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Correspondence:  Socialist Democracy and Scotland

16 September 2014

I would like to take this opportunity to register my dismay at the comrades of Socialist Democracy calling on the workers of Scotland to vote for the Unionist position in the referendum. Of course the comrades will assume that they are not in fact defending the Union and are standing up for what they declare are ‘Marxist principles’ against a futile deflection into nationalism. What ‘Marxists’ mean by principles tends to baffle me. Is a ‘Marxist’ principle something conceived like it is in natural law theory as a moral commandment, is it conceived as a categorical imperative, if one fails to act on principle one is in fact in contradiction to oneself, or do they mean something like a self-evident truth? The American Declaration of Independence states ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’   

The SD statement offers two ‘principles’ and a deduction in its public statement. The first principle speaks about the right of national self-determination; does this ‘principle’ refer us back to the self-evident truth of the American succession from the British Empire? A strong historical case can be made that the right of national self-determination does in fact refer backward to the American exemplar. It was an American President W. Wilson who placed it at the centre of things in 1919. The historian Alfred Gobban tells us that ‘the leading party in the development of the general ideal of national liberation into an officially recognised Allied policy of self-determination was played by President Wilson, whose ideas on this subject were part of a long considered political philosophy’ When the Communist Party of Viet Nam declared its paper independence from the French Empire, non other than Ho Chi Minh quoted the American declaration of Independence.

However the ‘Marxist tradition’ tends not to play intellectual homage to the political philosophy of the American Founders. The intellectual authority on this question is much disputed. Michael Lowy’s monograph Fatherland or Mother Earth informs us that ‘The national question is one of the fields in which Lenin greatly developed Marxist theory, spelling out on the basis of Marx’s writings, but going far beyond them a coherent, revolutionary strategy…The radical left current represented by Luxemburg and Trotsky before 1917 was characterised, to varying degrees and sometimes in very different forms, by opposition to national separatism in the name of the principle of proletarian internationalism.’

Luxemburg’s most controversial statement on the national question; the National Question and Autonomy stated that 1.The right of self-determination is an abstract and metaphysical right 2. Support for the right of secession of each nation implies in reality support for bourgeois nationalism; the notion of a nation not divided by classes does not exist 3. The independence of small nations in general and Poland in particular is utopian from the economic point of view and condemned to be passed over by the law of capitalist development. In 1909 Luxemburg not only derided the right of self-determination of Poland, she derided the principle in explicit reference to Ireland. Lowy also tells us that it was left to Lenin to set things on a surer footing. He did this from a methodological point of view by putting ‘politics in command’, his obstinate, inflexible, constant and unflinching tendency to grasp and highlight the political aspect of every problem and every contradiction. As a matter of record Lenin publicly challenged Luxemburg’s testimony. 

On first reading the SD statement is pure Luxemburg. But on second reading this is not really the case for it does at least recognise the right of national self-determination, something omitted by Luxemburg. Yet the SD statement arrives at a Luxemburg like conclusion. The reason is that Scotland is obviously not an oppressed nation and support for the principle of national self –determination is therefore not applicable, as it is superseded by a higher one of far greater importance namely proletarian internationalism and the complete repudiation of bourgeois nationalism. So we arrive at this summation, when Lenin puts politics in command he looks at things in the concrete and decides that the right of national self-determination is applicable only in situations where there is a clear case of national oppression. Lenin, unlike Stalin does not really offer us a universal or trans historical criteria for deciding what makes for an oppressed nation, he tends to invoke colonialism and the denial of democracy; democratic norms. Lenin dismissed Trotsky’s early screeds on the national question as ‘eclectic’ meaning inconsistent. But his own thoughts are scattered across occasional essays have a similar fault; maybe that is why he once commissioned Stalin to write a fuller account, although he did not approve what he eventually got back from Stalin.
Lenin lived at a time when Empires dominated the political world: British, French, Russian, Austrian, German, Ottoman. These Empires were prison houses of nations and they also exploited colonies. So invoking the right-of national self-determination was primarily a method of political struggle against Empire and colonialism. Some historians have argued that Marxist’s influenced by Lenin always made use of national struggles in a cynical or non-principled way,  this is why the so-called right of self –determination was always merely a tactic in a grander scheme of international class struggle. It has been cogently argued that it is in fact Lenin’s account that has been superseded by the historical demise of Empire and the colonies, and that global capitalism has radically altered the terms of political struggle, that only now is the real superiority of Luxemburg’s principled internationalism coming into its own. That position would state openly that in the conditions of global capitalism the idea of national separation is at best utopian and in fact backward looking reactionary. It is onwards to the United States of a Socialist Europe            

Yet SD since its inception in 1992 has taken the right of national self-determination to be a ‘principle’ still applicable to current situations. This is obvious in its unwavering support for the right of Ireland to have freedom from British rule. It could be said that the SD position is correct from the point of view of Lenin because Ireland was and remains in a colonial relationship to Great Britain; Ireland still is an oppressed nation. The obvious refute of course is that oppression is not an objective state of being but a subjective state of consciousness and that the great majority of the Irish people no longer think of themselves as an oppressed nation of Britain as evidence by their support for the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. Yet SD stubbornly holds onto the right of national self-determination, and not only in respect of Ireland, it campaigned for the right of national-self determination to be adhered by the European Left during the Balkans crisis, it supported the application of the same democratic right with respect to Bosnia and of Kosova. Was Bosnia objectively speaking an oppressed nation within the Yugoslav Federation?

The truth is that any distinction between an oppressed nation and a free one is not solely defined by a relation to colonialism. The question of national self-determination is one to be settled by subjective consciousness deciding the matter on the basis of evolving democratic norms. When it comes to the case of the national self-determination subjective consciousness of those norms takes precedence over objective criteria.

 The SD statement says that ‘as socialists we support the right of Scotland to self-determination, but we reject the idea that Scottish nationalism represents the interests of the working class. Scotland is not an oppressed nation and the movement for independence is in no way part of a struggle against oppression. There is no basis for socialists to be advocates of Scottish independence.’

This would be fine if it was in lieu of an affirmation of political neutrality on the national question in Scotland. It could be argued that in the current historical context of the relative disappearance of Empire and colonialism a neutral position on the national question especially in Europe is the correct one. In the case of Scotland this would mean socialists saying that we recognise the people have a democratic right of self-determination but we to not make this our own political mission or undertaking. This means we as socialists cannot as a matter of coherence actively endorse national separation, yet we will not try to block your road with whatever obstacles we can manage to dig up. The SD paper does not come out in favour of neutrality; instead it calls for a resounding no vote.

Because SD has called for a resounding no they have raised the eyebrows of many of their former comrades and supporters. This call for a no vote puts them on the side of those who stand in defence of the continuation of the British Union. They of course reply that it does not put us on the side of the Union and all that comes with it ; foreign war and imperialism across the Middle East; we are socialist internationalists they say. But let us follow Lenin for a moment and put politics in command in a concrete way. What choice is concretely on offer on the day of the referendum? Is it a case of voting for national independence or international socialism?  If the cause of international socialism were on the voting slip then we would have no trouble in voting. If Great Britain was a democratic socialist State or in transition to one we would also have no trouble

The answer is obvious, this is a vote about the continuation of the Great British Union, a State forged in the heyday of imperialism, or a breach with the past and present of the union, and it is certainly not a vote on the future of socialism in Scotland or in Europe. Will the comrades of SD really be falling in with the marching bands of the Orange Lodge, which held its pro Union rally last weekend? And what of its own long lost social base! I have not encountered a single working class republican who is in favour of continuation of the Union. Over the hills of West Belfast there sits a giant banner saying vote yes, this is very much the prevailing mood. If the comrades cannot bring themselves to say yes to the break up of the union out of fear of conceding to bourgeois nationalism, they should at least withdraw their call for a resounding NO and rest on a principled position of workers neutrality. It is one hell of an irony that the Militant Group and the Socialist Workers have come out in favour of the break up of the Union and the SD has come out in favour of its continuation. My own embarrassment is acutely felt.

 P. Flannigan (Belfast)

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