Philip Stott, member of the SSP and the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) gives his analysis of the Scottish Independence Convention and the trajectory of the SSP.
It’s been more than a decade and a half since the soothsayers of capitalism pronounced the triumph of the market and read the last rites for socialism. Events since then have not worked out as well as the free-market ideologues had initially hoped. Neo-liberal policies and capitalist globalisation – the twin hatchets that the capitalist class internationally have used to slash away at workers’ rights and the social conditions of the majority of the world’s population – have produced mass opposition in its wake. The deepening social revolt in Latin America, the first continent to suffer the laboratory experiment of neo-liberalism and privatisation has shaken imperialism. While not yet carrying through a socialist revolution, events in Venezuela, Bolivia and other countries underline a growing tide of revolt against capitalist policies internationally.
The so-called developed west has seen the emergence of important class battles in Europe on pensions, jobs, wages and attacks on working conditions. This has provoked major strike movements in Belgium, Italy, Ireland and Greece in the last few months.
US imperialism, the colossus who bestrode the world unchallenged, has been exposed as having feet of clay. Bush’s hopes following the Iraq invasion, a reliable source of cheap oil and a strengthened hand for imperialism’s policies in the Middle East, are sinking into the quagmire. Iraq is becoming a nightmare for imperialism with no exit strategy. There is a majority inside the US now opposed to Bush’s strategy. While in Iraq the horrors of the occupation and the policies of the US and UK has led to tens of thousands of Iraqi deaths and a developing civil war with incalculable consequences for Iraq and the entire region. The weakening position for imperialism and their allies in the Middle East was also underlined by the election victory for Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza recently.
Alongside these and other important developments is a tangible reawakening of interest in socialist ideas among sections of young people and the working class. The Committee for a Workers International has parties and organisations in almost 40 countries across the world and in many of these sections we have seen significant growth in the last year or so. (see Committee for a Workers International)
As well as building our own revolutionary Marxist forces, the CWI has advocated the need to build new mass parties of the working class as an important step to challenging the neo-liberal offensive. Even where these parties don’t adopt initially a clear socialist and internationalist programme they would represent a step forward.
This is also the approach we have taken towards the SSP in Scotland. We were founding members off the SSP in 1998 and have worked to build the party since then, while arguing for an alternative political strategy and programme to that of the SSP leadership. We believe there are big possibilities in Scotland to reach a new generation with socialist ideas and the SSP has the potential to do that. Our differences with the SSP leadership, a number of whom including Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes formally broke with the CWI in 2001, were over their rejection of the need to defend and build support for a Marxist programme while building the politically broader SSP. Their break from the policies and methods of the CWI has also led to political mistakes which are jeopardising the very future of the SSP.
It’s against this background of new opportunities for socialists in Scotland and internationally that the setbacks suffered by the SSP have been so disappointing. They have dealt a serious blow to the morale of party members and those who saw the SSP as a refreshing alternative to the pro-capitalist establishment in Scotland. Public support for the SSP has fallen significantly and without doubt it has complicated the task of building a more powerful and viable socialist force. The CWI has dealt with these setbacks and outlined a strategy for recovery for the party in our statement, Which way now for the SSP? (CWI Scotland)
The enforced resignation of Tommy Sheridan as national convenor by the SSP Executive Committee was the catalyst for a crisis that has done severe and possibly lasting damage to the SSP. But it is important to understand that these events were a reflection of a fundamentally mistaken political approach by the party leadership to the tasks of building a mass socialist party; above all how, and on what programme, is a new party to be built and sustained. This mistaken approach is continuing and can further weaken the SSP unless a political change of direction is undertaken and rapidly.
In our view the SSP leadership completely mis-judged the public impact that Tommy Sheridan’s resignation would have on the fortunes of the SSP. This was a reflection of a lack of an appreciation of the public standing Tommy Sheridan had, and still has, and the way in which his role in the mass struggles like the poll tax (when he was a member of the CWI) and since then played a decisive role in laying the basis of support for what was to become the SSP. Even more seriously, in our view, it exposes a leadership, or sections of the leadership of the SSP, that has lost its ability to connect with the working class.
The CWI has fundamental political differences with Tommy Sheridan. In fact we were the only platform to challenge, in the form of a motion to the SSP National Council, Tommy Sheridan’s support for the
mixed economy during the 2003 general election campaign. While Tommy Sheridan was arguing there was no need to nationalise companies like Tesco, the CWI counter posed the need to bring the multinational companies into public ownership under democratic working class control and management to form the basis of a planned socialist economy.
We have also opposed Tommy Sheridan and others in the leadership of the SSP on their increasing turn to left nationalism.
This has been graphically represented by the text of the
Declaration of Calton Hill, the approach taken towards the Independence Convention, and the now clearly expressed and formulated strategy of the need to
break apart the UK before it is possible to advance the cause of socialism.
It is likely that independence and the break up of the British State will be posed long before the forces of socialism are strong enough to defeat capitalism in Scotland (Alan McCombes’ statement on the Independence Convention, October 2005)
Two and an half years have passed since the SSP EC brought forward their proposal to launch the Independence Convention. The CWI opposed this proposal when it was brought to the National Council in August 2003 for three key reasons:
- 1. What was proposed was a parliamentary bloc between the SSP, the SNP and the Greens. There would be virtually no independent working class forces involved which would mean the SSP would be locked into a campaign dominated by pro-capitalist forces.
- 2. Support for independence has dipped significantly since the formation of the Scottish parliament and there would be little popular support for such an initiative at this stage.
- 3. The SSP leadership were preparing to submerge the political banner of the SSP into a pro-independence front that would
promote the benefits of [capitalist] independence. Quote from original draft of SSP EC statement proposing the launch of the convention.
We warned the SSP membership that:
Rather than strengthening the forces of socialism such a ‘popular front’ for independence would serve only to weaken and disorientate the forces of socialism while bolstering those of nationalism. (Socialists and the National Question, CWI statement, August 2004)
These warnings have proved to be accurate. Since then we have had the launch of the Convention at a meeting overwhelmingly dominated by the members and supporters of the SSP, Greens and particularly the SNP; but with virtually no independent working class representation. The SSP EC described the launch meeting of the convention as having: “confirmed that the independence movement in Scotland is overwhelmingly antiwar; opposed to nuclear weapons; concerned about global and domestic inequality of wealth; and in favour of a diverse, multicultural Scotland where asylum seekers are welcome.” (SSP EC motion to 2006 conference) is a clear warning of the direction they are proposing to take the SSP.
To describe the independence movement and therefore the SNP as reflecting these aims is wrong in fact and in principle. The SNP are staunchly pro-capitalist, for cuts in corporation and business rates and wish to model the Scottish economy on the
Celtic Tiger where Irish and migrant workers are facing a neo-liberal onslaught on wages and conditions. Just a few days after the convention’s launch, Alex Salmond attacked Gordon Brown for levying a windfall tax on oil profits, claiming it would
cost Scottish jobs and weaken the Scottish economy. So concerned are they about
inequality of wealth that they want to implement policies that would further widen the gap between the rich and the rest. The
anti-war SNP also supports troops from
Muslim countries taking over from the current US/UK occupation of Iraq.
What the EC’s position does illustrate is a conscious attempt to politically minimise the differences between the
pro-independence forces. If this goes unchallenged it will increasingly see the SSP tail-end the SNP. Already there are vocal demands from some SSP members calling on the SSP to back the SNP in the 2007 constituency elections for the Scottish parliament. Given the political trajectory of the SSP leadership over the last couple of years this is actually a logical proposal; as is a post-election coalition between the SSP and the SNP.
It would be difficult to overstate the damage this can do to the SSP. The SNP are seen by big sections of the working class as part of the same political establishment as New Labour. The advances made by the SSP between 1999 and 2003 were precisely based on the fact that the party was seen as an alternative to the pro-business political establishment. The SNP have lost support in the last four elections – reflecting the softening of the mood on the national question in Scotland and their move to the right politically. The profile of the SSP as a fighting, class based anti-capitalist and socialist alternative to the business parties has been diluted by the turn towards the SNP and left nationalism and can potentially prove fatal for the SSP if not halted.
No account is taken by the SSP EC of the limited backing that independence has among the Scottish population at this stage. While any
union has to be voluntary, and the UK state does not fall into that category, separation must also be a voluntary measure – with the active support of a majority of the population. That is not the case at the moment. The idea of the convention offering a
fast, broad highway towards independence (Alan McCombes, Scottish Socialist Voice No 182) is a complete illusion. There is no fast highway to independence. There will be ferocious opposition to the break up of the UK from British and Scottish big business reflecting their class interests at this stage. There are also significant doubts, and even opposition, among sections of the working class to the idea of an independent capitalist Scotland being an advance. A capitalist Scotland that under the SNP would continue the brutal attacks on workers’ rights as in Ireland and increasingly in Norway, Denmark and other nation states served up as
economic models by the SNP.
Under these conditions the road to independence is likely to involve many twists, turns and setbacks. The CWI in no way rules out a re-emergence of a strong mood, and at some stage possible mass support for independence in Scotland. We support the demand for a referendum on independence as a democratic right. We have consistently supported and fought, for decades, for the democratic rights of the Scottish people, including the right to an independent state where a majority support it. But it is essential that socialists explain, as the CWI has done, that only a policy based on the need to break completely with capitalism can a solution to poverty and inequality be found. That is why we support the founding programme of the SSP which called for an independent socialist Scotland which we believe should form part of a voluntary and democratic confederation of socialist states alongside England, Wales and Ireland as part of a socialist Europe.
The building of a more powerful force for socialism in Scotland requires an unambiguous, ideological struggle against the ideas of the SNP today and the possibility of the emergence of left nationalism as a mass force in the future. To their discredit the SSP leadership are doing the opposite and are in the process of politically disarming the SSP of its socialist and class based ideas. This in turn will weaken the ability of the SSP to counter the radical, semi-anti capitalist ideas of left nationalism that don’t propose to go beyond the framework of capitalism. Instead there is a danger the SSP can become the champions of these ideas if the current political approach of the leadership does not change.
Republican Communist Network
This consistent and principled opposition by the CWI platform towards the SSP leadership’s turn to left nationalism has not been shared by the RCN platform. On the contrary, the RCN welcomed with open arms the
Declaration of Calton Hill. The RCN in their journal, Emancipation & Liberation No. 7, prepared for the 2005 SSP conference stated:
FULL MARKS FOR REPUBLICAN INITIATIVE. They even went on to call on the SSP:
to advance the party’s other initiative, the Scottish Independence Convention, on sound republican principles. As we have explained in this article the Convention proposal from the SSP EC represented not a turn to the left but a turning away from a principled socialist and Marxist position.
Unlike the RCN who praised the Calton Hill Declaration, the CWI warned:
There are many ideas contained in the declaration that could be supported; an end to poverty and a redistribution of wealth; the removal of nuclear weapons; the abolition of the monarchy; an end to racism and oppression etc. But the declaration was constructed in such a way that the entire emphasis of the document was that an independent Scottish republic could achieve these goals. There was no mention of socialism in the declaration and as a result the danger is that it will promote illusions in what can be achieved in an independent capitalist republic. It should not be forgotten that the USA is a republic, and has a written constitution, as is France, but because they are based on the class rule of a capitalist elite the majority of their populations are consigned to a life of struggle and insecurity. It was therefore wrong of the SSP leadership to draw up a document that consciously omitted any reference to the need to stand for socialism.
Building a socialist Scotland or an independent republic – International Socialist issue No 23
Events in both France and the US since then have underlined this approach a thousand times over. The continuing programme of attacks on French workers being carried out by the Chirac – de Villepin government, the recent riots – fuelled by poverty discrimination and racism – of the most downtrodden sections of French society underlined that a republic, even one based on
equality and liberty, would not fundamentally alter the class character of the state.
A capitalist republic?
The RCN might wish to ponder the fact that the French government introduced emergency powers, including curfews, the powers of mass arrest and other draconian measures during the riots. These repressive powers were available to them despite the lack of
Crown Powers and other feudal remnants. Similarly, in the US the occupation of Iraq and numerous wars and
police actions have been sanctioned by a
republic and one with a written constitution no less. Let’s recall that the Calton Hill declaration commented:
We believe that a written Constitution will guarantee, under law, everyone’s right to freely vote, speak and assemble; and will guarantee the people’s right to privacy and protection, and access to information on all its Government’s doings. In practice it would do nothing of the sort.
The US Patriot Act, and an arsenal of repressive legislation, has been enacted in the US as part of the
war on terror, despite a constitution. The December 2005 New York transit strike saw workers fined two day’s pay for every day they went on strike and their union fined $1 million per day as a result of the anti-union laws. For the SSP leadership, with the RCN’s fulsome backing, to draft such a declaration was a mistake and can only reinforce illusions in what would be possible in an independent Scottish capitalist republic.
Does that mean, as the RCN have accused the CWI of in the past, that socialists and Marxists should reject the fight for democratic rights as an unimportant issue?
The CWI and the parties affiliated to it have a long record off opposing anti-democratic legislation. From the Criminal Justice Act to ID cards and other
anti-terror and anti-immigrant legislation to fighting for the repeal of anti-union laws, to opposing repressive measures against the Catholic population in Northern Ireland. Internationally, sections of the CWI in Pakistan, Chile, Nigeria, South Africa, Sri Lanka among others have worked under brutal military dictatorships or semi-Bonapartist regimes, where the struggle for the most basic of democratic rights like the right to vote, organise free trade unions, the right to carry out any political activity etc did not exist. This meant that the demand for basic democratic rights have formed an essential part of our day-day fighting programme, while emphasising the need for mass mobilisations to win democratic concessions from the ruling elites.
Nor are Marxists neutral on the form that a capitalist state would take. We fight for the maximum amount of democracy and space for the working class and the oppressed to conduct a struggle in defence of their rights. It is a basic principle of Marxism to explain the limitations of bourgeois democracy and to argue that
maximum democracy is only possibly under a socialist society where the economy, what was left of the state, and the day to day running of society would be planned, controlled and managed by the majority of the population. Unfortunately the RCN do not take this approach. Instead they elevate the struggle for a democratic republic stripped of the monarchy and Crown Powers as the central battle to engage in. This is how the comrades justify it:
The Crown Powers provide the British ruling class with a constitutional sanction to go about their affairs, in whatever manner they deem necessary. They provided cover for the Iraq war preparations, long before the Westminster vote. The same Crown Powers are used to give backing to the massive encroachment on our civil rights represented by shoot-to-kill, gagging the BBC, dawn raids on ‘failed’ asylum seekers’ families, and turning an official blind-eye to US ‘extraordinary rendition’ flights landing in Scotland.
The SSP & the Scottish Independence Convention; a Scottish Internationalist and Republican response, RCN
Let’s imagine for a minute that the British state did not have a monarchy or Crown powers, like say the US or France. Would it still be possible for the British government backed by the ruling class to go to war? To attack asylum seekers and curtail the freedom of the press? Not only would these attacks continue but they would inevitably happen because the capitalists are forced onto the offensive against the rights of the working and middle class; to attack the democratic rights of the population particularly in a period of economic decline and an increasing challenge to their rule by the working class they exploit. The ability to defeat these attacks and to prevent imperialist wars depends on the action of the working class and the poor internationally.
The RCN go on to say about the type of independence the SSP should be fighting for:
Therefore, the only campaign which even offers the prospect of political independence is one which is designed to break the ruling class’s Crown Powers. (The SSP & the Scottish Independence Convention; a Scottish Internationalist and Republican response, RCN)
But real independence, real democracy, requires a complete break with capitalism and the building of a democratic socialist society. Why limit a struggle for
political independence and
real democracy to only abolishing the feudal elements of the British or possible future independent Scottish capitalist state? Why not deal with root of the problem i.e. capitalism?
A two – stage approach
The RCN want to limit the socialist movement to:
outline[ing] an internationalist and republican strategy to win support for a campaign based on the sound principles outlined in the Calton Hill Declaration. (The SSP & the Scottish Independence Convention; a Scottish Internationalist and Republican response, RCN).
Eventually, through building such wider support we can begin to organise the large political mobilisations which can make a Scottish republic a reality. If the SSP are in the lead of such developments, then such a republic will both offer us more democratic freedoms and open up further doors, for economic and political advance, including John Maclean’s vision of a Scottish Workers Republic and international socialism. (E & L No 9)
The RCN are guilty of arguing that if only we at least had a Scottish republic we would then have the democratic freedoms to advance the struggle for socialism. Why is it not possible to build support for socialism now? Inherent in the RCN’s approach is the idea that a successful struggle for socialism is not possible without first achieving a democratic republic. There is more than an echo here of the discredited theory of stages, first advanced by the Russian Mensheviks, in opposition to Lenin and Trotsky. They argued that the task of socialists was to support the overthrow of the Tsarist dictatorship and establish a democratic capitalist Russia, modelled on the successful bourgeois democratic revolutions that overthrew feudalism in England, France etc. Only after a period of modern capitalist development would there be the material and economic basis for socialism, they argued.
It was Trotsky in his theory of the permanent revolution who drew the conclusion that the bourgeois in Russia were too weak, too tied to the feudal landlords and imperialism, to be capable of carrying through the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution. The carrying through of these tasks including land reform, the introduction of democracy, creation of a nation state, and the development of a modern capitalist economy instead would require the leadership of the working class, alongside a movement of the poor peasants and would be merged with the tasks of the socialist revolution, i.e. the breaking of the feudal and capitalist elements of the economy and the state. In practice that is precisely what did happen as the
democratic phase of the Russian revolution – February 1917, which solved none of the problems of war, hunger and exploitation – rapidly gave way to the October revolution and the coming to power of the working class through the Soviets, led by the Bolshevik party of Lenin and Trotsky.
Ignoring the experience of the worker’s and socialist movement over the last 100 years, the RCN are making a major political mistake by advancing a position that seeks to consciously postpone the idea of the socialist revolution until after the achievement of a democratic republic. By elevating the need to deal with the democratic questions – the abolition of the monarchy and crown powers prior to the winning of a socialist society – to an overarching principle they are effectively saying
socialism must wait. This type of approach has led to many a lost opportunity and even defeat for revolutionary movements in the past.
Key role for the working class
The experience of the Marxist and socialist movement internationally has underlined again and again that the democratic tasks of a revolution, if they are to be made far-reaching and permanent, are indissolubly linked to the socialist transformation of society. While fighting for the maximum in democratic rights for the working class and the population generally under capitalism, we have a duty to explain the limitations inherent in capitalist democracy and at all times put forward the case for socialism. That means explaining the key and central role of the working class as the decisive force in carrying through such a task.
The position of the SSP leadership, particularly Alan McCombes who has written extensively on theses issues, indicates a turning away from the working class as the main agency for political change in Scotland. In an article written for the Scottish Socialist Voice (SSV) after John Swinney’s resignation as leader of the SNP, Alan McCombes wrote:
A victory for either Roseanna Cunningham or Alex Neil – both of them capable and charismatic figures – would have the effect of regenerating interest in politics generally. It would help to shift the ideological centre of gravity in Scotland further to the left and, at the same time, strengthen support for independence. All of this would create a more politicised climate, favourable to both the SNP and the SSP.
(SSV No 182)
Apart from grossly exaggerating the
left credentials of the SNP contenders, these comments underline that Alan McCombes has assigned to the nationalist movement the key role in radicalising Scottish society. The CWI have rejected this idea. It is the working class moving into action against attacks on pensions, jobs and conditions, alongside the development of the anti-war movement and the movement of young people that will provide the forces that will
shift the ideological centre of gravity in Scotland further to the left. The CWI fully recognises that the national question has had and will continue to have a politicising effect in Scotland. But at all times we need to link the national and democratic struggle for the need for a socialist solution.
The RCN are also guilty of playing down the role of the working class when they say:
The Britain-wide trade union strike wave, which started soon after the initial struggle for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland, was contained more easily by the incoming Labour government of 1974.
While after the defeat of the1984/85 miners strike:
The miners’ power was broken; whilst Tory and Labour governments had to make a series of concessions to the Irish Republican resistance.
It is frankly ridiculous to dismiss the movements of the working class from 1970-74 in this way. They included two miners’ strikes, the UCS occupation on the Clyde, strikes of steel workers, car workers – 90% of which were unofficial – building workers, the Saltley gates mass pickets, the jailing of building workers and dockers which brought Britain to the verge of a general strike. These momentous class battles halted the Heath government’s plans on anti-trade union laws and delayed the capitalists’ offensive on workers’ rights. Overall 44 million days were lost through strike action in these four years.
Even worse, from the point of view of the RCN, is the attempt to elevate the methods of individual terrorism by the republican movement in Northern Ireland to a higher form of a struggle than that of mass action by the working class. The analysis made by the RCN of the experience of the Republican movement in Northern Ireland is wrong and contrasts vividly with that of the CWI.
When the IRA campaign began in earnest in 1971, it drew mass support from Catholic working class youth in response to state repression, particularly internment, and to poverty and unemployment.
Thousands of young people looked to the IRA because they felt that the mass civil rights campaign had not been listened to and that the IRA’s methods of individual terrorism offered a more effective way of fighting back. The silence of the leaders of the labour movement, who drew back from any involvement in an increasingly difficult situation, meant that there was no class explanation on offer that could have provided an alternative to the thousands of young people who were getting caught up in paramilitary organisations at this time.
The only way to overthrow or defeat a modern capitalist state is through mass action by the working class. Individual terrorism substitutes the actions of a small group of individuals for the mass actions of a class and can never succeed.
The Provisional campaign was doubly counter-productive in that it was based on a minority of the population and, no matter what the intent, had the effect of antagonising the Protestant majority and of dividing and weakening the working class.
By the mid to late 1980s, the campaign had effectively run its course. The IRA had the capacity to carry on at a low ebb for a further period but the leadership had come to realise that there was no hope that the military campaign would succeed.
(Socialist View, November 2005, Socialist Party (CWI) – Ireland)
The emphasis the CWI has put on united working class action was underlined recently by the recent strike action by postal workers, Catholic and Protestant, in Northern Ireland. Royal Mail bosses were forced into a climbdown by this action. The potential for a united working class movement to defeat the bosses’ offensive and cut across sectarian division was graphically illustrated as these workers organised a march up the Shankill Road, across the
peace line and down the Falls Road. Sectarian politicians on all sides made speeches at the peace line but only the CWU members and the Socialist Party with our banner “For workers unity” marched the whole route. On both the Shankill and the Falls local communities came out to cheer and support the postal workers.
A way forward if the SSP is to recover and move forward as a viable vehicle for the struggle for socialism it has to do so on a clear political basis. That means putting forward a fighting day-to-day programme that addresses the immediate issues facing the working class. On pensions, the war in Iraq, privatisation, poverty, wages and on any number of questions the SSP can put forward a distinctive alternative to the neo-liberal assaults on the working class. By building and rebuilding a reputation for defending the interests of the working class and the oppressed the party can move forward. With a principled approach to the national question, defending the democratic rights of the Scottish people while explaining the need to join the struggle for socialism the SSP can also advance its position.
However, that will require the SSP leadership to alter its course, away from the increasing tendency to downplay socialism and the increasing trend towards nationalist ideas. If not, an opportunity will have been lost that will complicate the task of building Scottish Independence Convention a mass socialist alternative to neo-liberalism and capitalism in Scotland. The world has turned since the “End of History” was declared by the supporters of capitalism after the collapse of the Stalinist regimes of Russia and Eastern Europe. Capitalism is a failing system. The period we are moving into will see new and growing opportunities to strengthen and deepen the support for socialism and Marxism. We believe that the CWI has an important role to play in that process. The debates on political differences can hopefully help to clarify the way forward for the SSP and the wider workers’ movement.