Alex Johnson, IMT Edinburgh
The movement for Scottish independence has started heating up recently. Dozens of Yes groups have been reconvening after a period of ebb in the movement, the All Under One Banner march in Edinburgh saw estimates between 80,000 – 120,000 mobilising in support of an independent Scotland. Similar marches saw 40,000 – 70,000 in Glasgow and 10,000-20,000 in Stirling, Dundee, Dumfries and Inverness. With this upswing in activity, it is useful explain the Marxist approach to Independence.
A Marxist Approach
The national question is always a concrete one. Whenever a national independence movement arises, in any country, on any occurrence, Marxists must examine the material basis of what is underlying the movement, who it is composed of, and what its goals are.
National movements can be progressive and they can be reactionary. They can seek to liberate a people from an imperialist oppressor and they can seek to bolster a country’s position as an imperialist oppressor. They can be composed of and led by different classes, different interests and different end goals. A movement is never entirely homogenous, and most often national movements are made up of myriad groups, interests and goals. We advocate for the right of each nationality to self-determination – to be given a choice of whether to exist as an independent nation state or as part of a larger block – but we do not agree that independence is the best option in every circumstance.
When weighing up whether to stand with an independence movement, it is necessary to consider whether ultimately, the fight for independence and independence in itself will help or hinder the class struggle. Marxists fight for the victory of socialism over capitalism. In everything we do, our decisions are based on the fundamental question – will this bring us closer to the establishment of socialism and the overthrow of capitalism? This can be a complicated question, which must be approached from various angles. Always though, we start and end by examining the concrete circumstances and conditions which underlie a movement at any given moment and adopt a flexible position which is reactive to any changes in circumstance.
In the Transitional Programme, written in 1938, Trotsky wrote that the conditions for world revolution were not only ripe, they were becoming rotten. In the eighty years that have since passed, this has become truer every day. We have the technology, the resources and the power to end the capitalist hell we’re living in and run society ourselves, in our own interests. Threats to the environment and the countless people who die unnecessarily in this system clearly show just how rotten it has become. But still, an out of touch elite interested only in protecting and preserving capitalism are in charge, while the majority remain politically disempowered and disengaged. Marxists understand that there would be little holding the masses back from taking power, if they only realised how powerful they are. The great revolutionary Ted Grant summed it up beautifully when he said, “not a wheel turns or a lightbulb shines without the kind permission of the working class.” It is us, the workers, who make the world go round, not the bosses and politicians.
With this in mind, we pay a great deal of attention to and stand with mass movements which show the workers the power they hold. Support for independence sat at just 28% in January 2014, less than a year before the referendum. This changed dramatically in the weeks leading up to the event and we saw an enormous surge in support with an eventual result of 44.7% in favour of independence in September 2014. It is difficult to deny that a mass movement occurred, with workers and youth mobilising in the hope of a better future. The Yes vote was consistently highest in the most working class areas, such as Glasgow and Dundee and today working class support for independence sits at 53%. After the referendum, far left meetings such as those of Radical Independence Campaign saw attendance of up to 3,000 and groups such as the Scottish Socialist Party had thousands of requests to join coming in overnight. Masses of people across Scotland became active in politics, fighting against austerity and the British establishment.
There was a real belief that if an independent Scotland was won, the mass of people could take some control over their lives. People saw a chance to reject the austerity which Scotland had not voted for and the British Establishment which was clearly rotten to the core. A movement like this actively demonstrates to the workers what they can achieve when they organise, become proactive in politics and take control of their own lives and is an essential school for the masses on the road to establishing socialism. Marxists must stand with the workers when any such progressive mass movement arises. We also need to consider the effect that the defeat of such a movement has on class consciousness. Since shortly after the 2014 referendum, things have been quiet in Scotland compared to the rest of the UK, where the Corbyn movement has been mobilising people. Victory would be hugely inspiring and empowering, while defeat has been shown to have the opposite effect.
Marxists are internationalists, but what does that actually mean? History has shown us that socialism must be international or it is nothing. We are not seeking socialism in just Scotland, or just Britain, or just Europe. We live in a time of globalisation and socialism cannot survive in isolation – we are fighting for the overthrow of capital in every corner of the world. Some take this to mean that no national liberation movements should ever be supported and see them as only a means to divide the working class in different countries, but that is an over simplification of the issue.
As Lenin explained in “Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism”, as capitalism has developed, richer states have expanded and increased their wealth by exploiting the resources of smaller, less developed economies. Many national movements have served to emancipate oppressed nations from the direct rule of foreign imperialist powers. While this does not mean they are emancipated from the boot of foreign capital, it does serve to weaken the imperialist powers. Scotland is a complex case, as it has historically played a significant role in British imperialism and has even attempted to act as an imperialist power itself. In recent decades though, Scotland has suffered particularly badly from de-industrialisation and has been used as a place to store nuclear weapons against the wishes of the population. Thatcher’s use of Scotland as a guinea pig for the deeply unpopular poll tax left an enormous feeling of resentment, which has been compounded by eight years of Tory rule, which of course Scotland did not vote for. Over the last four decades, Scottish people have felt the oppression of the British state particularly keenly. When, under the guise of “Better Together”, the Establishment used media bias, lies and fearmongering to gain a NO vote in 2014, this was felt even more.
A strong, working class led fight for a Scotland which rejects capitalist austerity, rejects the British establishment and embraces socialism could provide a huge impetus for anti-capitalist movements elsewhere, most likely starting in the rest of Britain. The workers of the North of Ireland, Wales and England need little convincing that they are getting a bad deal. Seeing the power of a politically engaged working class taking control and fighting for socialism would most likely inspire huge solidarity between and class struggle across an independent Scotland and the remains of Britain.
However, this very much depends on the nature of the independence movement. An establishment run campaign for another capitalist state based on Scottish patriotism would be far less likely to succeed and would stoke divisions between Scottish and English workers. This is why Marxists put forward a socialist and internationalist case for independence as opposed to the bourgeoise nationalism of the SNP leaders.
Fight for Socialism
While a movement of working class people fighting for an austerity free Scotland, for a break with the British establishment and for socialism is enormously progressive and full of potential, Marxists must always point out that to achieve these goals, we must break with capitalism. Capitalism relies on masses of low paid workers toiling away making profits for a tiny minority of capitalists who are served by the state. As long as Scotland remains a capitalist country, we will live in conditions of extreme inequality, the state will be in the pockets of big business and the people will not really hold power.
National independence movements alone can only ever win a struggle for negatives – against direct rule of one nation by another, against the suppression of national culture etc. Separating as an independent nation state alone cannot defeat austerity, corruption and imperialist war. These are questions of class struggle, not national struggle alone.
However, this does not mean we should ignore independence struggles in favour of a blinkered, strictly socialist approach, as some have concluded. This is really a false dichotomy which ignores the dialectical relationship between class struggles and national struggles. As Trotsky explained, “The sectarian simply ignores the fact that the national struggle, one of the most labyrinthine and complex but at the same time extremely important forms of class struggle, cannot be suspended by bare references to the future world revolution.” While we understand that a revolutionary movement placing the means of production into the hands of the workers all over the world is the only solution to the problems of the working class, we know that, like the struggle for women’s liberation and black emancipation, the national question can be a fundamental stepping stone to a class conscious, Marxist perspective.
The Scottish born revolutionary, James Connolly wrote extensively about the connection between the national question in Ireland and the need for socialism. Much of his writing is just as relevant to Scotland today as it was to Ireland at the turn of the 20th century. He explained, “If you remove the English army to-morrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation 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.”
With this always at the forefront of our minds, we stand in support of Scottish Independence. Not for an independent capitalist Scotland, but for a Scottish Workers’ Republic as part of a worldwide federation of socialist states.