Barry Biddulph replies to Bob Goupillot and Allan Armstrong on communists and Scotland’s referendum.
In their own words, Bob Goupillot and Allan Armstrong of the Republican Communist Network (RCN), “are not in the business of trying to create an economically independent Scottish state, either under capitalism or socialism.” They want to create a new global order. Yet their starting point for a communist transition is a national territorial framework in general, as they acknowledge, and Scotland in particular. But they argue that they are not nationalists, but internationalists with a strategy of internationalism from below, in which small nation nationalism can be transformed into internationalism. This is a rhetorical paradox. What is their tactical and strategic standpoint?
Bob and Allan locate themselves, not directly in capitalist crisis and class antagonism, but indirectly and strategically on the fault lines of anti imperialism. To prepare for revolution directly would be simply propaganda for the comrades, so the RCN look for political weaknesses to undermine the British State. Scottish independence would break up the British state and weaken the USA, the major imperialist power; since Britain is its main political ally. This tactical stance is based on an analogy with the political support of Marx and Engels for various national movements against reactionary Russia in the mid Nineteenth century. Another influence is John Maclean’s politics of breaking up Britain and its empire shortly after the first world war. This shows the RCN that nationalism can be progressive, even proletarian, without having any illusions that it can overthrow capitalism, just like trade unions can be progressive and undermine capitalism, short of revolution. But in any case, they have a conviction in the right of Scotland as a nation to self determination.
Firstly, for the RCN to tactically stand on the ground of anti imperialism begs the question of what do they really stand for? Anti imperialism is not sufficient in itself for communists. What do the RCN support? In Allan’s view, outlined recently in a response to Eric Chester, to restrict oneself to communist principles would be abstract propagandism. That’s Allan’s maximum programme. But in the here and now the RCN seek real leverage in high politics. Any kind of Scottish state would be a step forward, even independence lite with the Scottish state sharing the monarchy, Stirling, a banking sector and the British army. Why would it be a real step forward? It would be anti unionist and weaken the labour party, lib dems and the BNP. This is a lesser evil argument. But there is a conviction that independence for Scotland would be a gain for the working class, in its own right and begin to democratise the capitalist state in Scotland. While Scottish independence is considered strong, the working class is considered to be weak, so Allan considers the only realistic battle can be on the terrain of SNP constitutionalism. This does reveal the narrow focus on democraticing the state in the RCN’S practical politics .
But in the context of the great recession or one of the longest and deepest capitalist crisis why would class struggle be refracted through constitutionalism? Most of the RCN theorising appears to have elaborated prior to the crisis or do not make the crisis central to their politics. But an independent Scottish state would not be independent of global capitalism. Its independence would be nominal, especialy if there is a shared currency and banking sector. If Scotland applied for membership of the EU, again the state would have to toe the neo liberal line. Scottish nationalists can no longer point to an arc of properous small nations such as Iceland and Ireland. The powerlessness of the Greek government for its finances shows the hollowness of national independence. What will be the effects on the working class in Scotland of a small capitalist state fighting for economic survival. It will be a race to the bottom for working class living standards as corporation tax is cut. In any case there is no abstract right to self determination and Scotland has not been an oppressed nation as any comparison with the history of Ireland demonstrates.
Analogy is a weak form of theorising; but the analogy comparing American and British imperialism with the empires of the Habsburgs and the Romanovs and the tactics of Marx and Engels, does not stand up. The lesson of the 1848 springtime of peoples was that the bourgeois were not revolutionary and the future was not national democratic revolution led by Bourgeois modernisers. Marx was in favour of German unity, but that unity was imposed by counter revolution from above by Bismark under the hegmony of Prussia. Marx tactically focused on the threat of semi feudal Russia to capitalist development and the embryo of a workers movement in Europe, not states that embody the most advanced forms of capitalism. This focus missed the growing antagonism between German and British capitalist imperialism which resulted in world war. Marx’s tactics on national movements are debatable. They rapidly became dated and were used out of a specific context – something Allan is also guilty of – by the leaders of German Social Democracy to justify Germany’s so called civilising mission in the first world war. There was no argument by Marx for a general right to self determination, even for Poland. And Marx and Engels generally supported large units not small breakaways. Again, some of the arguments of Engels particularly on non historic nations were to say the least – dubious.
The analogy with John Maclean’s break up of Britain is no better. John Maclean stood for a Scottish Workers Republic and nothing less. Any strategy of phases or a constitutional road to a classless society would have been anathema to him. While the future leaders of the CPGB focused on the practical politics of trade unionism or calling for peace, John Maclean was the only significant workers leader preparing for international revolution during the first world war. This cannot be dismissed as abstract propagandism. Rather than look for changes in the state, or focus on a narrow view of what might be possible, John Maclean looked to street meetings and economic classes to prepare for a Petrograd in Scotland. But Maclean was marginalised by Theodore Rothsein during the formation of the CPGB. But in any case, even though Willie Gallagher, Harry Pollitt and Rothsein proclaimed themselves revolutionary, Maclean knew from personal experience their tactics and strategy were far from revolutionary. Even if he joined he would have been expelled for independence of mind, like Sylvia Pankhurst. So Scotland must lead itself in the context of what he expected to be a war between Britain and the USA over economic competition. With Scottish workers considered to be in advance of their English comrades, Scotland could follow the example of Ireland and fight to break away from Britain and help bring down the Empire.
Lenin also thought that the break down of empires by nationalism and nationalists would clear the way to socialism and communism. Historicaly his critics have been proved correct. Attempting to link the national struggle with the workers’ cause resulted in historical defeats for workers movements. But Maclean did not theoretically link nationalism with the workers’ cause, unlike James Connolly, who did conflate labour’s cause with nationalism. He considered the origins and rise of private property in Ireland was caused by an English invasion of Ireland; contrary to Marx and more importantly modern research. But Maclean did seem to uncritically absorb aspects of Scottish identity. There were scattered comments such as : “don’t let Scottish lads fight for john Bull”; “We are justified in utilising our Scottish sentiments”; “the primitive communism of the clans must be re-established on a modern basis”. And so on. But the clans were more primitive feudalism. Although national sentiments in Scotland were growing in Maclean’s time, Scottish workers joined their English and Welsh comrades in the British trade union movement and the Labour Party, which CPGB helped to establish at a local level. Maclean tried, but failed to break this reformist mold.
Today, Scottish nationalism is on the rise again, with the decline of British imperialism and capitalism and the dismantling of the “welfare state”. Although polls suggest that support for Scottish independence is still minority politics. And the failure to win Glasgow in the recent local elections shows the high tide of nationalism might be ebbing. To criticise the SNP for not arousing the workers for Scottish independence, as the RCN do, or vote for Scottish independence even on a capitalist basis, seems to be more than engaging with nationalism. Voting for independence or critical support for a SNP referendum can only serve to help tie the working class to nationalism and the future of a capitalist state. Alex Salmond in alliance with Rupert Murdoch. It would weaken the working class not capitalism. Scottish identity was formed at the same time as Britishness. Scottish upper class people were at the heart of the British Empire as troops and politicians and at the top of the British Parliament in London. To say Scotland is oppressed because there is not a constitutional right to seced from the British state, as Allan does, is a utopian or constitutional view of revolution. To echo a critic of Karl Kautsky: a high politics road will not be a different route to the same destination- communism, but a track to a different destination.