalism is a contradictory solution to the political and social problem.On the one had it seems to be the only practical account of political legitimacy. It is the modern as opposed to the ancient or medieval justification of political rule or leadership. The ancient entitlement to political rule stressed wisdom or knowledge over consent, Plato and Aristotle therefore thought of democracy as a lesser form of political leadership. The modern theory accepts only consent as a just basis for political rule or leadership. You only have to look at Popper’s tracing of totalitarian thought back to Plato and his rule of wisdom over consent to get a sense of the preference for the dogma of democracy. The problem with having a dogmatic choice on behalf of democratic rule or leadership is more than the one raised initially raised by Plato, the people are not wise in their political choices because they lack education. The question is what quota of people have to give their consent to make for a legitimate democracy. The political theorists of modern democracy, like Rousseau never really answered the question. To make democracy stand up to ancient political objection Rousseau was aware that good education should play no part in the matter. It was argued that the least literate, least educated man could still discern what was in his own best political interest. It is no accident that Rousseau championed the primitive or natural man in a state of nature to the detriment of the civilized man of an aristocratic society. He also preferred Sparta to Athens. There is a also close connection in Rousseau’s thought and influence between primitive living and natural socialism.
The more practical men of the French revolution answered the quota question, by defining the people as the One nation, the nation set the boundaries of the meaning of the term the sovereign people. This basically romantic account of democratic consent bit by bit became the only acceptable account of political legitimacy. In point of theory the consent principle is simply universal, there is no reason in theory to say that somebody living in Alaska should not have a say in the governance of Scotland. But in point of fact the consent principle is correlated with national birth or origin. Many people do not like this correlation of democratic consent with the nation but they have not been able to overcome it short of returning to a Platonic one. It has been argued by people like Karl Popper and others, that Marxists were the ones most unhappy with the consent principle as the only legitimate form of rule or leadership. He traced the origins of Marxism back to Plato’s Republic. The revolutionary vanguard holds an entailment to political rule or leadership on the basis of a superior wisdom and education, like the Philosopher Kings of Plato. Of course the vanguard party had to disguise its superior wisdom and entitlement to rule by appearing to conform to the consent principle by appearing to bow to popular or democratic nationalism. It is a certainty of cold war rhetoric, that Communism had required a certain attachment to nationalism in order to cover up the fact that in theory it never truly adhered to the democratic consent principle.The Marxists always thought the workers had to be led by the better educated. Did they even make use of Plato’s nobles lies?
If there is no other form of political leadership acceptable to the modern world other than the one that stresses democracy and consent then it it hard to see past the obstacle of nationalism. No other way of defining the sovereign people aside from a national one has found to be generally acceptable. Offering the concept of class as a better substitute for nation, merely reinstates the problem of the universal that democratic theory could not determine in the first instance,( where does the boundary points of the working class begin and end), and the practical men of the French revolution ‘solved’ by resorting to the general will of the nation.
It is more convenient to attack the centrality of nationalism on economic grounds than on political grounds. Almost every political scientists says they agree with the principle of national self-determination because they want to appear to be on the side of consent and democracy. Yet they all know that the consent principle does not include a restriction or boundary called the nation. Very many of them believe that the nation is a mythical entity or invention. Yet they adhere to the principle of national self determination, especially in international law because they have no alternative to work with.
The economic side of nationalism is thought to be the refuted and hence most discredited element. Yet even this presents contradictions. It has been argued that socialism is so closely related to nationalism that it is in fact the natural soil of its genesis. This also sends us back to Rousseau and his infamous state of nature. Rousseau took over the state of nature conception from Hobbes and Locke, but he changed it. In Rousseau’s state of nature there is no private property over natural resources as there is in Hobbes and Locke, they had smuggled the private ownership of natural resources into the State of nature artificially. In the true state of nature all the good things provided for by nature are by natural right free to all. Here is the link to the the idea of a primitive or natural kind of socialism that got layered over by the history of capitalism. This link is preserved in the popular believe that natural resources should be the ‘ natural right’ of the whole of the people. And since the whole of the people is defined for all practical purpose as the nation, the natural resources should belong by natural right to the nation. I think you will generally find this primitive socialist notion present everywhere there is a widespread belief that the country holds a natural bounty. It is hardly surprising that when gas or oil is discovered it is easily assumed that it must belong to the people or the nation by natural right. It has to be admitted that there is a primitive notion of socialism present in the thought that the oil and gas found in the North Sea belongs to the Scottish nation. The semi anarchist Chomsky reminded us that the planners in Washington often thought that the discovery of national resources like oil and gas was the basis for all of the third world radicalism, and that it was at the same time the basis for a dangerous variety of third world socialism. Almost all liberal capitalist analysis assumes a close connection between nationalism and socialism, it is very redolent for example in the writings of Von Hayek and Ayn Rand.
From the Marxist point of view a primitive socialism based on a supposed national right of ownership over all natural resources is not the socialism that makes itself on the back of an advanced mode of capitalist production but I don’t think it can be denied that it often acts as a spur to an anti-capitalism. My point being that nationalism and primitive socialism are like Sinn Fein and the IRA, inextricably linked. My conclusion is that modern nationalism is contradictory, meaning it is not altogether bad for being not much much good. For now it is sort of inescapable. It may also be the case that Marx never abandoned natural right in place of History in his own version of socialism, some passages in the German Ideology make for interesting reading.