With the referendum on independence approaching in Scotland, we republish here an indepth analysis by Ted Grant on the national question in Scotland. The article, written in 1992, was originally written in response to the formation of the “Scottish Miliant Labour” organisation, but contains much relevant and interesting material in relation to today’s political situation in Scotland.
With the referendum on independence approaching in Scotland, we republish here an indepth analysis by Ted Grant on the national question in Scotland. The article, written in 1992, was originally written in response to the formation of the “Scottish Miliant Labour” organisation, but contains much relevant and interesting material in relation to today’s political situation in Scotland.
The collapse of Stalinism, the impasse of capitalism internationally, and the weakness of the forces of Marxism, has resulted in the re-emergence of the national question. Linked to the genuine desires of oppressed nationalities for emancipation, the national question — far from being solved — has become exacerbated under the crisis of both capitalism and Stalinism. The growth of national antagonisms, spilling over into civil war in a number of countries, illustrates the explosive nature of nationalism in the epoch of capitalist decay. As a result, in a whole number of cases, petit-bourgeois and bourgeois nationalism threatens to throw back the workers’ movement by undermining the essential unity of the working class in the struggle for the socialist revolution.
In the modern epoch, only the socialist transformation of society can offer the solution to the national question — a task left over from the bourgeois democratic revolution. That is why it has occupied a central place in the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. These ideas, in turn, have been extended and developed by the British Marxists, around the journal Socialist Appeal, over the past four or five decades. The attitude of the Labour Movement to the national question is, in reality, a life and death issue. Any mistake on this vital question, as has been demonstrated repeatedly, will be paid for at terrible cost by the working class in the future.
The national question, which has largely lain dormant for decades, has re-emerged in Scotland over the last few years. Its first revival in the late 1960s, when the SNP won the Hamilton by-election with a 46% swing from Labour, was largely a product of the disillusionment with the counter-reforms of the Wilson Government. This failure of Labour to satisfy its supporters, after thirteen years of Tory Government, provided the social and political conditions for the rise of nationalism. Again, the discovery of North Sea oil in 1970, gave added impetus to the nationalist cause. By the time of the 1974 General Election, the vote for the SNP had increased to 22% in February, and to 30% in October.
It was just before this that we published a document The National Question in Scotland and Wales [May 1973] dealing with the principal issues from a class point of view. It is worth recalling that at that stage the leading Scottish comrades refused to accept the existence of a national problem at all, and even the existence of a Scottish nation. Events have subsequently demonstrated the correctness of the principled position that was taken by ourselves at that time.
Unfortunately, the Scottish comrades who have recently established the Scottish Militant Labour organisation (SML) have begun to largely water down these principles and are bending under the pressures of petit-bourgeois nationalism. In an attempt to find a short-cut to those youth who are flirting with nationalism, the leaders of the SML are, in an opportunist fashion, adopting a nationalist coloration. The very establishment of a separate “Scottish” organisation is proof of this, repeating the tragic mistakes of John Maclean’s Scottish Workers’ Republican Party of the early 1920s but without even its basis of support. This opportunism will have the same fatal consequences for the future SML organisation as that which befell Maclean’s party.
The crisis of British capitalism has had a devastating effect in both Wales and Scotland. In Wales manufacturing industry has been drastically undermined over the past decade, with the virtual destruction of its prime industries coal and steel. Although 16,000 are still employed in steel, mining is all but finished — just three pits are left. Welsh unemployment is nearly 10% officially while the Welsh wage rates are the lowest in Britain. Male earnings are 87% of the national average and female earnings 88%. As one commentator explained recently, “In Wales today the people are more impoverished in terms of disposable income than any other part of Britain — in terms of the capacity to spend and refuel the economy Wales is worst placed than any other area.” (Daily Telegraph, 24/2/92) These social and economic conditions have resulted in the Tories being reduced to six out of 38 Welsh MPs. On the other hand, it has resulted in increased support for greater Welsh autonomy, which was reflected in a recent NOP Survey indicating 47% support for a Welsh Assembly — double the 1979 referendum figure.
In Scotland, after nine years of “boom”, unemployment stands at over 300,000. Forced emigration over the last decade has reached around 150,000. The latest announcement of the closure of Ravenscraig will mean economic devastation in Lanarkshire. Many parts, with the closure of manufacturing industry, are facing depression. On top of this a further 54,000 manufacturing jobs are expected to go by the turn of the century. (The Scotsman, 22nd January) In the inner city areas dysentery and rickets have reappeared — as in other cities nationally — a direct product of the decay of British capitalism.
These social conditions have resulted in the collapse of support for the Tories, who in the 1950s were the largest party in Scotland. Over the past decade they have been reduced to a rump of only 9 MPs. The poll tax, used as an experiment by Thatcher in Scotland, was seen by many as the final nail in their political coffin and has resulted in the Tories being regarded largely as representatives of a “colonial power”. Their electoral prospects appear even bleaker as further splits have emerged in their ranks over their attitude towards devolution, resulting in the recent resignation of Brian Townsend, the head of the Tory’s information department in Scotland. According to Scotlandon Sunday (16/2/92) a third of Scottish Tory MPs and prospective candidates are opposed to the party line. Both Major and Lang have taken a hard stance against any form of devolution, which given the current feelings in Scotland, will result in a further loss of Tory seats. Major believed this would polarise the issue between those supporting independence and those for the union, hoping to boost Tory support. With only around 20% favouring the status quo, he has miscalculated badly, threatening the very break-up of the UK. It demonstrates the short-sightedness of the political representatives of the bourgeoisie. In the event of a Tory victory they will be forced to introduce some kind of devolution.
Over the past decade the main beneficiary of this social crisis has been the Labour Party whose parliamentary representation has risen to 48 out of 72 seats. In the Regional and District councils they have an even greater domination. Unfortunately, instead of using this support and authority to launch a struggle against the Tory Government, the Labour leaders in Scotland have failed to offer the working class any real alternative. On the contrary, they have capitulated and carried out the dictates of the Tories.
This has resulted in growing frustration in the working class, and even middle class, who are desperately looking for a way out of the impasse. The failure of the reformist leaders has allowed the Scottish nationalists to fill this vacuum and demagogically outflank — in words — the Labour Party. This ‘left’ nationalist rhetoric is an attempt to make a breakthrough into Labour’s urban strongholds where they have no representation apart from Sillars’ victory in Govan in 1988. This “radical” face of nationalism arose out of the victory of the Salmond/Sillars wing of the SNP in the early 1980s whose strategy was to abandon the “Tartan Tory” image, and tackle head on Labour in its heartlands.
The growth of Scottish nationalism over the past few years was born out of a frustration with the role of the Labour leaders, whose actions have added grist to the mill of the nationalists. How should Marxists view this situation?
Although we support the aspirations for greater autonomy, and can understand the reasons for a layer of youth and some workers looking towards the demagogy of the nationalists, we must nevertheless take an implacable stand against nationalism, which seeks to divide the working class and its organisations. There can be no compromise on this issue. There can be no attempt to accommodate Scottish nationalism. Although the Scottish nationalists have jettisoned their “Tartan Tory” image for a more radical one, it would be fatal to make concessions to a political trend that threatens the unity of the working class.
Unfortunately, the leaders of SML, far from sharply criticising nationalism are attempting to tail-end its pseudo-radicalism. “This upsurge of national discontent should not be dismissed as a reactionary development or a diversion from the class struggle”, states Alan McCombes, the editor of Scottish Militant. (13/12/91) We can agree it is not a question of simply dismissing nationalism. But how should Scottish nationalism be concretely viewed or characterised? According to Alan McCombes, “It is closely linked to a sense of class hatred against the Tories and everything they represent.” The only conclusion you can draw from this position is that Scottish nationalism is essentially progressive. Many leaders of the SML have gone as far as to falsely characterise Scottish nationalism, as distinct from bourgeois nationalism, as merely being the “outer shell of an immature Bolshevism”. (Quoting Leon Trotsky completely out of context.)
Although we would look differently on workers who had been influenced by nationalism, in contrast to bourgeois and petit-bourgeois sections, nevertheless we would not in any way pander to their prejudices. The talk of an “immature Bolshevism” is simply an attempt to do exactly that.
Incidentally, just as Marxists would have a sympathetic approach towards workers influenced by nationalism, we would be sympathetic to those influenced by syndicalism and other false ideas. However, we do not recognise it as “immature Bolshevism” or pander to it.
The quote itself is from the History of the Russian Revolution and refers not to nationalism in general, but to the specific experience of the Lettish workers and peasants who came over to the Bolshevik position as early as May 1917. “In these circumstances”, relates Trotsky, “the national antagonisms whenever they coincide with class contradictions became especially hot. The age-old hostility between Lettish peasants and the German barons impelled many thousands of labouring Letts to volunteer at the outbreak of the war. The sharp-shooting regiments of Lettish farm hands and peasants were among the best troops at the front. As early as May, however, they had already come out for a Soviet government. Their nationalism was only the outer shell of an immature Bolshevism.” (History of the Russian Revolution, page 902, our emphasis).
In any case it is a complete exaggeration to compare, as the leaders of the SML are attempting to do, the national oppression of the Scots with that of the nationalities in Tsarist Russia, “the prison house of nations”. In reality, this is an attempt to use Trotsky as a cloak of respectability to disguise their succumbing to nationalism.
Although we are sympathetic to those with genuine illusions in Scottish nationalism, the way to win them away from the SNP is an implacable stand against this trend. We must above all expose its reactionary divisive character which poses colossal dangers for the working class movement. While supporting the genuine national aspirations of the Scottish people for greater control over their lives, the task of Marxism is to combat the fundamentally divisive nature of nationalism.
According to Alex Salmond, “The SNP is not a hard-left or Socialist Party.” (Socialist, 10/3/92) He is correct, the SNP, like its Welsh counter-part Plaid Cymru, is a bourgeois nationalist organisation. The fact that it has certain ‘radical’ policies is neither here nor there. That does not determine its class character.
The fundamental programme of the SNP is not the overthrow of capitalism, but of working within the confines of capitalism, while blaming the problems of the Scottish people on “the English”. Despite the rhetoric of Sillars, the SNP stands for a capitalist Scotland. In its 1987 Manifesto, it talks about “an independent Scotland [being] governed by a democratic parliament…The head of state [will] remain the Queen in a limited constitutional monarchy.” Their present policies talk about “a Scottish currency in the ERM, bolstered by strong exports and oil revenues.” It stood for “Tax Reform which will remove the higher business rate burden that is crippling Scottish business.” It goes on about setting up “a Scottish Exports Unit to work in conjunction with our embassies and consulates abroad to promote Scottish exports.” It wants to set up an “Industrial Equity and Investment Fund, initially to the value of £160 million, to stimulate new investment in industrial expansion…” Finally, they are determined to pursue a policy to “ensure stability for Scottish business.”
Under these circumstances it is no accident that they have attracted a whole layer of industrialists and gentry. They have also recruited a whole number of disaffected Tories. One such prominent Tory, Ian Lawson, ended up as a vice-chairperson of the SNP.
In Westminster, the SNP parliamentary group have voted with the Tories, and supported a host of anti-working class measures, such as the anti-trade union laws. Where they have been in power in Angus Regional Council, they have carried out fully the dictates of the Tory Government, even implementing the poll tax. In other regional councils, such as the Grampians, they have frequently voted with the Tories, again including the poll tax. A Tayside SNP councillor, George Allan, when challenged, retorted they were “here to represent the rich as well”.
Marxists must tell the workers the truth. And the truth is that nationalism (no matter how it is dolled up with pseudo “socialist” phrase-mongering) represents no way forward for the working people. Only by uniting with the workers of England and Wales, in a common struggle against their oppressors, can their basic problems be solved.
Marxists defend the right of the Scottish people to self-determination. But, in the first place, this does not mean that we take it upon ourselves to advocate separation. On the contrary, we must fight against it. It is necessary to explain forcefully that the establishment of a separate Scottish state on a capitalist basis would be a disaster for the workers of Scotland, England and Wales.
In the second place, it is necessary to wage an implacable struggle to defend the fundamental unity of the Scottish, English and Welsh working class. That was always the standpoint of Lenin and Trotsky who resisted every attempt to divide the organisations of the working class on national lines.
Despite the “principled” stand of the SML for the right of self-determination, Lenin never considered the right of self-determination as an absolute principle, regardless of time and place. It was always subordinated to the general interests of the proletariat and the struggle for world socialist revolution. “We are not obliged to support either ‘any’ struggle for independence or ‘any’ republican or anti-clerical movement,” he wrote in 1918. (The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed up)
Lenin insisted that the workers of oppressor states must defend the right of oppressed states to self-determination.But on the other hand he explained many times that the first duty of the Marxists of nationally oppressed states was to fight against nationalism, stressing the need for working class unity.
“But in all cases he must fight against small nation narrow-mindedness, seclusion and isolation, consider the whole and the general, subordinate the particular to the general interest.” (ibid.)
It is entirely wrong for “Marxists” in Scotland to tail-end the nationalists, to prettify their ideas and echo their prejudices. But this is just what recent articles on Scottish nationalism have done in Militant and Scottish Militant.
The article on 13th December last year, which covers the centre pages, attacks extensively the policies of the Tories and the Labour leaders, but fails to take up in any real way the arguments of the Scottish nationalists! All it has to say is that “nothing much would change” in an independent Scottish state!
This is no mere slip, but a consistent failure throughout every article dealing with the national question. The centre page article of 20/9/91 contains hardly a word of criticism of the SNP. On the contrary, Scottish nationalism is pictured in glowing terms, and illusions are deliberately built up in the nationalists: “The sense of national identity remains more powerful than ever”; “In recent years, as part of the general revolt of youth against the regimentation and uniformity of capitalism, there has been a revival of Scottish culture”; as opposed to England, “Scotland where the mood has swung relentlessly leftwards…It is the SNP which stands on a radical, left wing programme.” The article contains a picture of Sillars with the glowing caption: “A majority of under-24s now support the SNP.”
Apart from a side-swipe at the class origins of the SNP, it lamely criticises the nationalist idea “that the Scottish economy can be regenerated through small businesses.” Without a publicly owned economy, the article continues, “an independent Scotland would become a colony of US, Japanese and German multinational capitalism.” These are the few scant lines devoted in total to a “criticism” of independence.
The articles on 27/9/91 and 4/10/91 completely fail to deal with the SNP. “How left they are compared to Labour” seems to be their main thrust! Far from exposing nationalism, they are fostering illusions in the “radical” SNP. Again the article dealing with the lessons of the Kincardine by-election (Militant 15/11/91), while attacking Labour is soft on the nationalists. It concludes with the hollow phrase: “We will strive to draw back those young people and workers enticed by the SNP.” How you do this by pandering to nationalism is not clear. In the full page article on the SML (7/2/92) there is not a single word of criticism of the Scottish nationalists!
Again the article on the closure of Ravenscraig by the editor of Scottish Militant (24/1/92) is nothing more than a diatribe against the Labour leaders, while letting the SNP off the hook. “The Ravenscraig fiasco has given a powerful impetus to the SNP”, states the article. “Further advances in SNP support now look likely elsewhere.” It was a wonderful advert for anyone interested in joining the nationalists!
The whole slant and tone in the article that appeared on 20/9/91 is pro-nationalist in character: “From the underdeveloped societies in Africa and Asia to the advanced economies of the West and now in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, nationalism is on the march.” The author deliberately mixes up all kinds of different national movements, without bothering to distinguish what is progressive from what is reactionary in the concrete conditions, in order to paint a general picture of “nationalism on the march”. He gives credence to the quoted phrase “Western Europe ablaze in an inferno of national rebellion.” The whole phenomena is portrayed as “progressive”, “anti-capitalist” and “anti-Stalinist”. The growth of the SNP is also posed in the same light: “the sense of national identity remains more powerful than ever…In recent years, as part of the general revolt of youth against the regimentation and uniformity of modern capitalism, there has been a revival of Scottish culture.” Unfortunately the author misses the point entirely. Precisely in a situation where nationalism was sweeping Europe, it would be essential for Marxists to remain absolutely firm, not to capitulate to nationalism but to firmly raise the banner of socialist internationalism.
In any case, there are national movements and national movements. Lenin explained many times that the national question, of all questions, cannot be dealt with in the abstract:
“The categorical requirement of Marxist theory in investigating any social question is that it be examined within definitehistorical limits, and, if it refers to a particular country (e.g. the national programme for a given country), that account be taken of the specific features distinguishing that country from others in the same historical epoch.” (The rights of Nations to Self-Determination, emphasis in original)
In all their material, these comrades have forgotten some of the fundamental ideas of Marxism. The starting-point for Marxists is the fact that, in the present epoch, the productive forces have outgrown both private ownership and the nation state.
For a temporary period capitalism managed partially to overcome these contradictions through the development of world trade. This gave a further impetus to the integration of the world economy, which, in turn, has interacted upon world trade, creating an upward spiral of economic growth. But this process is reaching its limits and, at a certain stage, will turn into its opposite. This is shown by the crisis of GATT, where the seven big imperialist powers are finding difficulties in compromising over the future of world trade.
A symptom of the impasse of world capitalism, of its senile decay, is the re-emergence of the national question and national antagonisms in developed capitalists countries where it seemed to have been overcome long ago. Thus we have the problem of Corsica in France, the explosive national problem in Belgium, and the re-emergence of the national problem in Scotland and Wales. Added to this is the long standing national problems in the Basque Country, Catalonia, and Galicia.
On the other hand, the failure of Stalinism to solve the national problem has been revealed by a whole series of bloody conflicts in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
All these developments were predicted in advance by the Marxist tendency nearly twenty years ago. In May 1973, we wrote the following:
“The victory of proletarian bonapartism in Eastern Europe, Cuba, China, Burma and Syria, has resulted in the abolition of capitalism and landlordism — an immense step forward. But it has left these countries within the confines of the national state. The interests of the bureaucracy, ruling in these countries, results in an undemocratic concentration of power in the hands of a tiny elite. They rule remote from the masses of workers and peasants. Power is concentrated in the centre. The ruling elite rules with a chauvinistic mentality. There is no de-centralisation of power to the peoples on the periphery. The minorities within their borders have been nationally oppressed — in China by the dominant Han and in the USSR by the Great Russians. Thus the limited character of the national state, revealing itself in military police dictatorships, has raised anew the national question in these deformed workers’ states.
“One of the contradictions of the modern epoch is that at a time when the national state is revealing its baleful limitations the national question, far from being solved in these countries, becomes a festering and chronic problem.” (The National Question — Scotland and Wales, page 1)
The document then goes on to point out the mistakes of the sectarian groups on this question. Unfortunately the SML is beginning to emulate them by capitulating to Scottish nationalism.
“The Marxist tendency must devote the same scrupulous care and attention to the problem as was evinced by Lenin. One of the conditions for the victory of the proletariat in Russia was Lenin’s contribution on the national question. The brilliance of the dialectical method of Lenin and Trotsky is shown by the mistake of the petit bourgeois tendencies, masquerading as Trotskyists at the present time, in their attitude towards the national question.
“In fighting against the national oppression of the blacks, Puerto Ricans, Chicanos and other minorities in the USA, the [American] SWP has capitulated to petit bourgeois nationalism. They have fought for the separate organisation of these nationalities, instead of fighting for one centralised party, united trade unions and other workers organisations.
“Thus they have committed the elementary error of capitulating to nationalism — even the nationalism of the oppressed. They have also contributed to the undermining of Marxism among the oppressed minorities.” (ibid., emphasis in the original)
The fight of self-determination is not a socialist, but a bourgeois democratic demand. It has its place but is always subordinate to the needs of the class struggle.
In any exposition of Marxist policy for Scotland and Wales the unity of the workers interests with those in England must be emphasised and re-emphasised. Class solidarity and community of interests in the struggle against capitalism — English, Scottish and Welsh capitalism is paramount.
There cannot be a separate struggle for socialism or a workers’ government in Scotland separate and apart from that in the rest of Britain. That was the utopian idea of John Maclean, put forward in the early 1920s — an idea which was derided by Lenin and Trotsky as fundamentally false.
John Maclean was a prominent Scottish Marxist who played an outstanding role in promoting the ideas and cause of Marxism before and after the Bolshevik revolution. Dubbed the “Scottish Lenin”, Maclean worked like a Trojan to promote the principles of Marxism amongst the working class of Scotland: at street meetings, pit-heads, work-gates, anywhere workers would gather. He epitomised the “Red Clydeside” that emerged after the first World War, and gave a concrete expression to the mass movement of that time. Repeatedly arrested and imprisoned for his revolutionary stand against the war, Maclean became an outstanding figure-head of the revolutionary movement in Britain. To Lenin, Maclean was one of the “heroic forerunners” of the Communist International; when the Bolsheviks took power he was appointed the Russian consul in Glasgow in January 1918, and as honorary president of the first All-Russian Congress of Soviets, along with Karl Liebknecht. In this way Maclean’s courage and determination will remain an inspiration to class conscious workers of every generation.
However, Maclean also made a number of serious mistakes in terms of tactics and strategy. This is not the place for a thorough criticism of those mistakes. Nevertheless his fundamental error was to succumb to the pressures of Scottish nationalism. Maclean refused to join the newly created Communist Party, advocating instead a Scottish Communist Party. When this failed to materialise he turned towards the idea of a Scottish Workers’ Republic and the establishment of the Scottish Workers’ Republican Party.
“Russia could not produce the World Revolution,” stated Maclean shortly before his death in November 1923. “Neither can we in Gorbals, in Scotland, in Great Britain. Before England is ready I am sure the next war will be on us. I therefore consider that Scotland’s wisest policy is to declare for a republic in Scotland, so that the youths of Scotland will not be forced out to die for England’s markets.
“I accordingly stand out as a Scottish Republican candidate, feeling sure that if Scotland had to elect a Parliament to sit in Glasgow it would vote for a working class parliament.
“Such a Parliament would have to use the might of the workers to force the land and the means of production in Scotland out of the grasp of the brutal few who control them, and place them at the full disposal of the community. The Social Revolution is possible sooner in Scotland than in England…”
This unfortunate turn of Maclean towards nationalism, reflected a frustration with the current political situation. The revolutionary tide that followed the war began to ebb after 1920. The revolutionary movement on the Clyde revealed the revolutionary potential of the Scottish working class. Maclean grew increasingly impatient with the struggle in England which had been largely side-tracked by the Labour and trade union leadership. It was out of this impatience and frustration that Maclean began to look towards the short-cut of a socialist revolution in Scotland as an example to the rest of Britain. This was a fundamentally false perspective. Within a few years the whole of Britain was shaken by the 1926 General Strike.
Our task is not to emulate Maclean’s mistakes, but to learn from them and inoculate the youth against impatience and short-cuts that could lead the movement into the swamp of nationalism. Unfortunately it is precisely John Maclean’s errors that are used to justify the creation of the SML. At its founding conference in February, attended by about 200 people, Alan McCombes quoted approvingly a commemoration to Maclean: “The inscription says: ‘To John Maclean, a man who forged the Scottish link in the golden chain of world socialism.’ So the setting [for the conference] is appropriate.” (Scottish Militant, 6/3/92) To emphasis the achievement of Maclean as forging the “Scottish link” is precisely to underline his fatal nationalist mistakes. The whole tone emanating from the SML is “the Scottish working class”, “redistribute Scotland’s wealth”, “interests of Scottish workers”, etc, etc. “Setting up SML has been the most important political initiative in Scotland for many, many years”, reports Scottish Militant. This whole emphasis and slant represents a capitulation to nationalism, despite lip service to internationalism.
Without class unity, there is no way forward for the Scottish workers. That should be our starting point. Any section of a Marxist tendency, set up in any part of Britain must set out from the common interests of the workers of Britain, Europe and the entire world. It should stress the unity of interests of the workers of this Island in a common struggle against the common enemy — the Scottish, English and Welsh capitalists.
This is not for sentimental reasons, but because the economies of Scotland, Wales and England are indissolubly linked. A separation of these countries would bring about a disaster for all of them, but the heaviest price would, as always, be paid by the working class.
Domination of monopolies
The idea that Scotland would be able to enjoy a genuine independence under conditions of modern monopoly capitalism is false to the core. Big capital would continue to dominate, as before. Of the two remaining Clyde shipyards, Govan is owned by a Norwegian company and Yarrows has been taken over by the multinational GEC combine. At the present time, nearly 40% of the top 100 companies in Scotland are foreign owned. Whereas 80% of Scottish workers were employed not so long ago by companies based in Scotland, today 80% are employed by firms based outside of Scotland.
The fear of an isolated Scotland has forced the SNP to come out with the slogan “Independence in Europe”. However, the idea of a viable independent Scottish economy in Europe is false. In today’s modern capitalist economy 500 monopolies control 90% of world trade. A mere 25 monopolies account for 35% of total industrial production worldwide. The largest multinational corporations have annual turnovers greater than the state budgets of even major countries. On a capitalist basis, with the economy owned by the monopolies and banks, “independence”, even in Europe, is an illusion.
Europe, far from being a solution, would result in a debacle for an independent capitalist Scotland. According to a Labour Party report based upon European Commission figures, “the creation of a single European market in 1992 initially will destroy more than 14,000 jobs in the Scottish economy and cut output by £237 million.”
An independent capitalist Scotland would be an economy of declining living standards for the working class. At present Scotland receives between 10.5% and 11% of all UK public spending, but provides between 8% and 8.25% of total tax revenues. The gap is estimated at around £4 billion, which would be a catastrophic blow to the economy. If you added the SNP’s spending programme the deficit would rise to a massive £8 billion. The nationalists say this gap could be overcome by the oil tax revenues. To begin with oil and gas revenues from the North Sea are estimated this year to be only £1.2 billion. An independent Scotland would face an immediate dispute over the location of the English/Scottish sectors of the North Sea — with a significant proportion of the oil fields remaining in English waters. Even the SNP admit that only 70% of the oil would be likely to come to Scotland. The fact also remains that oil revenue is very volatile, varying according to the oil price, production levels and tax write-offs by the oil companies. These are the economic facts of life of a capitalist independent Scotland, despite the attempts of the SNP to ingratiate themselves with the oil monopolies.
The Scottish economy remains fully integrated into the British economy. That is the prime reason why Scottish business is opposed to independence. As the Financial Times (14/2/92) explained, “While the idea of devolution gathers some support, few senior members of the Scottish business community approve of outright independence.” According to Brian Stewart, Chief executive of Scottish and Newcastle, who expresses the fears of the Scottish bourgeoisie, “independence or devolution may reduce the access of Scottish companies to the English market. The planned single European market is not regarded as an adequate solution either, because it will for many years be much less integrated than the UK market.”
Our opposition to independence is based on a class opposition. An independent capitalist Scotland would not solve a single problem facing the working class and would have grave social and political consequences. More importantly from the point of view of the unity of the working class, enormous national hatreds would be kindled by separation. Given the collapse of the economy, the spectre of racial and sectarian divisions, compounded by the rise of individual terrorism, would be a nightmare for the working class, north and south of the border. The cause of the working class in Scotland, England and Wales, would be put back. That is why it is utterly irresponsible to adopt a light-minded attitude to this question.
The unity of the Scottish, English and Welsh workers has been forged in common struggle and organisation for generations. It is a fundamental reality not only of economic but political life also. Despite the fundamental errors and deeds of the reformist leaders, the unity of the Labour and trade union movement in this Island remains a colossal historical conquest which Marxists must defend with all our might. Yet in the recent articles of Militant, the idea of workers’ unity is added on at the end, as if it were an afterthought.
The whole thrust of these articles is in another direction altogether. It is absolutely clear that a number of the leading comrades in the SML have developed illusions in the idea of a Scottish assembly. While we stand firmly for the idea of a Scottish assembly with real powers, as one of our democratic demands, we must honestly explain to the workers, that such an assembly, on a capitalist basis, would not be able to resolve the fundamental problems of the Scottish people. To foster illusions on this score would be entirely false.
In his article, however, Alan McCombes actually puts forward the perspective of a “Scottish workers’ government” coming into existence through the Scottish assembly:
“Such an assembly (in which genuine Socialists have a majority) would in effect be a workers’ government acting with the backing of the one million organised workers and the millions of unorganised women and young people in Scotland.” (Militant, 20/9/91)
This idea is a complete departure from Marxism. There is no separate “Scottish Road to Socialism”. It is the false demagogy of the “left” wing of the nationalists, put forward by Sillars in the Govan by-election: “a Workers’ Parliament in a Workers’ Scotland”. Without the support of the workers of England, Wales, and also Ireland, such an assembly would be doomed from the start. Faced with a direct challenge to their class rule the British capitalists would not hesitate to dissolve the assembly, if necessary putting down the movement in blood, by sending in the army. There is too much at stake to allow such a threat to materialise. The history of Scotland illustrates this fact. In 1919, fearing a social explosion, the Government sent in tanks and troops to occupy Glasgow. The more recent example of Northern Ireland shows the lengths to which the ruling class is prepared to go.
The comrades might reply that they have no illusions in the possibility of converting the Scottish Assembly into a “Scottish workers’ government” (though their statements prove otherwise), but that they see the Assembly as a forum from which to express the struggle of the working class in Scotland.
In reality, a Scottish Assembly would no more do that than the present Parliament in Westminster. But on the other hand it would foster dangerous illusions about a so-called “Scottish Road to Socialism.” We are in favour of a Scottish assembly, but we have to understand its limitations and not glorify it.
Despite their protestations to the contrary, the comrades were reflecting the pressures of nationalism, of Macleanism, when they wrote in their draft Constitution for the SML, that their aim was “a workers’ government in Scotland”, without making it clear that a so-called “Scottish workers’ government” is impossible without a workers’ government throughout Britain. It is the position of the “Scottish Workers Republic”.
Again the SML states it will “explain in detail how a democratically planned economy would transform the lives of every working class Scot…It will explain how the top 15 banks and financial institutions in Scotland are sitting on top of a mountain of wealth of at least £125 billion.” This is none other than a recipe for the “Scottish Road to Socialism”. It shows how far the leaders of the SML have abandoned the Marxist attitude to the national question.
If one could imagine a situation where the Scottish workers took power — which they could only do by means of an uprising — without the support of the workers of England and Wales, it would inevitably end up like the Paris Commune. Without a powerful movement of support by workers in the rest of Britain, it would be swiftly crushed. The Scottish working class cannot win in isolation, but has to forge a close unity with the workers throughout Britain, and internationally for that matter. Only then can British capitalism be defeated.
Even the Bolshevik Revolution, which took place in a massive country like Russia, would have been crushed by imperialism without the support and solidarity of the workers of Europe and the whole world.
This fundamental mistake is only explicable as a result of a vain and misguided attempt to compete with the nationalists on their own ground. Quite apart from the utopian character of these ideas, they can only serve to add grist to the mill of the nationalists.
Only by constantly raising the class issues, and emphasising the need for class solidarity, can we hope to combat the poison of nationalism in the working class and the youth. This does not mean that we “ignore” the national question in Scotland now, any more than we did eighteen years ago. We will fight for any national-democratic demand which has the slightest progressive content. But we will fight for it with the methods of the proletariat, defending the class point of view of the proletariat and ruthlessly combating and exposing the false and harmful demagogy of nationalism.
While defending the right of self-determination for Scotland, Marxists must stand firmly for a Socialist Britain, a Socialist United States of Europe and a World Socialist Federation. That is what should have been emphasised in the Constitution of any organisation in Scotland, Wales, or anywhere else, which claims to be Marxist.
It is true that the comrades added, as an afterthought, that the aim of a Scottish workers’ government was “part of the fight to defeat capitalism in Britain and capitalism and Stalinism throughout the world”. But this does not make the formulation any more correct. The fact remains that a “Scottish workers’ government” is a completely utopian idea, unless as part and parcel of a revolutionary movement of the workers of Scotland, Wales and England. It is this which can lead to enormous practical and theoretical mistakes, and even the abandonment of Marxism for nationalism in the future. The danger of a nationalist deviation, moreover, will be multiplied a thousand fold by the policy of trying to recruit large numbers of new, politically raw recruits, as envisaged by the SML, unless they are educated in the fundamentals of Marxism, especially in the idea of Socialist Internationalism, in the spirit of implacable struggle against nationalism in all its manifestations.
Role of Stalinism
For decades, the Stalinist “Communist” party played a pernicious role in Scotland. In reality, they re-introduced the cancer of nationalism into the Labour and trade union movement after the Second World war, when the collapse of Macleanism had largely driven it out of the organised working class.
The Labour movement had been healthily inoculated against nationalism, and through it the mass of the working class, before the Pandering of the “Communist” Party to nationalism, added to the desperation of the Scottish masses, caused by the ruin of Scotland by capitalism, led to the re-emergence of nationalist prejudices among certain layers of the workers and youth.
Instead of combating these prejudices, the SML is pandering to them. The very foundation of a “Scottish” Militant organisation, and a “Scottish” Militant, is a clear indication of this opportunism. Its creation is to stress the nationalist side of the new organisation. There is no other explanation. Likewise, they confuse the question of autonomy with independence. According to the SML “we will take up the fight for national rights, including the right to self-determination.” “We are opposed to narrow nationalism”, states Militant (13/12/91), but in the next breath states “if a majority of Scots choose independence we would fight to ensure the will of the majority was respected by Westminster.” (our emphasis)
The main task of Marxists under these conditions is not to fight for independence, but precisely to fight for workers’ unity. This is the central question. Despite all the protests, it is clear that the SML is being drawn along the road of nationalism.
“If Labour fails to win the General Election”, states Militant (31/1/92), “simmering nationalist sentiment could become active revolt against Westminster rule…” The Labour Movement must urgently take up socialist policies “to roll back the nationalist tide.” But what else should they do to accomplish this?
According to Militant, if the Tories win the next election, “then the call must go out to make Scotland ungovernable…It should be linked to a boycott of Westminster by Labour and SNP MPs.” (13/12/91) The article then goes on to quote Charles Gray, the leader of Strathclyde regional council (“for once we are in agreement with Gray”): “They must be prepared to break away from Westminster and form a breakaway parliament.” What is this if not a call for independence? How else will the workers see it? How will they view Labour MPs linking up with the Scottish nationalists, boycotting Westminster and then establishing a separate Scottish Parliament? How does this further the cause of the working class? The boycott of Westminster would reinforce the Tories and be a blow to the workers in England and Wales. It is nothing more than a capitulation to a pseudo-radical nationalism.
The problems of the Scottish workers flow not from being linked to England and Wales, as the nationalists argue, but because of the crisis of capitalism which weighs just as heavily on the workers and their families South of the border. Rickets, dysentery and malnutrition also occur in the poor inner-cities of England on a par with Scotland. The oppression and exploitation of working people is a product of capitalist society and can only be removed by the socialist transformation of society. This, in turn, requires the unity of all workers, irrespective of nation, colour, creed, sex or language.
That is why the idea of workers’ unity must be to the forefront — not just put in as an afterthought. Anything else is a deviation in the direction of nationalism.
Lenin and Trotsky fought all their lives against the oppression of small nations. But they also detested what Trotsky described as “a small nation Philistine mentality”, and everything associated with it.
Even the Scottish nationalists appeal demagogically for an independent “Scotland within Europe” (whatever that means). Why is this? Because the workers are dubious about the prospects for an isolated Scotland. And they are not wrong.
The arguments of the comrades about national “culture” is wafer thin. Alan McCombes in Militant, is positively euphoric about “The phenomenal success of the Gaelic rock group ‘Runrig’, the biggest selling group in Scotland.” What the comrade fails to mention is that the lead singer of this group, reflecting the pressure of the working class, is advocating a vote, not for the SNP, nor the SML, but for Labour!
There certainly is a national Scottish culture, but the appeal to “national culture” on the part of these comrades (mainly in the form of rock groups and football) is not at all in the spirit of Lenin and Trotsky, but comes direct from the stables of Otto Bauer, the Austrian “Marxist” theoretician of “national cultural autonomy”, who was sharply criticised by Lenin.
Marx explained, over 150 years ago, that the historically progressive task of capitalism was to create a world market, to which all national states no matter how big and powerful, are subordinate.
The last four decades have seen a colossal intensification of the international division of labour, and the unification of the entire world into one single, indissoluble unit. That is why the nation state has become a reactionary barrier to development of the productive forces. It is the task of Socialism and the working class to sweep away the national barriers, not erect new ones.
This is how Marx presented the process of capitalist development, with brilliant foresight, in the pages of theCommunist Manifesto nearly 150 years ago:
“The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood…
“In the place of the old national seclusion and self-sufficing, we have intercourse in every direction. Universal interdependence of nations. And in material, so in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.” (Communist Manifesto, our emphasis)
The present epoch, more than any other, is the epoch of the giant multinationals, world economy, world diplomacy, world politics, and world culture.
Polemicising against Otto Bauer the “Austro-Marxist”, Lenin wrote:
“The aim of socialism is not only to abolish the present division of mankind into small states and national isolation, not only to bring the nations closer to each other, but also to merge them. And in order to achieve this aim, we must on the one hand, explain to the masses the reactionary nature of the ideas of Renner and Otto Bauer concerning so-called ‘cultural national autonomy’.”
Nowadays, it is increasingly difficult to see a difference between young people from any industrial country. In the way they dress, in the kind of music they listen to, in their cultural and sporting activities: all have become to a greater extent “internationalised”, leaping over the old national borders.
The whole thrust of the argument of Alan McCombes and the SML follows the spirit of Otto Bauer, not Lenin, in his approach to “national culture”. This pandering to petit-bourgeois nationalism reflects precisely the kind of “small nation Philistine mentality” which Trotsky dismissed with disdain.
There is a high degree of volatility at the present time in Scotland. This was reflected in a Scotsman/ITN poll in January which claimed over 50% of the population were in favour of independence. This has subsequently dropped to around 30-odd % in a series of recent polls. As a counter-balance, it should be noted that in January the ICM research poll rated independence, home rule and devolution as joint sixth [greatest concern], behind unemployment, the NHS, poll tax, standard of living, the economy, and financial help for the needy. This shows how “independence” is perceived at the present time. Nevertheless, this latent qualified support for “independence”, represents the real danger that is posed by nationalism in the future.
The factors that gave a recent boost to nationalism was the defeat of the Tories in the Kincardine and Deeside by-election, which reduced their MPs to single figures, as well as the early closure of the Ravenscraig steelworks.
For Marxists it is essential not to lose one’s bearings and get carried away by ephemeral moods. We must look at the underlying processes developing in society. The swings in the opinion polls reflect a general underlying volatility in society. The support for independence has fluctuated widely. However, on the basis of the further crisis of capitalism, and the bankruptcy of reformism, there is a danger that a section of the workers and youth can swing over to nationalism, as we foresaw almost two decades ago. For that very reason, it is necessary to stress the need for class unity.
Above all, it is essential to wage an implacable struggle against any attempt to divide the workers’ movement along national, religious or sectarian lines. As Trotsky wrote: “one form of organisation may be better, the other worse: but above all organisational forms stands the necessity of the unity of class organisation.” (Trotsky, The National Struggle and the Unity of the Proletariat, emphasis in original)
In the recent period, the SNP vote has risen considerably from its 1987 level where it got 14% of the vote and five seats. At present the opinion polls put it on around 25-28% — double their 1987 performance. According to Alex Salmond, the SNP leader: “The Scottish people’s demand for independence is becoming irresistible.”
But where has the nationalists’ support come from? In the main it has not come predominantly from Labour support, but from the Liberal Democrats and the Tories. Whereas Labour has maintained its 1987 share of the vote, the Liberal Democrats have fallen by 10 points. To date, apart from Govan, the SNP have failed to make a breakthrough in the Labour inner-city strongholds. In the General Election the SNP may possibly take one or two seats from Labour, but that is all. The fact is there are very few seats where the SNP are a threat to Labour. Where the nationalists are more likely to score is against the Tories and they have a prospect of taking a couple of seats from them. As the Scotsman(29/1/92) pointed out, “The electoral system is a formidable barrier to any SNP breakthrough at Westminster. Even if Jim Sillars were to retain Govan, the SNP would probably win no more than 8 seats.”
The decision of the SML to stand a candidate against Labour in the general election is a fundamental break with the methods pursued by Militant in the past. It flies in the face of the desire of the working class — North and South of the Border — for unity to defeat the main political enemy, the Tories, who represent Big Business.
Admittedly, the policies of right wing Labour leaders in Scotland, as elsewhere, has provoked a feeling of revulsion and frustration in sections of the youth and advanced workers. But the Marxists have a duty, in the words of Lenin, to “patiently explain” the need to transform the existing mass organisations, the trade unions and Labour Party, and not to be carried away by these same moods of frustration and impatience. The attempt to create a breakaway “independent” movement in the form of SML is a adventure, doomed to failure, and will not have the desired effect of preventing the growth of nationalist moods among sections of the youth and workers. On the contrary, the type of arguments now being advanced by these comrades, which in effect pander to nationalist prejudices will have the opposite effect.
In reality, there is a fundamental change in the strategic orientation of these comrades. In the past, Militant had a proud record of patient work in the Labour and trade union movement which achieved great results. Now, in their search for new layers outside of the Labour Movement, all this is being thrown away.
The trade union question
Nowhere is the result of this more glaring than in the trade union field. It is an axiom of Marxism that you do not encourage the splitting of the trade unions, the basic organisations of the working class. It was never the policy of Militant in the past to support moves to separate the advanced workers in the unions from the rest of the class. Marxists have always opposed tooth and nail adventures like the setting up of the Pilkington Glassworkers’ union. Now Militant has capitulated to the temporary moods of frustration of the Militant oil workers. As a result of their experience in the recent strikes, these workers feel betrayed by the union leaders. Many of them have refused the offer of a compromise in the form of a joint committee of all the unions, similar to the CONFED, which would undoubtedly have represented a step forward. Instead, a section of the oilmen have set up their own union, the OILC. The argument in favour of this step was to “organise the unorganised oil workers.” Incredibly, at the national Editorial Board of Militant, when a leading Scottish comrade put forward this position, there was not a single word of dissent from the “leaders” or any other members. Articles duly appeared in the pages of Militant promoting this short-sighted position.
“Militant urges every offshore worker to join OILC,” states the paper (14/2/92), but adds shamefacedly, “while at the same time holding on to their official union cards.” How is this a viable option? Most workers would not be interested in supporting/financing two unions. Also the bulk of unions would not allow its members to hold two cards. It is simply an unsuccessful attempt to cover their backside from their previously held position. The article then concedes, “some workers may still be reluctant to join the new organisation”, and so urges the OILC to “call for the establishment of a joint union confederation offshore, bringing workers from all unions together.”
The OILC has been supported by the SNP for purely opportunistic reasons. According to an interview in the Socialist(10th March), “Salmond accepts the SNP lacks a trade union base, but stresses its support at shop steward level. The OILC’s struggle for recognition is an example where, he claims, his party could take a more progressive line than Labour because of its lack of institutional links with union officials.”
However, not to be out-done by the SNP, Militant has followed suit! They have done a volte-face and completely abandoned their past position, ending up tail-ending the nationalists. They are on a slippery slope that will lead them to abandon further their principles.
The Militant comrades should restudy the writings of Lenin, and especially Trotsky on the Stalinists’ “Third Period”, dealing with the trade unions, and the impermissible tactic of splitting these organisations. In relation to Scotland, they should take note of the experience of the United Mineworkers of Scotland, which was artificially created by the “Communist” party in the early 1930’s arising out of its policy to create “revolutionary” Red trade unions.
This split-off from the Miners Federation of Great Britain created many difficulties in forging a national mineworkers’ union, particularly in face of Spencerism. The split away finally dissolved in 1935.
These ultra-left adventures in the trade union field were roundly condemned by Trotsky as going against the fundamental interests of the workers’ movement.
In 1956, the Marxists opposed the actions of the “Blue Union”, which represented the stevedores, when it attempted to split the Transport and General Workers Union, and organise amongst the dockers generally. At that time the T&G was under the complete domination of the right wing. The ultra-left sects supported the “Blue Union” as a more left-wing trade union. This whole adventure resulted in the emergence of non-unionism on the docks in Manchester, Liverpool, Hull and elsewhere. Whereas thousands left the T&G and joined the “Blue Union”, thousands left to join no union at all. In Liverpool, which was previously 100% unionised, non-unionism rose to as high as 20%. Later, the “Blue Union” moved to the right and the T&G to the left.
Lessons of Pilkingtons
These comrades have forgotten these important lessons of working class history. A betrayal by the leaders of the GMWU in the 1970 strike at Pilkingtons glass works and the indignation over the victimisation of some of the leaders led them to the setting up of a new Glassworkers Union. This was enthusiastically supported not only by the Socialist Workers Party, the Healeyites and the other sects, but also by the Tribunites and the “Communist” Party. Only the Marxist tendency, while consistently supporting the struggle of the glassworkers, firmly and tactfully advised against such a course. What was worked out theoretically very quickly became apparent in practice. It ended in a disaster. The GMWU officials collaborated with the employers. 130 militants were sacked and victimised, the Glassworkers Union disintegrated, and the GMWU bureaucracy together with the employers gained from the outcome. These workers – misled by the sects — had not understood that it was necessary to work in the union and fight for a militant programme of demands. As a result, the union bureaucracy and the employers were able to separate the more industrially and politically backward layers from the relatively “advanced” militants and get the majority of the workers to become antagonistic to them.
This has now become a real danger with the creation of the OILC. As Militant (14/2/92) admitted: “Leaders of the official unions have played on fears that by establishing a new union it could open up dangerous divisions, only benefiting the bosses. That fear still exists in some sectors…”
Now there is a repetition. No doubt the sects, the different “Communist” Parties, Tribune and others, not guided by principles, will repeat their previous errors. Only this time the Militant has lined up with them in supporting this suicidal policy.
To create a new union where several exist already is a Herculean task. Workers do not easily desert old organisations to go over to a new one. The Stalinists made the same mistake — which we opposed — with the setting up of the EPIU amongst the electricians, and the splitting of the EETPU. This new union despite TUC recognition is still-born and has only a tiny minority of the electricians in it. The EETPU claims at least 300,000 and is now merging with the AEU, while the EPIU claims only 4,000 members. All they have succeeded in doing is to separate the active layer of lefts from the mass of electrical workers.
The oil workers are making the same mistake which could have worse consequences than the EPIU split. Of course in the abstract an industrial union is better than a number of separate unions. But we have to take the union movement as it has developed historically. A CONFED type delegate meeting as suggested by the union leaders would have been a step forward in comparison with the present position. The creation of the new union is a big mistake. It will not offer a way forward for the oil workers. It will be difficult to organise the unorganised oil workers who will see the unions as “quarrelling amongst themselves”. The consequence would be disunity amongst the oil workers – the OILC after a period would decline and possibly disintegrate. Unfortunately only the powerful oil employers would benefit.
Incredibly the new split has taken place at a time when a significant number of trade unions are discussing mergers, including the left-wing NUM. This has arisen from the background where trade union membership has fallen from 12 million in 1979 to 8 million today.
Theory is the generalised experience of the working class. Theory always takes its revenge on those who take it lightly. Abandoning theory on the national question has its own consequences. The oil workers are mainly Scottish. No doubt the Nationalists have been fishing in troubled waters, although they will abandon these workers with the same light-mindedness later on.
Marxists have a responsibility to the working class, to the oil workers, and to themselves, to warn these workers as tactfully as possible of their mistaken course. Instead, because of their deviation towards nationalism, these comrades leading the SML are playing a harmful role. They are reinforcing the mistakes of the OILC. “The OILC has won tremendous authority,” states Militant (14/2/92), “it will be the OILC that shows the way.” Again, “The OILC has given confidence to offshore workers. It has built a reputation as a fighting organisation. And as a result it has built.” It goes on to list the figures of recruits for the union.
However, the idea, put forward to justify a wrong tactic, that they would “organise the unorganised” has been shown to be largely false. The Morning Star reported that the OILC had been registered as a “new union”, claiming a “substantial membership”, “but the union declined to divulge a membership figure, beyond saying that it had reached ‘well over 1000′ since OILC was founded last October.” (Morning Star, 12/02/92, our emphasis)
If the leaders of the union refuse to give membership figures, it is highly unlikely that they have reached a thousand members. And for the sake of this, the leaders of Militant are prepared to jettison their principles and throw away the lessons of decades of patient work in the trades unions!
Similarly staggering is the casual acceptance of the idea of “regional bargaining”. This would be a clear setback for the workers, unless it was linked to a national framework, otherwise it would allow the employers to play off one section of workers against another — to the disadvantage of all workers, Scottish, Welsh, English or whatever.
This ultra-left adventuristic policy in relation to the OILC can only result in the end in the demoralisation of the oil workers and a fall in the number of organised workers in the oilfields. It could also push them into the open arms of the Scottish nationalists. This is a classic example of the mistaken approach of Militant in the recent period. Their blind pursuit of their new “turn” to independent open work is pushing them in the direction of the complete abandonment of the Marxist method.
Perspectives of the “turn”
The new approach of Militant in Scotland, and the establishment of the SML, is a product of their impatience and frustration over their lack of support for their ideas, despite leading a mass movement over the poll tax. Their failure to grow is blamed on Militant’s past links with the Labour Party, which is now portrayed as part of the Establishment. Their “Scottish turn” is seen as a solution to this problem — that they cast off this albatross around their necks. By breaking with Labour, Militant explained it could prevent big sections of the youth from going over to Scottish nationalism — at least in the big cities. With the Labour Party moving rapidly to the right, and the SNP to the “left”, a vacuum was opening up for them.
In reality, Militant’s abandonment of their traditional orientation towards the mass organisations (the paper now contains its own Militant Manifesto for the election!) has led them down the road of ultra-leftism and at the same time opportunism. “Opportunism and ultra-leftism,” states Lenin, “are head and tail of the same coin.”
In their document on “Perspectives for Scotland”, they state: “But in Scotland, it is the SNP which will be the main beneficiary of the inevitable disillusionment with the Labour government.” What then is left of the rationale for this new “turn” and the creation of the SML?
In reality, the SML organisation pays lip-service to the importance of a “struggle against nationalism” in Scotland. How can they explain that in the last year there has been no systematic work conducted amongst the nationalist youth — which claims 80 youth groups throughout Scotland – or even the SNP in general. It is a dereliction of duty that no work of this character has been undertaken. Instead they have the hare-brained idea to set up independent youth organisations: Militant Youth and Militant Students, as well as the adult organisation, Scottish Militant Labour. The argument that we must have “flexible” tactics is shown to be phrase-mongering. The Marxist tendency in Britain has always been prepared to devote some forces to any left development among important sections of politically active workers, without abandoning our fundamental strategy of work within the mass organisations. One cannot fight nationalism by pandering to the nationalists and separatist prejudices.
We have in the past always acted on Lenin’s strategy that all working class groups must be in one national organisation even where it was a question of fighting for self-determination. Now we have thrown all this overboard, for the sake of an adventure. This will have dire consequences that these comrades do not foresee. By their tail-ending of nationalism, the youth in Scotland will be increasingly pushed towards the SNP. In this way Militant believes it will “win” some new youth. In reality they will lose them to the nationalists.
In the Basque Country, the sizeable ultra-left group of Mandelites, with a similar opportunist policy towards the nationalists, lost 3000 members between 1974 and 1978 to the nationalist parties. Again in Italy in the 1960s, this Mandelite tendency adapted itself towards the Maoists, resulting in the bulk of its supporters being lost to Maoism!
Most of the SML propaganda is reduced to phrase-mongering. They themselves say: “In the improbable event of an SNP government these [nationalists’] grand promises would come to nothing.”
Thus the SML does not see the nationalists gaining a majority in Scotland. They go further: “The simple message of the SNP, that the electorate had a straight choice between waiting, perhaps for an eternity, for a Labour government or fighting back now with the SNP, had an irresistible attraction for working class voters. With Labour now running the Tories neck and neck…workers have tended to rally round the Labour Party…although the SNP has failed to make inroads into the Labour vote in the past period they nevertheless have the support of 33% of 18-35 year olds according to the opinion polls.”
As is the method of Militant, they attempt to look in all directions at the same time. This is not the method of Marxism, but the method of empiricism and eclecticism. We have been accused recently by the editor of Militant, of making “astrological predictions” when defining a Marxist perspective (Two Trends, page 4). Stung by our previous criticism, he protests that Militant does not “seek a cowardly position of false neutrality on issues”.
However, in the most recent issue of the Militant International Review (MIR Election Special 1992), we see precisely this “cowardly position of false neutrality”. In the main editorial entitled “A New Era Opens”, it begins with the incredible — and very neutral — statement: “The result [of the election] cannot be predicted”! This is the startling advice it gives to its readers.
Marxists do not have a crystal ball to predict the future. However, by combining, to use the words of Trotsky, “subjective and objective data, it is possible to establish a tentative perspective of the movement, that is a scientifically based prediction, without which a serious revolutionary struggle is in general inconceivable. But a prediction in politics does not have the character of a perfect blue-print; it is a working hypothesis…Even though the actual development of the struggle never fully corresponds to the prognosis, that does not absolve us from making political predictions.” (Trotsky, Writings 1930, page 50, our emphasis)
In working out perspectives it is important to weigh up all the variants, but then to give the most likely development of events. The MIR, however, faces in all directions, fearful of committing a mistake, and being totally mesmerised by the results of the latest batch of opinion poll results. “The result of the election,” continues the article, “could be a ‘1924 scenario’ — where Labour formed a minority government dependent upon Liberal support, even though the Tories were the largest party; a ‘1929 scenario’ — where Labour was the largest single party, but still a minority government; or even 1964 — where Labour won a small overall majority, is still possible but…a minority Tory government is almost ruled out…If the Tories do win, however…” (page 4). You pays your money and you takes your choice!
For Socialist Appeal we have made it clear, given the underlying processes developing in society, the most likely result of the General Election is a Labour Government. The SNP, despite all its rhetoric, will not succeed in making a breakthrough on the electoral front in Scotland. The overwhelming feeling in the working class is to get rid of the Tories.
However, the coming to power of a Kinnock Labour Government, while experiencing a “honeymoon period” for 6-12-18 months, will lead to widespread disillusionment as it attempts to manage capitalism. Early reforms on pensions and child benefit will give way to counter-reforms as the acute problems of the economy re-emerge. Whereas this disillusionment will mean high levels of abstentions in elections generally, in England it can result in a growth of support for the Liberal Democrats, while in Scotland and Wales, because of the national question, it can result in the growth of nationalism.
At first, the victory for Labour, which has pledged to bring into being a Scottish Assembly in the first year of office, will tend to undermine the nationalists. There will be a certain mood to give Labour a chance. However, the move towards counter-reforms under economic crisis, will push layers towards the nationalists, as in the late 1960s and 1970s. In October 1974, the SNP gained 11 MPs with 30% of the vote (gaining two seats from Labour and four from the Tories). However, with the promise of devolution and referendums from Labour, together with the big class battles between 1978 and 1979, their support began to crumble. By the 1979 general election the SNP was shattered, only managing to hold onto two seats.
The extent of the support for the Nationalists will depend on the course of the class struggle in Britain. A big industrial movement in England and Wales, as well as in Scotland will rekindle the class solidarity of the workers, and cut across nationalism. This was the case in 1984-85 during the year-long miner’s strike, which brought the class issues and the need for unity to the foreground.
The fact that the overwhelming majority of the unions are organised on a British level — which we support — means that national action would have profound effects in Scotland as in England and Wales. The fact that practically all the industrial unions are organically linked to Labour through affiliation is of decisive importance. This applies as much in Scotland as in the rest of Britain.
Growth of nationalism?
The support now for independence has fallen to around 30%. This corresponds roughly to the SNP’s support in the opinion polls.
The biggest support has been for devolution, which Labour has advocated. Nevertheless, given the conditions that are likely to open up under Labour, the big growth of nationalism at a certain stage seems almost inevitable.
Of course Labour itself would be affected by a rise in support for the nationalists. A section of the party would move into opposition against the Labour government, possibly around George Galloway, Dennis Canavan and other MPs. This opposition could even go as far as a split in the party in Scotland and the formation of some form of left Scottish Labour grouping. This development would most likely be on a higher level than the Scottish Labour party, under Sillars and Robinson in 1976.
Some Scottish MPs would be looking at their own situation. Under those circumstances the SNP could win a swathe of seats from Labour in the inner city areas. This possible split from Labour would however suffer the same fate as the SLP, it would disintegrate with part of it ending up in the SNP.
A victory for the Tories, which is less likely, would nevertheless have profound implications north of the border. The consequences of a fourth Tory victory, when Scotland has overwhelmingly rejected Toryism (they could be reduced to half a dozen seats), could see a big rise in nationalism. Under these circumstances, Major would most likely grant concessions — a limited autonomy — in the hope of containing the situation.
It could not be ruled out that such a development, which would see the back of Kinnock, could also provoke a split in the Labour Party in Scotland, with the creation of some kind of Scottish Labour Party. This “pro-independence” split could go over to the nationalists. Marxists would oppose this split in the Labour Party, as with the SLP in 1976 — to preserve the unity of the Labour organisations, despite their leaders. A split on these lines would be a blind alley, born out of political frustration. Such a scenario could only benefit the nationalists. The call, likewise to withdraw from Westminster can only be viewed as a call for separation and independence.
There is no artificial shortcut to the defeat of nationalism. The idea of the SML counter-posing themselves to Labour on the one hand and the nationalists on the other is a farce.
“It is unreal to imagine,” claims the SML, “that we could cut across this reaction to right-wing Labour unless we are able to make a more open appeal. Only by having an independent organisation, with an open face, would we be able to attract the best of the workers and youth.” (our emphasis)
The idea that a tiny organisation like the SML could somehow cut across this development is utterly utopian. If there is a strong surge towards nationalism, the only force capable of stopping it is the Labour Movement. Despite this, their document on “Scottish Perspectives” still maintains: “even in the short term the formation of the open organisation of Marxism could act as a powerful pole of attraction to SNP supporters and even members, who are not dyed-in-the-wool nationalists, but who see in the SNP the only real organised alternative to Labour. This would be particularly the case with the youth.”
Even with this perspective, these comrades have not even the courage of their convictions, they are very “conditional”. If you cannot win workers round the “banner” of the paper, it will make a negligible difference if you have a signboard proclaiming the setting up of an “organisation”.
They argue that it was the association with Labour which was alienating the youth in Scotland from Militant and preventing them from halting the movement of a layer of the youth towards nationalism. But then they decide not only to put the name “Labour” in the title of the new organisation, but also to announce with a flourish of trumpets that the aim of the SML is — to transform the Labour Party!
Worst of all worlds
This is to get the worst of all worlds. How does the declared aim of the new organisation differ from the aim of the paper which allegedly “alienated” the youth? What atom of difference does the declaration of an “organisation” make?
Their past claims that they would organise a founding conference of 1000 for the Scottish Militant Labour has fallen flat. The conference at the end of February attracted only 200 supporters (out of supposedly 600 in Scotland), despite the articles in the Scottish Militant boasting about dozens of new recruits in the recent period. In the issue of the 10th January for example, it states “Almost 500 people went to the first two meetings in Glasgow, held in the week before Christmas.” It continued that at the Pollok meeting “15 people filled in forms to join SML on the spot,” and then added, “another 65 signed up to support the campaign and wanted more information about joining.
At the following meeting in Royston, where 150 reportedly attended, the article says “20 applied to join Militant Labour at the meeting and 100 others signed up for more information — in other words, virtually the entire meeting.”
Yet despite this apparent euphoria, all catalogued in detail in Scottish Militant, the founding conference did not mention a single word about the attendance figures! Just as the pre-conference meeting in Glasgow only attracted 60 people from the whole of Scotland, so the low figures for the founding conference illustrate the fact that the SML is already beginning to run out of steam. In fact out of the 200 who attended, 50 left in the afternoon.
The launching of the SML is an adventure. The comrades lack a sense of proportion and are repeating the experience of the sectarian groups on the fringes of the Labour Movement. It will end in disaster.
As always, false theories and false perspectives lead people to tie themselves in knots, from which they will not find it so easy to extricate themselves as they imagine.
Failure of Walton
And all this for what? For the purpose of putting up a candidate in Pollok in the general election, and possible candidates for a future Assembly. For this mess of pottage, they have thrown away the results of years of patient work.
We already had a foretaste of what to expect in Walton, with the putting up of an “independent — Real Labour” candidate against Labour. That achieved the grand total of 2,600 votes and gave the excuse to the Labour right to embark on a new wave of expulsions and remove the two Marxist MPs. Their lack of consistency on this question is illustrated by the fact that the “Real Labour” candidate is not standing in Walton in this election. So much for the argument that it would be a “dereliction of duty” not to stand against the official Labour candidate, Peter Kilfoyle! What is Militant now calling on the workers of Walton to do in this election? Abstain? Vote Kilfoyle? Militant is totally silent on this question.
The consequences of Walton has been to strengthen the hand of the right wing and establish a precedent for the expulsion of other Left MPs who might oppose the reactionary measures of a future Labour Government.
Just as with Walton, they thought the Mersey was going to be set on fire, so they now imagine they will set the Clyde alight by standing against Labour in Pollok.
“We could creak an incredible impact, not only in the local area but throughout Scotland,” they argue.
They do not understand that, especially in a general election, the mass of the Scottish workers, beginning with the activists in the trade unions, are striving for a Labour Government, not because they like the policies of Kinnock, but because they see no alternative.
The idea that the candidature of a small independent left group could have a major impact demonstrates a complete lack of proportion. Have they forgotten the lessons of Jimmy Reid, the leader of UCS, when he stood against Labour in Clydebank for the “Communist” Party in 1974, polling a few thousand votes? Even Dick Douglas, when he stood in the Regional elections against Labour, despite being a sitting MP, was still defeated. This demonstrates the loyalty of the working class to its traditional organisations, despite the image of the leadership. They have no mass alternative. The standing of the SML in Pollok will not create even a ripple on the Clyde, or anywhere else.
Insofar as the Scottish and national media pay any attention to the election campaign of the new organisation it will be exclusively for the purpose of portraying it as a split in the Labour camp. This will not benefit anyone except the class enemy. And after the election, there will be no further free publicity. The tap will be fumed off. The new organisation within a measurable period will sink like a stone.
At the present time, when the capitalist class is launching a furious ideological counter-offensive against the ideas of socialism, it is the duty of Marxists to stand firm in defence of the fundamental ideas and principles. We must, above all, reject the false road of shortcuts and panaceas, which leads to the quagmire of opportunism and ultra-leftism — the head and tail of the same coin.
In the coming period the working class throughout Britain will enter into struggle, and carry out the task of transforming and re-transforming their organisations. Those “Marxists” who fail to understand these basic lessons will be doomed to sectarian isolation. For ourselves we will fight within the Labour and trade union movement for genuine socialist ideas, which on the basis of experience will become the property of the mass of workers in Britain and internationally.
In the words of John Maclean at his trial in May 1918, we stand here not as the accused; but as the accusers of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot. “No matter what your accusations against me may be; no matter what reservations you keep at the back of your head, my appeal is to the working class. I appeal exclusively to them because they and they only can bring about the time when the whole world will be in one brotherhood, on a sound economic inundation. That, and that alone, can be the means of bringing about a reorganisation of Society. That can only be obtained when the people of the world get the world, and retain the world.”
- Against ultra-leftism and opportunism!
- No concessions to the ideas of bourgeois and petit-bourgeois nationalism!
- We continue to fight for the ideas of class unity and internationalism as the only way forward for the workers everywhere.
18th March, 1992