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Correspondence - Norway and Scotland: does the analogy hold?

26 January 2015

As I have been mentioned briefly in comrade D.R. O’Connor Lysaght’s earlier article I would like to respond, albeit regretfully tardily. The comrade has referred to Lenin’s attitude towards Norway’s secession from Sweden in 1906 so the issue bears further scrutiny and interpretation. But firstly, as regards the reformist and centrist left’s approach to the Scottish independence campaign. 

Neither Lenin or Marx argued that independence was automatically progressive, but that it depended on the concrete conditions. In both the case of the Great Russians and the Swedes the greater emphasis was on the oppressed colonial status, the attitudes in the great countries and the effect of chauvinism on the workers of the oppressor nations.

Although the comrade does not do so there are many who argue that Scottish independence is, in and of itself, automatically progressive. In the absence of that argument you must advance the position that Scotland is an oppressed nation and therefore the implication is that the SNP ‘with all its prejudices’ as the catalyst for that independence is progressive also. 

It is these illusions created among Scots workers, historically by the Communist Party of Great Britain, and encouraged by opportunism on the left that has contributed to the explosion in SNP numbers with only a modest number accruing to the left supporters of the Radical Independence Campaign, itself containing a high proportion of SNP members, and what remains of that campaign is bogged down in reformist parliamentary politics. 

The ‘left’ campaign did not confront reformist illusions such as the belief that independence would save the NHS in Scotland and that Scotland would be wealthier, the further implication being that this wealth would be distributed among the Scottish working class. This is simply a bourgeois lie, as attested to by the SNP approach which threw money at the Ineos company following the Grangemouth debacle and supports the low tax environment beloved of the admirers of the ‘Celtic Tiger’. 

What is really on the agenda is a low wage economy and the left are walking the Scottish working class into a defeat by imbuing them with illusions in a separate Scottish solution to workers problems when it would leave them completely at the mercy of global finance capital. The narrowing of Scottish workers perspectives in this way is divisive because it simultaneously convinces Scottish workers that reforms are more likely in an insular Scottish environment where their ‘own bourgeoisie’ would have more sympathy with their demands and also sends the message to English workers that they can look after themselves. 

The struggle for revolutionary politics is key. The understandable reason that sections of workers in Scotland are turning in the direction of independence is a feature of the decay and disintegration of the British working class caused by decades of Labour’s betrayals and parliamentary politics. The Scottish ‘left’s’ political leadership must be judged more harshly. They create illusions in the same reformism that has failed Scottish and English workers alike and promote the myth that having failed south of the border a Westminster moved north would be easier to dominate by electoralist and reformist politics. They believe a Scottish parliament would be an improvement for workers and their reformism seeks eventual ‘revolution’ via a refreshed Scottish capitalism. It is a diversion from the field on which the class war is presently being fought and an attempt to find a way around the beast that resides at Whitehall rather than to confront it.

There is no doubt the situation is riven with contradictions. The dividing of the working class is the favourite wine of the ruling class but in the case of this plebiscite it was laced with hemlock and they could not drink from it because it divided the bourgeoisie also. Following the vote they returned to the issue immediately with demands for greater regionalisation as a way of promoting regional competition over resources and of breaking the working class in to more ‘manageably sized’ groups. 

The statement by the comrade that “Scottish independence is greater than the SNP” is a bald assertion. In what way is it greater? Does this mean that the Scottish workers were oppressed not only due to their class but also because of their nationality?  The comrade formally agrees that this is not the case.

Looked at another way, the breakup of Britain into national units suggests the weakening of British imperialism but the push for independence by a section of the Scottish bourgeoisie reflects that reality rather than causes it, even without Scottish independence British imperialism is weak as their failed adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan show also. Two reactionary states with a divided working class, a single head of state and imperialist army is not a step forward and in any case the weakening of a home grown imperialism is not by itself a step forward for the workers. 

The question then is would the struggle for independence advance the workers consciousness? The implication of saying yes to that is that the demand for independence is transitional, that the demand of the Scottish working class should be independence, that the demands of the Scottish bourgeoisie are unrealisable and that the theory of permanent revolution explains that the proletariat must fulfil the historic task a Scottish bourgeois revolution which will be overtaken by the demand for a socialist republic. Otherwise it is simply Scottish nationalism.

As I am sure the comrade agrees this is obviously not the case when the Scottish bourgeoisie have, from the very beginning of the capitalist era, already achieved their position as an integral part of the Empire and enjoyed its benefits following the agreement of the Articles of Union in 1706 which allowed the Scottish bourgeoisie full trading access to the colonies of Britain. It is only now during the decline of that empire that a section of the bourgeoisie, and as the election shows, a vacillating section, jealously seeks the control of local raw materials and wealth.

The belief that it “does not follow” that splitting the bourgeois parliamentary union must split the working class within it is understandable and correct in some circumstances, especially in the case of Norway which the comrade uses. But the concrete differences between the two situations must be taken in to account. The relationship between Scotland and England is not colonial and is much more than a Parliamentary union, it is a completely integrated economy with a centuries long political integration of the working and ruling classes. 


The use of the Norwegian example stems from viewing the relationship in exactly those terms, that of a parliamentary union, and the degree of power held by the Norwegian parliament. Viewed in this way they seem comparable but the history of the political relationship and the relationship between the workers of both countries was quite different. 

While Lenin, in his polemic with Radek and Luxemborg, spoke of the relatively light hand of Swedish domination and used this point to argue that even under these relatively ‘benign’ conditions the right to self determination still existed the concrete conditions were primary for Lenin and what those conditions meant to the class struggle.

Norway had originally been a colony of Denmark but had been granted by them to Sweden during the Napoleonic wars. The element of compulsion and the level of oppression was greater in Norway as the bourgeoisie’s tie to Sweden was involuntary, unlike Scotland, but what was of even greater significance to Lenin in 1906 was the role played by the Swedish workers who campaigned for Norwegian independence. It was on the basis of the Swedish workers’ anti colonialism that workers’ international solidarity was established.

The Lenin quote used by the comrade should be seen in that context. While Lenin argued ‘After the Secession of Norway from Sweden mutual trust increased between the two peoples, between the proletariats of these countries.’ it is important to look at the way in which that elevated level of consciousness was achieved. An extended quote is necessary;

“Norway was ceded to Sweden by the monarchs during the Napoleonic wars, against the will of the Norwegians; and the Swedes had to bring troops into Norway to subdue her. Despite the very extensive autonomy which Norway enjoyed (she had her own parliament, etc.), there was constant friction between Norway and Sweden for many decades after the union, and the Norwegians strove hard to throw off the yoke of the Swedish aristocracy. At last, in August 1905, they succeeded: the Norwegian parliament resolved that the Swedish king was no longer king of Norway, and in the referendum held later among the Norwegian people, the overwhelming majority (about 200,000 as against a few hundred) voted for complete separation from Sweden. After a short period of indecision, the Swedes resigned themselves to the fact of secession.”

Not only is this very different from Scottish and English history it clashes with the demands of the Scottish independence campaign. No break with the monarchy, and no break with the world’s most dangerous imperialist military alliance, no modern history of struggle ‘to throw off the yoke’ and no involuntary union. But most importantly of all it is the impact on the Swedish and Norwegian workers that is central to Lenin’s argument for independence.

“And the Swedish proletariat? It is common knowledge that the Swedish landed proprietors, abetted by the Swedish clergy, advocated war against Norway. Inasmuch as Norway was much weaker than Sweden, had already experienced a Swedish invasion, and the Swedish aristocracy carries enormous weight in its own country, this advocacy of war presented a grave danger.”

Lenin continues; 

“The close alliance between the Norwegian and Swedish workers, their complete fraternal class solidarity, gained from the Swedish workers’ recognition of the right of the Norwegians to secede. This convinced the Norwegian workers that the Swedish workers were not infected with Swedish nationalism, and that they placed fraternity with the Norwegian proletarians above the privileges of the Swedish bourgeoisie and aristocracy. The dissolution of the ties imposed upon Norway by the monarchs of Europe and the Swedish aristocracy strengthened the ties between the Norwegian and Swedish workers.”

The concrete conditions differ greatly from that in Britain in 2014. Scotland is not a colonial possession of England so the Norwegian comparison is misleading. Hypothetically speaking, had the union been negotiated and agreed between the two countries and Norway had equal access to Sweden’s colonies. Had the Norwegian bourgeoisie frequently played a leading role in the two countries unified bourgeois leadership and its regiments participated enthusiastically in the suppression of their joint colonies. Had the demands of the Norwegian bourgeoisie left the monarchy and the imperialist military intact. Had the Norwegian workers frequently led class struggles across both countries, provided an essential part of the backbone of their labour movement, had they provided a good share of the most class conscious workers leaders, had they established a ‘Red Oslo’ at the head of a radical all Swedish/Norwegian strike wave and been key in an all encompassing mining strike, and had the division of this working class, forged in common action, been posited by independence would the split then have been so desirable? 

Lastly as Norwegian independence was to a considerable degree the gift of the Swedish radicalised working class the Scottish workers republic, if that is what the Scottish workers demand, will come on the back of a European workers revolt with the sympathy and mobilisation of the English working class. The campaign for Scottish bourgeois independence is not transitional, it is a reactionary profit grab by a section of a declining imperialist bourgeoisie with a plebiscite held on that basis which pushes the prospect of a Scottish socialist republic further away. 

The decision has now been taken so in the meantime the Scottish workers must struggle against austerity along with their English brothers and sisters and through that struggle face up to British imperialism and the pathetic leadership that had betrayed the working class so thoroughly and hope that the English workers are not convinced by Cameron and Farage’s divisive regionalism that the Scottish workers have become ‘infected’ with Scottish nationalism and that they should all now look after their own little corners. 

Eddie McLaughlin

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