Barry Biddulph takes a critical look at, The National Question-Some Basic Principles, by John Molyneux in the Irish Marxist Review and the application of these principles to Scotland by Keir Mckechnie in the same issue.vol 2 Number 8
John Molyneux provides the theoretical framework for the claim that voting yes for independence in Scotland, is not necessarily a Nationalist vote. In recommending a yes vote Keir Mckechnie maintains that a vote for national independence can paradoxically become a vote against nationalism. Molyneux sets the dogmatic tone : “Marxists support the Right of Nations to self-determination and the National Liberation struggles of oppressed Nations”. (1) In other words,Lenin’s views on the national question are assumed to be true. Yet many Marxists do not support the bourgeois demand of self-determination or regard “National Liberation” as a step to working class emancipation. Rosa Luxemburg regarded the demand for self-determination as a utopia in the context of imperialism. Indeed, Marx himself did not support the Right of self-determination as a general principle, even in the case of Poland.
In the words of Michael Lowy, “Marx and Engels supported Poland, less in the name of the general principle of self-determination of nations, than because of the struggle of the Poles against Tsarist Russia”. (2) Nor did Marx support the right of self-determination for the Southern Confederacy in the American Civil War. Engels ruled out the principle of self-determination for nations he regarded , in dubious terms, as ” non historic” or not viable on national or racial grounds. Keir Mckechnie has a very uniformed opinion that, “where there is genuine national oppression,then both workers and bosses will benefit from independence”. (3) National unity of bosses and workers is presented in a positive light as if class power and inequality did not exist. This this was not the case in China and many other national struggles in which the worker’s movement and communist organisations were repressed or destroyed. Modern nationalist movements in Zimbabwe and South Africa have not liberated the masses.
There is also a difficulty in Molyneux and Mckechnie attempting to drape themselves in Leninist orthodoxy on self-determination: they accept that Scotland is not and was not an oppressed nation. The division between oppressed and oppressor nations is at the core of Lenin’s position. Then again, the Leninist Right of Self determination is rather overcomplicated for a principle. The right to self-determination does not always apply, and sometimes has to be subordinated to the exigencies of class struggle. So it has the appearance of a principle, but might not apply in specific conditions. In a sense, it is not a general right. A general right is asserted, but in a sense you do not have a right, and you might ditch it. For instance, Lenin did not always stick to the principle of self-determination following the Russian revolution in the Ukraine ,Georgia and elsewhere. Nigel Harris is clear,that for Lenin : “the issue was still a tactical one has it had been for Marx…. not a matter of general principle” (4)
Lenin prided himself on what he regarded as his historically specific account of the time and place for the demand for Self-Determination. He situated the demand in the context of what he called the Democratic Bourgeois Revolution . In Lenin’s view, the period of these revolutions in Western Europe was roughly 1789 to 1871 : ” in England (in Britain excluding Ireland ) the bourgeois revolution has been consummated long ago”.(5) His historical context for the bourgeois revolution for self-determination did not apply to Scotland. For Lenin at the time ” it is precisely and solely because Russia, and her neighbouring countries are passing through this phase that we must have a clause in our programme on the right of self-determination”.(6) He saw self-determination and a radical bourgeois revolution as the future in Russia and Asia.These perspectives were proved wrong by historical developments.
Despite all the political rhetoric of revolutionary democracy, the Russian revolution took a different turn. If the spectre of the French revolution influenced the bourgeoisie in a conservative non revolutionary direction in the spring time of people’s in 1848 and after, then the fear of the revolutionary events of 1917 was also a conservative lesson for the world bourgeoisie . Moreover, the Bolsheviks rooted their regime in the ‘ Party- State’ rather than the Soviets. As a consequence, Bolshevik state building in the “Soviet Union” led to dictatorship over workers. As early as March 1918, Lenin described the international revolution as a fairy tale, and the Soviet State set about establishing normal relationships with other states. The treaty of Brest Litovsk was part of an overall strategy of consolidating the Bolshevik State rather than a gamble on international revolution. Neil Davidson cynically states that they “decided to survive rather than go down to glorious defeat along the lines of the Paris Commune”. (7) Communism from below was not given a fighting chance to succeed. Instead, the ‘party- state’ counter-revolution called itself communism.
Lenin wanted a proper state, a proper army, proper managers in the factories, and proper diplomacy. Defence of the Russian state went hand in hand with the false perspectives of 1913-14, that the route to socialism in Asia, and other areas dominated by imperialism would be through bourgeois nationalists and bourgeois democracy . Lenin’s address to the All Russian Congress of Communist Organisations of the Peoples of the East,in 1919, made it clear “you will have to base yourselves on bourgeois nationalism”. (8) The Italian Communist, Amadeo Bordiga described this as revisionism in terms of class struggle. Hillel Ticktin notes that the Soviet Union came to terms with the bourgeoisie on its borders, and there was a real conflict between the interests of the USSR as a secure entity, and the needs of Socialism. (internationalism) (9) Neil Davidson wants to minimise criticism of the Bolshevik regime prior to Stalinism and puts it in an understatement,”what did not exist at this stage was a consistent policy of privileging Russian state interests over those of the international movement” (9) But there was nationalism,even if it was inconsistent.
Lenin’s Support for bourgeois nationalism in China, whatever the qualifications placed on it, proved disastrous for the communist movement. In China the nationalist army, trained and armed by the Bolshevik state, inflicted a historic defeat on communism, as a worker’s movement in 1927, from which it never recovered. Nigel Harris who is very much part of the IS/SWP tradition makes the obvious point : How could the Bourgeois Democracy be so foolish as to allow communist parties to direct independent mass class based movements”.(10) The falseness of the Leninist theses on national liberation can be seen from Trotsky’s Leninist view from 1924 : there is no doubt whatsoever that if the Kuomintang party in China succeeds in uniting China under a national democratic regime,the capitalist development of China will make enormous strides forward” (11) Tragically,capitalist development strode forward over the bodies of thousands of communist workers in Shanghai, in 1927.
M.N Roy, an Indian Communist, corrected Lenin at the Second Congress of the Communist International. His forecast was that the local bourgeois would not play a revolutionary role due to their links with imperialism . Even today some Trotskyists and Leninists still support National Liberation movements when the only liberation taking place is of an elite. Surprisingly, Alex Callinicos makes the main point that Lenin did “not however resolve the problem of how the demands of the national struggle against imperialism-bourgeois democratic demands,since they could in principle be met without overthrowing capitalism related to the specific working class struggle for socialism” (12) Yes spot on.
How does an independent Capitalist state in Scotland relate to the struggle to overthrow Capitalism ? Kier Mckechnie is not entirely confident that a Scottish State will advance the class struggle: “there is no guarantee that in itself an independent Scotland would benefit ordinary people”. So why vote yes? The explicit reason given is that it will be a vote to break up the British State, but still preserving the unity of workers North and South. But, if no national antagonism exits between workers North and South, why support a separate Scottish State? If the border can be ignored what is the point in erecting a new barrier which might generate national hostility or national exclusiveness? In any case, the yes vote will not establish a fully independent state or break up Britain. What is on offer is a shared Monarch, and Bank of England. The new state will remain part of NATO and the European Union . In any event, as Hillel Ticktin observes, national independence in imperialism is formal (13)
This judgement echoes Rosa Luxemburg conclusion that “so long as capitalist states exist, so long as imperialist world politics determine and regulate the inner and outer life of a nation,there can be no national self-determination either in war or peace”. (14) Recent events in Greece support this view. We are left with the SNP policy on trident. If there is no trident in Scotland this will hardy be a body blow to imperialism. Although NATO membership will probably result in any SNP government ditching the no to Trident policy. As Mckechnie writes : the SNP are committing a future independent Scotland,not only to remain in an imperialist nuclear alliance dominated by the US ,but to potential foreign intervention in yet more countries”. This is what Mckechnie describes as the right face of the SNP. Its right face was shown in the alliance with billionaires including links with Rupert Murdoch. There is likely to be a low corporation tax, and harsh cuts to help a small capitalist state fighting for survival. So why vote yes ?
Underneath the Leninist justification, the underlying reason for voting yes is what Mckechnie describes as the left face of the SNP; it’s social democratic public face. Alex Salmond has stated that while independence is our idea, our politics are social democratic. The SNP promise to abolish the bedroom tax among other reforms. Advocating a yes vote is a tactic to push the SNP and the new capitalist state left. The entire project is reformist, since Scottish nationalism is not Revolutionary. The hope is for some state reforms despite the reality of Capitalist economic crisis and the difficulties for a new Capitalist class at the head of the nation.
Despite the desire to avoid calls for unity with scottish bosses the yes vote is precisely that. If the no vote helps British nationalism,the yes vote helps Scottish nationalism. Kier Mckechnie asks the question : will a future Scotland be a society of equality and social justice or a low wage pro free market economy which panders to multinational business? He gambles that the Scottish state will provide the national framework for the former ,but the latter is more likely as the social content of Scottish nationalism. Abstention is not on his political horizon. We should say no to both a British capitalist state and a Scottish capitalist state. A continuing struggle for working class interests should not sacrifice its independence by dependency on nationalism.
1 John Molyneux, The National Question-some basic principles, Irish Marxist Review.(vol 2 Number 8 )
2 Michael Lowy, Marxism and the National Question,in Revolution and Class Struggle,Edited by Robin Blackburn,Harvester Press, 1978.p.137, see also Kevin Anderson, Marx at the Margins, university of Chicago, 2010, p.151 “At no time however did Marx make National Self Determination into an abstract principle”
3 Keir Mckechnie,Yes to Independence-no to Nationalism,Irish Marxist Review. (vol 2 number 8 )
4 Nigel Harris,National Liberation,Penguin Books,London 1990,p.60
5 Lenin, The right of Nations to Self Determination,Progress Publishers,Moscow ,1971,p.83 Lenin stated that in putting forward the demand for self-determination he was not putting forward the ideal of small states. On the contrary,”other conditions being equal the class conscious proletariat will always stand for the larger State”. p.33
6 Lenin, ibid, p.50 see also the Historical Destiny of the Doctrine of Karl Marx, in Lenin : Revolution, Democracy, Socialism edited by Paul Le Blanc, Pluto Press ,London, 2008, “The West had finished with Bourgeois revolutions.The East had not yet risen to them”. p.220
7 Neil Davidson,How revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions? Haymarket Books Chicago 2012, p.245
8 Lenin,address to the Second all Russian Congress of Communist Organisations of the People’s of the East, November 22 ,1919. And again “the task is to wage a struggle against medieval survivals and not against Capitalism” He had already stated in May 1913 in Backward Europe and advanced Asia,that the mighty democratic movement in Asia will show that collectivism lies through democracy,”the Bourgeoisie here is as yet siding with the people against reaction”His position at this point and later was the bourgeoisie might vacillate and, we must put pressure on them. Although there was flexibility and qualifications about independent proletarian activity this was a two stage theory.
9 Neil Davidson, ibid ,p.245. The Bolshevik State supported Turkish Nationalists during the repression of communists and workers between December 1920 and January 1921. Radek and other Bolshevik leaders claimed the Nationalists were objectively revolutionary in the first phase of the National Revolution.
10 Nigel Harris, ibid ,p.123.
11 Neil Davidson ibid ,p.217
12 Alex Callinicos,Marxism and the National Question, in Scotland Class and Nation, edited by Chris Bambery, Bookmarks,London,p.44
13 Hillel Ticktin, Marxism,Nationalism and the National Question,after Stalinism, Critique 36-37, June 2005, p.21
14 Rosa Luxemburg, The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, Edited by peter Hudis and Kevin B Anderson,Monthly Review Press new york ,2004,p.325 (The Junius Pamphlet )