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First Thoughts After The Scottish Referendum

P Flannigan 

23 September 2014

The following article has been submitted by a reader of the Socialist Democracy website. 

I don’t intend to make out that I know all the reasons that persuaded people to vote the way they did. I was pleasantly surprised by the outcome. I never expected the anti-unionist movement to garner as many votes as it did i.e. 45 percent. The fact that the anti-unionist vote was concentrated in the old industrial heartlands of Labour did not really surprise. The four council areas with the yes majorities: Dundee,Glasgow, West  Dunbartanshire &Lanarkshire once housed the labour power of Scotland’s industrial economy. Dundee was one of the earliest cities of the industrial revolution and has for voted for the labour party consistently since 1906. It now boasts the worst figures for social deprivation for the whole of Scotland.

As for the pro union vote the BBC’s resident election guru John Curtice spotted pretty early on in the night what was going on; ‘The No vote was generally higher in places with a relatively high English migrant population, in places with a high middle class population, in places where there are more older people and in and in the more rural half of Scotland’. The London based Telegraph newspaper, self-appointed voice of British Conservatism crowed ‘A huge turnout from the middle classes saw traditional SNP strongholds declare for the No campaign.’

The Telegraph was alluding to the fact that a substantial part of the SNP’s middle class support came out to vote and saved the Union. Longstanding SNP dominated areas like Angus, Aberdeenshire, Perth and Kinross voted against the advice of the SNP leadership. The leader of the SNP actually lost the vote in his own constituency of Aberdeenshire East. No wonder that he felt obliged to resign his position after twenty years at the helm. His happy afterthoughts concerning the big independence vote merely disguised the fact that many of his own supporters acted against his advice.

The Telegraph had some thoughts of its own concerning the soci-economic condition of the YES voters. They provided a set of indicators showing how they were drawn largely form the ‘young, poor and the unemployed.’ After reading the Telegraph post election report, the typical readers of the Tory paper concluded that it was Benefits Street Scotland crowd that was mainly to blame for the near fatal blow to the Union, and that they ought to be punished for their audacity. Here is just a little sample taken from the comments section: 

‘It was obvious that the Takers would vote yes and the Givers would vote No.’ 
‘The scroungers voted yes only because Salmond promised them higher benefits. As for the young, a good reason not to allow children to vote.’
‘So the areas full of benefit scroungers wanted out and the areas where people actually work and contribute wanted to stay. Sounds like we should honour their wishes and boot them out.’ 
‘Labour is the cause. Voting labour perpetuates poverty simple as that.’
Now that the referendum is over political assessments are arriving thick and fast. I do not intend to refute any of them instead I will add a bit more content to my previous article about the difficulties Marxism has in responding to nationalist political demands for self-determination ie freedom. If we follow on from what I had previously said about a Luxemburg style perspective I think 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. The alternative on offer, Scottish national independence, held no solution to the crisis of inequality, the underlying cause of every proto working class rebellion. Political independence for Scotland unjustly divided the British working class, deferring the day of a wider united British class struggle against capitalism. If the yes vote had indeed formed a majority, a self interested part of Scottish business would have used their direct control over the new Scottish State to drive the neo-liberal agenda even harder, necessarily reducing the taxes on local and global businesses to compete, creating a flexible work force and totally confounding the expectations of the workers who voted yes. In a nutshell the victory of the No vote was a progressive objective outcome for socialism.

In my mind there are more than a few hiccups with the above assessment but I will focus on the principal one. It is based on what I call methodical reasoning. This is a type of rationalism that measures political things shorn of the subjective consciousness of the participants. The fact that the subjective consciousness of so many of the working class was powered by a ‘radical nationalist’ ethos is of no rational importance with respect to the correct objective understanding. The subjective consciousness of those voting nationalist is just another example of an ingrained subjective-false consciousness about politics. It follows that the ‘nationalist influenced workers’ were objectively the political dupes and stooges of another class interest. The only lesson is that many Scottish workers are in need of a drastic political re-education. It was said during the campaign that many workers in Scotland were more politically conscious than those in the rest of Britain. The very fact that so many voted for left nationalism merely proves the very opposite was true. Yet it is an absolute principle of this style of Marxism that the workers must emancipate themselves, before any Marxist party of the working class can step in to advice them on short term tactics, at best the party can only organise the workers vanguard, and if there is no vanguard, there is no ready or prepared way to resolve things in Scotland. All that stands ready to perform the task of re-educating the duped and misguided workers are the various undersized quarrelling Marxist sects. What is to be done with a large swell of working class people who might stay stubbornly wedded to the project of political independence, mass re-education is hardly a feasible project; for the time being the ‘Marxists’ who think in this style can only ignore them or reclassify them as lumpen proletarians maybe, just as the Tory Telegraph says they all are? I am still waiting to read the assessment that makes out that the thoughtful working class majority voted No! If this constituency does not step forward then the ‘marxists’ have no human material to work with, but maybe they don’t care being inveterate sectarians.

Why is there a strong ‘marxist’ prejudice directed against the conception of a national grounded political democracy? The answer in so far as I understand it is that national democracy is not socialist democracy. At best the struggle for a national democracy is a means to a higher historical end called workers democracy, which in not conceived as a Polity or State. The ‘marxists’ perspective is that the revolutionary ambition of socialism is not the perfection of any kind of political democracy, often just called ‘bourgeois democracy’ but with its elimination and destruction. Holding to such an historical perspective means treating nationalist political movements as potential or actual antithesis. This is qualified only by the historical exception that when bourgeois or national democracy is blocked by colonialism or something close to colonialism like war-invasion, only then are ‘marxists’ in favour of and may even fight for self-determination. If this is the correct understanding then every emerging nation-centred democracy is on a lower rung of historical and political development than many standing bourgeois democracies, some bourgeois 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. 

There is a thing called historicism discussed in some philosophical books. There are several different renditions of it. An Austrian intellectual called Karl Popper presented one version to the world; the essay is called ‘the poverty of historicism.’ This is a rendition of historicism specifically tailored to undermine everything to do with socialism. The basic idea with this rendition of historicism is that ‘MARXISM’ suffers from a massive intellectual delusion because it thinks there are such things as laws of history and there is no reason in principle why we cannot know what they are. According to Karl Popper, only Marxism claims to know what these laws of history are and because of this knowledge only they can predict the course of historical development. This description of historicism is really just a description of logical positivism as applied to history and Karl Popper was an enemy of the school of logical positivism in natural science. The point is that this account of Marxism as historicism is not relevant because Marx was never sympathetic to any version of positivism. He never argued that economic laws determined future politics.

However because Karl Popper is well of track does not mean that Marxism is not tied up with any kind of historicism in some ways. The version I am taking about is the one that acts on the basis that the only guide we have to understanding anything principled is to know what happened in History, in a nutshell all relevant principles including the political ones are historical. What this means is that there are no principles that are not in fact transitory, it is this deeper philosophical meaning that explains why the principle of the national state is an anachronism. This version of historicism that belongs to Marxism is awkward though because it must apply to Marxism itself, Marxism can hardly exempt itself from its own thesis. Yet when it is applied to Marxism, its own principles are also rendered historical, temporary and transitive. Therefore Marxism finds itself in contradiction to its only historicism when it acts as if it knows some self-evident truths or absolute principles.                        
During the campaign referendum I listened to a radio discussion between a Scottish nationalists and an English born questioner who was trying to get to the bottom of the Scottish nationalist complaint. The English man asked what rights would you gain from independence that you don’t already have under the British Union. You have the right to free speech, to free assembly, to equality under the law, you also have the right to vote in free elections and to send representatives to an elected parliament. What the Englishman was saying was that Scotland was already a part of a successful bourgeois democracy and had been a part for along time. The Scotsman was not nonplussed by the question for he had a ready-made answer at hand, what we want is ‘the right to govern ourselves’. It seemed that this little phrase ‘govern ourselves’ was what really stood in the way and made up the specific difference between a national democracy and a putative universal bourgeois one. The term bourgeois democracy refers to the universal social relations of all capitalist societies; the term national democracy refers to a particular political- cultural experience not to be dissolved into some universal schema. 

Despite the rational difference dividing nationalism and Marxism, one claiming to expound something particular the other claiming to expound something universal (difference versus same) they do share a practical history of combining and fusing? The two most memorable national revolutions known in our lifetime provide evidence of this; the Cuban and Viet Nam revolutions succeeded in such a practical fusion that it made it very difficult for the observer to know which ideology was the dominant one. It was this difficulty that split the party established by Leon Trotsky. The problem of course is that the practical fusion and combination of nationalism and Marxism has become memorable for being the worst of all possible political amalgams namely Stalinism, it is said that the infamous doctrine of socialism in one country came out of an ideological amalgam of Marxism and Russian nationalism. The more that Stalinism was exposed to mass revolts, the more unattractive the practical amalgam of nationalism and Marxism became. It is a now a ‘self- evident truth’ of what remains of intellectual Marxism that the fusion of nationalism and communism almost destroyed the rationality of Marxism forever. So it turns out that even if the independence movement in Scotland had been led and organised by some sort of socialist party drawing support from the working class, instead of being led by the middle class centred SNP, this would have not been a basis for giving it even critical support, it would have constituted an even worse state of affairs in the minds of some Marxists who believe that socialism in one country is the worst of all political amalgams. It would have meant Scottish socialism re-enacting the grim schema of socialism in one country and all that goes with it. It would have been history repeating itself not as tragedy but as farce. It turns out that the strong objection to national independence based on the fact that its social leadership was in the hands of the SNP was always something of a red herring. 

The ‘self-evident truth’ of intellectual Marxism today is that socialism must be fully international complaint from the start; it must start to pull out its only social roots before they get embedded in any national soil, if it does not do this then it cannot become something genuinely socialist. Because of this self-evident truth there is then no way back to the subjective political consciousness of those working class people who declared for Scottish national independence. They are not only the complete ideological dupes of another class they are the potential corrupters of the pure Marxist party of the working class, if it attempts to mix itself with them. The only solution then is to follow the biblical maxim ‘come out thee from amongst them.’ The argument of methodological reason is at this point complete. It makes itself into a virtuous circle of scientific reason. Having said that it may will be something impossible for workers to admire.      

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