Challenging left nationalism and left unionism in the SSP

Neil Davidson’s latest work on Scottish history, Discovering the Scottish Revolution 1692-1746 has generated considerable debate in the Scottish Socialist Party. Allan Armstrong gives his analysis of the book and its critics. Introduction by Bob Goupillot

In writing Beyond Broadswords and Bayonets, his response to the debate around Neil Davidson’s book Discovering the Scottish Revolution 1692 – 1746, Allan Armstrong has done all those interested in Scottish history from a working class and Marxist perspective a great favour.

Socialists writing on Scottish history tend to be influenced by one of two contending perspectives, either that of left nationalism or left unionism. Left nationalists identify with the story of the emerging Scottish nation going back to at least pre-feudal times. The heroes of this story are those figures seen to be defending Scotland and its independence (even when they are attacking the people and their liberties). Thus Wallace and Bruce are equally esteemed, despite Wallace rallying the commons and burghers in the defence of their rights, whilst Bruce pursued his family’s own dynastic, feudal interests.

In contrast left unionists see the rise of the British state and capitalism as progressive because they lead to the development of Capitalism and its gravedigger the working class. From this perspective Scottish history is seen only as a subordinate part of the much more important British story. Even Marxists and good socialists like Neil see developing the forces of production and the rise of the UK state as an entirely good thing. The extreme version of this view sees the rise of Capitalism as natural, inevitable and progressive even if it entails destroying the lives and liberty of real, living, feeling, human beings. This left wing version of the Whig view of history reflects an arid mechanical, materialism where people are passive objects shaped by the laws of history rather than revolutionary subjects.

Allan, however, maintains that there is another, genuinely working class, perspective on history – Internationalism from Below. This view challenges monarchical Jacobitism and pro-capitalist Unionism and the idea that what actually happened was the best or the only or the inevitable outcome of the struggles of the working class and their forebears. We must remember that the rise of British capitalism depended directly on the defeat of radical, democratic and revolutionary forces such as the English Levellers and the Scottish Cameronians. (or later in history the Luddites – much misunderstood by socialists from Marx onwards) Allan reminds us that there were other historical possibilities, other alternative outcomes, such as a victorious Levellers aligning themselves with the old remnant clan forces in Ireland and making links with those radical Covenanters prepared to look beyond the dogma of the ministers – the commissars of the day.

He identifies a red thread running from William Wallace through the Covenanters, Cameronians and United Scotsmen to its most famous representatives, James Connolly and John Maclean. What links these individuals and movements is that whilst they defended their own rights, they were aware of their connection to struggles going on beyond the borders of Scotland. Along the way Allan demolishes a few cherished myths. These include that Edward I, the Hammer of the Scots, was an early representative of an aggressive English nationalism; when in fact he was king of an officially French speaking feudal empire with lands in England, Wales, Ireland and Gascony. Similarly, neither Robert the Bruce, the Lords of the Isles nor the Stuart dynasty can be viewed as defenders of Scottish independence and/or Gaelic/Celtic culture.

Of the links in the revolutionary chain mentioned above, by far the least well known are the Cameronians. Left nationalists ignore them because they were opposed to Jacobite absolutism, the divine right of kings and monarchical control of the church. (They famously defeated a Jacobite army at Dunkeld. This Jacobite force had previously defeated Williamite forces at the much better known Battle of Killiekrankie).

In contrast, they are devalued by left unionists because of their opposition to the Act of Union. Allan argues that their neglect by Scottish socialists is unforgivable in that they represent the most revolutionary and democratic force in Scotland in what were revolutionary times. Indeed they have been compared to by analogy with the red guards of the Russian Revolution. When a Scottish Convention of the Estates met in Edinburgh in 1689 the Cameronians marched their armed men into the city and turned out all those ministers who supported James VII and his Episcopalian Church from their kirks. They went on to set up an armed Watching Committee over a Convention of the Estates, thus creating a situation of dual power.

However, for Allan, this is not just a history lesson. He describes an indigenous revolutionary tradition that can inspire us today. We can be inspired by Wallace in the same way that Marx identified with Spartacus (despite his lack of a revolutionary programme and failure to promote democratic centralism). As always with Allan, democracy is the key. Grass-roots control is the true measure of radicalism (and even proto-socialism). He contrasts the open debate and decision making of the Cameronians General Meetings with the absolute monarchy – supporting Jacobites.

Today the multinational British state denies self determination to Scotland in a non-voluntary union. The struggle to right this democratic deficit must be led by socialists otherwise it will be led by bourgeois nationalists like the SNP, or at best, as in Ireland, by revolutionary nationalists like Sinn Fein.

For Allan we must become Scottish Internationalists and in fighting the battle for a Scottish Workers Republic reach out to our allies, particularly in England, Wales and Ireland, because we face the same class enemy, embodied in the British state.

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