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Why not a Scottish Workers Republic?
A critique of the Socialist Democracy position on Scottish independence by D.R.O’Connor Lysaght
This article was written at the end of October, but because of a breakdown in communication was received by the editor in January
The statements presented as from Socialist Democracy on the recent Scottish referendum and the letters supporting their line by Messrs. Flanagan and McLaughlin show that this body’s longterm organisational crisis has become a crisis of politics. The fact is that this organisation’s leadership, of whom the identities of only two members are known to this long-standing comrade, has issued a ukase reversing what were at least the implicit approach and often practice of SD and its predecessors without any discussion within the organisation as an whole. Of course, the tighter norms of democratic centralism have been abandoned. Now, it seems, ironically for Mr Flanagan with his expressed fear of Stalinism, that that ideology’s ‘Pragmatic’ approach to settling matters of strategic principle has been adopted. It may be adopted on other issues yet.
What is the broader political stance that these tactics are aimed to advance? The answer is: to ‘urge workers in Scotland to register a rousing No vote’ in the recent referendum on Scottish independence. This is a reversal of what has been our general orientation since the ‘70s and, implicitly, this organisation’s practice on national issues (on the breakup of Yugoslavia, for example.). Accordingly, one would expect some sort of rational justification for the new course.
Although SD’s Statement runs to seven A4 pages, no such serious argument appears in them. It is not that what it says is all wrong; most of the statements given are accurate enough. The two absolute principles given for our positions are true, though ‘the advance of the workers’ movement and the struggle for socialism’ should be given priority place over ‘the democratic principle of the right of [national] self determination’. However, since it is stated that the workers’ movement advance is absolute, the presentation is of little consequence. Scotland not historically an oppressed nation? Formally correct, though the after effects of Culloden pursued by a British state were arguably more catastrophic than the subsequent clearances of the estates of Scots landlords (or, indeed, of the English enclosures of the estates there.).Scotland is not inherently more progressive than England (at least, not qualitatively). The Scottish Nationalist Party is a bourgeois nationalist party like Redmond’s and no more likely to defeat neo-liberalism and imperialism, let alone all imperialisms, than was the bould Johnny’s party.
Sadly, none of this adds up to an argument why the workers of Scotland should ‘register a resounding No vote’. It is necessary to trawl the last two pages to discover the kernel of the excuse for that step. To summarise: it is that the workers of Britain have a common working class culture that has enabled them to win major reforms and that the division of that island into two bourgeois states will destroy this consciousness to allow the bosses to undo its good work.
Of these formulations, the first is a truism and the second is not upheld by history. More of this anon.
Socialist Democracy’s post-referendum statement adds little to the overall analysis. Indeed, there are welcome signs of a shuffle away from the dogma of the original call. ‘The workers should organise independently in support of a workers’ republic.’ Agreed, but if the workers have state power, does it matter whether they hold in one or two units? The question is avoided.
More promising is the insistence that the left needs ‘to move quickly if the movement’ (‘of youths and workers’, presumably those who voted yes) ‘is not to dissipate’.
It was after this declaration that two letters appeared on the Homepage, each calculated to stiffen Socialist Democracy’s anti-nationalist credentials. Theoretically they add little to the discussion, but their tones may impress the casual reader and, more importantly, they point out the logic of calling to vote no - resoundingly or otherwise.
P.Flanagan begins by expressing pleasant surprise at the outcome, by which he seems to mean the high turnout of Yes votes. He quotes copiously from the Daily Telegraph’s and its correspondents’ outpourings of abuse against those who voted that way. Then, on the second page, he turns around. He refers to a previous article from which ‘we reach the following assessment: the Marxist call for a No vote was indeed the correct one despite the fact that it objectively reinforced the still imperialist British State.’ Once again, ‘political independence for Scotland unjustly (sic) divided the British working class, deferring the day of a wider united British class struggle against capitalism’. Again, nonsense. However, it is possible to agree the possibility of his other point: after a Yes vote,‘a self-interested part of Scottish business used their direct control over the new Scottish state to drive the neo-liberal agenda even harder’. Certainly, this is likely with an SNP government as the immediate beneficiary of such a vote, but Scottish national demands amount to more than the SNP.
Mr Flanagan seems to recognise this weakness because, in his next paragraphs he seeks to render his No stance more profound. There are ‘more than a few hiccups’ in it, he admits in the first of these. Unfortunately, he is unable to cure himself of his biggest hiccup: his basic position. Instead, he denounces the false consciousness of the pro-independence workers. He has no time for moving quickly to prevent their movement dissipating. Rather , ‘the thoughtful working class majority voted No! If this constituency does not step forward then the ‘marxists’ have no human material to work with’. The placing of the word ‘Marxists’ in inverted commas leads to the suspicion that this paragraph was a joke apparently against the SD for its perceived half-hearted anti-nationalism. If so, it is pretty feeble. More likely, Mr Flanagan confuses dialectics with deviousness. Certainly, he must know that a large proportion of Yes voting workers were likely to be wearing Orange sashes.
If so, this does not faze him. He proceeds to the foundations of his creed. Marxism wants an international state (as a prelude to the international Communist post-state). Nationalism wants its own nation-state. Ergo nationalism is Marxism’s antithesis. ‘Every emerging nation-centred democracy is on a lower rung of historical and political development than many standing bourgeois democracies; some bourgois democracies like the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for example are already on a higher historical footing, at least they are in principle multi-national. In a nutshell the nation-state is a historical anachronism’ Does not this put the political unit of the Republic of Ireland on a lower historical rung than the said Union of GB and Northern Ireland? If so why does SD want ato see Ireland united? And, yes, most importantly, the class questions; s not any bourgeois state an historical anachronism? Is not a multi- national bourgeois territory successful in avoiding the stresses of international struggle for resources within its borders by living off superprofits from foreign exploitation, as with Switzerland, the USA and in its imperial heyday the said Union of Britain? And does not a bourgeois controlled nationally defined territory provide at least a common culture that must help in convincing its working class to seek to overthrow their rulers and achieve state power as a base from which to inspire their comrades abroad to achieve the international socialist state?
Such thinking will be dismissed by Mr Flanagan. For him, ‘national democracy’ can be opposed by ‘a putative universal bourgois one’: solid earth opposing cloud cuckooland. The suggestion of a struggle led by working class bodies including democratic national demands is, for him ‘Stalinist’, since Stalin preached that a Socialist society in a single country was achievable. Now the history of that piece of garbage is certainly more interesting than Mr Flanagan’s ‘analysis’, but what matters here is that the peculiar iniquity of Djugashvili’s dictum was that it was stated in the existing (multi-national, bye-the bye) workers’ state and led to the conclusion that socialism could be spread only through the arms of the Red Army and under the supervision of those who had ‘actually achieved socialism’ in the Soviet Union. The Chinese and the Yugoslavs broke out of this straight jacket during Stalin’s lifetime, but could not break from the idea that had inspired it and tried to build Socialist societies in their own countries.
Later Cuba made such a breach and tried to build an international but on the basis of revolution exclusively in the semi-colonial world. In short, workers’ revolution in one country need not mean a quest for the holy grail (a concept no more nor less realistic) of socialism in one country, just a workers republic, one in which the workers rather than the bourgeoisie call the shots. This is true in Scotland no less than elsewhere.
In the end , Mr Flanagan’s analysis remains pessimistic. ‘Socialism must be fully international complaint (sic) from the start; it must start to pull out its social roots before they get embedded in any national soil. If it does not do this then it cannot be something genuinely socialist........ Having said that it may well be something impossible for workers to admire.’
It is something of a relief to struggle out of Mr Flanagan’s verbiage to consider Mr McLaughlin’s declaration of faith, not least because it is only half the length of the Flanagan work. It is even more pleasant to note that there is little in it that is not a digest of the original SD Statement. The one addition to it is an attack on the SP (parliamentarist) and SWP (‘populist’) for their positions. It is implied, in fact, that to vote for Scottish independence was to vote for the positions of the SNP on austerity, the retention of the monarchy, NATO et al. If, in fact the organisations concerned did encourage people to believe in the SNP as anything progressive beyond being a catalyst for Scots political independence, Mr McLaughlin was correct in categorising them. This writer does not know their line on the matter; he has better things to do than read their publications. He will repeat simply that Scottish national demands are greater than the SNP and that, in any struggle a revolutionary may find him/herself advancing temporarily in the same direction as reformists, even bourgeois ones. After all, neither Mr Flanagan nor Mr McLaughlin nor, indeed the SD leadership seems to find anything embarrassing in marching temporarily in the same direction as Cameron, UKIP et al.
In all this, there has been one substantive objection to voting Yes: the idea that splitting the bourgeois parliamentary union must split the working class within it. It does not follow. ‘After the Secession of Norway from Sweden,’ Lenin reported in 1917, ‘mutual trust increased between the two peoples, between the proletariats of these countries.’ (Collected Works, Vol.24, P.300.). As this writer noted in his original objection to the SD Statement, the position of Norway on its secession was close to that of Scotland in the minimalist current nature of Norwegian oppression; the Norwegian parliament had already more power than the Holyrood Assembly. Certainly, the handling of the breach was, too, a model of how such separation should be, is ignored, all too often, by participants, particularly the dominant ones in similar splits, and would be likely to be ignored by the British establishment on its present form. To this objection, it can be said that it is likely that retaining the union will cause new national disputes (A prospective one is appearing already over devo max) and that by the time of the next independence referendum, Scotland is likely to be more oppressed than before. In any case, whether or no Scotland is part of a single British political entity, it is up to the organisations of the workers, inspired by the most conscious elements to try to check their rulers’ spite.
And what of the objections in the historical part of the SD Statement? They are half truths at best. Scotland did vote itself into the parliamentary union, its path eased by the existing dual monarchy, as freely as was possible, given the corrupt and restricted parliamentary system of the time. For two centuries, it could consider itself a joint partner in Britain Inc. Sections of its bourgeoisie were prepared to abandon the national name for that of ‘North British’: a railway, an insurance company, hotels (it is a fair bet that any such firm in Ireland styling itself ‘West British’ would not have had similar success.) Then, as the competition from abroad became more intense, sections of the Scots bourgeoisie decided to jump ship. There is no doubt about this; the writer remarked on the defection in its early stages in his ‘Irish Nationalism & British Imperialism’ forty years ago.
As the said pamphlet was not concerned with Scotland directly, it did not go any deeper. There is less excuse for the Statement’s failure to do so. In fact the Scottish national question is as much linked to that of class relations as any political issue.
For the union gave less satisfaction to those lower down the class ladder. Ultimately, the cultural norms of the ruling class dictate those of their fellow citizens, but this is an uneven process. In Scotland, the aftermath of the ‘45 led to the widespread suppression of the clan system in the highlands, decreed and performed by the forces of the United Kingdom on a scale never achieved under the independent monarchy. The clan chiefs loyal to the new order became landlords unfettered, indeed forbidden to bide by the conventions, however slim, that had limited their powers over tenants. The mechanical materialist would excuse this by remarking that this resulted in the emigration southwards to provide a proletariat for the new industries that would supply the markets for the empire of united Britain. Those who survived and did not emigrate did not see matters like that. They did not become unionists, rather, in urban slum conditions, the heirs of the rank and file Jacobites became Jacobins. In the 1790s, besides the United Irishmen, there were separate Societies of United Scotsmen and United Englshmen. Though the Stuart main line lingered until the centenary of the Act of Union, its cause had died long before. In 1820, there was a rising in the manufacturing areas, defeated by spies.
After the repression, the British state began over the next century to dole out symbolic reforms. King George IV visited Edinburgh to celebrate his succession as King of Scotland. The tartan had been banned after the ‘45; it was resurrected without the clan organisation that it had represented. Later Queen Victoria occupied Balmoral and, in 1885 Scotland got a special Secretary of State.
None of this would have been enough. During the first half of the century, a new wave of Highland clearances added new proletarians to work the industries. Again, there were English connections. Scots and English landlord houses had intermarried. The worst of the Scottish evictors, the Duchess of Sutherland was married to the Marquess of Stafford, head of a prominent English landlord family with strong political connections.
The scale of this defeat coupled with the fact that British capitalist ascendancy was profitable enough to allow the lower classes of society to win benefits with more ease caused the Scottish workers to limit their attention to gaining immediate benefits from the system. Yet the memories remained and the system began to look vulnerable to competition from Germany and America. British politicians preached tariffs. The Scots workers’ consciousness began to revive in a Socialist form, but including the dimension of national self-determination. In 1902, the Socialist Labour Party of Scotland was founded. It became the most sophisticated of all Britain’s pre-1914 Socialist parties and was to be recognised as such by the Comintern, but it remained a Scottish body. In1906, a more lasting expression of working class national consciousness appeared; the Scottish TUC was formed. It is not recorded that this split from the British body affected the growing militancy of British workers as a whole. (Today, the Grangemouth betrayal was not the work of a weak Scottish union but of the British UNITE.) Even the Labour Party included in its original programme the call for Scottish Home Rule, though it abandoned this, it seems, as it foresaw its future as dependent on the Scottish vote.(Again, things haven’t changed much.) Significantly, it was the year after the first Labour government had failed to implement this promise amongst others that a group of petit bourgeois nationalists founded the Scottish Nationalist Party to revive the Jacobin nationalism that the world had passed by. Scottish organised Labour and Scottish nationalism developed as antitheses.
So, what are the prospects? It will be agreed generally that, whatever had happened in the referendum, the SNP would be bound to fail to satisfy the expectations it aroused. However, the ‘No’ vote ensures that Sturgeon will be able to blame England for her own government’s failings. It is clear, too, that the Union government will make this all too easy. There will be a new referendum. Socialists will have the choice of voting ‘Yes’, of marking their ballot ‘For a Socialist Workers’ Republic. For World Socialism’ or just abstaining. That is a minor detail. The important task will be to campaign, supporting independence but on our own terms, exposing the limitations of the SNP and of any bourgeois political snakeoil. To call for a “No’, if the English workers are not rising would be to face isolation. Even if the English were rising, the best option would still be two workers, states after which is more likely to come federation.
Socialist Democracy is a sect in size. To call for a ‘No’ vote, resounding or otherwise, to Scottish independence places it on the steep slope to sectarianism. Sectarians do not lead workers to take state power.
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