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Scottish Independence: A Reply to Alan McCombes

Mary Ward

ALAN McCOMBES, the editor of Scottish Socialist Voice, is the most influential theoretician within the ranks of Scottish Militant Labour (SML). Along with Philip Stott and others, he has guided SML through its phase as an autonomous section of the Socialist Party (SP) to become the leading grouping within the Scottish Socialist Alliance (SSA) and now the main movers in the founding of the new Scottish Socialist Party (SSP).

His article ("Scottish Independence and the Struggle for Socialism", reprinted in What Next? No.9, contains within it many truths regarding the history of the national question in Scotland and the current situation. However, unlike the advocates of the 80/20 formula (socialists should concentrate on the 80% of factors which unite us and ignore the 20% we disagree on – this is advocated most strongly within the Socialist Alliances of England and Wales), I intend to focus on the crucial 20%.

This has been the method of revolutionaries within the Scottish Socialist Alliance since its inception and it remains to be seen whether this will, or can, continue within the new SSP. Driving home our differences in debate has not meant that unity in action has been impossible. On the contrary, the practice of allowing individuals and organisations to unite where they can, but produce their own materials and propaganda on issues where disagreement existed, meant the creation of a genuine and honest united front. This has been able to command popular support in community and industrial campaigns and fare generally as well as the Socialist Labour Party or the Socialist Party in elections.

Sadly, the policy change of SML to support for an "independent socialist Scotland" has gone through virtually unchallenged within the ranks of SML itself. The Socialist Party also wholeheartedly embraced this change, rather short-sightedly failing to see the opportunist connection between this move and the formation of the SSP along lines which they and the majority of their international organisation – the Committee for a Workers International – objected to.

The only serious challenge within the SSA to this policy change came from ourselves. We have argued consistently that the way to defeat nationalism is not by capitulating to it but by taking it on and exposing it as an ideology antithetical to Marxism.

In the Campaign for a Federal Republic, we neither ignore the national question nor pander to nationalism. As McCombes shows, the national question has not been quelled by the creation of a Scottish parliament and I agree that there is potential for the call for independence to grow even more as the parliament is shown to be weak and inevitably comes into conflict with Westminster. However, this is not a reason for supporting the nationalist call for independence. It is a reason for all Marxists and revolutionaries to take the national question with the utmost seriousness and to work towards resolving it through uniting further the working class throughout the UK.

This does not mean support for the Union. On the contrary, the Campaign for a Federal Republic wants to see a challenge to the Union and the constitutional monarchy from below. We have been ardent fighters for Scotland’s right to self-determination. Far from being agnostic over how that right should be exercised, we have advocated the federal republic position. To answer comrade McCombes, we do not believe that "federal" confuses people any more than the word "socialist" does. Revolutionary organisations must seek to clarify such terms both for themselves and for the working class as a whole. McCombes and others have a tendency to dumb down their political terminology and consequently their politics by this constant philistinism and appealing to the lowest common denominator. This was witnessed during the Scottish referendum when SML and the SSA abandoned principle in favour of populism.

During the referendum, Scottish politics divided into three camps. On the right were the Tories who opposed Labour’s devolution plans. In the centre was a broad popular front of forces backing Labour’s plans. This bloc included the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party (SNP), the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), SML and SSA. On the left were republicans and communists including the Campaign for Genuine Self-Determination, the Campaign for a Scottish Republic and small communist groups such as the CPGB/Weekly Worker, the Revolutionary Democratic Group and the Republican Workers’ Tendency.

In the major cities, there were mass abstentions by working class voters. In Glasgow, for example, 49% abstained, 42% backed Blair and only 8% said no. This was despite the massive propaganda campaign waged by the forces of the government-sponsored popular front Scotland Forward. The tension within the working class between whether to vote yes or abstain was reflected within the Scottish Socialist Alliance. SML and other forces voted yes while the left – the Red Republicans and members of the CPGB – urged boycott.

Working class people in Scotland wanted far more than Blair’s parliament had on offer. They wanted the power to decide their constitutional relationship with the rest of the UK. This was never on the agenda for Blair. The SSA missed an important opportunity to lead the boycott of the referendum on the basis that the Mickey Mouse parliament was not enough. The Alliance could have differentiated itself from the nationalists by arguing against the Labour/SNP coalition on democratic grounds. If McCombes and SML had had the courage of their own convictions they could have argued for a republican and a federal solution, leading the working class away from nationalism and Unionism.

However, devolution seemed a popular policy. So SML tried to convince the working class that this was the policy for them. Even in Glasgow, though, where SML are strongest, the majority of working class people were not buying it and quite rightly decided to stay at home.

SML drew their own lessons. They needed a new policy and the SNP were on hand to provide them with one. All SML needed to do was to dress it up in socialist language. The growth of support for the SNP in Scottish opinion polls has led SML to the conclusion that the breaking up and separating of the working class of England and Scotland offers a way forward. The new party looks set to become the left face of Scottish nationalism.

As Alan McCombes is well aware, Lenin wrote extensively on the national question. He was very clear that "Marxism cannot be reconciled with nationalism" (Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 20, p.34). Marxists must reject every type of nationalism in all its guises. We stand for the "principle of internationalism and uncompromising struggle against contamination of the proletariat with bourgeois nationalism even of the most refined kind" (Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 20, p.27).

As internationalists, we seek ultimately to abolish all nation states. We want complete integration, assimilation, merger and fusion of all the workers of the world into one international class – workers of the world united. However, we are not waiting for the future but fighting for internationalism, against nationalism, now!

Comrades who are behind the creation of the SSP, are well aware that internationalism is not some utopian ideology. It has a material basis within capitalism itself. Capitalism is driving the world in that direction. The concentration and centralisation of capital is leading to a further integration and fusion of the world and with this comes the potential for the integration of the working class. Lenin pointed to "capitalism’s world historical tendency to break down national barriers, obliterate national distinctions and to assimilate nations – a tendency which manifests itself more and more powerfully with every passing decade and is one of the greatest driving forces transforming capitalism into socialism" (Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 20, p.28).

Lenin then goes on to draw the connection between this phenomenon and the need for communists to fight against all forms of nationalism: "in place of all forms of nationalism, Marxism advances internationalism, the amalgamation of all nations in the higher unity, that is growing before our eyes, with every mile of railway line that is built, with every trust and every workers’ association that is formed" (Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 20, p.34).

It is this Marxist duty outlined by Lenin that I believe comrade McCombes is abdicating in his call for an "independent socialist Scotland" and by establishing a separate party in Scotland. Alan correctly identifies the forces at work in Scottish politics but comes, I believe, to fundamentally wrong conclusions on how these forces can be given a progressive nature and turned towards socialism. Of course, we are in favour of a democratic and voluntary union from below, not enforced from above.

The forces of nationalism in Scotland do have elements of progressiveness within them. The anti-establishment feelings of many young Scots who do not consider themselves British. The anti-Blair feelings which are articulated into support for the SNP as the only viable alternative at the ballot box in Scotland. The anti-Union sentiments which recognise the Acts of Union were imposed from above and had nothing to do with the uniting of the working class in Britain but represented a uniting of the capitalist class.

These progressive elements are good and require direction into a fight for socialism. But the negative nature of nationalism cannot be ignored – the elements of exclusivity and superiority which lead to racism. "Here’s tae us. Wha’s like us? No many and they’re a’ deid!" This traditional Scottish toast has always struck me as one that those advocating racial purity and superiority would be happy to adopt.

Any progressive and democratic elements can only be positively channelled if Marxists seriously challenge the ideas of nationalism. What Trotsky said about the national question in Catalonia, I believe, holds good for Scotland today: "Catalan petty-bourgeois nationalism at the present stage is progressive – but only on one condition: that it develops its activity outside the ranks of communism and that it is always under the blows of communist criticism" (Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution (1931-39), 1973, p.155).

Comrade McCombes must look to his practice rather than SML’s/SSP’s theory to see if this is happening. The adoption of an "independent socialist Scotland" as one of the main planks of the SSP’s policy, in practice tails nationalism. This is the case even if in theory McCombes can argue the nuances of difference between separation and nationalism.

Already, the more right-wing and nationalist elements within the SSP are conveniently dropping the word "socialist" from press interviews. I fear that Alan and SML may have created a monster which they may be unable to control.

McCombes’ arguments are not based on Marxism but are essentially radicalism and populism. The break-up of Britain is seen as radical and is an idea which is growing in popularity: it is therefore good. This is then dressed up as a quick road to socialism. Such an approach has nothing in common with Marxism and everything to do with adapting to nationalism.

It was a shift in bourgeois public opinion that moved SML. Comrade McCombes says "it is clear that there is a significant groundswell of opinion in favour of an independent Scotland". At present he perceives that mood to be more left-wing than right-wing, therefore he concludes that "the predominant character of public opinion in favour of independence is progressive". This approach reeks of opportunism and spontaneity: following the latest trend in bourgeois opinion without serious regard for the implications for the future of the working class movement.

There is no doubt that SML’s previous position on the national question was pathetically weak and confused. Public opinion not Marxism has convinced comrade McCombes that they cannot get away with their previous policy of "neutrality" when faced with a rising tide of nationalism. Their previous position leaves them exposed. It does not seem to enter his head that coming off the fence could equally mean opposing nationalism and independence. Those of us who argue for a federal republic have never been neutral. We do not need to change our policy because of Blair’s referendum or the swingometer of public opinion.

As Marxists, we need to look behind the opinion polls, the increase in sales of the Scottish flag (a phenomenon which had as much to do with the World Cup as anything else) and the increase in supporters for Scottish independence. We need to look at the underlying forces which have given rise to the perceived wisdom in Scotland that independence is progressive. It needs to be analysed and challenged.

To cut a long story short, we again come back to the failure of the left to provide a credible alternative to bourgeois parties. Through our failure, we have driven the proletariat and intellectuals in Scottish life into the arms of petty-bourgeois nationalism and the SNP, who are perceived as being far more radical than Labour even though they blatantly court big business and support the monarchy.

However, comrade McCombes knows he needs to dress up his position by giving it a red coat of paint – the quick road to socialism. Very appealingly he argues that "by breaking free of the British state, it would be easier for Scotland to move towards a more egalitarian society" – a socialist Scotland. He states: "instead of a Scotland which lives on its knees, pitifully begging resources from Westminster or for inward investment from vampire multi-nationals, we stand for an independent socialist Scotland."

The truth of course is rather different from this nationalist rant. It is that the working class in Scotland England and Wales is on its knees and will remain so until workers are united more effectively. We must provide a political answer which workers can unite and fight for, i.e. a federal republic.

The Militant tradition never took the national question seriously in the past. The deep inbuilt economism of the British Marxist movement, in contrast to Lenin’s revolutionary approach, has led groups like the SWP, SP and SML to consistently underestimate the national question. Through the 1970s and ’80s, these organisations failed to develop any serious policy on the national question. This has left them dangerously floundering in the wake of a growing nationalist movement.

The punishment for this failure has been the split of the Socialist Party along nationalist lines and the creation of the SSP. This after years of tailing along behind Labour’s version of Scottish nationalism: devolution under the Crown.

Members of the Campaign for a Federal Republic have decided to join the SSP to continue our fight against nationalism from within. The indicative constitution of the SSP almost uniquely allows for full factional rights including the right to campaign publicly for changes in SSP policy in our own name. Hence the ability to write articles such as this as an SSP member. The SSP’s commitment to this is still to be tested in practice.

We hope within the SSP to change its policy for an independent socialist Scotland to a policy for a federal republic, and to fight for the establishment of an all-Britain revolutionary organisation capable of challenging the British state.

This is no mean task given the weight of forces within the SSP. We urge other revolutionaries to join us in this fight. Those who argue for splitting the SSP at this stage are showing a blissful ignorance of the reality of Scottish politics at this time. Yes, it is essential that we stand firmly against this tide of nationalism, but running away and hiding under some purist rock will convince no one. We have to take the arguments to the heart of the working class movement in Scotland. It would be too easy to run and hide.