Phil Sharpe (Movement for a Socialist Future) reviews Imagine by Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes (Rebel Inc. Edinburgh, £7.99) This article first appeared in Socialist Future magazine
This book, by Scottish Socialist Party leaders Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes, argues for a nationalist road to socialism. As thousands of Scottish workers face the sack as a result of global forces, this reformist perspective looks more like a pipe dream than ever.
While Sheridan and McCombes are able to present a good description of the economic inequality generated by modern capitalism, they do so in moralistic terms of the differences between rich and poor. The capitalist class is presented as the
undeserving rich who have no beneficial economic role.
This is a popular misconception which replaces the Marxist standpoint on capital-labour relations and the class antagonisms they generate. It describes the effects of the economic system without explaining the actual structural role of the capitalist class. This is, of course, to facilitate the accumulation of capital on the basis of the extraction of surplus value from the working class, which is the basis for the development of the vast wealth of the capitalist class. The authors explain class differences and antagonism by the differences in levels of consumption. So it is not surprising that they maintain that under-consumption is the basis of capitalist crisis:
On a global scale, more goods are made than the population of the world can afford. Every so often, vast surpluses pile up which cannot be sold for profit. As a result, the stock market plummets, profits turn into losses, businesses fail, factories close, workers are sacked, unemployment grows, and, for a period of time, there is a general contraction of industry and trade. But this fails to explain why there is not a permanent crisis of capitalism, because effective demand generally lags behind the level of production. Actually, it is the over-production of capital that is materially represented in overproduction and a glut of unsaleable products. This prevents capital from continually realising high levels of capital accumulation.
The authors cannot differentiate between appearance and its actual content. Consequently, they leave open the prospect that the process of capital accumulation can be modified and reformed. If the problem of under-consumption is tackled then the needs of consumers can be more generally realised within the economic system.
They argue that the development of new technology is preparing the possibility for a new and viable democratic socialism. They point out that capitalism tries to limit the advances of technology to the requirements of capital accumulation and that the general motivation for development is the co-operative aspiration to help other human beings.
But they have an evolutionist approach, or virtual reality socialism, which abstracts technology from the existing relations of production. Technology becomes an almost automatic and mechanical means to realise socialism. But the reality is that technology is located within the existing capitalist relations of production and so serves the process of capital accumulation. The only way to emancipate technology and liberate the productive forces is through revolutionary class struggle. By emphasising technological determinism as the road to socialism Sheridan and McCombes effectively minimise the importance of class struggle for liberating the productive forces from the fetters of the relations of production.
They correctly maintain that technology will be crucial in bringing about democratic forms of socialism. But what is not included in their analysis is the need for revolutionary political structures, such as workers’ councils, or soviets, for realising participatory democracy and overcoming bureaucratic elitism. Thus they indicate the economic basis for mass democracy – modern technology – but they do not suggest the necessity of transforming political change, which is realised through class struggle. Thus they justify a reformist approach on the basis of economic determinism.
The authors outline the way in which ecological problems undermine historical and human progress, and say that the only answer is public ownership of the main means of production. But they believe ecological needs can be realised within an independent socialist Scotland.
A surplus of £310 billion to £315 billion
would allow for the greatest expansion of public services that this country has ever seen. And it would also generate the resources to allow an independent socialist Scotland to face up to one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century, the building of a brand-new energy industry based on alternative, renewable sources of power. The resources of North Sea oil would provide the material basis for what effectively is a return to the perspective of socialism in one country. This was the doomed
theory put into practice by the Stalinists in the Soviet Union, with disastrous historical consequences.
The modern process of globalisation has intensified the interconnected character of the world economy, and this means that the possibility building of socialism in one country is even more utopian today than during the 1920s in isolated and backward Russia.
independent Socialist Scotland would generally have a lower level of productivity than the most advanced transnational corporations, and would still be subject to the dictates of the IMF and World Bank. Consequently, if it were to
defy the requirements of global capital it would have to construct a command economy that manufactured products at a higher level of socially necessary labour time than the commodities produced by the transnationals. Labour would have little leisure time and would remain alienated and without economic control of the process of production.
Formally, the starting point for Sheridan and McCombes is that globalisation is the material basis for world socialism. They say that
..in the age of the Internet, high speed air travel, instantaneous global communications, satellite TV, and global capitalism, the idea of global socialism can no longer be dismissed as a flight of poetic fantasy.
But the possibility of global socialism is not established in terms of outlining the potential to overthrow world capitalism. Instead what is made most important is the prospect of democratic forms of socialism in one country.
The authors argue for the implementation of a national plan to overthrow the power of capital. They contend that it will be possible to regulate and control capital in order to stop any flight of capital from Scotland. A central bank can be established in order to facilitate the planning of production, and information technology will also facilitate planning in a co-operative manner. This approach is another indication of formalism and technological determinism.
It is true that the continued development of the productive forces has enhanced the possibility of realising democratic socialism. But the objective context for successful planning has to be international if the anarchic power of capital is to challenged and transcended.
Furthermore, capital is an international relation and so is not limited to the national sphere. Hence the introduction of measures to stop the outflow of capital investment may have limited administrative success, but the power of capital is still internationally dominant as an expression of an economic system that subsumes the part into its whole.
Sheridan and McCombes argue that the perspective of an independent socialist Scotland is an expression of the political heritage of John Maclean. But Maclean’s perspective of a Scottish Workers Republic was not based upon an approach of isolationism and accommodation to reformism. Instead Maclean maintained that a Scottish Workers Republic could be the starting point for rejuvenating international class struggle after the defeats of the 1918-1919 period.
But Maclean tried to conceive of revolution in the internationalist terms of the requirements of the development of world revolution. Sheridan and McCombes have a starting point that conceives of the inherently unique and socialist identity of the people of Scotland:
Many people rightly support independence because they believe that an independent Scotland would be more egalitarian, more left-wing, more socialist in outlook than ‘Cruel Britannia’.
The idealism of this approach means that it can only effectively conceive of Scotland in separate terms, and so cannot connect the specificity of class antagonisms in Scotland to a perspective of world revolution. They believe an independent bourgeois democratic Scotland, that is based upon political equality with England will facilitate the development of a mass movement for socialism. This shows that Sheridan and McCombes are not defending Maclean’s perspective. Maclean knew that the bourgeois democratic revolution had already taken place in the formation of the United Kingdom and that what was now necessary was a revolutionary class struggle for the formation of a Scottish Workers’ Republic as a prelude to world revolution.
The authors are essentially calling for an opportunist adaptation to the Scottish National Party and support for national independence on the basis of the formation of a new bourgeois state. Hence they actually reject the approach of Lenin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg and John Maclean, about the need to put the requirements of the working class first in the struggle to resolve any outstanding national and democratic questions. In this context the call for the Scottish Workers’ Republic challenges spontaneous adherence to bourgeois nationalism.
But the very national definition of a
socialist Scotland is an idealist conception of the global transition to socialism. For what is being defended is the atomistic conception that socialist transition is based upon the aggregate collection of the sum total of separate revolutions and nationally located socialist societies.
The global domination of capital means that a nationally-located socialism is an illusion, and so the only way to overcome this problem of the national negation of socialism is for the working class to express the objective necessity (not the vague aspiration of the authors) for international expansion through world revolution.
In the last analysis their talk of
revolutionary class struggle is reduced and limited to the struggle to win parliamentary elections within Scotland.
This shows that the basic idealism of their socialism in one country standpoint is connected to adherence to reformism and the conscious rejection of a revolutionary perspective.