by Alan Woods
We have entered into a new period on an international scale: a period of deep economic crisis, social and political instability. The masses everywhere are beginning to question things that were previously taken for granted. The whole political scene is a seething cauldron. In such a period sharp and sudden changes are implicit in the situation. The Scottish referendum was just such a sudden change, a political earthquake that upset all the calculations of the politicians. It represented a fundamental turn in the situation.
Originally published in the In Defence of Marxism magazine
“Bourgeois nationalism and proletarian internationalism—these are the two irreconcilably hostile slogans that correspond to the two great class camps throughout the capitalist world, and express the two policies (nay, the two world outlooks) in the national question.” (Lenin: Critical Remarks on the National Question, October-December 1913)
A sharp change in the situation
We have entered into a new period on an international scale: a period of deep economic crisis, social and political instability. The masses everywhere are beginning to question things that were previously taken for granted. Parties, programmes and leaders are being tested and rejected. The old certainties are disappearing. The whole political scene is a seething cauldron. In such a period sharp and sudden changes are implicit in the situation. The Scottish referendum was just such a sudden change, a political earthquake that upset all the calculations of the politicians. It represented a fundamental turn in the situation.
The Establishment in London initially regarded the referendum with a complacency that bordered on light-mindedness. In insisting that the referendum should be posed as a stark choice for or against independence, Cameron, the Tory leader, took a calculated gamble.
This was a very risky strategy, all the more so because there was no reason why the British Prime Minister should have taken such a risk. If, instead of a simple yes or no to independence, he had offered the people of Scotland the alternative of greater autonomy (“Devo-max”), there is no doubt that this would have won by a big margin.
The most serious strategists of Capital doubted the wisdom of this tactic. The Economist carried on its cover a cartoon of Cameron as an obsessive gambler staking the future of a 300-year old Union on a risky bet. This was a very apt comparison. From the standpoint of the long-term interests of British capitalism, this was reckless in the extreme. The ending of the 300 year old Union with Scotland was not some little detail. It would have had the most damaging results to Britain’s economy. More serious still, it would have completely undermined Britain’s position as a world power. Instead of Great Britain they would have been reduced to Little England, a truncated stump, lacking in any credibility in Europe or the world in general.
The loss of Trident would put an end to Britain’s pretentions as a nuclear power. The much vaunted “special relationship” with the USA (a fiction in any case) would vanish. All the vainglorious boasting and false sense of arrogance inherited from the days of Empire would stand exposed for the fraudulent nonsense they always were. The Emperor would stand before world opinion in all his inglorious and unlovely nakedness. Yet faced with such an impending calamity, Cameron behaved like the Emperor Nero who allegedly played his lyre while Rome burned.
Cameron was relying on that most powerful force in society, the force of inertia, habit, routine, tradition and indifference to guarantee the victory of the “No” vote, that is to say, the victory of the status quo. But under conditions of deep crisis, habit, routine and traditions begin to break down and apathy turns to a burning anger against the existing state of things.
At first all the opinion polls gave him reason to believe that his gamble had succeeded. But then something happened that had not been anticipated. The referendum aroused the masses in Scotland to political life. On every housing scheme, in every bus stop, in every pub, people were talking passionately about politics in a way that had not been seen since the days of the struggle against Margaret Thatcher’s hated Poll Tax. This marked a sea-change in consciousness, and it occurred in a remarkably short space of time.
The Referendum Campaign stirred up the masses, particularly in the last stages. Suddenly the old apathy towards politics had gone. Some 97 per cent of eligible Scots registered to vote. The turnout was over 85%, a record number for any British election. Some 1.6m people voted for independence or 45% of the voting population. Tens of thousands of people participated in the mass meetings of the Yes camp, yet only nine months earlier support for independence was reckoned to be less than 30%. This has major implications for Marxists.
Trotsky explained that a revolution is a situation when the masses begin to participate actively in politics and begin to take their destiny into their own hands. And there were revolutionary implications in the situation in Scotland. Trotsky also pointed out that nationalism can be the outer shell of an immature Bolshevism. This is certainly a very apt characterisation of the situation in Scotland, where thousands and tens of thousands of workers and youth have been aroused to fight against the Westminster Establishment. This widespread radicalisation expresses itself as a desire for independence but is in fact an expression of a deep-seated hatred of the pampered, arrogant bourgeois clique that rules in London.
The Yes campaign promised something different, a change: the tantalising prospect of a better future. And since most people (not only in Scotland) fervently desire a change, this proved to be a very powerful rallying call. Even if most people do not know exactly what they want, they know very well what they do not want. In this case, the old proverb “Better the Devil you know than the Devil you don’t know” definitely did not apply. For many, the attempts to frighten people with all sorts of dire consequences if Scotland went independent met with an ironical shrug of the shoulders: these people have lied to us for so long, why should we believe them now?
The Better Together Campaign, on the other hand, was an unholy alliance of Labour, Tories and Liberal Democrats, all of them tarred with the same brush of Establishment politics, austerity and cuts. They had to put a Labour figure in the front line, for to have chosen a Tory or LibDem would have guaranteed defeat. But to pick Alistair Darling, the personification of right-wing Blairism, was hardly an improvement. What the Better Together Campaign was offering Scotland was the status quo – that is, more of the same: more unemployment, cuts and falling living standards.
The people of Scotland, and particularly the working class, regard the Westminster cesspit with feelings of revulsion. Ever since the dark days of Margaret Thatcher they have developed a deep loathing for the Tory Party that deliberately destroyed Scottish industry and decimated whole communities in the mining areas. In the past the Conservatives had a strong base in Scotland. Now just one lone Scottish MP sits on the Conservative benches in the Westminster parliament.
Such is the hatred for the Conservatives in Scotland that the Prime Minister dared not show his face there during the referendum campaign, at least in open public meetings. The Financial Times commented: “The absence of David Cameron has been a reminder of how far the Conservatives have fallen since Margaret Thatcher used Scotland as a laboratory of her liberal ideologies. The prime minister has paid only a handful of visits. The most potent nationalist slogan declared that a Yes vote would mean ‘No more Tory governments – ever’. Austerity has not helped the British cause”.
It is no accident that proletarian Glasgow voted Yes. In other urban centres such as Dundee, large sections of the working class, many of them lifelong Labour voters, voted yes in the referendum. That is beyond all question. Did this vote mean that the Scottish working class has abandoned a class position in favour of nationalism? Such an interpretation is entirely false. As a matter of fact, the Yes vote, albeit in a confused way, represented a class vote, a vote against the Tories in Westminster, a vote against the rich and powerful, a vote against the effete and degenerate English ruling class and the rotten political Establishment that are only their marionettes and hired prostitutes.
The press carried many interviews with working class Scots who left no doubt about why they had voted Yes. The most common answer was simply: “To end Tory rule forever”. One woman told the Financial Times on 21st September: “Why am I voting yes? The rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer. We need a change”. Another was quoted as saying: “It had nothing to do with hating the English or nationalism. We voted for a better life for our children”. Similar quotes can be multiplied at will.. Opinion polls show that the Yes vote had a majority support in the lower income groups. In other words, the Yes vote was essentially a class vote.
Crimes of right-wing Labour
Far more than the Conservatives and Liberals, the right-wing Labour leaders must bear the responsibility for alienating the working people of Scotland to the point where they despair of any meaningful change coming about through Westminster. It is this deep seated mood of betrayal that explains why proletarian Glasgow voted Yes. For decades the Labour Party has held a dominant position in Scotland. But it has been undermined by the unparalleled degeneration of the Labour leadership.
The workers of Scotland understand that the Lib-Dems and Tories are head and tail of the same capitalist coin. But what of Labour? I well remember as a young man in South Wales that the Labour Party enjoyed the overwhelming loyalty of the working class. So great was this loyalty that they used to say in Swansea: we do not count the votes, we weigh them. The old widow who lived next door said that when her husband died he told her: vote Labour, even if they put a donkey up (which they frequently did).
It was the same story in Scotland for many years. But now things have changed. The Blairite counterrevolution in the Labour Party has disappointed and alienated many people in Scotland who always voted Labour. The domination of the Parliamentary Labour Party by smartly dressed middle class lawyers, doctors, solicitors and lecturers from Islington and Hampstead has made people wonder what difference there is between these so-called representatives of Labour and the upper class Tory toffs sitting on the benches opposite.
The Blair years disillusioned many former loyal Labour supporters. Betrayal after betrayal alienated and disgusted working class people who drew the conclusion that “they are all the same.” The price to be paid for years of “me-too” politics at Westminster is a sharp fall in Labour’s support in Scotland. People are sick and tired of the sight of Labour leaders trying to beat the Tories at their own game of austerity and cuts. The nauseating spectacle of Labour joining the unholy united front of Tories and Lib-Dems in the referendum campaign was the last straw for many. The hapless Ed Miliband appears to have achieved the impossible: according to the polls, he is even less popular in Scotland than David Cameron. The Financial Times remarked on 20-21/9/2014:
“While the Labour leader threw himself into the campaign in its final days following a shock opinion poll giving the Yes side a lead, he found himself upstaged by his predecessor, Gordon Brown.” At least Gordon Brown had the sense not to appear too much on joint platforms with the Tories – not that this did him much good. They are all tarred with the stinking brush of New Labourism.
The same paper commented on the slump in Labour’s support, attributing it in part to Labour’s neglect of its traditional working class base:
“Such neglect, combined with the disquieting sight of them sharing a platform with the Tories, has led to a swift collapse in Labour’s popularity. There is no sign of the tide turning against the nationalists, who have tripled their membership in two months.”
What Jim Murphy stands for
One opinion poll after the Referendum gave the SNP 52% of the vote and Labour 23%. If these figures were repeated in a general election, Labour in Scotland would be reduced from 41 seats to just four, while the SNP would win 50 seats. Maybe this overstates the real relationship of forces. It is possible that as the general election draws near, Labour will increase its support to some extent. But such is the depth of disappointment with Labour that the Party now faces an uphill task to prevent the SNP replacing it as the dominant force in Scotland’s Westminster representation.
The Financial Times comments:
“Finally, Mr Miliband has discovered the limits to his popularity in Scotland. Having travelled to the relative security of affluent Edinburgh, the Labour leader found himself hounded out of a shopping centre by Yes campaign supporters who shouted insults, calling him a ‘f****** liar’ and a ‘serial murderer’. If Mr Miliband needed proof of Labour’s declining grip on Scotland, it came in that Edinburgh shopping centre, and again on Thursday night in Glasgow, the former Labour stronghold that was one of only a handful of Scottish voting districts to choose Yes.”
Labour’s cause has not been helped by the election of extreme Blairite right-winger Jim Murphy as its new leader in Scotland. Unions such as Unite backed the “soft Left” Neil Findlay as a “genuine alternative” for Scottish Labour. Just how much of an alternative he would have been is open to question, but in any case, he was defeated by a combination of the votes of Scottish Labour MPs, but also by the majority of the local Constituency organisations. The latter detail shows just how far the the Party has degenerated.
The Guardian crowed:
“Mr Murphy was his party’s clear choice. Labour in Scotland still uses the electoral college system that the UK party has now abandoned for leadership elections, and in it he won the MSP/MP/MEP section overwhelmingly, carried the individual members with a clear majority and did well enough in the affiliates section. This last vote carried the most important message. Key trade unions, above all Unite, had spent enormous amounts of money and effort to thwart Mr Murphy, and the new leader took 40% of the mainly trade union votes in this section nevertheless. It was enough to give him the overall victory. It also shows the extent to which the big unions are out of touch with their membership.”
What the result really showed is the extent to which Scottish Labour is out of touch with the people of Scotland. The Blairite Murphy, who is approximately as inspirational as a codfish on a fishmonger’s slab, demagogically claims that he will be “independent of London”. These words strike an ironic note on the lips of a man who campaigned for the Union with an almost religious fervour. One can only suppose that his alleged independence from London means that even Ed Miliband is too left-wing for this unreconstructed Blairite. He offers the people of Scotland the same old Blairite slop warmed up and served with a light sprinkling of nationalist sauce – a dish that is just as unappetising in its new guise as it was before.
When the result was announced one woman wrote to The Guardian:
“I would love to believe that Jim Murphy is the man for the job (Editorial: Jim Murphy has a huge task ahead. All Labour supporters should unite behind him, 15 December). But can I really accept that a New Labour Blairite, in favour of Trident, who supported the war in Iraq, can reach out to the people who deserted Labour to vote yes? Or people such as me who deserted Labour over the Iraq war? Nicola Sturgeon will have no trouble in representing him as the man sent to run the branch office.
“As a long-standing member of Unite in Scotland I take issue with your editorial’s assertion that, in opposing Jim Murphy, Unite showed itself to be out of touch with its members in Scotland.
“Many Unite members have opted out of the political levy in protest against its being used to support a Labour Party which has shown itself to be less and less concerned with social justice and the rights of workers. They were thus ineligible to vote in the leadership election. Murphy’s record of support for Trident, for continuing austerity and for opposition to devo max might make him representative of Labour Party parliamentarians, but not of many trade unionists.
“Indeed a major future issue for Unite will be to assess how the political fund is used and to consider changing the present policy, whereby the Labour Party is the only political party to be financially supported.
“Rev David Mumford,
In the sharpest contrast to the bitter disappointment of Labour activists, Nicola Sturgeon, the new SNP leader and Scotland’s First Minister, gave the new leader of Scottish Labour her warmest congratulations. Her words were not without a noticeable dose of irony. She could scarcely conceal her glee at the news of Murphy’s election.
The Scottish nationalists
he defeat of the Yes campaign has not led to the decline of nationalism in Scotland. On the contrary, it has been transformed into a new and powerful swing towards the SNP. Immediately after the referendum, Alex Salmond reported that the SNP had reached 85,101 members, more than triple the pre-referendum total. By the next day, nearly 800 more had joined. The Party now has in the region of 100,000 members. In comparison to the size of population, this would make it the biggest political party in Britain.
The significance of the rise of the SNP is recognised by the strategists of Capital. The Financial Times (17/11/2014) wrote: “With its triumphal leadership transition and capacity crowds, the Scottish National Party’s conference in Perth offered a timely window into the psychology and ambitions of the UK’s fastest-growing political force.” In an editorial in the same issue we read: “Support for the Scottish National Party has soared, promising to change politics in Scotland and the rest of the UK.” If the most far-sighted representatives of the bourgeoisie have drawn these conclusions, the Marxists cannot remain indifferent to these important developments. What attitude should we take?
In every national movement there are all kinds of cross currents and tendencies representing different and opposing class interests. It is the duty of Marxists to analyse the real class content of every case and to carefully distinguish what is progressive from what is reactionary. This is particularly necessary in those cases (which are fairly common) where the bourgeois nationalists try to present themselves in progressive or even “socialist”, colouring.
It is in the interests of the capitalists of the oppressed nationality to present themselves as the representatives of the “whole Nation”, as the “People’s friends” and so on and so forth. There can be nothing more harmful than Left groups and parties who allow themselves to be taken in by this demagogy of the nationalist bourgeoisie. Lenin conducted a ruthless struggle against the dominant Great Russian ruling class, but he waged an equally implacable fight against the bourgeois nationalists of the oppressed nations: Ukrainians, Poles, Jews etc. He wrote:
“Those who seek to serve the proletariat must unite the workers of all nations, and unswervingly fight bourgeois nationalism, domestic and foreign. The place of those who advocate the slogan of national culture is among the nationalist petty bourgeois, not among the Marxists.” (Lenin Critical Remarks on the National Question October-December 1913)
Here we have the authentic voice of Lenin on the national question. Alongside the slogan of the right to self-determination, Lenin always emphasised the need to maintain the unity of the working class and its organisations. Above all in the field of the national question it is essential to maintain a very strict and unambiguous class line. Unfortunately, in the referendum campaign there was a tendency of some sections of the Scottish Left, including some who call themselves Marxists, to tail-end the nationalists. That is the road to disaster. There can be no more deceitful slogan than that of “national unity”. When a Glasgow proletarian says: “I am for an independent Scotland because I think that would serve the interests of my class,” we believe him. But when Alex Salmond says that an independent Scotland would serve the interests of the Scottish people, we do not.
During an often bitter campaign the nationalists gained popularity by seeming to take the side of ordinary Scots against the British Establishment. The SNP leaders were sufficiently astute to realise that in order to win support in the working class, it was necessary to break with the old image of “Tartan Tories” and adopt a “left” face. But the facts show the contradictory position of the Scottish nationalist leaders who, while publicly posing as a “left” force, preserve close links with Big Business.
When analysing the arguments of the Nationalists it is always necessary to read the small print with the aid of a magnifying glass. The SNP leaders shout loudly about independence but at the same time say they will retain the Queen as the Head of State. How can any democrat support keeping an unelected English Monarchy in an independent Scotland? And how does membership of NATO square with a break from imperialism and imperialist wars which was one of the arguments for breaking the Union?
The nationalists also want to keep the pound sterling as the “national” currency. What does that mean? It means that in an “independent” Scotland, the most fundamental levers of economic power would remain in the hands of the powerful bankers in Threadneedle Street. It would mean that Scotland’s monetary policy would be under the control of an unelected committee in the “independent” Bank of England.
The SNP leaders are always careful to say they want to attract investment, that they are “business friendly” and that an independent Scotland will be “competitive”. But on a capitalist basis, being “competitive” and attracting foreign investment (that means above all investment from the City of London) implies holding down wages and lowering corporate tax in order to guarantee high profit margins. How does this square with the pledges to increase living standards for the people of Scotland?
Last but not least, an independent Scotland within the EU would have to obey the rules and regulations from Brussels, including strict criteria for budget deficit and national debt, whether it wanted to or not. All this means that Scottish independence would have had a purely illusory character from the very beginning. It would not solve any of the fundamental problems of the working class.
Long before Ireland achieved formal independence from British rule, the great Marxist James Connolly (who incidentally was born in Edinburgh) warned the workers:
“If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organization of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs.” (Shan Van Vocht January, 1897, reprinted in James Connolly – Selected Writings, p. 124.)
Class contradictions in the SNP
It is the duty of workers to fight against their own bourgeoisie. The Scottish workers must fight the Scottish bankers and capitalists. The workers of the rest of these Isles must fight their own bankers and capitalists. And in practice, this is the same struggle, because the bankers and capitalists are inextricably linked. It is no accident that at the height of the referendum, big Scottish banks like RBS were threatening to move to London if the Yes vote won. The patriotism of the Scottish bankers therefore lies neither in the Highlands nor the Lowlands, but in the cash deposits of the City of London and the Bank of England.
The leaders of the SNP have got the support of a section of bankers and capitalists in Scotland. But the most decisive layer is joined by the hip to the British ruling class and the City of London. During the referendum campaign a number of big banks and businesses threatened to pull out of Scotland and move to London if the Yes vote won. This was correctly seen by the people of Scotland as part of a scare campaign intended to blackmail them into voting No. On the list of the capitalist blackmailers were BP, John Lewis, B&Q owner Kingfisher, Asda, Next, Lloyds Banking Group, Royal Bank of Scotland and Standard Life.
Faced with this shameless blackmail of the bankers and big business, what should the reaction have been? Jim Sillars, the former Labour MP who stands on the left of the SNP, made a statement threatening these companies with nationalisation. That was the only correct response to the shameful blackmail of Big Business. But Sillars was immediately repudiated by the SNP leadership. The Financial Times gloated:
“The Yes campaign sought to distance itself from Mr Sillars’ remarks. His suggestions differ sharply from party policy, as the SNP has repeatedly assured oil companies that their interests in the North Sea would be protected after independence. ‘Jim is a passionate campaigner who is carrying on the work of his late wife Margo Macdonald, who dedicated her political life to achieving an independent Scotland and a fairer society’, the Yes campaign said.” (Financial Times, 13-14 September 2014, my emphasis, AW)
This was a very interesting episode, and one that showed more clearly than anything else the class fault lines that divide the Scottish nation, just as every other nation on earth. We are the first to grant that Alex Salmond is a very skilful politician. He is particularly skilful in appearing to be all things to all men. But here we see how the smiling “left” mask slips to reveal the cunning, cynical and calculating face of a Scottish bourgeois politician. We must say to him: You can serve the interests of the Scottish workers or those of the Scottish bankers, Mr. Salmond. But you cannot serve both.
In an attempt to break away from its old image of the “Tartan Tories” the SNP has been playing the left card and presenting itself as a kind of Social Democratic party to the left of Labour. Given Labour’s constant drift to the right this is really not very difficult. It has increased its credibility by carrying out policies like free tuition and bus travel. As a result, it is continuing the trend set by the referendum, winning over more and more disaffected Labour voters.
In its class composition, the SNP is a mixed bag. Most of the leaders stand for “capitalism with a human face”, an animal that is completely unknown either to zoology or to political economy. But an increasing number of its new members are working class people who have broken with Labour precisely because it was not left-wing enough. In future these class contradictions will come to the fore. The tripling of the membership will make it harder to maintain the discipline the Party has shown. One SNP member of the Scottish parliament told the Financial Times: “It is impossible to know how policy debates will play out in the future, since we don’t know who the party is now”. Gordon Wilson, a former party leader, is already warning that excessive expectations could be a problem for the SNP.
It is impossible to predict with any degree of certainty the result of the next general election. Nicola Sturgeon is already claiming that voting for the SNP is the only way to keep pressure on Westminster to honour the pledges made during the referendum campaign, saying real devolution would be the price of any post-May co-operation with a Labour government. If the SNP wins enough seats to hold the balance of power in Westminster, she says she will demand policy changes on austerity and nuclear weapons as the price of working with Labour. And she has ruled out any coalition with the Conservatives.
The SNP will undoubtedly increase its presence in Westminster and it is not impossible that it may indeed hold the balance of power. But if it fails to reach an agreement with Labour, the result may well be to let the Conservatives into power. The SNP will have to accept part of the responsibility for this, and that can open up splits that have so far been buried by its immediate successes. On the other hand, if they were to reach an agreement with the right wing Labour leadership they would also have to accept responsibility for cuts and austerity. Up till now the SNP has enjoyed the advantages of being in opposition. But the expected devolution of new powers over taxation will make it more difficult for the SNP to blame Westminster for the cuts and austerity that it will have to introduce.
Marxists and the National Question
In order to determine what attitude Marxists should take to these issues it is necessary to go back to fundamentals. There is perhaps no part of Lenin’s teachings that has been so misunderstood and misinterpreted than his writings on the national question. It is widely assumed that Lenin defended self-determination as a fundamental principle, when what he actually defended was the right of nations to self-determination, which is entirely different.
Moreover, Lenin by no means defended that right in all cases and under all circumstances, but explained that it was always subordinate to the general interests of the working class and the international proletarian revolution. As a matter of fact, it is an elementary proposition of Marxism that as a general rule, larger states are preferable to smaller ones. Marx pointed this out many times and so did Lenin: “For a Marxist, of course, all other conditions being equal, big states are always preferable to small ones.” (Lenin, The National programme of the RSDLP, Dec. 15, 1918)
“Marxists are, of course, opposed to federation and decentralisation, for the simple reason that capitalism requires for its development the largest and most centralised possible states. Other conditions being equal, the class-conscious proletariat will always stand for the larger state. It will always fight against medieval particularism, and will always welcome the closest possible economic amalgamation of large territories in which the proletariat’s struggle against the bourgeoisie can develop on a broad basis. “ (Lenin, Critical Remarks on the national question, 6)
However, all other conditions are not always equal, and under certain circumstances it will be necessary to support the right of one nation to separate from another and establish its own state. Whether or not the Marxists support the demand for separation is a concrete question that must be evaluated by the actual circumstances.
The Great French Revolution of the 18th century was fought under the banner of The Republic, One and Indivisible. In the given historical circumstances, that was a correct, progressive and revolutionary slogan. It was not the French revolutionaries but the royalist counter-revolutionaries who tried to base themselves on local particularism (e.g. the Vendee) and the hatred of the backward provinces for revolutionary Paris. Here the revolution necessarily took the form of the most ruthless centralism. But times and circumstances change. The advent of imperialism gave a new content to the national question.
As part of the struggle against imperialism, Lenin argued that the working class must defend the rights of oppressed nations, up to and including the right to separate if the majority was in favour of it. But Lenin’s attitude was a negative one. That is to say, Marxists are against the forcible retention of any people within a state to which they do not wish to belong:
“The proletariat demands a democracy that rules out the forcible retention of any one of the nations within the bounds of the state. ‘In order not to infringe on the right to self-determination’, therefore, we are duty bound not ‘to vote for secession’, as the wily Mr. Semkovsky assumes, but to vote for the right of the seceding region to decide the question itself.” (Lenin, The National Programme of the R.S.D.L.P., Dec. 15, 1918)
This is perfectly clear. Marxists are bound to defend the right of a nation to self-determination, but we are by no means bound to demand separation. If the people of Scotland vote in a referendum or in a parliamentary vote for independence, we would be duty bound to support it. At the end of the day only the people of Scotland can decide whether they wish to continue as part of the United Kingdom or to separate from it and form a separate state. That is their inalienable right and nobody has the right to deny it.
However, we are under no obligation to advocate or to vote for separation, but only to uphold the democratic right of a nation to decide its own destiny. There is a parallel between the right of a nation to self-determination and the right to divorce or abortion. We do not say that we are for abortion or divorce, but we are absolutely in favour of the right to abortion and the right to divorce. We do not say that a pregnant woman must abort. That would be simply absurd. But we uphold the absolute right of a woman to decide what she does with her own body, including the right to terminate a pregnancy.
Similarly, divorce is a democratic right. If a relationship breaks down, and one of the two sides wishes to break the link and separate, that is a democratic right that nobody can deny. Lenin is very clear on this:
“The recognition of the right to self-determination is, Mr. Semkovsky assures us, ‘playing into the hands of the most thorough-paced bourgeois nationalism’. This is childish nonsense since the recognition of the right does not exclude either propaganda and agitation against separation or the exposure of bourgeois nationalism.”
Rosa Luxemburg was an intransigent internationalist, but her internationalism had a somewhat abstract character. She went too far when she denied Poland’s right to self-determination. Answering Luxemburg, Lenin said, in effect: I understand that, as a Polish Marxist, your first duty is to fight against Pilsudski and the Polish bourgeois nationalists. But as a Russian Marxist (Russia was the dominant imperialist power in Poland) it is my duty to defend Poland’s right to self-determination, because only in this way can we preserve the solidarity of the Russian and Polish people.
Rosa Luxemburg was wrong on the national question but her error was grounded in her firm belief in proletarian internationalism, which Lenin fully shared. The Scottish Marxists did their internationalist duty when they opposed bourgeois nationalism. But since then the situation in Scotland has undergone a fundamental change. The mood changed swiftly in the course of the campaign, which polarised public opinion sharply. It would be foolish to deny a fact that is now evident to all but the blindest of the blind.
Playing with fire
The referendum vote meant a fairly narrow victory for the No campaign but it alarmed the serious strategists of Capital. The Financial Times expressed the fears of the bourgeoisie when it wrote: “Populism finds its loudest voice in any angry call to arms against the political establishment.” And it concluded:
“There is no easy answer. Anyone sensible who has been watching events in Scotland will draw unnerving conclusions. If today’s elites do not provide more closely accountable government they will be swept aside by the politics of exclusion. A globalisation that enriches the richest and impoverishes the rest is not sustainable”. (Financial Times, 17/11/2014)
Two days later the same paper carried an article entitled: Scotland’s vote exposes established order. And so it did. It also exposed a dangerous fault line in society: not only in Scotland but throughout Britain. Yet Cameron, instead of pouring oil on troubled waters, continues to pour petrol on the flames of the national question. Trotsky once said that the British ruling class did not think in years but centuries. But the decline of British capitalism has been mirrored in the declining intellectual calibre of its leaders. Nowadays the strategists of British capitalism do not think at all and they see no further than the end of their noses.
Only days before, the Westminster Establishment and Cameron himself were in a state of panic as the imminent breakup of the Union after 300 years was staring them in the face. Having secured a very narrow and fragile majority for the No vote, which was obtained in large measure by promising a big extension of devolution for Scotland, the Conservative leader now staged a blatant provocation.
Having recklessly risked the breakup of the United Kingdom on a gambler’s throw, Cameron then tried to cheat and deceive the people of Scotland on the promise of more devolution. The day after the result of the referendum was announced, Cameron immediately began to manoeuvre. He said. “Just as the people of Scotland will have more powers over their affairs, so it follows that people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland must have bigger say over theirs”.
This was clearly a cynical manoeuvre directed against both Scotland’s right to greater autonomy and against the Labour Party. If Scottish MPs are denied the right to vote on “English issues”, it could mean that the Labour Party will not be able to get a majority in the Westminster Parliament. The Financial Times writes: “Those close to the prime minister say he is serious about English votes for English laws”.
Pursuing his own narrow ends by placating his own right wing, Cameron is threatening to deny the right of Scottish MPs in the London parliament to vote on “English” issues. This is posed as a direct threat to the Labour Party, which still depends on the votes of Scottish Labour MPs to win a majority in parliament. The Labour leaders had become habituated to treating Scotland as a dependable 40-seat voting bloc. But this option is no longer open to them. The people of Scotland have shown that they are no longer prepared to be used as voting fodder by politicians in Westminster.
Ed Miliband is therefore caught in an awkward dilemma. On the one hand, he is under pressure from his Scottish MPs to deliver on promises of further devolution. On the other hand, he is fearful of what this might mean for his chances of winning a majority in the House of Commons. For Cameron’s suggestion, if taken to its logical conclusion, might prevent Scottish MPs from voting on the Budget, as well as on legislation affecting other policy areas devolved to Scotland.
For the sake of short-term electoral and party considerations, Cameron risks putting the national question back on the agenda. This is a blatant attempt to derail Scottish devolution and create conflict and rivalry between the Scots and the rest of the United Kingdom. It aims to please the most reactionary sections of the Tory Party, the Little Englanders, chauvinists and closet racists who are tempted to join Ukip. It is also playing with fire. If they persist in this, it can finally lead to the breakup of the United Kingdom. No wonder the SNP leaders greeted it with undisguised glee.
Thus the question of Scottish independence has not gone away. The SNP will denounce any settlement short of maximum devolution as a betrayal of promises made in the heat of the referendum campaign. They will use this as an argument for re-opening the case for full independence. Before stepping down as Party leader, Alex Salmond hinted at demands for a second referendum if the Scots do not get what they want. The demand for independence can re-emerge with redoubled force. That will especially be the case when a future Labour government once again disappoints the hopes of the people.
Build the forces of Scottish Marxism!
The only real solution for the people of Scotland, as also for the peoples of England, Wales and Ireland is the overthrow of capitalism and the expropriation of the rotten and parasitic clique that rules from the City of London. Any other solution, on a capitalist basis, is doomed to failure. That is what the Marxists say, and it is absolutely true. But the forces of Marxism are weak and our feeble voice is drowned out by the monstrous din of the capitalist mass media.
It is the weakness of Marxism that is the problem. To many workers – even the most advanced workers – although they may sympathise with what we say, it all seems too difficult, too radical to be immediately practical. “That is all very well”, they say, “but we need to do something now.” To “do something now” to many people in Scotland is to separate from the rest of the United Kingdom, to declare independence, to say goodbye to the scoundrel clique in Westminster, or, as they say: “to put an end to Tory rule forever.”
We have to recognise that, mainly as a result of the betrayals of the Labour leaders, many of the most militant and progressive elements in Scotland now see no alternative to independence. This is an indisputable fact and it must determine how we proceed. We know that independence on a capitalist basis would solve nothing for the Scottish working class. But retaining the Union on a capitalist basis would be no better. If it is true that Marxists are under no obligation to advocate separation, still less are we under any obligation to defend the capitalist United Kingdom.
It would be futile and counterproductive to argue that, since socialism is the only answer, the Scottish people should continue to support the Union on a capitalist basis. Do we say to the workers that they should not strike for higher wages because their problems can only be solved under socialism? Such an argument (which by the way was put forward in the past by the likes of Proudhon and are still repeated by fossilised sects like the SPGB in Britain) has nothing in common with Marxism, but are a mechanical and formalistic caricature of Marxism.
If we are to reach the very important layer of radicalised workers and youth in Scotland who have illusions in the possibility of solving their problems through independence, we must adopt a friendly attitude, not one of doctrinaire lecturing. We should say: The aim of getting rid of the Tories and the reactionary clique in Westminster is one that we share. But will it really be achieved by declaring independence on a capitalist basis? Or will the people of Scotland merely exchange one clique of exploiters for another? More to the point, will they manage to separate from the yoke of the bankers of the City of London at all?
The idea that an independent capitalist Scotland would be somehow fairer, more just and equal than at present is an attractive one, but does not stand up to close analysis. The crisis of capitalism would not hit an independent Scotland any less than now and in fact it would be even harder. The recent collapse in the price of oil in the international market shows that even the idea that an independent capitalist Scotland could rely on the oil revenue to fund a welfare state is an illusion. A small country like Scotland would be entirely at the mercy of international capitalism.
And since Alex Salmond has made it clear that the banks would still rule Scotland, they would continue to determine its destinies to a very large extent. In order to attract private businesses to Scotland, it would be necessary to guarantee a higher rate of profit, which would mean lowering the taxes on the rich, not increasing them, while holding down the wages of the workers and restricting public spending. That is not what the SNP promises, of course, but it is the inescapable consequence of the pro-business agenda of its leaders. If you say A, you must say B,C and D. If you accept the capitalist system, then you must also accept the laws of capitalist economics.
Of course, none of this is an argument against Scottish independence, since the people of Scotland would face exactly the same problems if they remained part of the United Kingdom. In that sense, the arguments of the Better Together campaign were even more false and misleading. What is necessary is a radical break with capitalism. That is what must be placed at the top of the agenda. To argue that the problems of the working class can be solved under the present system is a lie and a deception of the people – whether Scotland is independent or not.
“We must do something”
The argument that “we must do something now” is one we have heard many times. It sounds eminently practical but is often quite hollow. In the context of the national question, it is only a variant of the old discredited Stalinist theory of stages, according to which the working class must subordinate itself to the demands of the bourgeois and petty bourgeois democrats and postpone the struggle for socialism to a dim and distant future. This was the argument, not of the Bolsheviks but of the Menshevik reformists, which Lenin always fought tooth and nail against.
We might add that the national question in Russia was solved as a by-product of socialist revolution, and could never have been solved without it. To the self-styled practical people who argue that we must achieve independence first and only then pose the question of socialism, Lenin replied as follows:
“The national cause comes first and the proletarian cause second, the bourgeois nationalists say, with the Yurkeviches, Dontsovs and similar would-be Marxists repeating it after them. The proletarian cause must come first, we say, because it not only protects the lasting and fundamental interests of labour and of humanity, but also those of democracy; and without democracy neither an autonomous nor an independent Ukraine is conceivable.” (Lenin, Critical Remarks on the National Question, October-December 1913)
In order to reach the most advanced elements it is necessary to fight for democratic demands, including national-democratic demands. It is the duty of all Marxists to fight for the maximum devolution for Scotland as a democratic demand. And if in the future the majority of the people of Scotland express their desire to separate from the United Kingdom, Marxists must defend that right unconditionally. For the right of self-determination is an elementary democratic right. To oppose it would be to advocate the forcible retention of Scotland within a framework that is rejected by the people. That would be to place oneself on the standpoint of British imperialism, the British state, the Tories and the most reactionary elements in society.
However, at the same time as upholding this democratic right, we also have a duty to bring sharply to the fore the class question, defending the need for class unity, against the dividing of the working class and its organisations along national lines and combatting the pernicious influence of bourgeois and petty bourgeois nationalist ideas. There must be no question of setting up independent Scottish trade unions. The bosses are our enemy, whether north or south of the border. We stand for the unity of Scottish, Welsh, English and Irish workers against the bosses, since unity is the only weapon with which the working class can defend itself and fight for its interests.
We stand for the programme and policies of Lenin, Connolly and MacLean. Our slogan is: no trust in the bourgeois nationalists! For a workers’ united front against the bourgeoisie and its political agents! Do not trust the SNP! Fight for a Socialist Workers’ Republic! However, we know that the struggle for a Socialist Scotland cannot take place in isolation but must be linked to the spread of socialist revolution throughout these islands and internationally. We totally reject the reactionary one-sidenessea of “socialism in one country.” Socialism is international or it is nothing and is determined by the international character of capitalism itself.
In the period of the rise of capitalism, it played a progressive role in overthrowing feudal particularism, abolishing the petty local states and tariff barriers that divided nations and establishing the modern nation states on the basis of the national market. But in the first decades of the 21st century, the nation state has become a reactionary barrier that, together with private property of the means of production, is acting as a monstrous brake on human progress. Globalization is itself only a distorted recognition of this fact.
Internationalism for us is not an optional extra but a fundamental necessity. The present world crisis is irrefutable proof of the need for economic planning on a global scale, which can only be achieved by the abolition of capitalist anarchy and its replacement by a harmonious socialist plan. Only an international commonwealth of the toilers can eliminate the causes of wars and conflicts between different nations, cutting the ground from under the racists and eradicating the poison of chauvinism and national one-sidedness.
The task of the proletariat is not to erect new frontiers but to sweep away all the frontiers that separate humankind and create a new world system in which competition, rivalry, national hatreds and destructive wars will be replaced by voluntary union, co-operation, and solidarity. Therefore, the struggle for socialism in Scotland can only succeed if it is part of the wider struggle for a Socialist Federation of Scotland, Wales, Ireland and England and the Socialist United States of Europe as the first step towards a Socialist World Federation, the only lasting solution to the problems of all Humanity.