5 Self-determination subordinated

UN Security Council

In The Right of Nations to Self-Determination Lenin stated that

‘The categorical requirement of Marxist theory in investigating any social question is that it be examined within definite historical limits, and, if it refers to a particular country (e. g., the national programme for a given country), that account be taken of the specific features distinguishing that country from others in the same historical epoch.’

In The Discussion On Self-Determination Summed Up he says that

‘What is the lesson to be drawn from this concrete example which must he analysed concretely if there is any desire to be true to Marxism? Only this: (1) that the interests of the liberation of a number of big and very big nations in Europe rate higher than the interests of the movement for liberation of small nations; (2) that the demand for democracy must not be considered in isolation but on a European—today we should say a world—scale.’

The globalisation of the war in Ukraine is evident not just from the antagonism between Russia and US (plus other NATO countries) but the determination of the latter to get every other country to impose its sanctions on Russia.  In other words, the demand that every other country join the war on its side.  This is echoed on the left where some make the smallness of a nation, contra Lenin, a reason to support its demands!

Evaluation of the war obviously requires Lenin’s recommendation – ‘that the demand for democracy must not be considered in isolation but on a European—today we should say a world—scale.’

Lenin gives an example of what this might mean:

‘When the Dutch and Polish Social-Democrats reason against self-determination, using general arguments, i.e., those that concern imperialism in general, socialism in general, democracy in general, national oppression in general, we may truly say that they wallow in mistakes. But one has only to discard this obviously erroneous shell of general arguments and examine the essence of the question from the standpoint of the specific conditions obtaining in Holland and Poland for their particular position to become comprehensible and quite legitimate . . .’

After addressing the Dutch example, he turns to the case of Poland:

‘Karl Radek, a Polish Social-Democrat, who has done particularly great service by his determined struggle for internationalism in German Social-Democracy since the outbreak of war, made a furious attack on self-determination in an article entitled “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination” . . . and propounds, amongst others, the argument that self-determination fosters the idea that “it is allegedly the duty of Social-Democrats to support any struggle for independence.”

Lenin’s response is that ‘From the standpoint of general theory this argument is outrageous, because it is clearly illogical . . .’  He then notes that ‘I recall Rosa Luxemburg saying in an article written in 1908, that the formula: “against national oppression” was quite adequate. But any Polish nationalist would say—and quite justly—that annexation is one of the forms of national oppression, consequently, etc.’

In other words, if you say you are ‘against national oppression,’ and Poland is nationally oppressed, then you should support Poland’s struggle for independence.  But Lenin doesn’t agree to this, and examines the specific conditions applying from the viewpoint of the interests of the struggles of the working class:

‘However, bake Poland’s specific conditions in place of these general arguments: her independence today is “impracticable” without wars or revolutions. To be in favour of an all-European war merely for the sake of restoring Poland is to be a nationalist of the worst sort, and to place the interests of a small number of Poles above those of the hundreds of millions of people who suffer from war.  . . . . To raise the question of Poland’s independence today, with the existing alignment of the neighbouring imperialist powers, is really to run after a will-o’-the-wisp, plunge into narrow-minded nationalism and forget the necessary premise of an all-European or at least a Russian and a German revolution.’

‘A third and, perhaps, the most important example. We read in the Polish theses (III, end of 82) that the idea of an independent Polish buffer state is opposed on the grounds that it is an “inane utopia of small impotent groups. Put into effect, it would mean the creation of a tiny fragment of a Polish state that would be a military colony of one or another group of Great Powers, a plaything of their military or economic interests, an area exploited by foreign capital, and a battlefield in future war”.’

‘This is all very true when used as an argument against the slogan of Polish independence today, because even a revolution in Poland alone would change nothing and would only divert the attention of the masses in Poland from the main thing—the connection between their struggle and that of the Russian and German proletariat. It is not a paradox but a fact that today the Polish proletariat as such can help the cause of socialism and freedom, including the freedom of Poland, only by joint struggle with the proletariat of the neighbouring countries, against the narrow Polish nationalists. Tile great historical service rendered by the Polish Social-Democrats in the struggle against the nationalists cannot possibly be denied.’

The parallel with Ukraine is obvious, but this is not even the point.  The point is that the specific conditions of each national struggle should be considered from the viewpoint of the working class and its class struggle and this can lead us very far from support for bourgeois nationalism, even in the case of a country dismembered by empires. Often this nationalism is painted red although generally this has not been attempted on behalf of the nationalism of Ukraine notwithstanding attempts on the left to now soften its far-right complexion.

Does this mean there is nothing left of the policy of self-determination of nations? Lenin goes on:

‘But these same arguments, which are true from the standpoint of Poland’s specific conditions in the present epoch, are manifestly untrue in the general form in which they are presented. So long as there are wars, Poland will always remain a battlefield in wars between Germany and Russia, but this is no argument against greater political liberty (and, therefore, against political independence) in the periods between wars. The same applies to the arguments about exploitation by foreign capital and Poland’s role as a plaything of foreign interests.’

‘The Polish Social-Democrats cannot, at the moment, raise the slogan of Poland’s independence, for the Poles, as proletarian internationalists, can do nothing about it without stooping, like the “Fracy” [Polish Socialist Party], to humble servitude to one of the imperialist monarchies. But it is not indifferent to the Russian and German workers whether Poland is independent, they take part in annexing her (and that would mean educating the Russian and German workers and peasants in the basest turpitude and their consent to play the part of executioner of other peoples).’

‘The situation is, indeed, bewildering, but there is a way out in which all participants would remain internationalists: the Russian and German Social-Democrats by demanding for Poland unconditional “freedom to secede”; the Polish Social-Democrats by working for the unity of the proletarian struggle in both small and big countries without putting forward the slogan of Polish independence for the given epoch or the given period.’

Such are the considerations that must be taken into account when seeking to apply the demand for self-determination for any particular nationality.  Only in extremis has this been done in the case of the war in Ukraine – when it comes to opposing the imposition of a no-fly zone over Ukraine by NATO, which risks a direct war with Russia and nuclear oblivion.  In this the pro-war left has had cause to pause, a pragmatic concession without theoretical support, their whole policy being otherwise based on bourgeois morality. As we have seen, expressed by Lenin:

‘To be in favour of an all-European war merely for the sake of restoring Poland is to be a nationalist of the worst sort, and to place the interests of a small number of Poles above those of the hundreds of millions of people who suffer from war.’ (The Discussion On Self-Determination Summed Up)

But apart from this glaringly obvious acceptance of limits to its defence of the Ukrainian capitalist state the pro-war left has demonstrated itself content with the effects of its policy.

These effects include the proposed massive militarisation of Germany and the incorporation of Sweden and Finland into NATO, not to mention the enrichment of the US military industrial complex and its consequent increased political influence. They also involve the effects of supporting imperialist sanctions and their contribution to the reduction in living standards for workers and the poor across the globe.  The working class is thereby enrolled on the side of their own ruling class in the conflict with Russia, on behalf of another corrupt capitalist state that resembles no country so much as the one uniquely damned by ‘the international community.’ 

The pro-war left demands supply of all the weapons required to achieve Ukraine’s war objectives, which requires that Ukraine be able to finance the war; imperialism does not come free.  So, for example, the requirement to address the ‘food catastrophe’ caused by the war, as headlined by ‘The Economist’, which notes that Ukraine’s food exports alone provide the calories to feed 400m people.  In true fashion the newspaper raises the prospect of NATO convoys in the Black sea to remedy this, although this too risks direct conflict between the armed forces of NATO and Russia.

Facing escalating war or threat of famine the pro-war left finds that their ‘practical’­, ‘something must be done’, approach of supporting imperialism supporting Ukraine leaves them with an unenviable ‘practical’ choice.

In this regard there is nothing new, Lenin excoriated it – ‘The bourgeoisie, which naturally assumes the leadership at the start of every national movement, says that support for all national aspirations is practical . . . The whole task of the proletarians in the national question is “unpractical” from the standpoint of the nationalist bourgeoisie of every nation . . . This call for practicality is in fact merely a call for uncritical acceptance of bourgeois aspirations.’ 

How far all this support for imperialism is from the policy of Lenin is obvious, but then equally obvious is that this left is not really interested in this policy.

concluded

back to part 4

4 Supporting the democratic content of nationalism

In ‘The Right of Nations to Self-Determination’ Lenin stated that 

‘The bourgeois nationalism of any oppressed nation has a general democratic content that is directed against oppression, and it is this content that we unconditionally support, At the same time we strictly distinguish it from the tendency towards national exclusiveness; we fight against the tendency of the Polish bourgeois to oppress the Jews, etc., etc.’

We have already explained in the previous posts the limits to such support but there are others that we have not addressed and that have further relevance when considering the situation in Ukraine today.  We should obviously be wary of claims of a democratic content to a nationalism that has already shown its reactionary character.

The recent history of Ukraine has demonstrated that the growth of nationalism in that country has been the product of the cynical strategy and policies of certain oligarchic factions in struggle with rivals.  It has been advanced not as the flag under which democratisation of Ukrainian society has advanced but as a cover for austerity and repression, and as a substitute for the failure of a number of bourgeois leaderships to carry out promises to rid Ukraine of corruption and systematic abuses of democracy.

As this nationalism has advanced it has not broadened the scope of democracy through inclusion of different ethic, linguistic and cultural groups but acted as a weapon to restrict the rights of minorities and impose a single ethno-nationalism.  This has included restrictions on freedom of speech through crack-downs on rival media organisations; the banning of political parties and silencing of particular political views; promotion of an ideology of anti-communism, and attacks on workers’ rights.

This nationalism has celebrated and legitimised fascist figures from its history (see above picture) and current political slogans from far-right organisations, going so far as to integrate their armed organisations into the state, and at times place significant figures in positions of power within the Government.  The significance of the far right has advanced under the banner of, and in lock-step with, wider Ukrainian nationalism.  It is not that mainstream Ukrainian nationalism and the state that promotes it have become fascist but that the mainstream has seen no need or want to separate itself from the far-right movement, which it has celebrated as its ‘best fighters’.

The Ukrainian state has faced a number of secessionist movements but the policy advocated by Lenin in dealing with such movements by offering the right of secession in order to forge democratic unity, as the best grounds for uniting its working class, has been rejected. When Ukrainian nationalism has demanded self-determination it has ignored its own responsibility to defend consistent democracy within the territory it claims.  Instead, it has moved further and further into alliance with the world’s greatest enemy of equality between nations – US imperialism and its NATO alliance.

In sum, there is no democratic content to Ukrainian nationalism and it cannot be defended.  If it currently wields hegemony, this is not only the responsibility of the far-right in the country, or the oligarchic and political factions who solidify their position with its support, but also due to the reactionary policy of the Russian state. This state can offer no democratic alternative because it too is headed by a corrupt and reactionary nationalist regime.  Between two such regimes the ‘instinctive and automatic rush to reach for the policy of self-determination of nations in order to justify the decision to support one side’, as explained in a previous post, is a betrayal of the working class of both nations.

The liberation of the Ukrainian working class will not be achieved in alliance with US imperialism, which is forging the strongest chains for this class through its superior economic and military power.  The utter dependency of Ukraine and its nationalists on US policy has now been firmly entrenched by the massive armed and associated financial support of the US.  Through this war Ukrainian nationalism has definitively made its country a client of the United States; so much for the promise of nationalism. 

Only by a struggle against this can the freedom of the Ukrainian working class be achieved, including in the East and South of the country, and only in conjunction with neighbouring countries including Russia.  This cannot be achieved by the US and NATO which seeks the permanent submission of Ukraine through radical diminution and debasement of Russia.

*                                  *                                  *

Unfortunately, some on the Ukrainian left acknowledge the reactionary character of US imperialism – ‘In this conflict, Russia can in no way be considered a different project than the US and the rest of the capitalist powers’ – but go on to frame the war as a purely anti-colonial struggle, with Russia as the imperial power.  ‘Ukraine needs to decolonize and de-Russify’, which neglects to explain how unity of the Ukrainian working class, including ethnic Russian workers with divided political loyalties, can be advanced.

Lip service is paid to ‘the centrality of Ukraine’s fight for independence from both Russian and Western Imperial domination’, and the war is presented as an ‘existential’ one for Ukrainians’ ‘very existence’, with war aims including the incorporation of Crimea and the Russian controlled Donbas republics under Kyiv rule.  Lenin’s policy of seeking unity through the right to secession isn’t on the table and the Ukrainian right to self-determination has simply become an example of the ‘refined nationalism’ that he warned against.

The article is therefore full of references to historic Russian oppression while defending Ukrainian ‘agency’ and ‘subjectivity’, all the while forgetting that it is now an independent state with its own capitalist structure and dynamics.  The war is framed as a national struggle, just as it is presented in the West; the war aims supported are those of the most rabid US neocon, and the current means of struggle by its capitalist state are endorsed.  How the war is understood, the appropriate war aims and means of struggle supported by Yuliya Yurchenko are the same as that of Western imperialism. 

What we have then is not a policy that will combat the most rabid forms of Ukrainian nationalism, which Yurchenko accepts is a real problem, even admitting the ‘risk [of] confirming Putin’s obscene lie that we are a nation of bigots and fascists.’  What it proposes is an idea that Ukrainian nationalism can be made progressive.  The problem with this is threefold.

First, Ukrainian nationalism is already presented as progressive in a very objective sense, although by no means only that, through the ‘spirit of collective solidarity’ that the war has inspired.  This is despite her acknowledgement that previous democratic protests and mobilisations have only led to the strengthening of different oligarchic factions and the far-right. She claims that ‘Russia’s invasion has stirred up a healthy degree of Ukrainian nationalism.’

Second, the view that a healthy nationalism can arise from the war understood in existential national terms is simply beyond any credible belief.  This is especially the case since Yurchenko’s war policy, being the same as the most reactionary nationalist, promises a ‘long fight’, one that can therefore be guaranteed to build up massive bitterness and resentment. The policy of reliance on imperialism and domestic austerity necessary to finance it, coupled with opposition to the right of minorities to secede, means that nothing progressive could emerge from such a war, unless it provoked a revolt against it and the policy behind it.  But Yurchenko is not proposing that.

Lastly, the idea that any sort of nationalism, however ‘healthy’, could be the cause that would carry the Ukrainian working class forward is simply absurd for the reasons enumerated in the previous paragraph.  Nothing in the answers given in Yurchenko’s interview indicates any strategy to expose the role of US imperialism or that of domestic capitalist and bourgeois political forces in bringing this war to the Ukrainian working class.  The war, she says, was ‘a completely unprovoked attack.’ Nothing about the moves towards joining NATO or the repeated attacks on the break-away regions in the Donbas. Nothing to indicate that the Ukrainian working class has separate interests in the war from its rulers.

‘Compromise’ is rejected and the Minsk peace process merely ‘so-called’ and also rejected.  There is no acknowledgement of any Ukrainian state responsibility for the failure.  Instead ‘we will not settle for anything less than the reunification and independence of Ukraine.’  How this can happen through subordination to the US and NATO is something she is no more able to explain that the rest of the Ukrainian nationalist spectrum.

Capitulation to nationalism means avoiding assignment of any responsibility, and hence any opposition, to domestic capitalism and its rotten state.

Ukrainian nationalism does not find any democratic content that justifies any defence of it just because some on the left support it, portray it as democratic, or think they can make it so.

Yurchenko declares that ‘the international left must put its decolonial hat on in thinking about Ukraine’; in other words, put on its blinkers and accept the progressiveness of a war backed by US imperialism, the corrupt Ukrainian capitalist state, and the ‘best fighters’ of the ‘Ukrainian resistance’–the fascists of the Azov regiment.

Whoever thinks there is any democratic content in this nationalist melange is irretrievably lost to the struggle for socialism.

Back to part 3

Forward to part 5

3 Lenin Against Nationalism

In the previous post we noted that capitalism extends itself across the globe, leading to both bigger capitals and bigger states and then to international economic and political organisation.  Inevitably small capitals and small nations suffer.  This does not mean that socialists seek to halt or reverse such processes.

Within the Great Russian Empire, with its prison house of peoples, Lenin advocated the closest relations between its nations and the united organisation of the working class movement.  In his article ‘Corrupting the Workers with Refined Nationalism’ he states that:

‘Marxists, stand, not only for the most complete, consistent and fully applied equality of nations and languages, but also for the amalgamation of the workers of the different nationalities in united proletarian organisations of every kind.’

How far this is from some of today’s ‘Marxists’ can be seen in their championing of the likes of Scottish nationalism or Catalan nationalism.  Where Lenin argued that socialists should demonstrate their proletarian internationalism through membership of united organisations, these left nationalists have demonstrated their nationalism by leading the way in splitting their own organisations along nationalist lines.

Lenin emphasises the need for unity in ‘On the National Pride of the Great Russians’:

“No nation can be free if it oppresses other nations,” said Marx and Engels, the greatest representatives of consistent nineteenth century democracy, who became the teachers of the revolutionary proletariat. And, full of a sense of national pride, we Great-Russian workers want, come what may, a free and independent, a democratic, republican and proud Great Russia, one that will base its relations with its neighbours on the human principle of equality, and not on the feudalist principle of privilege, which is so degrading to a great nation.’

‘Just because we want that, we say: it is impossible, in the twentieth century and in Europe (even in the far east of Europe), to “defend the fatherland” otherwise than by using every revolutionary means to combat the monarchy, the landowners and the capitalists of one’s own fatherland, i.e., the worst enemies of our country.’ 

‘We say that the Great Russians cannot “defend the fatherland” otherwise than by desiring the defeat of tsarism in any war, this as the lesser evil to nine-tenths of the inhabitants of Great Russia. For tsarism not only oppresses those nine-tenths economically and politically, but also demoralises, degrades, dishonours and prostitutes them by teaching them to oppress other nations and to cover up this shame with hypocritical and quasi-patriotic phrases.’

It is not necessary to endorse Lenin’s remarks about ‘desiring defeat’ or ‘lesser evil’ to appreciate the motivation of absolute opposition to the nationalism of Great Russia; the nationalism that lives on today in the pronouncements of Vladimir Putin but which is ideological garb draped over the body of the Russian state and oligarchic capitals that it is designed to protect.

Just as Marx supported the development of united nation states such as Germany and Italy, because this involved the internal overthrow of reactionary feudal privileges and restrictions, so he opposed national oppression within nations and looked to the progressive social forces within the oppressed and oppressor nations to achieve this free unity and benefit from it.  Lenin in this article mentions the ‘freedom and national independence for Ireland in the interests of the socialist movement of the British workers.’

The idea that in Ukraine any positive nationalist programme could issue from a corrupt capitalist state, one more and more the supplicant of US imperialism, and this spearheaded by its ‘best fighters’ who are fascists, shows the drastic illusions consuming many on the left. 

In relation to his opposition to Great Russian chauvinism, Lenin said that:

‘The objection may be advanced that, besides tsarism and under its wing, another historical force has arisen and become strong, viz., Great-Russian capitalism, which is carrying on progressive work by economically centralising and welding together vast regions. This objection, however, does not excuse, but on the contrary still more condemns our socialist-chauvinists . . .’

‘Let us even assume that history will decide in favour of Great-Russian dominant-nation capitalism, and against the hundred and one small nations. That is not impossible, for the entire history of capital is one of violence and plunder, blood and corruption. We do not advocate preserving small nations at all costs; other conditions being equal, we are decidedly for centralisation and are opposed to the petty-bourgeois ideal of federal relationships.’

He goes on to say that this does not mean supporting the capitalist political forces that promote this economic development.  However, it also means we do not seek to reverse it either.

In ‘The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination’ Lenin states that:

‘The Russian proletariat cannot march at the head of the people towards a victorious democratic revolution (which is its immediate task), or fight alongside its brothers, the proletarians of Europe, for a socialist revolution, without immediately demanding, fully and unreservedly, for all nations oppressed by tsarism, the freedom to secede from Russia. This we demand, not independently of our revolutionary struggle for socialism, but because this struggle will remain a hollow phrase if it is not linked up with a revolutionary approach to all questions of democracy, including the national question.’

‘We demand freedom of self-determination, i.e., independence, i.e., freedom of secession for the oppressed nations, not because we have dreamt of splitting up the country economically, or of the ideal of small states, but, on the contrary, because we want large states and the closer unity and even fusion of nations, only on a truly democratic, truly internationalist basis, which is inconceivable without the freedom to secede.’

Many of today’s ‘Marxists’ see in self-determination only separation and not the objective of unity.  They see the creation of new states where Lenin saw the unification of nationalities.  They think the right to secede mean support for secession when it is the means to provide guarantees to unification.  They think self-determination is only expressed by separation and creation of a new capitalist state when for Lenin it was the means for ensuring voluntary unity and the avoidance of such an outcome. Lenin advocated this policy even in the case of colonies.

In A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism Lenin writes that:

‘We demand from our governments that they quit the colonies, or, to put it in precise political terms rather than in agitational outcries—that they grant the colonies full freedom of secession, the genuine right to self-determination, and we ourselves are sure to implement this right, and grant this freedom, as soon as we capture power.’

‘We demand this from existing governments, and will do this when we are the government, not in order to “recommend” secession, but, on the contrary, in order to facilitate and accelerate the democratic association and merging of nations. We shall exert every effort to foster association and merger with the Mongolians, Persians, Indians, Egyptians. We believe it is our duty and in our interest to do this, for otherwise socialism in Europe will not be secure.’ 

‘We shall endeavour to render these nations, more backward and oppressed than we are, “disinterested cultural assistance”, to borrow the happy expression of the Polish Social-Democrats. In other words, we will help them pass to the use of machinery, to the lightening of labour, to democracy, to socialism.’

‘If we demand freedom of secession for the Mongolians, Persians, Egyptians and all other oppressed and unequal nations without exception, we do so not because we favour secession, but only because we stand for free, voluntary association and merging as distinct from forcible association. That is the only reason!’

The failure of Russia to offer a powerful and attractive example to Ukraine lies behind its turn towards invasion to substitute for this failure.  Undoubtedly this has divided the Ukrainian people themselves whose attempts to clean their own stables have been frustrated time and time again by oligarchic factions.

Through some of these factions the country has been turned towards the EU and NATO, membership of which its oligarchs and bourgeois political parties have attempted to impose even when the majority of the people have opposed it.  So, an unconstitutional Government signed an EU Association agreement and IMF loans, with their consequent massive implications for austerity, without any elections following the Maidan overthrow of the previous Yanukovych Government. The prime minister responsible, Yatsenyuk, admitted that “I will be the most unpopular prime minister in the history of my country . . .’

Three weeks before the ouster of Yanukovych the most popular opposition figure was Klitschko with a poll rating of 28.7% while Yatsenyuk didn’t even reach 3%.  Yatsenyuk however had the support of the United States, whose plans to put him in place were famously discussed in the leaked phone-call between US Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the US ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt days before formation of the post-Maidan regime. 

The current divisions within Ukraine are not simply externally imposed but prove the failure and hypocrisy of nationalist claims to further national unity and oppose foreign interference.  In February 2017 a Gallop opinion poll recorded that more Ukrainians considered NATO a threat than a protection.  Nevertheless, the Ukrainian Government changed the constitution in 2019 to add a stipulation on “the strategic course” of Ukraine toward NATO membership.

This course has played no small part in causing the current massive escalation of war and making Ukraine utterly dependent on US imperialism, exposing all calls for defence of this state and its regime on the grounds of self-determination to be deceitful lies.

It is ironic that this subordination to the United States has been accompanied by, and is the product of, the growth of Ukrainian ultra-nationalism, proving that Lenin was right to warn that bourgeois nationalism will happily ally with external imperialism while demanding sacrifice from its own people.  This nationalism disguised as ‘self-determination’ has inevitably infected its left supporters in exactly the same way; we noted at the end of the previous post the absurdity of some on the left declaring that self-determination requires the ability of Ukraine to decide its own international alliances, including subordination within NATO.

The result of such subordination makes all talk of self-determination by the left while welcoming weapons from ‘anywhere’ – read NATO – not so much utter delusion, or even mistaken, but treacherous betrayal.  Having invited the US to determine the outcome of the war does this left really pretend the US will not determine the outcome of the peace? 

Back to part 2

Forward to part 4

2 What Lenin did not mean by self-determination of nations

In Ireland it has been common to hear left-wing nationalists claim that Marxists support the nationalism of oppressed nations.

In ‘Critical Remarks on the National Question’, quoted in the previous post Lenin writes:

‘The principle of nationality is historically inevitable in bourgeois society and, taking this society into due account, the Marxist fully recognises the historical legitimacy of national movements. But to prevent this recognition from becoming an apologia of nationalism, it must be strictly limited to what is progressive in such movements, in order that this recognition may not lead to bourgeois ideology obscuring proletarian consciousness.’

‘The awakening of the masses from feudal lethargy, and their struggle against all national oppression, for the sovereignty of the people, of the nation, are progressive. Hence, it is the Marxist’s bounden duty to stand for the most resolute and consistent democratism on all aspects of the national question. This task is largely a negative one. But this is the limit the proletariat can go to in supporting nationalism, for beyond that begins the “positive” activity of the bourgeoisie striving to fortify nationalism.’

‘To throw off the feudal yoke, all national oppression, and all privileges enjoyed by any particular nation or language, is the imperative duty of the proletariat as a democratic force, and is certainly in the interests of the proletarian class struggle, which is obscured and retarded by bickering on the national question. But to go beyond these strictly limited and definite historical limits in helping bourgeois nationalism means betraying the proletariat and siding with the bourgeoisie. There is a border-line here, which is often very slight and which the Bundists and Ukrainian nationalist-socialists completely lose sight of.’

‘Combat all national oppression? Yes, of course! Fight for any kind of national development, for “national culture” in general? — Of course not. The economic development of capitalist society presents us with examples of immature national movements all over the world, examples of the formation of big nations out of a number of small ones, or to the detriment of some of the small ones, and also examples of the assimilation of nations.’

‘The development of nationality in general is the principle of bourgeois nationalism; hence the exclusiveness of bourgeois nationalism, hence the endless national bickering. The proletariat, however, far from undertaking to uphold the national development of every nation, on the contrary, warns the masses against such illusions, stands for the fullest freedom of capitalist intercourse and welcomes every kind of assimilation of nations, except that which is founded on force or privilege.’

So we see the progressiveness of nationalism, as the political framework for the development of capitalism against feudal restrictions, but not as support for capitalist states or their various nationalisms that develop thereafter.  Thereafter, the development of capitalism creates a working class with the interests of this class the same across national borders and therefore opposed to the division of the class that nationalism entails.

Support for nationalism beyond the negative sense of opposition to national oppression is to capitulate to bourgeois nationalism.  Support against national oppression is limited to what is progressive in any nationalist movement and although there may be a border-line between this and betraying the working class to bourgeois nationalism, what we have in the approach of much of the left today is an instinctive and automatic rush to reach for the policy of self-determination of nations in order to justify the decision to support one state in any particular conflict.

Lenin’s ‘formula’ of self-determination of nations has been carried forward as the key to unlocking any national issue without regard to its historical limitation and by ignoring Lenin’s explicit subordination of this justification to the determining interests of the working class.  

Instead of the unity of the working class coming first, the demand for self-determination for a particular nation is placed beforehand, with the assumption that this leads to the former.  Since the demand for self-determination is a bourgeois democratic demand it cannot even on its own terms be seen to lead to the unity of the working class.  We have countless historical examples of self-determination being enacted through creation of new nation states with capitalist social relations and no progressive working class unity established.

Supporters of ‘Ukraine’ have, for example, said that ‘the people of Ukraine must be allowed to exercise freely their right to democratic self-determination, without any military or economic pressure’.  This has been accompanied with calls to cancel Ukraine’s foreign debt – ‘it is important in ensuring that, when they have reconquered their independence, Ukrainians won’t be even more dependent on creditors or domestic oligarchs over whom they have no control.’

But we have demonstrated that the demand for self-determination is not only not applicable to an independent country like Ukraine in this war, but is a capitulation to bourgeois nationalism, with the long quote above demonstrating why.

As Lenin says – self-determination is not support for anything other than the right to secede and form an independent state, and in doing so to reject feudal or dynastic chains such as were forged by the Tsarist, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires.  This will allow for the free development of capitalism by that particular state.  It is no job of socialists to uphold that state’s capitalist economic development that is built on the exploitation of workers, except in so far as we welcome this development by its creation of a working class that will overthrow it, and which more and more removes national differences.  It is therefore, not our job to seek to constrain such development through reactionary political projects such as Brexit or splitting already established states, such as Britain.

When left nationalists welcome that ‘Ukrainians’ have ‘reconquered their independence’ but complain that foreign debt must be also be cancelled, so that they won’t be dependent on foreign creditors or domestic oligarchs, they fall exactly into the camp of bourgeois nationalism.

Firstly, the cancellation of past debt will without doubt be followed by incurring new debts, debts that will be paid from the surplus produced by Ukrainian workers who will not be free and independent of either this debt or the domestic oligarchs, who can only be disposed of through socialist revolution and not mitigation of foreign loans.  It is no job of socialists to defend the capitalist development of smaller or weaker capitalist states as if they are somehow oppressed and exploited when the real exploitation involved is class exploitation.

While, on its own, socialists will not object to the cancellation of foreign debt (but why just foreign? what would these socialists demand if the debt was gifted to domestic creditors? ) this cannot be as part of support for a programme of capitalist economic development.  To repeat, for us the development of capitalism is of benefit because it creates the working class, and its greater development objectively prepares this class for its historic task of becoming the new ruling class and undertaking the task of abolishing class altogether. 

The capitalist development of new nations inevitably involves insertion into a world system that will rob the innocent of any illusion that their nation is really independent of the forces that determine its future.  Overwhelmingly these forces are based on the interests of the most powerful states and the largest capitals.  Just as big capitals destroy small ones within the framework of their own state, these capitals get too big for the nation state and seek existence across states, creating multinational capitals and multinational para-state bodies, which determine the fortune of smaller states and smaller capitals. 

In attempting to counter such forces Lenin goes on to say that ‘Consolidating nationalism within a certain “justly” delimited sphere, “constitutionalising” nationalism, and securing the separation of all nations from one another by means of a special state institution—such is the ideological foundation and content of cultural-national autonomy. This idea is thoroughly bourgeois and thoroughly false.’

‘The proletariat cannot support any consecration of nationalism; on the contrary, it supports everything that helps to obliterate national distinctions and remove national barriers; it supports everything that makes the ties between nationalities closer and closer, or tends to merge nations. To act differently means siding with reactionary nationalist philistinism.’  This is the ground on which socialists oppose all varieties of nationalism and oppose reactionary national movements.  

In one Facebook discussion a supporter of the Ukrainian state argued that self-determination required the ability of Ukraine to decide its own international alliances.  When someone tries to argue that socialists should fight for the right of a capitalist state to join an imperialist alliance such as NATO you know you aren’t dealing with any sort of socialist, and certainly not arguing with support from Lenin’s formulation of self-determination of nations.

to be continued

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

1 What did Lenin mean by self-determination of nations?

A recurring theme of those backing the Ukrainian state in the current war is reliance on  Lenin’s support for the right of nations to self-determination.  It is the purpose of this and the following posts set out what this policy was.

In 1903 Lenin wrote ‘The National Question in Our Programme’ in which he set out its meaning to those who ‘did not find this demand sufficiently clear’, something that needs to be attempted again over a century later.

He wrote that the demand to be clarified was the “recognition of the right to self-determination for all nations forming part of the state.”  He explained it in this way:

‘The Social-Democrats will always combat every attempt to influence national self-determination from without by violence or by any injustice. However, our unreserved recognition of the struggle for freedom of self-determination does not in any way commit us to supporting every demand for national self-determination.’

‘As the party of the proletariat, the Social-Democratic Party considers it to be its positive and principal task to further the self-determination of the proletariat in each nationality rather than that of peoples or nations. We must always and unreservedly work for the very closest unity of the proletariat of all nationalities, and it is only in isolated and exceptional cases that we can advance and actively support demands conducive to the establishment of a new class state or to the substitution of a looser federal unity, etc., for the complete political unity of a state.’

The main points of this clarification of the responsibilities of the socialist party bear repeating:

  1. ‘its positive and principal task to further the self-determination of the proletariat in each nationality rather than that of peoples or nations.’
  2. ‘We must always and unreservedly work for the very closest unity of the proletariat of all nationalities.’ and
  3. ‘it is only in isolated and exceptional cases that we can advance and actively support demands conducive to the establishment of a new class state or to the substitution of a looser federal unity.’

In relation to Ukraine, it is an independent state, it is not part of a separate state so the question of whether socialists ‘can advance and actively support demands conducive to the establishment of a new class state’ does not arise.

So if this passage does not support application to it of the “recognition of the right to self-determination . . . ” in respect of Ukraine, this does not at all mean that the passage has no relevance.  For it advances the view that the ‘principal task [is] to further the self-determination of the proletariat in each nationality rather than that of peoples or nations’ and that this is to be done through seeking ‘the very closest unity of the proletariat’.

The role of this policy at the time Lenin wrote is explained in reference to the situation in Poland; that 

‘Class antagonism has now undoubtedly relegated national questions far into the background, but, without the risk of lapsing into doctrinairism, it cannot be categorically asserted that some particular national question cannot appear temporarily in the foreground of the political drama.’  

He goes on:

‘In including in its programme recognition of the right of nations to self- determination, it takes into account all possible, and even all conceivable, combinations. That programme in no way precludes the adoption by the Polish proletariat of the slogan of a free and independent Polish republic, even though the probability of its becoming a reality before socialism is introduced is infinitesimal.’

‘The programme merely demands that a genuinely socialist party shall not corrupt proletarian class-consciousness, or slur over the class struggle, or lure working class with bourgeois-democratic phrases, or break the unity of the proletariat’s present-day political struggle. This reservation is the crux of the matter, for only with this reservation do we recognise self-determination.’

Lenin may be criticised (in retrospect) for unjustified optimism on the prospects for socialism, and it is clear that the context of the class struggle affects the application of the policy, but neither of these considerations justify the widespread application of this policy today, which is used to advance the argument that Ukraine should be considered to avail of it like every other country.  Rather, the numbered priorities above renders its widespread application untenable and the particular circumstances of Ukraine, and its alliance with imperialism, render it least applicable to that country.

In general the increased economic development of previously economically backward countries; the consequent enormous development of the working class and therefore potential for class struggle, and the disappearance of nearly all colonial possessions, means that the above numbered priorities have even greater salience today.

In 1913 Lenin noted in ‘The Working Class and the National Question’ that ‘In our times the proletariat alone upholds the real freedom of nations and the unity of workers of all nations.  For different nations to live together in peace and freedom or to separate and form different states (if that is more convenient for them), a full democracy, upheld by the working class, is essential.’

This was written while Lenin believed that the coming revolution in the Tsarist Empire would create a democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants and not a socialist revolution. 

In ‘Theses on the National Question’ written in 1913 Lenin explained specifically what the programme of the Party meant: ‘The article of our programme (on the self-determination of nations) cannot be interpreted to mean anything but political self-determination, i.e., the right to secede and form a separate state.’ (emphasis added -SM)

He then went on to state its application, including considering ‘the fact that throughout Eastern Europe (Austria and the Balkans) and in Asia—i.e., in countries bordering on Russia—the bourgeois-democratic reform of the state that has everywhere else in the world led, in varying degree, to the creation of independent national states or states with the closest, interrelated national composition, has either not been consummated or has only just begun.’

This meant that socialists should ‘be unconditionally hostile to the use of force in any form whatsoever by the dominant nation (or the nation which constitutes the majority of the population) in respect of a nation that wishes to secede politically.’  Again, we can see that we are not speaking of socialists defending the prerogatives of an already independent capitalist state.

Instead Lenin warns ‘Social-Democracy, therefore, must give most emphatic warning to the proletariat and other working people of all nationalities against direct deception by the nationalistic slogans of “their own” bourgeoisie, who with their saccharine or fiery speeches about “our native land” try to divide the proletariat and divert its attention from their bourgeois intrigues while they enter into an economic and political alliance with the bourgeoisie of other nations and with the tsarist monarchy.’

In the case of Ukraine, this quote reminds one of the ‘saccharine’ and ‘fiery’ speeches of Volodymyr Zelensky and that the working people of that country are paying for the intrigues of its current ruling class and its alliance with NATO and western imperialism.  This policy has historically been against the opposition of the majority of the Ukrainian people; but it is testament to the thoroughly reactionary character of the Russian invasion and previous Russian policy that these have driven many to now support NATO membership who previously did not.  However, as Lenin notes, it is not socialist policy to absolve the Ukrainian people’s bourgeois leadership of its criminal policy never mind rally behind it.

That Lenin supported self-determination, the right to secede and form a separate state, did not mean that he favoured it, quite the contrary.  In a letter in 1913, in relation to the right to federation and autonomy, he wrote:

“Right to autonomy?” Wrong again. We are in favour of autonomy for all parts; we are in favour of the right to secession (and not in favour of everyone’s seceding!). Autonomy is our plan for organising a democratic state. Secession is not what we plan at all. We do not advocate secession. In general, we are opposed to secession.’

In ‘Critical Remarks on the National Question’, also written in 1913 Lenin writes:

‘If a Ukrainian Marxist allows himself to be swayed by his quite legitimate and natural hatred of the Great-Russian oppressors to such a degree that he transfers even a particle of this hatred, even if it be only estrangement, to the proletarian culture and proletarian cause of the Great-Russian workers, then such a Marxist will get bogged down in bourgeois nationalism. Similarly, the Great-Russian Marxist will be bogged down, not only in bourgeois, but also in Black-Hundred nationalism, if he loses sight, even for a moment, of the demand for complete equality for the Ukrainians, or of their right to forum an independent state.’

Ukraine is already an independent state, but it is not in the interests of Russian workers that the Russian state invade Ukraine in the interests of its great power pretensions, however relatively strong or weak either state may be.  Neither can the invasion be justified by reference to claims to ensure geopolitical security.  For socialists, however much they can be referenced to explain the actions of the Russian state, they in no way justify it. Socialists are not beholden to the security claims of capitalist states.  Many ordinary Russians have courageously publically opposed the war and this has been welcomed by many Ukrainians.

But this is not enough, as Lenin implies.  It is not enough for Ukrainian workers to oppose Russian aggression as some brave Russians have done. Just as these Russians have opposed their own ruling class and its state so must Ukrainians do the same and oppose their own rulers.  These rulers have quite easily whipped up the most extreme nationalist poison against everything Russian so that in the West even Russian artists and athletes have been assigned responsibility for the invasion and sanctioned.  In Ukraine itself this nationalism has gone as far as mobilising the most reactionary armed forces, including outright fascists whose hatred of all things Russian can guarantee nothing but death.

to be continued

Forward to part 2

Belfast socialists discuss Scotland after the referendum

A left non-nationalist rally in Glasgow

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     A left non-nationalist rally in Glasgow

Last night I went to a meeting organised by the Irish Socialist Network (ISN) on Scotland after the referendum in the Realta Centre in Belfast.  The speaker was Colm Breathnach, who is Irish and a former member of the ISN but is now living in Scotland

He said at the start that he was not going to go over the pros and cons of the vote but look at the situation now.  In fact a lot of what he had to say was about the pros and cons of the referendum campaign and his impressions of it, and particularly of the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) , of which he is a supporter.

He enthused about the activity of what he called this ‘mass movement’ the like of which he had not seen or been involved in before.  It was described as a grass-roots progressive campaign that effectively led the Yes campaign in the referendum and dragged it, and thereby the SNP, to the left.

He supported independence because it gave the working class a ‘better terrain’ on which to fight.  He gave a consistently positive and enthusiastic account of the pro-independence movement and of his impressions of those involved.  He criticised the fear spread among workers by the No campaign while acknowledging that their fear of the consequences of independence was at least partly justified.  He claimed the independence movement was a reflection of progressive working class politics while also acknowledging that a lot of working class people voted No.

He claimed to have no illusions in the SNP but his criticisms of it were muted, very muted in fact, and he didn’t find it necessary to provide any clear characterisation of the nature of that party. His attitude to the Labour Party on the other hand was scathing – a ‘husk’ that no one progressive could possibly support.

He rejected the charge that the left in Scotland were following reactionary nationalism and told me, it was me who put this to him, that I hadn’t been listening to what he had said.  The Yes campaign had been about the vision of a new fairer society and not about national identity or nationalism.

The debate therefore started and ended where it might have been expected to – impressions of a movement for independence that wasn’t nationalist and an incredulous denial that the campaign for a separate state had been a nationalist one.  Weren’t there different sorts of nationalism anyway e.g. British nationalism and Palestinian nationalism?  They weren’t all the same.  He was in favour of internationalism and working class solidarity and unity among Scottish, English and other European workers.

He said accusingly, that if I wanted the Scottish, Welsh and English working class to be united in one state why wouldn’t I want the Irish to be included as well?  Why wouldn’t I be in favour of the Irish Republic rejoining Britain?

Oh my god!  If ever an argument could be expected to crush opposition to nationalism (or whatever it is) in front of an audience from a republican background this was it!  How on earth could anyone succumb to a view that had this as its logical conclusion?

All this was at the end of the meeting so there was no opportunity to reply.  I’m glad however I have a blog.

Listening to a speaker it can be very easy to follow their stream of argument without noticing the holes and contradictions within it, especially if one hasn’t got a strong and considered view on it already.  But surely I cannot have been alone in wondering why it was necessary to claim there are different sorts of nationalism when the Yes campaign was very, very definitely not a nationalist one.

Surely it was noticed that the claim he wanted unity among Scottish, English and Welsh workers sat in flat contradiction to the view that he very definitely didn’t want them all to coexist in the one state. Was this not privileging the interests of separate (capitalist) states over the unity of the working class irrespective of nationality?  Well that’s how it looked to me.

I heard echoes of the view that working class unity among nationalities is possible without their being in the one state but the ridiculous argument that being inside one state doesn’t makes this easier was not advanced in justification. Instead I was asked why I supported the existence of the British state formation, the implication being that one formation of capitalist states is as good as another (although the implications of this for the demand for a separate Scottish state were probably furthest from the speaker’s thoughts).

I would have replied, had I the opportunity, that the British State has the advantage of already existing and containing within it a voluntary union of nationalities; that socialists are in favour of the voluntary union of nationalities; that the working class in Britain is united in one labour movement irrespective of nationality with a long tradition that includes exemplary struggle and that, yes ,this should even include the Irish if such unity could be voluntary and on the basis of equality.  That is, there would be an absence of the national oppression that has characterised previous and current British rule in Ireland and that has been absent from relations with Scotland except in relation to the latter’s role as oppressor

There is nothing special about the form of the British state in achieving this except that nationalist division would be a backward step away from it.  If the British state proved a barrier to wider unity on a continental state then calling for its supersession would be progressive.  In any case the creation of a European working class movement is required and every step in defeating nationalist division is to be welcomed.

None of this would have convinced the speaker because for him the British working class does not exist.

I put it to him that when I used to live in Scotland in the 1970s the Left in Scotland opposed Scottish nationalism as reactionary and it now supports this nationalism, but that this support does not make it progressive.  He said things had changed.  And so they have, in the way I have just described.

I also put it to him that the rise of Scottish nationalism had divided the British working class and divided the working class in Scotland.  The demand for independence if successful would mean dividing the British working class movement including its trade unions.  It was in reply to this that I was told that the British working class doesn’t exist ‘except in some peoples’ heads.’

This is no doubt why left supporters of Scottish separation hardly ever consider the unity of the British working class or factor it into their analysis.  It’s much simpler to pretend it simply doesn’t exist. We have had this argument on the blog before.

What we might have expected was some explanation of why socialists should support a separate Scottish state.  Providing a ‘better terrain’ was as much as we got, yet no one thought to ask what this meant or, more bluntly – is that it?

All in all I didn’t learn anything new from the meeting but most of the participants will at least have been exposed to some of the arguments and will have found it in some way informative.  The meeting was therefore a modest success.

I had however hoped that I would have learned more, which is why at the start of the meeting I asked some questions.

Colm said during his speech that he accepted the result of the referendum so I asked him what he meant by this and in order to explain what I meant by asking him this I said did he accept it as an exercise in self-determination by the Scottish people.

In reply he said that in saying he accepted it he meant he did not go along with the conspiracy theorists who claimed the result had been the subject of fraud, as some nationalists have claimed. But he asked what I meant by the question to which I explained – did he think the referendum was a legitimate exercise of self-determination?  His answer was less than clear.

He criticised the pro-union bias of the media – the newspapers and particularly the coverage of the BBC in Scotland.  The bias of the media is not new but such bias is a part of what Marxists call bourgeois democracy and the referendum was a part of this democracy.  He did not address the real point of the question and by failing to do so he and the nationalist movement consciously or unconsciously avoid its implications.  That is the implications of having lost.

The point of the question was to elicit his view whether, in saying he ‘accepted’ the result, he was accepting that the Scottish people had been given the opportunity to freely exercise self-determination and had done so by supporting union within the UK state.  Many nationalists appear to believe that self-determination only exists if it results in a separate state, as if determining one’s future only takes place when you vote the way they like.

The very non-committal answer showed an unwillingness to accept that the referendum was a legitimate exercise in self determination that should be accepted as such.  Whatever grounds for demanding separation exist they can not therefore include the claim that the Scottish people have not been given the opportunity to freely vote for ‘independence’ and were thereby subject to some form of national oppression. In this respect the answer showed that the left supporters of separation appeared no more inclined to really accept the result than the broader nationalist movement.  In doing so they ignore the implications for what they do next.

And this was my next question.  I asked what the strategy of the left supporters of independence was now?  Did they still hold that independence was necessary for the working class to move forward?  Or did his claim that this was really not a nationalist movement but a movement for social justice mean they would fight austerity without also requiring unity around independence?

Would they recognise that the austerity offensive from the Government in London is enforced by the Scottish Government, just as it is being enforced in the North of Ireland by Stormont, and seek unity with English and Welsh workers to oppose it?  Or would they seek to fight alone, so unnecessarily weakening themselves and the rest of the British working class?

I got a very unclear answer which involved acknowledging that whether the demand for independence was a high or low priority would be determined.  He was still strongly in favour of it.

Since the immediate requirement is to fight austerity and a new referendum is not immediately on the cards the prevarication revealed the divisiveness of the nationalist project.  In practice this means continued division of the British working class, which the nationalists appear to think doesn’t exist but the Condem Government is screwing nevertheless.

Repeatedly the speaker said that the Radical Independence Campaign was not a nationalist movement but he admitted that half of its supporters were members of the SNP, which has grown very significantly since the referendum.  They will no doubt campaign for and vote for this party.  The SNP is riding high and is reaping the benefits of relative success in the referendum.  Majorities in favour of ‘independence’ were recorded in Glasgow, Dundee and many other mainly working class areas.

Only by being unclear about what the SNP is; only by denying that a separate state is a nationalist and divisive demand and only by failing to recognise the harm this does to a united working class response to austerity can this be seen as in any way progressive.  Nationalism is what was on offer in the referendum and nationalism is what many voted for regardless of what they thought they were doing.  Colm mentioned false consciousness in his speech but didn’t properly identify who was falling victim to it.

Already figures on the Left are calling for a vote for the SNP at the next election.  The same SNP that colluded with the Tories when first entering into government in Scotland.  The same SNP that repeatedly accused the Labour Party of cuddling up to the Tories in the No campaign and the same SNP whose leader was such an ally of Rupert Murdoch.

This makes perfect sense if, as much of the Left appears to believe, ‘independence’ is the indispensable condition for progress.  The left voting for a right wing, pro-capitalist, pro neo-liberal party is the result of its collapse into nationalism.  Going by the meeting there is precious little sign of re-evaluation

Scotland is different II

Image

 

IMG_0333a

the-england-scotland-border-thornaby-on-tees

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Is there a Scottish Road to Socialism?’, edited by Gregor Gall, Scottish Left Review press, 2007.

‘Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose’, edited by Gregor Gall, Scottish Left Review press, 2013

My sister received a leaflet from the local Scottish Socialist Party branch opposing the bedroom tax and saying it would be abolished by independence.  It also announced a meeting which would show Ken Loach’s film ‘Spirit of ‘45’, which records the famous victory of the Labour Party in the 1945 election.

It is therefore ironic to note that the Labour vote in 1945 in Scotland was not very different from the rest of the UK. One observer noted that “The most Conservative of the big British cities is – Glasgow!  And it did so by staying as it was before.  London is far “redder” than Glasgow” (quoted in ‘The Strange Death of Labour Scotland’, p. 205).

When one considers that the only party ever to get an overall majority of the vote in a Scottish election is the Conservative Party in 1955 a claim for Scotland’s necessary or intrinsic progressiveness looks pretty weak.  At this time many Scottish workers voted Conservative, the party having a membership of 250,000, and many were infected by Orange, anti-Catholic sectarianism.  This strain in Scottish society has of course very much diminished but it has not at all disappeared.

Historically Scotland was a stronghold of the Liberal Party; in the19th century it won a majority of the vote in every of the 20 elections held between 1832 and 1910.  Trade unions developed earlier in England and Scottish workers were lower paid and considered more docile.  This may have built a head of steam for ‘Red Clydeside’ before, during and after World War 1, on which rests to a significant degree Scotland’s reputation for workers’ militancy.

However the main burden of the argument for a more left wing Scotland rests on the domination of the Labour Party in Scotland for most of the last 50 years.  In 1959 the Conservative Party was still ahead of Labour but in the 1966 election Labour won 49.9%, the highest it was to achieve.

Subsequently the dominance of the Party relied more and more on the first-past-the-post electoral system and the limitations of its support were masked somewhat by the decline in the Conservatives, with that party being negatively affected by the electoral system.   So in the 1992 Westminster election the Tories gained over one quarter of the vote but only 11 (15%) of the seats.  In the following 1997 election its vote was 17.5% but it won no seats.  The decline of Labour is reflected in the fact that its vote in Glasgow in 2011 was less than 24% of its vote in that city in 1951 and this is only partly explained by the decline of the city itself.

The Labour Party was never the ‘national’ party of Scotland not only because its strength was essentially regional, for example it only won Edinburgh for the first time in 1984, but because the country’s class differences meant that it would have been very difficult for any single party to play this role.  It is this role that the SNP now hopes to take up but it can only succeed if class distinctions are buried.  Victory in the referendum would help such a project.

Two authors put the strength of the Labour Party in Scotland down to the relatively large role of council housing, the size of the trade union movement in Scotland and the political patronage of the Labour Party in local government.  They contrast this with the relative low membership of the Scottish party, which has generally been on the decline since the 1950s; its weak organisation, limited resources and relative lack of ideological ferment.

The decline in the three pillars of Labour is pretty dramatic: council housing fell from 54.4% of all homes in 1979 to 15.1% in 2005.  Trade union membership fell from 55% of the Scottish workforce in 1980 to 39.2% in 1991 and 32.2% in 2010.

Its power base in local councils has also declined.  In 1980 it won 45.4% of the vote, getting 494 councillors elected out of 1,182 seats and winning 24 out of 53 district councils while in the proportional vote election in 2007 it won only 28.1% of the vote, only 348 out of 1,222 seats and only 2 councils.  This decline has run parallel with nepotism and corruption scandals damaging the party but revealing the rotten underbelly of municipal state ‘socialism’.

Some of these trends are not unique to Scotland.  English council housing fell from a peak of 29% of homes in 1975 to 18% in 1985.  Trade union membership across the UK fell from a density of 55.4% in 1979 to 23.5% in 2009.  In English local government Labour had 9,630 out of 20,380 councillors (47.3%) in 1979 falling to 3,743 out of 18,216 (20.5%) in 2009. It controlled 169 out of 386 councils in 1998 (43.8%) and only 33 out of 351 in 2009 (9.4%).

Scotland has a proud history of working class struggle from Red Clydeside to the 16 month Upper Clyde Shipbuilders occupation beginning in 1971, to the 103 day sit-in in the Caterpillar plant in Uddingston in 1987 and the occupation of Timex in Dundee in 1993.  All this is something to learn from and share with workers from every other country as part of the international struggle of the working class, not a claim to some special badge of righteousness on which to pin a nationalist programme.

These can be seen as proud episodes in working class struggle within Scotland and Britain but they should not be placed within some supposed innate Scottish empathy with the oppressed that contrasts a Scottish “desire for fairness and justice” to the English ”ideological base”. (‘Scotland’s Road to Socialism, Time to Choose’, p. 34)  The Scottish working class never developed, even at the height of its militancy, a separate mass working class party or an autonomous political programme.  The story of the Scottish working class movement is inextricably linked with that of the British working class movement as a whole.  Within this framework each nation’s socialists can be proud of the history of revolt against oppression in their own particular country.

So while Scottish socialists can be proud of Red Clydeside, so English socialists can be proud of the Peasants Revolt, the Putney Debates, the Peterloo massacre, the Tolpuddle Martyrs,  the General Strike in 1926, Saltley Gate, Grunwick and  the heroic miners strikes in England, Wales and Scotland.

This is the history of the fight against exploitation and oppression that socialists across Britain should see as reference points in the fight for working class unity across the three nations.

Such an appreciation of the British class struggle would allow comparisons to be drawn between today’s referendum and previous elections.  In February 1974 the Tory Party in Government called an election in the wake of the miners’ strike under the slogan ‘Who Governs Britain?’ and after another election in October it was clear that is wasn’t the Tories when a new Labour Government was elected.  Today the independence referendum does not arise on the cusp of working class struggle in Scotland but is timed more to coincide with the 700th anniversary of a medieval battle.

A final argument can be put that, even if Scotland is not materially more left wing or progressive, left leadership can make the independence movement a progressive agent of change.  This is supported by the fact that supporters of independence, it is argued, are disproportionately left wing: “. . . the vast majority of support for independence in Scotland comes from the most progressive sections of society – young people and workers in Scotland’s larger town and cities.  On the other hand, who do we find lined up to support the British state?  The elderly (!), the wealthy, and those whose business and political interests mean that they have most to lose from the break up of the British state – in other words, the most conservative and reactionary elements of Scottish society.” (Is there a Scottish Road to socialism? p 53)

All three independent Scottish parties are on the political left and “believe in Scottish democracy” and Scottish nationalism now plays “a much more progressive role in recent decades”. (Is there a Scottish Road to socialism? p 48 & 52).  The SNP election programme contains “anti-imperialist pledges” it is claimed. (Time to Choose p. 36)

On the other hand even some supporters of independence would presumably regard this latter remark as nonsense, as the SNP “are a pro-capitalist party who favour neoliberal corporate control.” (Time to Choose p. 89)

Against the claim that the pro-independence support is relatively more left-wing others have argued that “only a minority of working people in Scotland currently support independence and most independence supporters do not have strongly socialist perspectives”.  The “programmatic demands and slogans of the main pro-independence party, the SNP, are likely to weaken rather than strengthen attitudes of working class solidarity in the process of any independence struggle.” (p 92)  Another author records an opinion poll which shows that of those supporting independence in 2002 46% were ‘left’ and 48% ‘centre/right’. (Is there a Scottish Road to socialism? P. 35)

Irrespective of left hopes of political leadership of the independence movement, it is the SNP which dominates in the real world.  Those claiming that a left leadership can make all the difference need to explain how this works in reverse when this is not the case. Does right wing leadership not rob the demand for independence of progressive content if left leadership is necessary?

It is also the base of the SNP which is the bedrock  of the independence vote – “elements of the new middle class, small businesses, unorganised sections of the working class, and nouveau riche ‘entrepreneurs’”. (Time to Choose p. 16)

Use of rather nebulous descriptions such as ‘left’, ‘right’ and ‘centre’ allows all sorts of violence to political principle to be perpetrated.  What matters is the objective significance of a political programme and practice. A demand becomes socialist not because a left wing movement takes it up.  It is equally logically possible that the Scottish left is less socialist for its championing of nationalism.

It is not what people think they are that matters but the objective meaning of their political programme.  Many women will be familiar with the guy who walks into a bar thinking he’s god’s gift to the opposite sex . . . Because parts of the left take up a cause it must therefore be progressive or correct needs to be demonstrated; it does not by itself stand as proof of anything.

The British working class – including its Scottish component – has suffered from ‘Thatcherism’ and the political retreat that this has engendered.  The rise of nationalism amongst much of the Scottish left is the product of this defeat as its rise is hardly conceivable without it.

This is not at all surprising.  What would be surprising would be that Scottish workers somehow resisted this shift, not by sticking to their traditional politics, but by embracing nationalism.

Were Scottish workers really so different, more radical and militant, this would be reflected in their ability to lead the rest of the British working class in resisting what is called neoliberalism.  The left case for independence has arisen because it has been unable to do so not because it is – uniquely within these islands – in a position to play this role.

This failure has led to, for some, a collapse into narrow nationalism while pretending that somehow Scotland is more left wing.  We will come to the proposed strategy that arises from this in the next post on the independence referendum.

 

Scotland is different

_72456913_signreuters,jpg

 

In my first post on the Scottish referendum debate I noted that the Yes campaign appeared to be offering something positive  while the No campaign was involved in almost purely negative rhetoric.  This is also how it appears in the left case for Scottish separation.  This argues that a Yes vote will open up a Scottish road, if not to socialism, then to a place that brings the possibility of achieving socialism much nearer.

There are two parts to this assertion.  First that Scotland is in some senses more left wing than England (Wales it would seem, unfortunately, doesn’t really count) and secondly that ‘independence’ would free Scotland, the Scottish people or the Scottish working class, to make advances to socialism.  Sometimes socialism is framed in terms of a kind of Scandinavian social democracy and sometimes in more radical terms.

Let’s take these claims one by one.

First that Scotland is more left wing, radical or in some way more egalitarian; a more fertile ground for socialism if separated from the rest of Britain.

Marxists believe that the ideas in peoples’ heads arise not simply from within their heads, from preformed views, but are a result of their interaction with the world around them, particularly their interaction with fellow human beings, through the way that the society in which they live is structured.  One fundamental way society is structured is how people cooperate to produce the means by which they survive and prosper, or otherwise.  This involves the creation of classes and even when not class conscious workers’ views of the world are heavily imprinted by the fact that they see the world as workers.

This means that if Scottish workers are in some fundamental sense more egalitarian or progressive this should be reflected in Scottish society. This does not mean that there is any one-to-one correlation between the economic and social structure of society and the politics expressed in that society but if there was a strong and persistent egalitarian politics within Scotland while its society was not otherwise very different from, say England, this would require some explanation, especially since both have existed under the same state and both with a similar relationship to that state.

Inequality is high in the UK relative to other OECD countries, ranked 7th out of 35.  Inequality in Scotland is lower than it is in the rest of the UK, a result of particularly high inequality in London, resulting in inequality in Scotland being roughly equivalent to the median level of the OECD.  Tax and social transfers by the UK state are slightly more redistributive than other OECD states but not particularly high given the higher initial level of inequality.

Inequality has been rising in the OECD countries for the past few decades and particularly in the 1980s and 1990s in the UK, although it has been rising at a much slower rate since.  In the OECD however it grew much more quickly in this latter period and even more so in the Nordic countries that the SNP and some on the left see as the model to emulate.

The level and worsening trend of inequality in Scotland is therefore very similar to that of the rest of the UK outside London.  The richest 1% of Scotland’s adult population earned 6.3% of total pre-tax income in 1997 and 9.4% in 2009.  In Sweden the richest 1% increased its share to 9%.

This growing failure of the Nordic countries is a result of growing basic inequality in these countries and a reduction in effectiveness of redistributive policies.  In addition some of these Nordic countries display high levels of wealth (as opposed to income) inequality.

The authors of the report from which these figures are taken state that adoption of Nordic style redistribution policies would not result in closing the gap between Scotland and the Nordic countries given the different starting points of inequality.  That is, given the basic inequality within the economic system to begin with before tax and benefit changes involving redistribution.

The authors point out that in order to redistribute income from high earners to lower income earners you need high earners in the first place.  In other words the basic economic system must still be inequitable.  It is not a very robust socialist policy to rely on income inequality based on basic economic relationships to generate the revenue to equalise society.  It accepts this basic inequality and hopes that the rich will simply accept that they become significantly less rich despite the underlying inequality of power.

This is why Marxists do not place much faith in any capitalist state redistributing the high incomes of the rich to workers, not to mention their wealth and ownership of capital.  In its place we seek the growth of worker-owned production so that more equal income and power relations are generated by workers through their own actions rather than rely on taxing – and therefore relying on – the unequal ownership of productive resources.  The identification of socialism with acceptance of basic capitalist relations and the simple amelioration of the worst effects of this by state tax and spending is therefore mistaken.  It has increasingly failed in those countries held up as the exemplars of success.

One of the authors in ‘Scotland’s Road to Socialism, Time to Choose’ illustrate the figures above:

“. . . Scotland is a capitalist, class society with staggering inequalities of wealth and power.  One study, in 2003, showed that two Edinburgh districts have more millionaires than anywhere in Britain other than Hampshire in London.  ‘Blackhill is better heeled than Belgravia and Morningside is more upmarket than Mayfair’ reported the Telegraph (6 February 2003). Contrast this to the figure that men in the Calton ward of Glasgow live to an average age of 54.  With these facts in mind, we dispute any idea that Scotland has a distinctively ‘collectivist’ civil society.  The neo-liberal trajectory in Scotland, like elsewhere, has led to extreme polarisation of income.”

So Scotland is not an unusually equal society and is much like most of the rest of Britain, outside London, and even London (!) has many millions of working class residents.

However I did say that there is no one-to-one correlation between the economic and social structure of society and the politics expressed in that society.  The report above notes that there is “some evidence for preference heterogeneity between Scotland and the rest of the UK. . . As well as persistent differences in voting patterns according to the British Social Attitudes Survey, Scots are: more likely than English voters to think the gap between high and low incomes is too large (78% v. 74%); are more likely to support government efforts at redistribution (43% v. 34%); are more likely to say that social benefits are not high enough (6.2% v. 3.6%); and more likely that unemployment benefits are too low and cause hardship (22% v. 18%).

What is noteworthy about these results is not the differences, which are not pronounced except perhaps somewhat in attitudes towards redistribution, but how similar they are – how the first question results in high scores in both and such low scores for the third question in both.  Since all the questions are aspects of workers dependence on the state, except the first, they measure not so much attitudes to socialism but attitudes to reliance on the state, which workers must overcome to realise their own society.

The Red Paper collective provides further evidence of similarities of views in England and Scotland.[i]  It quotes a Nuffield foundation report in 2011 which “concluded that in terms of being ‘more social democratic in outlook than England, the differences are modest at best’.  In what perhaps should serve as a warning for those who would conflate constitutional and social change they also note that “Like England, Scotland has become less – not more – social democratic since the start of devolution.”

The data quoted by the Red Paper collective shows that when it comes to the three northern regions of England not only are there no big differences in attitudes compared to Scotland but no real difference at all.  They therefore state that “insisting progress for people in Scotland depends on independence is saying that those with similar problems and outlook to our own must be written off as partners in building something better.”

“The problems facing Merseyside and Clydeside have the same causes and as we have seen, people feel similarly about them.  Maintaining that the difficulties of the former are ‘economic’ and the latter ‘national’ is to take the advocates of nationalism at face value.  Accepting rather than analysing their claims, and ignoring the reality of class power.”

The telling of national myths should be left to nationalists.  “Our national story has been shaped down the generations by values of compassion, equality, an unrivalled commitment to the empowerment of education” says Alex Salmond.  In fact the national story of Scotland is failure to build an empire by itself and then joining the English in creation of a British empire in which the values of compassion, equality and empowerment were conspicuous by their absence.

2f07fc81-cf36-4e2b-8b49-54a9eb0e03b8

“A more collective sense of society, of looking out for one another, is a strong part of Scottish life” says the chief executive of the Yes campaign.  Except the figures for inequality and working class mortality in Glasgow show this up for the crap that it is.  Just like England and Wales working class solidarity has suffered defeats in Scotland and the values of compassion, equality and looking out for each other will come not from the state, decked in tartan or not, but from the working class itself.

It might be objected that the attitudes of Scotland are those of a nation while similar attitudes in the three English regions are only of a part of England. However to privilege the national breakdown of social attitudes is to accept privileging the interests of the national unit over those of class.  It presupposes what it has to prove – the overwhelming salience of national division – and begs the question in the assertion that only by itself can the Scottish working class move forward.  It ignores the much larger potential for working class unity – the 5 million Scots and the fifteen million in northern England together.

For socialists the unity of the working class within the 20 million is infinitely more important than the unity of all classes within the 5 million.

It can be argued that even if the basic nature of society is hardly very different in Scotland from the rest of the UK and social attitudes not very different either, and more or less the same as northern England, that still politically Scotland has proven more progressive and more left wing.  Since independence is not just for Christmas but for keeps any such political differences must be pretty fundamental and long-lived.  Does the political history of Scotland demonstrate such fundamental and more or less permanent differences?

To be continued

 

[i] It is interesting to note some of the nationalist comments on this paper which state tha it is not their claim that Scotland is different but that it can be different through independence that matters.  What they ignore is the nationalist claim that the latter is possible because of the former.

Is Scotland an oppressed nation?

Scot2scot1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Is the a Scottish Road to Socialism?’, edited by Gregor Gall, Scottish Left Review press, 2007.

‘Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose’, edited by Gregor Gall, Scottish Left Review press, 2013.

I remember having a brief chat with a left nationalist who argued that, in the context of a reference to Ireland, that there are degrees of national oppression. And so undoubtedly there is. What is demonstrated by the Scottish independence debate is that the measure of it, if it even exists, is very small. We know this because there is no real demand for change.

What we have had are references to “bluff, bullying and bluster” by Alex Salmond over leaders of the Labour Party, Tories and Liberal Democrats, rejecting use of sterling by a new ‘independent’ state. But even here the essential nationalist case is not that Scotland is being told what it can and cannot do but that all this is bluff and bluster, a pure negotiating tactic and not meant to be taken seriously.

Not strong grounds to claim oppression.

A couple of arguments have been raised to demonstrate the national oppression of Scotland. These include the prevention of devolution after the 1979 referendum despite the nearly 52% yes vote on an almost 64% turnout. This was indeed a denial of national democratic rights. It was changed very quickly when the New Labour government of Tony Blair took office in 1997, a new referendum held within six months and the Scottish parliament set up two years later.

It is claimed that Conservative Governments are elected in Britain without a mandate from Scotland. In the 1989 Euro elections Scotland became, for the first time at any elected level, a ‘Tory-free zone’ and in 1992 they were elected for a fourth term with just 25% of the Scottish vote.

Yet governments are elected all the time in Britain without a majority of the vote. English and Welsh workers have suffered the depredations of Conservative Governments no less than Scottish workers and the Tories do not devise policies aimed specifically at the Scottish people. In 2010 the ‘no mandate’ argument became weaker when eleven Liberal Democrats joined the single Tory as Scottish representatives of the new ConDem Government.

It is claimed that the introduction of the poll tax a year earlier in Scotland than England represented national oppression. If it did it obviously didn’t last long. Let’s also forget that one of the two authors of the tax was himself Scottish, dubbed “father of the poll tax.”

The referendum in itself, whatever its limitations, is a demonstration that Scotland has the right to self-determination and can exercise this right.

In this exercise there is no question of nationalists having to face questions of oppression – of the national language; the teaching of Scottish history; the right to fly the Scottish flag; discrimination in employment in favour of English colonists; the mass arrest and detention without trial of political opponents; of English police or an English army called in to police demonstrations or protests; the widespread inflicting of torture on political opponents; the shooting of demonstrators demanding civil rights or the creation of armed gangs to intimidate and terrorise those demanding independence.

If there were any of these or anything like it the referendum debate would be very different; not only the terms of the debate but also the methods of struggle.

The exploitation and oppression that does exist has been displaced and subsumed within a debate within which they cannot be clearly articulated, at least with any honesty, and certainly with any perspective that provides solutions.

Solutions to unemployment and poverty; to chronic insecurity and stress; to ignorance and powerlessness cannot be found in any nationalist programme, either left or right. They arise from the nature of the economic system not the nationality of the state apparatus that presides over it.

Class grievances are portrayed as those of a people, of Scots against ‘London’ or the ‘British state.

Through nationalism the class exploitation of workers either disappears or is rendered secondary to the more immediate demand for national ‘freedom’.

As I have said before such ‘freedom’ does not exist; there are always restrictions and external limitations, which means that pursuit of it, which requires that the demands of workers are postponed, means that they will always be postponed. Nationalism acts as a permanent brake on the aspirations of the working class.

At a certain stage the true class character of nationalism becomes clearer when the new nation trumpets its cause as competitiveness with other nations in the battlefields of lower wages, lower business taxes and willing workers. Such at least has been the Irish experience.

So Scotland is not an oppressed nation but ironically it is nationalism that has the potential to take it in such a direction and the referendum debate has demonstrated how.

Alex Salmond has made much of the “bluff, bullying and bluster” coming from leaders of the Labour Party, Tories and Liberal Democrats. But these parties are very aware that they cannot engage in too open a form of bullying because it has the potential to alienate voters and upset the legitimacy of the state they seek to rule. So their bullying has limits. A separated Scotland would provide less restrictions.

Salmond has portrayed all the decisions that will arise from separation, such as sharing the pound sterling and financial regulation, as ones that will be easily agreed to his satisfaction but in such negotiations the UK state has no reason not to flex its muscles with the smaller state. Such actions by the UK state would, within Scotland, no doubt strengthen SNP nationalism and scotch the illusions of the left that after independence nationalism would suddenly dissipate to be replaced by a left-right divide. Real bullying by the UK state would feed Scottish nationalism and further its growth within the Scottish working class while increasing the divisions between Scottish, English and Welsh workers.

So the rump British state would have every reason to want Scotland to use sterling but enough reasonable arguments to place more or less onerous conditions on Scotland in order for it to happen. It is well known that currency union must involve severe limits on monetary policy within Scotland and there is no reason why the rest of Britain should consider Scotland’s interests as equal to that of England and Wales. If burdens have to be borne there is no reason to make them equitable.

It is also clear that currency union would limit the fiscal policy of a separated Scotland so that its taxation and expenditure policy would also be subject to limits, again set at least partly by the UK state. As the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, put it: “in short, a durable, successful currency union requires some ceding of national sovereignty.”

Scottish debt might find itself being owned by UK institutions demanding a premium from the new state and any new financial crisis arising within Bank of Scotland and RBS etc. would all too clearly demonstrate the respective powers of the two states.

Financial regulation will also come from London and there is no reason why this regulation would be to the benefit of anyone other than the City of London except with nationalist hopes or assumptions that what is good for the City is good for Edinburgh – exactly the sort of attitude now so scorned by these Scottish nationalists.

Only recently the BBC reports that the siting of Trident in Scotland is one of many areas that would be up for negotiation. Only a fool believes Salmond when he claims all these negotiations will give the SNP what they want in all of the issues, and he will be first to call out the fools when they complain about it after the negotiations are over.

The BBC states that ‘a dozen high-ranking defence veterans have written to Mr Salmond claiming a proposed constitutional ban on nuclear weapons in an independent Scotland “would be unacceptable for NATO”.’

“Were the Scottish people to vote for independence, then Scotland, as a new small nation in an uncertain world, would need international partners to help secure its economic and social objectives and allies to provide national security.”

“NATO, as an alliance with nuclear deterrence as a central part of its strategic concept, could hardly be expected to welcome a new member state whose government put in jeopardy the continued operation of the UK independent nuclear deterrent – a deterrent which protects not only the UK but all of NATO as well.”

Those putting their names to the letter include former chief of the general staff General Sir Mike Jackson (he of Bloody Sunday), Admiral Lord West of Spithead, and former chief of the air staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Peter Squire. This was followed up the next day by another political intervention, this time by a serving member of the top brass, Admiral Sir George Zambellas.

How comforting is it to know that NATO will help secure the economic and social objectives of the new state? Whose security does NATO seek to protect? Why is the SNP not denouncing the political interference of the armed forces?

Such a political intervention by those recently and currently in uniform portends the future pressure put on the new separated state should it seek to have its cake of being in NATO and eating it by frustrating its operation. Of course the British monarchy, with all its disguised powers, will also continue to preside over the newly separated state.

So, while Scotland is not currently an oppressed nation, the law of unintended consequences might conceivably shift it in that direction. Just as Thatcher’s policies strained the bonds within the British state she so loudly championed so Scottish nationalists might deliver their separated state into a new partnership of subordination with the rest of Britain.

But perhaps this doesn’t matter to the left nationalist case. After all as I noted right at the start, this case is based on the difference between Scotland and England and the view that socialism or moves towards it are more easily achieved through a separate state. I’ll turn to this in the next post.

PS. In his comment on my previous post Boffy correctly states that even where a nation suffers some form of national oppression within a larger state entity the “priority should still be to defend the unity of the workers.”

This should always be the case. The issue is how this might be achieved.

It might be necessary in certain circumstances not only to champion the right of a nation to self-determination but also to advocate its exercise through separation.

This will depend on the degree of national oppression and related to this (more importantly) whether the socialist movement would place itself outside of a real democratic struggle that dominated politics if it did not advocate separation (by so doing isolating itself from the working class).

Even where this is the case the role of socialists would be to warn workers about the limits of national separation, whether called national liberation or not; to separately organise the working class under its own banner and prosecute the class struggle not only against imperialism but against native capitalism.

Its role would be to draw out the class nature of working class oppression and exploitation and warn that nationalism has no solution to these. It would warn that a new capitalist state will not address working class needs, will not empower it but will be set up to enforce the power of the native capitalist class.

None of this applies to Scotland. It does not suffer such national oppression and the Scottish working class has throughout its history fought its greatest class battles in unity with English and Welsh workers.

The nationalist left in Scotland has not prioritised workers unity or, as the two books under review have made clear, prioritised exposure and condemnation of Scottish nationalism and the future to be offered by a capitalist Scotland. What they have done is attempt to argue the priority of supposed national restrictions on Scottish workers and to conflate opposition to class oppression with that of the nation claiming ‘freedom’.

The need to support separation because of national oppression, which I see as sometimes necessary, entails recognising the need for a retreat from a more open and clear class struggle against capitalism and should be the subject of bitter regret for socialists should they consider it necessary.

The opportunistic championing of Scottish nationalism by sections of the Scottish left is therefore doubly mistaken for it is assisting creation of the barriers to the fight for socialism and a united working class that they should be seeking to destroy.

Scottish nationalism and British imperialism

Canny-Glasgow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Is there a Scottish Road to Socialism?’, edited by Gregor Gall, Scottish Left Review press, 2007.

‘Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose’, edited by Gregor Gall, Scottish Left Review press, 2013.

One way of addressing the arguments about socialism and Scottish independence is to review the two books above, which give a platform to a fairly wide range of views, both those in favour of a Yes vote in the coming referendum and those in favour of a No vote.  It is also interesting to compare the arguments between the two over time to see how they have stood up, or fallen down.

In my first post I said that for socialists the relationship between independence and the self-determination of the working class involves a number of questions and not just that independence must in some way be a move towards socialism or makes it easier to achieve.  It would be possible to be a passionate supporter of independence by believing that in itself it was a step forward without also implying any great move forward for socialism.  What is striking in both books is the absence of this argument and the keenness of those supporting independence to minimise such an argument and argue that independence is either intimately bound up with socialism or makes it easier to achieve.

In 2007 one contributor wrote that “when the national question rears up again, as it inevitably must, the debate will not be over the degree of devolution, but a blunt choice between defending the British state or a bold demand for independence and socialism”.  In fact, of course, it is not.  It appears as a choice between the British state and a Scottish state – both capitalist.  Two instead of one and the consequences of each.

Colin Fox argues in ‘Time to Choose’ that “the key question is can the socialist cause be advanced in Scotland through independence or not?  And the answer is yes it can, but only provided it involves a complete repudiation of neo-liberalism, corporatism, the financialisation of our economy and existing class relations.”

The first problem is that the independence campaign is led by the Scottish National Party, a “pro-capitalist, neo-liberal party moving to the right” according to Fox, which would undoubtedly form the first government of the new capitalist state and, buoyed by a stunning victory, would put an indelible stamp on its new constitution. If there is a Yes majority there will therefore be no “repudiation of neo-liberalism, corporatism, the financialisation of our economy and existing class relations.”

If independence can only advance the socialist cause in Scotland by a complete renunciation of these things then clearly independence, the real independence currently on offer, will not advance the cause of socialism.

However if Scotland was an oppressed country, so that everyone within it suffered some denial of democratic rights, by virtue of being Scottish or living in Scotland, then it would be possible to argue that Scotland should be independent and that socialists should support such a demand even without the repudiation of neoliberalism etc.

Once again however the argument that Scotland is an oppressed nation is by and large conspicuous by its absence in the two books, despite the large and varied pro-independence contributions.

However one contribution in ‘Time to Choose’ does not shy away from making such a claim.  “The struggle for Scottish independence is, at its heart, an anti-colonial struggle.”

But who are the colonists?  It can hardly be the English born population in Scotland, its largest ‘minority’, all 422,386 of them.  But what other candidates for this role are there?

“Scottish independence is a blow at the heart of imperialism.”  But if imperialism is understood as an economic system nothing of the economic system in Scotland will essentially change.  If it is understood as the political arrangement of states we will have two capitalist states instead of one, both in the EU and both in NATO.

Both countries currently form a unitary state in which both are part of the same imperialist state.  While Britain has often been called England the Empire has always been called by its proper name – the British Empire.  Scotland has played a disproportionate role in this Empire, in its expansion and exploitation of the rest of the world, despite the proclivity of Scottish nationalists to talk about the British state and Scotland as if they were two entirely different places.

Left nationalists obscure the integral role of Scotland in British imperialism, talking about “independence that would . . .  free us from the shackles of British imperialism”, (Colin Fox ‘Time to Choose’). How could Scotland be shackled by British imperialism?  The Scottish people have been exploited not by the English but by fellow Scots.

Or rather they used to be.  Scottish capitalism, in partnership with the English as part of the British Empire, took an identifiably large role in building this empire precisely because it was separately involved.  The Scottish banks and other financial institutions, which continue to this day, and most of its major industrial corporations were owned and controlled within Scotland.  So much was this the case that one recent study by an economic historian has said that Scotland was even more oriented to Empire than the English.[i]

Part of this was due to the narrowness of the domestic market, a result of low incomes, itself a result of relatively low wages or the greater exploitation of Scottish workers by Scottish bosses.

In the 1960s however manufacturing employment began to fall in Scotland, in this respect no different from that of Britain as a whole.  In the UK manufacturing as a share of employment peaked in 1966 while in Scotland the percentage of industrial employment fell from 39.3% in 1965 to 32.3% in 1979, 17.7% in 1993 and 11.1% in 2007.  Scottish deindustrialisation looks greater than that of many other OECD (advanced capitalist) countries only because its starting point was higher while its finishing point is unremarkable.

The British government succeeded in postponing this deindustrialisation through regional policy and attracting multinationals through incentives, which increased sixteen-fold from 1962/63 to 1969/70, but these increasingly failed to have the desired effect in the 1970s, at the end of the post-war upswing in the world economy.  Decline in Empire and decline in industrial Scotland went in tandem because the latter was in integral part of the former.

The British state had failed to prevent deindustrialisation and the demands of the Left today for nationalisation show how little they have learnt from this failure, with their repeated calls for nationalisation.  Much of the Scottish left now wants a Scottish instead of the British state to do the business.  Nationalisation did little to reverse the decline of the railways, coal or steel industries.  In fact much of the decline took place under nationalisation, with employment in the Scottish railways falling from 55,393 in 1951 to 22,910 in 1971 and employment falling in the coal industry from 89,464 to 34,315 during the same period.

It has been argued that the beginning of deindustrialisation coincided with the beginning of serious pressure for devolution and the growth of Scottish nationalism; a section of the petty bourgeoisie clearly registering the need for another capitalist project to take over from the existing partnership in a declining empire.

In this the nationalists typically saw things in reverse, with the SNP candidate in the famous Hamilton by-election in 1967 proclaiming “stop the world, Scotland wants to get on”.  In fact Scotland had been rampaging on the world for two centuries and many colonies at the time wanted it to get off.

Aden2005

 

Today however 87% of Scotland’s manufacturing industries turnover is in companies owned outside Scotland.  One study quoted in ‘Time to Choose’ states that “economic power does not lie in Scotland.  It still predominantly lies at a UK level.”  Scotland does have an autonomous financial services industry, in so far as any financial services in Britain can be described as autonomous. It also has oil but it isn’t owned by Scotland no matter what we think ‘Scotland’ means in this context.  Trade is dominated by the relationship with the rest of the UK – “Scotland exports more than twice as much to England, Wales and Northern Ireland as we do to the whole of the rest of the world put together.” (Time to Choose p. 108)

The basis for a nationalist Scotland has therefore eroded except in one very important respect, pointed out in the paper noted above.  This is in the growth of employment by the state: official Scottish Executive figures give public sector employment as a share of total employed as 23.5 % or 580,000.  However another estimate, taking account of out-sourcing and the growth of state-funded but non-state employment, puts the figure at 31% or 772,000.  The responsibility for most of this employment belongs to Edinburgh, not London; the official figures showing that 485,000 of the 580,000, or over 80%, falls under devolved budgets.

State employment in this respect substitutes for that lost by deindustrialisation.  This employment is financed by taxation of the increasingly service based economy including financial services, with its imperialist appropriation of surplus value, and of course oil, and also by debt.  What matters to Scottish nationalists are the revenues controlled by the state and hence the centrality of the debate about the tax revenue from oil and the levels of state expenditure it might support.

Scottish nationalism represents an attempt not so much to turn its back on Empire as to give a layer of the middle classes and capitalists direct access to the fruits of state activity, its taxation and expenditure.  To the working class the SNP promises fairness while to big business it promises a lower rate of corporation tax.  It doesn’t particularly matter what this rate is as long as it’s lower than that set in London; as the Tories lower it the SNP say lower still.

The state is no less the base of the nationalist left, in fact more so since it expects the state to do even more wonderful things to the Scottish working class.  For those who believe socialism is nationalisation of the economy it is no matter of principle what state might appear the most likely candidate to carry it out.

All this is why the proposals of the SNP promise such remarkable results from independence while also promising such little change to the fundamental features of the status quo.  While the currency stays the same and no radical change in policy is offered, relatively minor differences based on pure assumptions and assertions are open to the grandest of unproven promises.  No wonder there are complaints about the lack of clarity generated by the debate and confusion caused by claim and counter-claim.

Hypotheses, projections and counterfactuals take the place of hard and immediate alternatives.  So the debate is about can Scotland continue to use the pound sterling; can it stay a member of the EU or negotiate membership within months; can it continue with the Bank of England as lender of last resort and with financial regulation ‘from London’, otherwise a term of nationalist abuse.

There is no or precious little debate about whether the pound should be the currency or what a currency means or is supposed to achieve, or about how the financial services industry could provide the catalyst for a new economic crisis.  Keeping the pound, keeping financial regulation from the city of London, staying in the EU and continuing to cut corporation taxes are the marginal ‘changes’ upon which grand nationalist rhetoric hides reality.   Meanwhile the No camp assists the nationalists by claiming that they can’t have many of their fairly timid set of demands.

But if Scotland actually was an oppressed nation the nature and characteristics of such oppression would be central to the debate.  Even accepting a continuing capitalist Scotland there would be something important, something urgent, something raw that would inflame passion.  But there isn’t.

 

[i] The Economic basis of Scottish Nationhood since 1870, Jim Tomlinson, University of Glasgow.