A contribution to the debate at The Global Commune event of 22nd May, 2010, in Edinburgh

1. Three Left approaches to building a new world order

The Republican Communist Network (RCN) has mainly applied an ‘internationalism from below’ approach as a way to unite communists, socialists and revolutionary democrats throughout these islands around an immediate programme (1). This stems from our political opposition to the UK state, which acts as a junior partner to US imperialism and as a ‘licensed’ enforcer for corporate capitalist interests in the North East Atlantic, aided and abetted by its own junior partner, the ‘26 Counties’ Irish state. (Of course, there are many other reasons why we oppose this and other capitalist states) In this context, we have argued for an ‘internationalism from below’ approach to counter two other approaches offered by the Left – the Left unionism of the British Left, and the Left nationalism mainly found in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

The purpose of this contribution, however, is to show that ‘internationalism from below’ flows from a global and specifically communist understanding of the best way to advance the struggle for ‘another possible world’ – a viable alternative to capitalism. We could call this ‘world communism’ or ‘the global commune’ – a less politically loaded term, given that the majority of people in the world equate communism with bureaucratic one-party states, such as the old USSR and China.

In making the communist case for ‘internationalism from below’ on a global scale, we have to recognise that there are another two major approaches to the National Question found on the Left. Some look to a future world with a classless confederation of nations, regions or communities; whilst others look to a future classless, single, planned global order but, in the meantime, largely accept the territorial frameworks already bequeathed by capitalism (with exceptions permitted, by some, for countries where there is significant political repression).

What is interesting, though, is that the division between these two approaches is not one between old-style Social Democrats/Communists on one side and Anarchists on the other. Social Democrats/Communists and Anarchists are themselves divided in giving their support to these approaches, each having advocates in both camps.

2. The confederalist approach

In one camp can be found most official, and some dissident Communists, along with some Anarchists. They share an opposition to a future single planned world system. Instead, they advocate a world of nation-states, or smaller non-state communities, hopefully living in harmony.  We could call their approach confederalist.

Supporters of the world of nation-states approach amongst the old official Communists, openly declared their support for ‘socialism in one country’. Their ultimate vision was still global, looking forward eventually to a worldwide confederation of independent socialist nation-states.  Certain federations, providing a greater degree of political and economic unity, might be supported, but the historical experience of the federal USSR and Yugoslavia, shows that these came to be dominated by their largest constituent republic – Russia and Serbia respectively.  However, some old official Communists might have still entertained the idea of an eventual world federation without dominant nation-states, where certain functions were performed by a worldwide confederal state.

Some other socialists have adopted a nuanced version of this solution by advocating various regional socialist federations, e.g. the Trotskyist CWI. Despite coming from a tradition opposed to the old official Communism (which they style Stalinism), their future ideal world system remains somewhat nebulous, perhaps federal, perhaps after a long period, eventually unitary.

Hostility to a future integrated planned world order can also be found amongst some Anarchists. Works such as Schumacher’s book, Small is Beautiful, have influenced their thinking. These Anarchists emphasise the need for small-scale local communities, with an economy based on local renewable resources, but with some economic exchange between otherwise autonomous communities. Unlike, the official and dissident communists though, there would be no intermediate democratic or socialist states, just the slow expansion of non-state communities or communes. There are no doubt also differences amongst such Anarchists adhering to such an approach, especially over the organisational methods to be used to bring about greater territorial cooperation. But whether local, regional, national or worldwide organisation is envisaged, Anarchists tend to see confederal relations as the best way to bring about greater cooperation.

3. The cosmopolitan approach

Another camp holds up its own ideal for a future world order, which would be united territorially and have global planning.  This approach could be termed cosmopolitan. It can claim the support of the early Marx and Engels, especially in the lead-up to the 1847-9 International Revolutionary Wave. Michael Lowy has shown this in his chapter Cosmopolites in Fatherland or Mother Earth. It was only later, as will be shown, that Marx and Engels moved to a more ‘internationalism from below’ approach, and a possible multi-linear path towards the formation of a new world order.

The Communist Manifesto, written in 1848, shows Marx and Engels then believed that as capital brought more and more of the world under its sway, it eliminated the outdated classes associated with the past – the aristocracy, peasants and artisans – leaving only capital and labour, or the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, in contention.

Furthermore, the Communist Manifesto also argued that capitalism was already doing away with the material basis for separate nations. “National differences and antagonisms are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity of the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto” (2). “The nationality of the worker is neither French, nor English, nor German, it is labour, free {wage} slavery, self-huckstering {selling oneself}.  His government is neither French, nor English, nor German, it is capital.  His native air is neither French, nor German, nor English, it is factory air” (3).

Marx and Engels did acknowledge the existence of ‘historic nations’, as opposed to what they termed ‘unhistoric peoples’. However, they thought that these too would soon give way in the new cosmopolitan world order being prepared by the capitalist advances the ‘historic nations’ were busy promoting. “After industry in England, politics in France, philosophy in Germany have been developed, they have been developed for the world, and their world-historic significance, as also that of these nations, has thereby come to an end” (4). Furthermore, whatever other differences the Anarchist, Proudhon had with Marx and Engels, they still shared a cosmopolitan approach to revolution.

Today, a cosmopolitan approach, partly based on Marx and Engels’ earlier writings, is to be found amongst Luxemburgists, some dissident Trotskyists, the SPGB, and the Autonomists – most obviously Negri and Hardt in their book, Empire. Cosmopolitan thinking, drawing on a number of sources, can also be found amongst some Anarchists. David Broder’s review, The Earth is not flat (5), of the Anarchist Federation’s Against Nationalism, highlights such thinking in this regard.

Whatever differences still remain (and this isn’t to underestimate their importance), these Marxists and Anarchists share a belief that capitalism has already largely created a world of two classes, in which other classes either have no future, or have, at best, limited walk-on parts in the struggle for a better world.

Of course, most cosmopolitans do acknowledge the existence of continued divisions, including amongst the working class – e.g. sexual, ethno-religious and national. However, they claim these come about largely through false consciousness, as a result of ideologies actively promoted on behalf of the capitalist class, e.g. by the state machine, male chauvinists and feminists, competing nationalists and religious leaders, or by socialists who fail to adhere to their cosmopolitan approach.

Cosmopolitans tend to believe that such false consciousness and ideologies can be effectively countered by means of persistent propaganda and a shared involvement of workers in economic struggles. This will bring about a true class consciousness, which sees all struggles of the exploited and oppressed in terms of capital versus labour.  Many such cosmopolitans will acknowledge that this ideological battle is a labour of Sisyphus, but say that communists and workers should not be deflected into struggles over ‘secondary’ oppressions, since the Revolution will bring these to an end.

4. Historical antecedents of confederalism and cosmopolitanism

It is worth going deeper into the roots of these approaches and see how another approach, ‘internationalism from below’, has attempted to break free from the limitations of those who advocate confederalism (which either ends up tailing nationalism, or contents itself with purely localist initiatives) and those who advocate cosmopolitanism (which downplays, or even opposes, current democratic struggles against oppression and tends to fall back on propagandism, when economic struggles fail to lead to the hoped for class consciousness).

If we look to those broadly upholding a more con/federalist approach, we can see their antecedents in the American revolutionary, Benjamin Franklin, who believed that the original states, constituting the USA, were just the first in a new federal republican world order, which would be brought about by Enlightened leaders. Revolutionary democratic Jacobins believed that their new French republic was the first building block in a new European federation of republican nation-states. The Italian revolutionary democrat, Mazzini, and his supporters in Young Europe, envisaged something similar, only with the ‘historic’ European nation-states taking joint responsibility for building a new worldwide republican federation.

Mazzini also argued that his proposed republican federation would be based on “principles of national freedom and progress… in favour of the right of every people to self-government and the maintenance of their own nationality” (6).  Mazzini, though, supported the idea of ‘historical nations’ or, as he called them ‘nations with a mission’, so there was still scope for argument as to who constituted a ‘people’ or nation. The Anarchist, Bakunin, however, clearly declared that, “I demand only one thing: that to each people, to each large or small tribe or race should be accorded the right to act according to its wishes” (7).

5. The beginnings of an ‘internationalism from below’ approach

In contrast, an early example of an ‘internationalism from below’ approach can be seen amongst the Fraternal Democrats, who were part of the Chartist Left. In 1847, the English Chartist, Julian Harney, protested against joint British, French and Spanish suppression of a revolt in Portugal.  “A blow against freedom on the Tagus is a blow against all friends of freedom on the Thames” (8).  Marx, a cosmopolitan at that time, would likely have seen the Portuguese people as historically redundant and destined to be absorbed into a larger ‘historic’ Spanish/Iberian nation.  It was Harney and the London-based Society of Fraternal Democrats who endeavoured to place Mazzini’s ‘internationalism from below’ on a proletarian footing, “giving life to a new Young Europe” (9).

It took Marx and Engels a considerable time before they arrived at an ‘internationalism from below’ approach. After the defeat of the 1847-9 International Revolutionary Wave, Marx and Engels had to back-pedal from their previous belief in the immediate prospect of a cosmopolitan ‘revolution in permanence’. ‘Historic nations’ were now given a more extended lifetime to perform their ‘historic duty’ of preparing the capitalist grounding for a future communist world order.

In the meantime, tactical support could also be given to those stateless ‘historical nations’ – Poland and Hungary – in the front line of the battle against that lynchpin of Reaction – Tsarist Russia and its Habsburg Austrian ally. Elsewhere, they argued that, whether in Ireland, Mexico, Algeria, India, China and Turkestan, the ‘historic nations’ of ‘England/Britain’, the USA, France, and even Russia when facing East, still had their ‘progressive’ role to perform in eliminating antiquated pre-capitalist societies, including bringing about the end of ‘historyless peoples’.

Events in India (the Indian Mutiny of 1857) and China (The Second Opium War of 1856-60) led to the first modifications in Marx and Engels’ earlier perspectives. They now switched their support to those fighting for political independence. New struggles in Poland and Ireland, reflected in the debates of the First International, pushed Marx and Engels towards a more definite ‘internationalism from below’ approach.

6. The distinction between nations and nationalities; and chauvinist superiority disguised as cosmopolitanism

When the debate over Poland came up in the First International, Proudhon-influenced Anarchists accused Engels of, in effect, abandoning their previously shared cosmopolitan principles, when he argued for solidarity with the Polish struggle. He was criticised for giving his support to the ‘nationalities principle’. He replied in the following manner. “Poland, like most other European countries, is inhabited by people of different nationalities” (10).  He identified four nationalities within the Polish nation – the Poles, Lithuanians, White Russians and Ukrainians. The Poles (meaning all the inhabitants of Poland) were a multi-ethnic nation not a nationality.

Thus Engels made a distinction between nations, which were territorial and tended to incorporate several peoples or nationalities; and nationalities, which were, in effect, ethnic (sometimes ethno-religious) groups. Ethnic groups could often be found widely dispersed and living mixed amongst others, particularly in cities. Marx and Engels would have been unhappy to concede an exclusive territorial state to “each small tribe or race”, as envisaged by Bakunin.  Their focus was upon nations.

This distinction between nations and nationalities was a clear step forward. Furthermore, Marx and Engels no longer limited their reason for supporting the Polish national democratic struggle to tactical considerations in relation to Tsarist Russia. This is why they didn’t oppose the Mazzini/Harney-type principle adopted by the First International. It declared for ‘the right of every people to dispose of itself’ (11) (an earlier version of the 1896 Second International congress policy of support for ‘the right of national self-determination’). As in Mazzini’s earlier case, there was still ambiguity and argument over who constituted a ‘people’ – although, clearly for Marx and Engels, it was nations not nationalities, which enjoyed this territorial right.

Indeed, Marx soon found himself up against Proudhon-influenced Anarchists in the First International. When “the question of ‘nationality’ in general and the attitude we should take towards it”, was brought up, “… the representatives of Young France (non-workers) came out with the argument that all nationalities and even nations were ‘antiquated prejudices’…  The English laughed very much when I began my speech by saying that our friend Lafargue…  who had done away with nationalities, had spoken ‘French’ to us, i.e. a language which nine-tenths of the audience did not understand.  I also suggested that by the negation of nationalities he appeared, quite unconsciously, to understand their absorption into the model French nation” (12).

As Marx and Engels moved away from the cosmopolitan camp, which they originally shared with Proudhon, they did not move over into the confederalist communist camp. Certainly, Marx and Engels did envisage a developing world of multi-nationality nation-states, not nationality or ethnic states. They also sometimes advocated confederal or federal state arrangements. However, these state forms were only meant to be a transitional democratic phase in the development from capitalism to the lower phase of communism. In the upper phase of communism, however, such transitional political forms of state would be transcended as existing nation-states, confederations and federations themselves disappeared as part of ‘the withering way of the state’.

7. ‘Internationalism from below’ and secularism compared to cosmopolitanism and state-atheism, and to state-promoted multi-ethnicity and religious toleration.

A useful parallel for understanding Marx and Engels’ approach to the ending of nation-states and nationalism can be seen in their attitude to religions. They supported secular states. Within these, adherents of particular religions would enjoy the right to practice their religion, but no privileges were to be conceded to any religion by the state.

As a consequence of arguing for secularism, Marx and Engels were opposed to two other methods of dealing with religion. They opposed campaigns for atheist states on one hand, and states with established or recognised religions on the other (whatever degree of religious ‘toleration’ these states might also permit).

Official atheist states, such as the former USSR, Albania and China, have led to a growth of religious support amongst the oppressed and alienated, which has consequently acted as a focus for political opposition. Furthermore, such states have sometimes adopted their own personality cults as a substitute for religious beliefs, e.g. around Stalin, Hoxha or Mao.

Marx and Engels opposed the formation of nationality (ethnic) states, the equivalent of earlier pre-capitalist states with established religions (although some capitalist states, including the UK in England still maintain a Church establishment). The reactionary racist nature of nationality-states can be seen in the old pre-1972 ‘Six Counties’, in former apartheid South Africa, and in current apartheid Israel, which have favoured Protestant Ulster-British, Whites and Jews respectively.

However many today, including some on the Left, look little further in their minimum programmes or policies than offering support for the nation-state equivalent of religiously ‘tolerant’ states – only with ‘toleration’ extended to a number of ethnic groups instead. This can be found in constitutionally recognised and ethnically shared administrations, e.g. the post-Good Friday Agreement ‘Six Counties’. Another variation of this ‘tolerant’ approach can be found in state promoted multi-ethnic measures, e.g. those developed in the UK after the Brixton Riots of 1981. These tend to lead to the creation of privileged and unaccountable, state-recognised ‘representatives’ of ethno-religious ‘communities’.  Such approaches leave the state in position of broker, able to play one community off against the other, and when necessary, divide the working class and oppressed.

In contrast, communists should recognise the right of any members of a particular ethnic group to voluntarily pursue their own chosen cultural activities, whilst seeking to maximise the opportunities for wider mixing with others at work, school, college or in the community. We should oppose policies that lead to physical separation of ethnic groups, and instead support integration, voluntary assimilation and mixed relationships within nations. Such an approach could be called ‘multi-culturalism from below’.

‘Internationalism from below’ is the wider political manifestation of such an approach, helping to bring about greater unity between nations, without any one group having to subordinate itself to another – particularly to those from culturally dominant ethnic groups.

8. Engels opposes an early British Left upholder of the ‘one-state/one-party’ principle

It was the growing struggle in Ireland, which pushed Marx and Engels further towards ‘internationalism from below’ as an organisational principle in the First International.  Here Engels came up against, not Proudhonist Anarchists, but an early trade unionist adherent of a ‘British road to socialism’ – John Hales. When Engels argued for Irish independence and a distinct Irish section, Hales contended, “that the International had nothing to do with liberating Ireland” (13). He tried to bring the Irish sections of the International under the control of the London/British Federal Council.  In reply Engels stated that: –

“The position of Ireland with regard to England was not that of an equal, but that of Poland with regard to Russia… What would be said if the Council called upon Polish sections to acknowledge the supremacy of a Council sitting in Petersburg, or upon Prussian Polish, North Schleswig {Danish} and Alsatian sections to submit to a Federal Council in Berlin… that was not Internationalism, but simply preaching to them submission to the yoke… and attempting to justify and perpetuate the dominion of the conqueror under the cloak of Internationalism.  It was sanctioning the belief, only too common amongst English {British} working men, that they were superior beings compared to the Irish, and as much an aristocracy as the mean whites of the Slave States considered themselves to be with regard to the Negroes.”

“In a case like the Irish, true Internationalism must necessarily be based upon a distinctly national organization: the Irish, as well as other oppressed nationalities, could enter the Association {the IWMA} only as equals with members of the conquering nation, and under protest at the conquest” (14).

There was a further reason for Marx and Engels wanting to maintain independent Irish organisations.  “They were more advanced, being placed in more favourable circumstances, and the movement in Ireland could be propagated and organised only though their instrumentality” (15).

Hales countered that,  “The formation of Irish branches in England could only keep alive that national antagonism which had unfortunately so long existed between the people of the two countries” (16).  He was arguing from a position, which maintained that, as far as advanced socialists were concerned, workers of all nationalities had already achieved equality in their British organisations.  Hales thought that English/British socialism was the model that the Irish should aspire to. Such an attitude is today deeply engrained amongst the British Left.

Engels, in contrast, appreciated the different position of Irish migrant workers and their descendants, who formed a significant part of the unskilled working class in Britain. Engels’ political stance was linked to attempts to maintain the unity of the politically advanced sections of the working class, and win the support of the unskilled, particularly Irish migrant workers.

In other words, where minority nationalities suffered from oppression within a dominant nation, they too had the right to form their own independent organisations there.  This has continuing relevance today, particularly for recent migrants, who still remain subject to various forms of discrimination within the imperialist countries. One current example stands out in relation to activities of the commune – the Latin American Workers’ Association.

9. ‘One-state/one-party’ – a cover for social chauvinism; separatist parties a cover for social patriotism

Marx and Engels’ ‘internationalism from below’ organisational principles, of course, fly in the face of later Second International, Luxemburgist and Bolshevik orthodoxy – the ‘one-state/one-party’ principle.  Kautsky (the Second International’s ‘Pope of Marxism’), Luxemburg and Lenin were assiduous collectors of Marx and Engels’ quotes since they wished above all else to appear ultra-orthodox in debates with other Marxists.  Yet, they studiously ignored Marx and Engels’ writings and practice on this matter.

Marx and Engels legacy of ‘internationalism from below’ as an organisational principle was to be lost in both the Second and Third Internationals.  Instead these organisations’ support for the principle of ‘one-state/one-party’ led to real political degeneracy.  In the hands of many Second Internationalists it became a thinly disguised cover for dominant nationality chauvinism and imperialism.  Later, Stalinists, Maoists and some Trotskyists even ended up duplicating the fascist principle – ‘one state, one party, one leader’!

Supporters of the ‘one-state/one-party’ principle have pointed to the social patriotism, which undoubtedly did emerge whenever some parties, drawing their support from workers amongst the oppressed nationalities (e.g. the Polish Socialist Party), departed from this organisational principle. What supporters of the ‘one-state/one-party’ approach fail to appreciate is that much of the openly displayed social patriotism found in some of the parties rebelling against this principle was a response to the thinly disguised social chauvinism (and sometimes social imperialism) found in dominant nationality parties, e.g., the SPD, RSDLP and SDF.

Thus the social chauvinism encapsulated in ‘one-state/one-party’ organisations and the social patriotism involved in separatist parties are not really opposites, but mutually reinforcing dead-end forms of organisation. What is needed is an International, or, until that is achieved, more limited federations based on the principle of ‘internationalism from below’.

Supporters of ‘internationalism from below’ are just as opposed to separatism, and as just as keen to unite with others. However, we realise that the ‘one-state/one-party’ principle goes hand in hand with accepting subordination to social chauvinism.  Indeed, as the majority of the British unionist Left has shown – from the Labour Party, old (and new) CPGB, the SWP, CWI to the AWL – their hard-wired sectarianism seem to mimic the anti-democratic, bureaucratic practices of the UK state. Therefore, coming together on the basis of ‘internationalism from below’ is a much better way of bringing about meaningful unity.

10. The contradictions of the Second International, Luxemburg and Lenin in their pursuit of the ‘one-state/one-party’ principle

The majority in both the Second and Third Internationals claimed that the ‘one-state/one-party’ principle was the best way to confront existing states by uniting the members of the various nations and nationalities forming the working class within a particular state.

Those who adopted this principle in the Second International usually ended up as apologists for the actions of the leaders of the dominant nationality in, or as subservient agents of, the states they sought to reform – the collapse of the social imperialist Social Democratic leadership of the Second International, in the face of the First World War, being the most obvious example.

However, some who still fought strenuously against the Second International’s capitulation to imperialism, such as Luxemburg, also helped to undermine ‘internationalism from below’, through their relentless pursuit of the ‘one-state/one-party’ principle. Luxemburg allied herself with the Right in the SPD to break the influence of the party’s ‘autonomous’ Polish section, thus aiding a thinly disguised German chauvinism. Lenin and the Bolsheviks also doggedly pursued a ‘one-state/one-party’ principle, claiming it created the centralised political instrument needed for the overthrow of existing states.

In relation to the National Question, there was a political difference between Luxemburg and Lenin. Luxemburg, particularly after 1905-6 Revolution, vehemently opposed the Second International’s policy of ‘the right of nations to self-determination’, whilst Lenin insisted that Social Democrats (and later official Communists) should give this policy their support in party programmes. Before the 1905-6 Revolution, Lenin held to a more ‘Luxemburgist’ approach over this issue.

However, the apparent difference between Luxemburg and Lenin, after 1905, hides an underlying shared assumption. Both agreed with Kautsky that capitalism was continually undermining the basis for the continued relevance of the National Question.  The more ‘advanced’ the capitalism, the less relevant the issue of national self-determination. They fell back on the sort of arguments Marx had utilised in his cosmopolitan phase, especially in The Communist Manifesto.

Thus, Lenin initially argued that the National Question no longer had any relevance in the advanced capitalist West, but only in Central and Eastern Europe (particularly Tsarist Russia and Hapsburg Austria-Hungary), and the Balkans and Asia, where feudal and other despotic relics had not yet been eliminated. Luxemburg disagreed with Lenin over the significance of the National Question in Central and Eastern Europe, but agreed with him about its irrelevance in the West and its importance in the Balkans and Asia.  She supported the struggles of the Greeks (in Crete) and the Armenians against the Ottoman Empire.  It was only in the First World War, that Bukharin and others in the Radical Left arrived at a neo-Luxemburgist position, which opposed the struggle for national self-determination everywhere.

However, like Luxemburg, Lenin and the Bolsheviks did not want to see the territorial break-up of existing states, even in Central and Eastern Europe.  They thought that that any wish by workers (and peasants) to exercise a ‘right of national self-determination’ would no longer be necessary when outdated, anti-democratic dynastic rule was overthrown. So, in the meantime, workers (and others) should concentrate their efforts on fighting for all-state wide revolution.  In practice this led to an abstentionist attitude towards participation in the actual national democratic struggles that did emerge.

This could clearly be seen in Lenin’s pre-First World War attitude to the exercise of national self-determination in Poland, where there was a longstanding national movement. Lenin agreed with Luxemburg that Social Democrats in Poland should oppose such a course, whilst disagreeing with her opposition to the RSDLP in Russia adopting the right of Poland to national self-determination. Nevertheless, Lenin still hoped that such a right would never be exercised. If there were to be any future referendum, Poles should vote ‘No’ and Russians should vote ‘Yes’. Such ‘zero-sum internationalism’ provided no basis for socialists/communists taking the lead in the actual national democratic struggles, which developed against the Tsarist and Hapsburg Empires. The effect was to leave the leadership of national democratic struggles to others, either bourgeois nationalists or social patriots, with dire consequences.

The majority of the Polish Left’s failure to champion the exercise of national self-determination left the issue in the hands of the social patriot, Pilsudski and the bourgeois nationalist, Damowski. Neither of these characters wanted to break external imperial control by Russia, Austria or Prussia-Germany through the mass action of workers and peasants. Instead they mainly looked for alternative imperial backers for Poland’s independence. Soon after state independence was achieved, with imperial backing, particularly from France, the infant Polish Communists mounted a challenge to the new state. However, having played little part in the previous national democratic struggle against imperial rule, they were soon isolated, repressed and marginalised.

In contrast, the Finnish Social Democrats made a more serious attempt to exercise Finnish self-determination. They became involved in a revolutionary war in late 1917 to early 1918. They faced the utterly brutal White Counter-revolution of the Finnish Right and the invading German forces. This was much worse than anything experienced by the Polish Left at the time.  Nevertheless, by the early 1920’s the Finnish Left was able to make a stronger recovery than the Polish Left. This was largely because of their recognised role in attempting to break away from the Russian imperialist state.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks failed to adopt an ‘internationalism from below’ approach, which actively championed the break-up of the Russian imperialist state.  He preferred to hide behind a promise to uphold the right of self-determination, but only to be exercised after a successfully completed workers’ and peasant revolution. This led to lost opportunities in Finland in July 1917, and in Ukraine in December 1917.  Perhaps, not surprisingly, no referenda on national self-determination were ever held, once the Bolsheviks had consolidated their control.

When the USSR was first constituted in 1922, there was no national designation in the state’s name, since the new government claimed that its initial few constituent soviet republics were merely the first building blocks in a future worldwide soviet federation. They also claimed that this new federation would eventually give way to a united, planned, world communist order, without nation-states, just as Marx and Engels had originally envisaged.

However, Marx and Engels, as adherents of an ‘internationalism from below’ approach, would not have been surprised to see the unfolding of a very different outcome. The ‘one-state/one party’ soon gave way to the one-party State. The glue for this new USSR was provided, not by the soviets (or communes) under workers’ control. They had already been crushed in 1921. Nor was the infant USSR under the direction of the Third International.

Instead, the ‘one-state/one-party’ CPSU, which controlled the USSR, increasingly acted as a threadbare cover for the specifically Russian nationalism, which lay not far beneath an official superficial ‘internationalism’.  The Chinese Communist Party under Mao, arguing from the same organisational principle, developed an even stronger nationalist character. Thus, it can be seen that parties based on the ‘one-state/one-party’ principle readily became transmission belts for the dominant nationality chauvinism and imperialism.

11. Marx and Engels abandon their unilinear model of progress

So, what would an ‘internationalism from below’ approach look like in today’s conditions? The case for a single unified world system – a global commune – is much stronger today than in the days of Marx and Engels, or even of Luxemburg and Lenin. However, this need doesn’t stem from any belief that capitalism has already performed a necessary progressive service for humankind in developing the productive forces to their present level. There never was a fore-ordained, progressive, capitalist course of necessary world development. Peasants, artisans, workers have always fought for ‘other possible worlds’ and the development of capitalism was contested at every stage, by people seeking other outcomes – not only by those looking back to some ‘lost golden era’, but also by those who struggled for a universal republic or for social republics.

Marx and Engels, themselves, departed from their earlier view of a necessary unilinear path of capitalist progress, when they first made a distinction between two paths of capitalist transition in Volume 3 of Capital “The transition from the feudal mode of production is twofold.  The producer becomes the merchant and capitalist, in contrast to the natural agricultural economy and the guild bound handicrafts of the medieval urban industries.  This is the really revolutionizing path.  Or else, the merchant establishes direct sway over production.  However much this serves historically as a stepping stone… it can not by itself contribute to the overthrow of the old mode of production, but rather tends to preserve and retain it as its precondition” (17).

This new understanding paved the way for Marx and Engels’ later dropping of their earlier support for ‘free trade’. They had originally argued in support of ‘free trade’ because it helped to create a worldwide market, and promote the capitalist socio-economic relations they saw as the necessary grounding for a future communist society. However, they later appreciated that British-promoted ‘free trade’ tended to reduce all other states to primary producing economic dependencies of ‘the workshop of the world’ (in an analogous fashion to the effect of US promoted ‘free markets’ today).  This insight also allowed them to see the regressive effects of externally imposed capitalism, i.e. imperialism, particularly in Ireland and India.

Indeed, they went further, and thought that it might be possible for some countries, which hadn’t yet fully committed themselves to the capitalist path, e.g. Russia (until 1894 in Engels’ case), and then the wider East, to be able to build upon the communal forms of agricultural production still existing, in cooperation with a socialist West.  In 1892, Engels even turned to Germany, now well and truly committed to the industrial capitalist path.  He called for “reviving the mark, not in its old outdated form, but in a rejuvenated form; by rejuvenating communal land ownership under which the latter would not only provide the small-peasant commune with all the prerogatives of big farming and the use of agricultural machinery, but it would also give them the means to organise, along with agriculture, major industries using steam and water power, and to organise them without capitalists by the community itself” (18).

12. ‘Internationalism from below’ in today’s conditions

Today, we have witnessed growing resistance to capitalist imposed modernisation, particularly amongst the indigenous Native Americans. It was the revolt of the Zapatistas in 1994, against the new North American Free Trade Agreement, which heralded the beginnings of today’s wider anti-globalisation and anti-capitalist movements. As it becomes even clearer that continued capitalist expansion threatens us with wholesale environmental degradation and the undermining of the very conditions for human survival, communists should see the real significance of such resistance. Also included in our vision, should be the present-day ‘Maroons’, those drop-outs from wage slavery.

This isn’t to argue for a return to some lost pre-capitalist utopia, in the manner of Zerzan and others. We live in a world largely moulded by capitalism, particularly under today’s conditions of corporate imperialism.  As well as the already mentioned environmental degradation, we also suffer from intensified exploitation and oppression (with short-term contract work, increasingly meaningless and boring labour punctuated by periods of unemployment and short-time working, declining real wages, and a rapidly diminishing social wage), and from wholesale alienation bringing about escalating mental health problems and anti-social crimes.

Yet, despite the capitalist imposed conditions of current production, (including the relentless and ultimately self-destructive drive for profit) most people in the world would want to continue with and improve upon the existing infrastructure of water supply, housing, power provision, transport connections, the wide range of essential products and cultural activities, bequeathed by capitalism, which all now depend on continued international linkages for their provision. Certainly, in many cases there is scope for major reform of this pattern of development, with huge cutbacks in the arms industry, the provision of free public transport and the downgrading of private transport, the lowering of dependence on fossil fuels, and the ending of the media and advertising industry’s promotion of a ‘shop till you drop’ philosophy with its monumentally wasteful production of superfluous commodities.

However, workers, peasants and artisans have created all the existing wealth, not already provided by nature.  We can either turn our backs on this legacy, and ‘retreat into the jungles’, or we can finally claim this wealth on behalf of the descendants of all these exploited people. And, just think of all the as yet unutilised opportunities provided by the new information technology. This would appear to be as a ‘natural’ a technology for a global commune, as steam power was for the national capitalism of the Industrial Revolution.

Such a global society would also have room for those peoples who, quite understandably, have no wish to be brought under corporate capitalism control, such as the Zapatistas.  The speed with which such resistance movements have adopted technologies such as the Internet demonstrates that they too would wish to be part of a new world order, only they would wish to enter it on their own terms, not those imposed by others. The same goes for many current ‘Maroons’ or drop-outs from wage slavery.

An ‘internationalism from below’ strategy is committed to the creation of a new unified and planned global commune. Dealing with the growing environmental degradation, and possible major catastrophes, demands nothing less. The only ‘alternative’ to global planning in such circumstances would appear to be a retreat to more local communities or regional federations with an accompanying neo-Malthusian population cull. This might lead to a world of less resource-demanding, smaller scale communities, but the resulting social disorientation would most likely produce ‘dog-eat-dog’ violent confrontations between the competing communities and mini-states.

By 2050, the world will already have probably reached ‘Peak Population’, but of course, if we remain subject to the ceaseless expansion of capitalist production for profit, this would still add to cumulative environmental degradation. It could still very likely lead the world to a catastrophic environmental tipping point.

One positive outcome which could lead to reaching ‘Peak Population’ before then, would be a massive expansion of women’s rights, especially with more effective control over their bodies, and an ending to male supremacism, currently reinforced by misogynistic religious beliefs. Today’s women’s struggles for more effective control over their lives may presently only constitute a partial fightback against the impact of capitalist oppression, but should be wholeheartedly supported by communists seeking support for a new humanised global commune.

13. Resistance in the here and now

An ‘internationalism from below’ strategy recognises that the exploited and oppressed are mainly brought into struggle by the immediate conditions we confront. Communists fight for increased wages, not because we want to bolster our conditions as wage slaves, but because we want an improvement in our living standards to undermine those in control of our labour who stultify of our full human potential. We fight for an increased social wage, not because we want a bureaucratic welfare state presiding over our lives, but because we need better housing, education, health and transport now, which meets our immediate needs, and which points the way to more extensive communally-controlled social provision in the future.  We fight for access to improved artistic and cultural provision, not because we want to become passive consumers of ‘reality TV’, lose ourselves in the ‘virtual world’ of the Internet, or follow lads’ (and ladettes’) lifestyles, but because we want active involvement in artistic and cultural creation to help us to overcome existing alienation and boredom, and to allow us to imagine alternative futures, which enhance our social and individual self-determination. We fight for increased democratic rights, not because we want to reinforce parliamentarianism or ‘representative’ democracy, or to create new oppressive states, but because we want to undermine those capitalist politicians who would set us against each other, and deny us the ability to bring about greater unity from below to more effectively challenge their rule.

We, in the RCN, fight for the democratic exercise of self-determination in Scotland, not because we think Scotland is ‘better’ or ‘lefter’, nor because we want to turn our backs on those in England, Wales and Ireland, but because we see this as an effective way to undermine the British state and its ruling class, the main buttress for US imperialism and corporate capital in the world today. Due to the fault lines in the UK state’s make-up – its bureaucratic unionism and its anti-democratic Crown Powers – the National Question has continued relevance here (as it does in Ireland and Wales).  We seek to extend this struggle to and unite with our neighbours through the active promotion of ‘internationalism from below’.

Abstaining from democratic struggles and leaving the opposition to the nationalist SNP won’t help our class. Most of the SNP leadership would settle for Devolution-Max but, whether or not they achieve formal political independence, would still act as local loyal agents for corporate capital in Scotland. They want to woo global capital to Scotland by making the country a low-tax haven.  However, ignoring or denying the importance of the National Question, just leaves its ‘solution’ once more in the hands of bourgeois nationalists and their social patriotic cheerleaders (Left nationalists).

Furthermore, historically there have been specific local democratic and socialist/communist manifestations in Scotland of the universal human struggle for another possible world  – e.g. the radical wing of the Covenanters, the United Scotsmen, the Chartists, the Highland Land League, the Scottish Socialist Federation, and the legacy of John Maclean. We want to develop this further in alliance with those from other countries. They too have their own local manifestations of the universal struggle – the Levellers, the United Irishmen and London Corresponding Society, the Chartists (especially their most advanced contingent in Wales) the Irish Land League, and the infant Socialist movement (which also included Anarchists).  ‘Internationalism from below’ is the best way to achieve this alliance.

There is a common thread, through all the initial and still partial forms of resistance to exploitation and oppression we find today. This is the need to create and support independent organisations of our class. Social Democratic/Labour and official Communist Parties (as well as their dissident emulators) have long passed over to the side of capital, and those few ‘last Mohicans’ still fighting within their ranks, want to rebuild something that, with the benefit of bitter experience and hindsight, was always flawed. Many trade unions, wedded to ‘social partnership’, have become little more than a free personnel management service for the employers. However, the building of independent trade union organisation – within or outside existing unions, or through a combination of the two – still looks possible.  The commune has become a focus of debates on how we organise in the workplace, and how we can best develop a strategy of worker’s control or management, in the here and now.

Communists have the role of uniting the independent organisations of our class around a clear vision of a future global commune, which can develop out of the conditions and the struggles of today. After recognising the futility of trying to build a world with many still isolated or competing units (confederalism) when our very existence depends on global solutions; and after experiencing the brutal rule of those imposing their  ‘one-state/one party’ principle (cosmopolitans), it is time to return to the once marginalised, but now increasingly relevant ‘internationalism from below’ approach.

Allan Armstrong for the Republican Communist Network, 23.5.10


  • 1. Allan Armstrong, contributions dated 26.2.10 and 16.4.10, on http://republicancommunist.org/blog/
  • 2. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto (TCM) in Penguin Classics, edited by Gareth Stedman Jones, p. 241 (Penguin Books, 2002, London)
  • 3. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Volume 4, p. 280, cited in Michael Lowy, Marx and Engels Cosmopolites in Fatherland or Mother Earth? pp. 5-15 (Pluto Press, 1998, London)
  • 4. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, CW4, quoted in Roman Szporluk, in Communism & Nationalism, Karl Marx versus Freidrich List, p. 32 (Oxford University Press, 1988, New York)op. 32.
  • 5. David Broder, The Earth Is Not Flat
  • 6. Salvo Mastellone, Mazzini’s International League and the Politics of the London Democratic Manifestoes, 1838-50 (MIL) in Giuseppe Mazzini and the Globalisation of Democratic Nationalism, 1830-1920, edited by C. B. Bayly and Eugenio F. Biazini, p. 33 (The British Academy, Oxford University Press, 2008, Oxford)
  • 7. Harold B. Davis, Nationalism and Socialism – Marxist and Labor Theories of Nationalism to 1917 (MTN), p.40 (Monthly Review Press, 1973, New York)
  • 8. Ian Cummins, Marx and Engels on Nationalism, (MEN) p. 84 (Crook Helm, 1980, London)
  • 9. Salvo Mastellone, MIL, op. cit., p. 98.
  • 10. Frederick Engels in Marx and Engels, Collected Works Volume 20, 1864-68, p. 158.
  • 11. Ian Cummins, MEN, op. cit., p. 94.
  • 12. Karl Marx, letter to Frederick Engels, 20.6.1866, in CW 21, pp. 288-9.
  • 13. Sean Daly, Ireland and the First International (IatFI) p. 142 (Tower Books of Cork, 1984, Cork)
  • 14. Frederick Engels, Relations between the Irish Sections and the British Federal Council in Ireland and the Irish Question, p. 419 (Lawrence & Wishart, 1978, London)
  • 15. ibid., p. 420.
  • 16. ibid., p. 420.
  • 17. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 3, p. 334 (Lawrence & Wishart, 1972, London)
  • 18. Frederick Engels, The Mark in The Peasant War in Germany, p. 181 (Progress Publishers, 1969, Moscow)

The debate continued in ‘the commune’


Clifford Biddulph replies to a debate on the national question

In the Earth is not Flat (see issue 14), David Broder argued that the aim of getting rid of capitalism by class struggle is too abstract in the face of some forms of nationalism. For David, nationalism which is a reaction to imperialism cannot be sidestepped or simply opposed by communism.

This seems to be the Leninist point about two kinds of nationalism: those of oppressed, and oppressor, nations. A limited extension of popular democracy or the sovereignty of an oppressed nation can be supported. This, although David does not entirely share the orthodox Leninist position of unconditional support for the self-determination of nations.

But David does go on to say, contrary to the anti-statist platform of The Commune, that in Colombia the state does not represent the long term interests of the bourgeoisie, implying that some form of anti-imperialist nationalist state could be progressive or in some sense represent the proletariat or be a transition stage to communism. In his own words, a government of state capitalist development would undermine imperialism. The implication is that in some circumstances communists can be nationalists. Nationalism, he claims is not tied to the bourgeoisie. This is not surprising since in The Earth is not Flat he tends to reduce class struggle to trade unionism or so called ‘economism’.

Allan Armstrong of the Republican Communist Network believes that nationalism is too important to be left to the nationalists.  Hence RCN’s support for Scottish independence. Small state nationalism is dressed up in a slogan: internationalism from below.The RCN stands for internationalism, but until that is achieved more limited federations of states based on the break-up of imperialist states or, to use the slogan, ‘internationalism from below’.

A form of nationalism is presented as the way forward, and true internationalism is paradoxically based on nationalism. Allan’s republicanism is thus a timeless ideal free of class determination, social and historical context. Internationalism from below floats through history, appearing now as Levellers then as Chartists then again as United Irishmen, John MacLean or the resistance to the poll tax.

But it is not the class struggle between capital and labour that is abstract, but the concept of nation. What is a nation? There is no satisfactory definition and concepts of what constitutes a nation have changed throughout recent history. Is a nation a subjective feeling of identification? In which case there could be endless fragmentation with any significant group of people declaring themselves a nation. Is it unity around a capitalist free market area? Is it unity stuck together with language or religion? Yet there have been multi-language and religious states. Is it a shared culture despite class antagonism? It is not ethnic unity, that is just a myth. There are always exceptions to any check list, and no clear objective and consistent answer. Many modern nation states originated in lines drawn on a map: in short, nationalism is a bourgeois ideology.

The national bourgeois state is a machine of oppression directed against workers. As Roman Rosdolsky put it: “the working class have no nation. We cannot take from them something they have not got.” The modern state is a product of bourgeois development. In a class society there is no homogenous national culture or community. And the nation state has a capitalist tendency to become non national or imperialist. In that sense there is no fundamental difference between nationalisms. Vietnam was oppressed by American imperialism until 1975, but then four years later became the oppressor of Cambodia.

In the words of Marx from his Critique of the Gotha Programme, political rights cannot rise above the economic structure of society. Class interest determines the nature of capitalist society. The idea of a general right to self determination is utopian. Communists cannot support all national demands, as in some circumstances self-determination would be against the interests of the working class. Marx did not apply a general right of self determination but supported some forms of nationalism from a strategic and tactical point of view, for example supporting Polish nationalism as a check to Russian reaction. But as a speaker at a meeting of the First International said: Russia was not the only country or nationalism that needed checking.

Marx had a check list of what he described as viable nations such as Hungary, Italy and Germany, nationalism which would establish a nation state and capitalist development and the growth of the working class. But German unity was not on the basis of revolutionary democracy from below but conservative unity from above imposed by Prussia. Allan refers to Marx and Engels as if they were one person, but there are important differences in their approach to the national question and other issues such as philosophy. Engels followed Hegel in his notion of non-historic peoples. Both friends made errors of judgment. Some supposedly ‘non-viable’ peoples established nation states. Riazanov, whose knowledge of Marxism Lenin feared, thought Marx’s obsession with Tsarist Russia as the main danger missed the main danger: the developing antagonism between Germany and Britain over colonies which led to the imperialist war. Some of their political perspectives on nationalities seem at odds with what we understand by historical materialism. Engels’ comments on Germany’s civilising mission were used by Social Democrats to justify support for the first imperialist war.

Lenin did not adhere to the general principle of the right of nations to self determination. He accepted the conquest of Georgia and Ukraine following the Russian revolution. The Bolsheviks considered the self determination in these areas was counter revolutionary or against the international interests of the working class. The revolution and social development did not unfold as Lenin expected. The Russian revolution was not a bourgeois democratic revolution as he had long predicted. The slogan for the ‘right of nations to self-determination’ was based on Karl Kautsky’s schemas, whereby such a right was premised on the political sphere of bourgeois democracy. It was precisely this bourgeois-democratic content Lenin supported.

But the schema was based on the separation of economics and politics. When Rosa Luxemburg said imperialism economically shaped nations, Lenin denounced her views as ‘economistic’. But how could there be political emancipation without economic emancipation? The independence of many ex-colonial nations has tended to be formal and has prevented rather than facilitated communism. The assumption was that political democracy would provide the widest conditions for the working class to fight the class war. But the western nation state was not replicated in China and elsewhere. Nationalism in Turkey and China in the 1920s did not lead to a form of revolutionary democracy, but to the destruction of the communist workers’ movement.

Lenin was in favour of ‘temporary’ alliances with bourgeois nationalists in China and elsewhere. This compromise undermined the independence of the workers’ movement. The aim was not directly the overthrow of capitalism. How temporary was ‘temporary’? The position was full of ambiguities and inconsistent and implied a transitional historical stage. So counter-revolutionaries were described as objective revolutionaries. Why would the sons of Chinese landlords, as officers in the Kuomintang national army, tolerate revolutionary activity by peasants and workers? A temporary truce between workers’ internationalism and nationalism was not possible.

The right of nations to self-determination, which Lenin borrowed from bourgeois nationalism, assumes the world is flat or all nations could be formally equal. According to Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg did not grasp the fact that Asia had yet to have its bourgeois democratic revolution and he strongly denied that nations demanding equal rights would lead to the proliferation of small states. Provided communists did not advocate separation, as the RCN do for Scotland, self-determination would result in very large states and federations. In Lenin’s opinion workers should always stand for the larger state. But has history demonstrated the truth or falseness of Lenin’s view? Since the collapse of the Soviet Union there has been the emergence of numerous small states. There has been no internationalism from below or small state internationalism.

We can ask the question Rosa Luxemburg once asked. Where is the nation in which the people have had the right to determine the form and content of their national political and social existence? It is only when capitalist exploitation is ended that the oppression of one nation by another can be ended. This was the implication of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution which attempted to address the uneven nature of capitalist social development. The working class would become the leading class of the nation in the sense of the Communist Manifesto: national in form only, as in 1917 which was a year of international, not national, revolution.

The ideology of nationalism is historically novel and the majority of people once lived without it. Nationalism had an historical beginning and as far as communists are concerned it will have an end. The communist objective is to liberate humanity, not liberate nations.



Allan Armstrong replies to Clifford Biddulph’s no nationalist solutions

Clifford Biddulph’s no nationalist solutions (issue no. 15 of the commune) consists mainly of a reply to my article, The Communist Case for Internationalism from Below.  This was written for the Second Global Commune event held on May 22nd in Edinburgh. I appreciate the time Clifford has taken to contribute to this debate. However, there will probably need to be a number of further articles before readers can fully appreciate the politics underlying our two approaches.

Clifford’s reply only addresses a few of the arguments, which I put forward in this article. Instead, Clifford puts forward his own particular critique of nationalism – the neo-Luxemburgist* variant of the cosmopolitan approach, which I have already examined and found wanting. Of course, it is perfectly valid for Clifford to write an article offering his own view and to outline its particular origins. In doing so, however, he hasn’t dealt with my critique of the two main approaches to nationalism and the struggle for national self-determination found on the Left – (con)federal and cosmopolitan.

I hope that my latest contribution helps to clear up many of the misconceptions which appear to be held by many socialists, anarchists and communists, either living in England and who are relatively unaware of the situation in Scotland, Wales and Ireland; or those who consciously or unconsciously defend a British Left strategy.

There are substantial historical sections in Clifford’s reply, covering the stance of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Luxemburg, which I have already addressed in my earlier article. There are points in Clifford’s contribution with which I agree, and points where I have already argued from a different standpoint. In this particular contribution I don’t want to get bogged down in a historical ‘who said what, when and why’. If any reader of the commune is interested in this particular debate, I am happy to e-mail them with the initial drafts of my forthcoming books entitled Internationalism from Below – just contact the editors of the commune. In the meantime, I will examine Clifford’s other substantial points.

How to bring about communism and bring about an end to nation-states and nationalism

I will start with a point of complete agreement between Clifford and myself. Clifford concludes by stating that, “The ideology of nationalism is historically novel and the majority of people once lived without out.  Nationalism has a historical beginning and as far as communists are concerned it will have an end.”  The first volume of Internationalism from Below makes precisely this case.

However, Clifford then goes on to state that, “The communist objective is to liberate humanity, not liberate nations.” The problem here, though, is how can we liberate humanity without liberating nations; or to be more precise – transcending nations? There is no prospect of capitalism doing away with nation-states, so communists will inherit a world where most people have had officially assigned nationalities, which have deep material roots. The overwhelming majority of people today think and act in alienated national terms, just as the majority of people in the Middle Ages thought in alienated religious terms.

Communists could conduct a constant propaganda campaign against nations and nationalism prior to a ‘big bang’ communist revolution, after which nation-states and nations could just be abolished. In other words, communists could follow a similar course to those atheists who believe that a constant propaganda barrage against religions and their adherents, culminating in the formation of an atheist state declaring all religion illegal, is the task we face today.

In contrast, I would maintain that religions and nations have real material roots, which will not be displaced by mere propaganda. Whilst it is certainly necessary to conduct theoretical struggle against religious (and nationalist) ideology, I am with Marx in advocating not an atheist but a secular state, which recognises people’s rights to practice religion, but upholds the principle that, as long as states still exist, these should neither promote nor suppress religion.

Some supporters of the commune may say – but we are opposed to all state ‘solutions’. However, would they also argue that we are opposed to struggles for better wages, improved working conditions, or migrant workers rights, because these all represent continued wage slavery ‘solutions’?

I would argue that we should adopt the equivalent of a secular approach to religion when dealing with nations and nation-states. Communists should conduct theoretical struggle against nationalist ideology and, of course, engage in the more practical struggle against nationalists pushing their own particular ‘solutions’ in the course of particular economic, social, cultural and political struggles.

Nevertheless, both today and in any revolutionary transition we should also acknowledge each person’s right to whatever national identity or use of language they choose. However, until there is a universally accepted language for mutual communication, there will be a need for a particular official lingua franca (sometimes more than one) to ensure more effective economic, social and political intercourse. Under present-day capitalist conditions there is  a bias in each nation-state towards the specific features of the majority nation living there. Communists, though, should continually contest the nature of such provision.

In other arenas, communists should be organising to push back specific ethnic national features of existing or would-be ‘nation’-states. This is why I drew a distinction between ‘nationality’ or ethnic states and nation-states with equal rights for all citizens  – of course, something far from being achieved in most states. Such nation-states could form a transition to a more universal, non-national, communist world, once all state boundaries are abolished.

One obvious field of struggle at present, to undermine ethnic national criteria, is support for migrant workers. We could confine ourselves to propaganda for ‘no borders’. However, any effective struggle in support of migrant workers today is going to amount to winning equal rights with worker citizens/subjects in existing states, i.e. ‘no one is illegal’ – a particular state ‘solution’. Within such struggles communists should also argue for the prospect of creating wider unity, not only to improve rights for all, but to bring about a communist world where there are indeed no borders.

Communists should directly involve themselves in the full range of struggles against capitalist and imperial rule

Although capitalism and capitalist imperialism have been dominant over the lives of workers and peoples of this planet for over a century and a half, its rule has never been uncontested.  Capital doesn’t just stride out over the world imposing its own logic unimpeded. Capital is a relationship involving capitalists at one pole and the working class at the other. The maintenance of the capital relationship depends on our subordination as workers – the owners of our living labour – to the controllers of our appropriated dead labour – the capitalists. There are also others involved in non-capitalist production relations who oppose attempts by capital to control their lives.

The conditions for ensuring our exploitation are not confined to the workplace, but also necessitate our oppression by the state. As a result, the contradictions of capitalism are also to be found in the various states of the world today.  Just as the controllers of capital face constant resistance from labour and others (passive and active, individual and collective), which challenges exploitation in the economic arena; so the various state ruling classes face constant resistance (cultural, social and political; reactionary, traditionalist and democratic), which challenges oppression in the state arena.

Capital has been unable to create a single world state, just as it has been unable to create a single capitalist corporation. The most that capitalism has attained is a global order politically organised around the existence and recognition of ‘nation’-states. The now economically dominant ‘global’ corporations are all registered in particular states – usually within the imperial metropoles.

Bourgeois ideology doesn’t acknowledge the development of a world dominated by major corporations able to utilise their economic power to subordinate states to their own ends. Instead, we are told that we live in a world of freely competing enterprises, which only need minimal state intervention in the economy to prosper.

Similarly, we are told that the UN presides over a world of nation-states with equal representation in the General Assembly (‘world parliament’). However, many of these so-called ‘nation’-states are barely nations at all, having been created from above by imperial diktat.  In contrast, there are states, which have become major imperial powers, able to subordinate other ‘nation’-states both economically and politically.  The Security Council is where the UN’s key decisions are made. It resembles a cabinet coalition of hostile parties – a bit like the Northern Irish government, hence the need for vetoes.

For those of us, who argue that the working class educates itself and organises most effectively in struggle, it is vital to relate positively to the wide range of partial struggles (i.e. those still recoverable by capital), which arise both from capitalist exploitation and state oppression.

A useful analogy might be the struggle against the Anti-Trade Union laws. You could argue that, even before the Tories introduced these laws in the 1980s, the British ruling class and bosses still dominated our class, so the existence of Anti-Trade Union laws is not important. In contrast, I would argue that communists should be at the forefront of resistance to such laws, but not in the traditional Broad Leftist way, i.e. hoping the official TUC policy of opposition will lead to a future Labour government scrapping them. Instead, we should involve ourselves in struggles, which go on to actively and publicly defy these Anti-Trade Union laws.

Just as the existing TUC, wedded to social partnership, is completely unable to bring about its official policy of ending the anti-trade union laws, so, for example, the SNP, is unable to satisfy many Scottish people’s wish for self-determination, due to its support for the current global corporate order (which means that the US provides support for the UK) and for the British monarchy (the SNP accepts the UK’s anti-democratic Crown Powers).  In both cases, this provides communists with the opportunity to show the need for independent class organisation and to push for our own solutions.

Clifford, though, seems to think that once it becomes clear, in the minds of communists, that all nationalism and all nation-states are bourgeois, all we need to do is condemn bourgeois nationalism and its leftist variant – ‘socialism in one country’.  In effect, the role of communists is reduced to propaganda.

If communists adopted this stance in the economic arena, we would argue that when workers go on strike for improved wages, we should visit their picket lines and condemn them for not struggling against wage slavery. Alternatively, we can throw ourselves into providing effective solidarity, and help to create independent organisation (i.e. placing struggles under the control of those directly involved), where the debates can be made about the possibility of a real communist future, growing from existing struggles. This is also the approach we need to adopt towards other partial struggles too.

This, of course, involves making a judgement about the emancipatory potential of any particular struggle. The current weakness of the Left means that we face competitors who only offer workers complete dead ends, which further divide and weaken, e.g. fascists (whether traditional or neo), national chauvinists and religious supremacists.

Why the RCN takes up the partial democratic issue of the National Question in Scotland

There is a democratic content to the National Question in Scotland (Ireland and Wales), leading to partial struggles of opposition, precisely because the UK is a constitutional monarchist, unionist and imperial state. The National Question is a real issue in Scotland, and the demand for self-determination is now a longstanding feature of Scottish politics. There is a large constituency within the national movement here that links this to opposition to Trident, NATO, continued imperial wars, privatisation and deregulation. Furthermore, amongst such supporters, it is quite possible to argue for an ‘internationalism from below’ approach, i.e. seeing the struggle, not as culminating in the setting up of another bourgeois state, but as part of the strategy to end the Crown Powers and the wider UK state, and to bring about wider international unity on a working class democratic basis.

When Thatcher and the Tories used Scotland as a testing ground for the poll tax in 1987, we might have said (as the SWP did) that there could be no effective resistance until the whole of the British trade union movement (i.e. TUC) was involved, or we could have built independent organisation and resistance in Scotland first, whilst highlighting the necessity (against the Scottish nationalists) of extending such organisation into England and Wales. Fortunately, the latter was the course taken and it led to the last major victory our class achieved against the Tories and their Labour accomplices.

Yes, as in any partial struggle, it is quite possible that the would-be Scottish ruling class, and its international allies (US, EU and possibly even British corporate capital in the future) could stymie the struggle for Scottish self-determination. We could end up with an SNP-led ‘independent Scotland’ acting as a low-tax haven for global capital, which participates in NATO’s second-tier, non-nuclear, ‘Partnership for Peace’.  It will depend on the balance of class forces and the political course chosen by the Left.

However, the one strategy, which would most likely lead to this decidedly sub-optimum outcome, is just leaving the National Question to the SNP and the Left nationalists. Indeed, such a course of action would be more likely to aid the further entrenchment of the current British ruling class strategy – maintaining the Union through ‘Devolution-all-round’ and propping up British imperialism with the UK state acting as junior partner to the USA, and continued British nuclear armed participation in the front-line of NATO. This is because the British ruling class has far more powerful class and international backing than an aspiring Scottish ruling class.

The significance of the UK state’s anti-democratic Crown Powers

We all have a shared interest in opposing the UK state’s Crown Powers, which the British ruling class (which includes English, Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh members) have at its disposal. Behind Westminster’s parliamentary façade, the British ruling class used these powers to impose virtual military rule over ‘the Six Counties’ from the abolition of Stormont in 1972 until the Good Friday Agreement in 1996 (since then the role of the British Army has been downgraded, but “they haven’t gone away, you know”!) Even new housing plans were subjected to military scrutiny before they could be approved.

Now, of course, you could argue that the UK state (or even capital) dominated Northern Ireland under the old Stormont (1922-72), under Direct Rule (1972-98) and since the Good Friday Agreement. Yet, I would argue that it would represent real retrogression if old Stormont-type rule was restored in the Six Counties (as Traditional Unionist Voice and many Loyalists want) or, if British troops were able to re-establish permanent checkpoints, road blocks and everyday harassment.

This isn’t to argue that all is hunky-dory now – far from it. The UK state now asserts its control over the Six Counties by brokering between two politically-recognised communities – Unionist and Nationalist. This is not without its contradictions, which communists must highlight in order to further working class unity. This won’t be an easy job, but an ‘internationalism from below’ approach – Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales – which demonstrates a shared hostility to the UK and Irish 26 Counties states and their leaders’ current Peace Process/‘Devolution-all-round’ political strategy, will certainly be more useful than the more usual British Left approach – just unite around trade union demands, or leave it to the Irish/Northern Irish to sort out their problems themselves.

When Irish workers and others took action, from the late 1960s, to oppose national oppression (e.g. police brutality, arbitrary arrests, imprisonment without trial, shoot-to-kill) we could have condemned them for looking for nationalist ‘solutions’. Or, we could have supported their resistance and promoted effective solidarity, whilst demonstrating the benefits of an internationalist approach.  Instead of condemnation, or cheering on the IRA, usually from a safe distance, this would have meant organising, in the rest of the UK, to create the pressure over here to get the troops out. Unfortunately too few on the Left in the UK adopted this latter approach.

Communists need to expose and oppose these Crown Powers, for they will certainly be used against us in the future. If the unionist nature of the UK state makes the visibility of these powers more obvious in Ireland and Scotland, communists need to relate to any struggles arising from this; just as we recognised the leading role of miners amongst the wider working class when fighting the Tories between 1984-5, and didn’t just say, “Wait, hold on, until the whole of our class is ready.”

The difference between nationalism and national struggle, and between bourgeois ‘internationalism’ and working class internationalism

Clifford attributes the following to me  – “Allan Armstrong… believes that nationalism is too important to be left to the nationalists”.  This is very much a case of attacking a straw man, since I have never made such a statement. What it does reveal is Clifford’s inability to distinguish between national democratic struggle and nationalism.

For a long time there were socialists who used to argue that the struggle for women’s rights was a diversion from the real struggle against capitalism. Following from this, both women’s oppression and resistance to women’s oppression were subsumed under the same labels – sexism or bourgeois feminism. I presume that Clifford supports the wider struggle for women’s emancipation, and has supported the more limited struggle for abortion rights. Does this make Clifford a feminist?  Or, would Clifford be just as happy to claim that ‘the communist objective is to liberate humanity not to emancipate women’?

Whilst I have made a critique of Lenin’s approach to national democratic movements elsewhere, he did make a very important contribution to the debate on the National Question, when he wrote that, “The elements of democratic and socialist culture are present, if only in rudimentary form, in every national culture, since in every nation there are toiling and exploited masses, whose conditions give rise to the ideology of democracy and socialism.   But every nation also possesses a bourgeois culture (and most nations a reactionary clerical culture as well) in the form, not merely of ‘elements’ but of the dominant culture.”  Scotland, although part of the unionist British state, has a national culture, as do England, Ireland and Wales. In all these cases this national culture is contested.

Those, living within any particular national culture, who advocate a democratic and socialist approach, also support a very different form of internationalism from those upholding a bourgeois or reactionary approach. For example, the bourgeois nationalists, who now dominate the SNP, still want to maintain their own international connections – they support the continued existence of the current global corporate order (having close contacts with people from Sir George Mathewson of the Royal Bank of Scotland to the maverick American tycoon, Donald Trump), with the UK (i.e. they want to return to the pre-parliamentary union dating from before 1707, whilst maintaining the monarchical union dating from 1603!), with the Euro-bosses’ EU (and its neo-liberalism enshrined in the post-Lisbon constitution), and they increasingly accept NATO too. Key sections of the Irish ruling class once had particularly close links to Cold War USA and to the pre-Second Vatican Council Papacy.

The RCN does not advocate a nationalist strategy, i.e. putting the nation  – its principal property owners, future wannabes, or their allies – first. We advocate a class-based strategy of ‘internationalism from below’ to link workers, socialists/communists and others. We also strongly support migrant workers’ struggles, and seek more effective solidarity action with workers and the oppressed throughout a world dominated by capitalist imperialism (or corporate capital).

We are not Scottish nationalists, but Scottish internationalists. We are trying to develop a political path to bring more effective unity of the working class – firstly throughout these islands, and then by joining with others, on a global scale, to bring about a communism based on new forms of workers’ association.

Propagandism or involvement in partial struggles

Although Clifford makes statements such as “political rights cannot rise above the economic structure of society”, it is not obvious from his contribution exactly what follows politically from this. Clifford makes the point that the “general right to self-determination is utopian”. Having invoked Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme to provide backing for this, Clifford goes on to give his support to Luxemburg who also argued for such a view. However, he makes no mention of the fact that Marx didn’t express any opposition to the following policy of the First International – support for “the right of every people to dispose of itself”.  Clearly, on some occasions, Marx was prepared to advocate general rights.

So, how is this apparent contradiction explained? It would be difficult to argue that Marx and Engels were not much concerned about the National Question at the time of the First International, and just let this particular policy go.  They threw themselves wholeheartedly into the debates over Poland and Ireland. They took on the ‘cosmopolitan’ French Proudhinists and the British Leftist, trade unionist, Hales. I think the reason for Marx’s apparent contradiction is that he is dealing with two different levels of politics – the development of theory and practical political intervention.

Capitalism is a crisis-ridden system, so it is important for communists to theoretically demonstrate that no economic or political right – e.g. the right to work, the right to self-determination – can ever be guaranteed under capitalism/imperialism.  This also goes for any likely prospect of increasing our living standards in the future. However, when workers or others assert their ‘right to work’, or their support for ‘the right of national self-determination’, in particular struggles and campaigns, they are expressing their own opposed class understanding of what kind of world should exist, whatever the current power holders say. In other words they don’t necessarily accept capitalist or imperialist logic.

Bourgeois ideology may be dominant under capitalism, but as has already been demonstrated, it is still contested.  This provides communists with an opening to make their case, provided we show some ‘nous’. Just telling those attending a public meeting that they have been conned by the bourgeoisie, by their invocation of a notion of ‘abstract rights’, and that they should be involved in an altogether different struggle, is unlikely to convince them in large numbers. However, it might pick up a few individual members to a sect.

Many nineteenth century communists and social democrats, including self-proclaimed Marxists like Daniel de Leon, resorted to a similar type of argument, to that which Clifford uses to dismiss any struggle for ‘abstract rights’. They supported Ferdinand Lassalle’s ‘Iron Law of Wages’ to show that under capitalism economic or trade union struggles were a waste of time.  Neither Marx nor Engels upheld this particular viewpoint, and James Connolly had to argue against de Leon over this too.

Clifford, though, seems to hold to an ‘Iron Law of Democratic Limitations’ under capitalism, analogous to the ‘Iron Law of Wages’. Can there be only one particular form of bourgeois state wherever capitalist social relations dominate? Does class struggle over the constitution or state practice really make no difference? Is there no possibility of partial democratic reform? Is there no difference between fascist/military and parliamentary states, monarchist and republican states, or imperial and colonised states?

Clifford argues that, “Vietnam was oppressed by American imperialism until 1975, but then four years later became the oppressor of Cambodia.” So what follows from this? Were the people of Vietnam wasting their time fighting against US imperialism? Are the Palestinians wasting their time resisting the Israeli state?

The political point Clifford wants to establish, i.e. that all nationalism works within limits set by capitalism/imperialism is certainly true, but can just as easily be made against trade unionism or syndicalism. However, like nationalism, trade unionism/syndicalism covers a wide range of forms (some positively hostile to even short-term working class interests)  – e.g. fascist corporatism, yellow business unions and social partnerships, as well as free collective bargaining and class struggle unionism.

Now, there are still propagandist socialists and anarchists around today, who would argue that workers are wasting their time getting involved in trade union struggles, because they fail to address the root of the problem – wage slavery. Looking at the contributions to the commune I don’t think most participants would argue in such a way. Indeed, there has been a vibrant discussion about what is the best method by which workers can fight back against their current position brought about by corporate-promoted non-unionism (the bosses’ preferred option) or social partnerships (their alternative method of neutering class struggle when having to legally recognise trade unions).

For a long time, the majority of the Left have argued for a Broad Left approach, i.e. replace the existing trade union leaders by new Left leaderships. I think most of the commune readers can see the decided limitations of this approach. There has been debate between those advocating a more rank and file approach (transforming and democratising unions), anarcho-syndicalism (IWW) and independent trade unionism (Independent Workers Union). There has also been an interesting contribution about extending workplace-based trade unionism to cover working class communities – social unionism (maybe the contemporary form of an earlier ‘One Big Union’ debate).

I think it is vital that communists become involved in such struggles and debates. We must also clearly point to the limitations of all struggles confined to improving wages, social wages and conditions, and make the case for the abolition of wage slavery. How we do this more effectively is one of the important debates going on in the commune. Of course, this is easier when capitalism faces deep crisis and the possibility of improved living standards is visibly receding – as is the case just now.

Nevertheless, so that our advocacy of the communist alternative doesn’t just end up as a mere propaganda exercise, we do need to link such arguments with active involvement in the many partial economic and social struggles, and to the promotion of independent organisations of our class.  We also need to extend this participation to partial political struggles. For communists, the culmination of all these struggles is the replacement of the existing bourgeois state by workers’ councils.

‘The British road to socialism’ or ‘internationalism from below’

Clifford asserts that the RCN’s “internationalism from below” just “floats through history appearing now as the Levellers then as the Chartists then again as United Irishmen, John MacLean or the resistance to the poll tax”. This, though just reveals Clifford’s own lack of understanding and empathy in this regard.

‘Internationalism from below’ didn’t just “float” but took much deeper root, as the English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh nations and the British UK state (and empire) developed, as a consequence of particular class struggles over a long period of history. Furthermore, ‘internationalism from below’ was created in antagonism to other approaches, e.g. the English Levellers’ opposition to Cromwell’s ‘Godly English Republic’; and the republican opposition of the United Irishmen, United Scotsmen, London Corresponding Society and US Democratic-Republicans to the UK constitutional monarchy and British Empire.

This year is the centenary of the publication of Connolly’s Labour in Irish History, a classic presentation of a class-based view of the divisions within a particular nation in the struggle for national self-determination.  Connolly was an Irish internationalist and anti-imperialist, who lived for most of his life in the UK – in Scotland and Ireland.

Now, it is true that a lot of this history is not well known because of the ideological dominance of the ruling class’s British Whig view of history, and its Left variant – the ‘British road to socialism’. Worse still, it is least well understood by socialists/communists in England despite the significant contribution of those from England to ‘internationalism from below’ struggles in the past. I would argue that this lack of understanding has partly arisen due to the activities of those very British socialists, who see it as one of their main task to defend a ‘British road to socialism’ – the former SDF/BSP, the old and new CPGB, SWP, Militant/SP and AWL, for example.

Clifford, who comes from an orthodox Trotskyist past, but is now in the dissident camp, could further develop his critique of orthodox Trotskyism and dissident Communist Partyism (e.g. the Weekly Worker), if he moved beyond his apparent acceptance of a ‘British road to socialism’.

Clifford also states that, “Allan’s republicanism is thus a timeless ideal of class determination”.  Now, this assertion may reflect a lack of familiarity with my practice and writings over a long period – fair enough, at least before the widespread use of the Internet, to which I am very much an unskilled late-comer.

However, from the days of the struggle against the poll tax (I was the chair of the first Anti-Poll Tax Federation – it formed in Lothian) to the widening division in the Irish Republican Movement between constitutional, dissident and socialist republicans (I have also been long involved in Irish solidarity work), I have offered a class analysis of unfolding events there (and their link with events and politics elsewhere in the UK).

The RCN has also published a pamphlet, Republicanism, Socialism and Democracy, outlining our class-based analysis of republicanism. Again, for those readers of the commune who are interested in these discussions, the RCN will make them available – some can already be found on our website.

However, there is another reason why republicanism isn’t much understood in England. Republicanism is a fairly esoteric feature of English politics. In Ireland, Scotland and Wales, republicanism has deeper roots and forms part of the wider political and public debate.  This situation has arisen because of greater opposition here to the Unionist constitutional monarchy, which has linked the National Question and republicanism. Where republicanism has developed enough strength to become an active factor in politics, it is always class contested. Therefore, it is vitally important to demonstrate clarity over where you stand on the issue. Unravelling the class nature of republicanism has always been central to the RCN’s politics.

In conclusion, I would argue that it is the job of communists to identify those partial struggles – economic, social, cultural and political  – which help us to strengthen the working class and others who are oppressed in the here and now.  At the same time, through promoting independent organisation (including of communists ourselves), we can make real the possibility of the communist alternative, already latent, but constantly suppressed within capitalism.  ‘Internationalism from below’ is a vital component in this endeavour.

Allan Armstrong, 18.8.10

* Rosa Luxemburg had initially argued that national democratic movements could no longer play any progressive role in any of the European states (including Tsarist Russia), which she considered to be dominated by capitalist social relations. However, she still thought that national democratic movements could play a progressive role in pre-capitalist societies like the Ottoman Empire (she supported the struggles of the Greeks in Crete and the Armenians). However, the Neo-Luxemburgists, such as Bukharin from 1916, and the German Left Communists  after World War I, argued that national democratic movements could no longer play any progressive role anywhere in the world.




‘Joe Thorne’

 The Republican Communist Network (Scotland) has developed a distinctive view on the national question which they call ‘Internationalism from below‘. Although the theory represents a comprehensive attempt to deal with the national question, in this article I will solely discuss it through the prism of the question of Scottish independence. This provides the most obvious and relevant case study through which to draw out the real implications of the theory, an approach which is necessary since I will be unable here to develop a comprehensive alternative account of the national question.

This article represents a moment in an ongoing dialogue between members of the RCN and The Commune, and it is based on the author’s notes from conversations with RCN members. I have read Allan’s recent article on ‘Internationalism from Below’ but have not been able to find a more comprehensive and specific defence of the RCN’s position on Scottish independence in writing elsewhere.

A word on nationalism. The RCN define nationalism, fairly conventionally, as a movement in defence of a, or towards an as yet non-existent, state for a “nation”. A nation, similarly conventionally, is understood as an “imagined community” which despite being imaginary – i.e. there is no overall unity of interest, for communists, between the conflicting social classes represented in the nation – is nonetheless real because it constitutes a politically powerful aspect of the subjective landscape. Nations are imaged, but real, and sometimes they become more real still as their subjective power remakes the objective world in its image.

The RCN denounce nationalism in both its conventional and ‘left’ manifestations. They are, however, positively in favour of Scottish national independence. The purpose of this article is to provide a critical account of the reasons RCN members give for their pro-independence position, as well as the mechanisms by which they think it could come about.

How could independence happen?

There are two scenarios by which RCN members might envisage independence coming about:

i) constitutional: a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament voting for a referendum on the question and Westminster feeling politically unable to refuse. The question on the referendum would be determined, in the end, by Westminster. If the vote was carried for independence, in this scenario, Westminster would feel compelled to grant it.

ii) proto-revolutionary: a working class upheaval, centred round economic or social demands, acquiring a pro-national independence perspective as part of its conflict with the UK state. In order to be successful, independent of constitutional methods, such an upheaval would have to be proto-revolutionary, involving soviet-type structures and militant workers’ autonomy. Such a proto-revolutionary wave may well of course subside without producing a generalised social revolution, which – were it to occur – could hardly be isolated in Scotland. In this article I will not consider scenarios where international communism is produced by revolution, since in such a case the affective autonomy of any local area so wishing could therefore be assumed.

The above scenarios are somewhat stylised and polarised. Of course, any constitutional independence movement would involve some grassroots activity, and no doubt in large part be an expression of social, everyday discontent. And it may well be that a proto-revolutionary insurgency would force, or be defrayed by, constitutional measures.

For our present discussion I am ignoring the possibility of a fundamentally nationalist, reactionary movement based either on mass mobilisation or para-military action. This is because we can take it as read that the RCN would be opposed to such developments.

Nonetheless the above typology is necessary in order to discuss, in concrete terms, the political significance of the demand for independence.

It should be said at this stage that, I understand, the RCN are primarily advocates of the proto-revolutionary scenario. Whilst they say there should be a referendum, and whilst they would strongly advocate a yes vote, they believe the British ruling class would be highly unlikely to allow such a scenario to develop. In support of this view, one RCN member recounted to me the measures taken by the state at the time of the 1979 devolution referendum (which returned 51.6% for devolution and 48.4% against but failed due to a stipulation regarding turnout). These included scare stories, agents provocateur, and military exercises off the coast of Scotland. Nonetheless, RCN support for independence is not conditional upon that taking place on a mass working-class, republican, or socialist basis.

We will return to an examination of these scenarios later, after a discussion of the various reasons given by RCN members for advocating independence.

Arguments for independence

As part of this I need to explain my general perspective on the matter at hand.

I am neither for nor against Scottish independence in principle but tend to think that it is not useful for communists to positively argue for it at present. I do think, however, that if people in Scotland want independence they should have it, and any attempts – whether violent or bureaucratic – to stop them should be opposed.

Although I am neither for nor against Scottish independence in principle I can conceive of circumstances in which I may – I say this cautiously since my mind’s not made up – be able to see independence as a demand I could support. In outline, this would be in the context of a strong, independent working class movement, for whom independence was a broad and deep demand, and objectively a necessary means to advance its power.  Furthermore, it would need to be the case that independence was not in real terms an alternative to perspective based upon spreading working class struggle, as working-class struggle.  Such circumstances may arise, but they are far from guaranteed to do so.  In fact, I confess I think them unlikely.

I will now consider six arguments for independence (a – f) which rather than quoting specific individuals , I have constructed on the bases of a number of independent comments I have heard and things I have read.

a) “Independence would represent a significant step in the ‘break up of the UK state’ which would weaken the UK state. It would therefore weaken UK imperialism and imperialism in general. The UK ruling class is strongly opposed to independence.”

Scotland is home to 5 million UK citizens, 5% of UK GDP, Europe’s sixth largest finance sector in Edinburgh, four Trident submarines (with around 200 nuclear warheads and 58 ballistic missiles), four regular British Army garrisons, three frontline RAF bases and six Royal Navy bases. On its North Sea coast lie oil reserves perhaps amounting to 30 billion barrels.

Since the power of modern states is based in part upon their capitalist productivity and in part on their capacity to project military power, and much less strongly although still in part on their population, it seems true that Scottish independence would weaken the UK state’s ability to project imperial power, at least in the short term.

However, there are several reasons to think that such a weakening would be relatively minor, partial and – most importantly – would not lead to an overall weakening of imperialism as such, or even the particular imperialist bloc of which Britain is part.

i) Most obviously, military bases could be relocated, or a deal reached for their continued use. It would be possible to make up the loss in military personnel were there a need for it. It is far from certain that either the constitutional or revolutionary scenario would lead to the £12 billion per annum UK share of oil reserves accruing to an independent Scotland – or even that there will be very much left of it remaining unless independence is achieved within a couple of decades. The loss in population and productive capital would not be large, while GDP per capita in the remainder of the UK would rise. Unless Scotland joined the EU – and adopted the associated neo-liberal legal framework – much capital would relocate to Britain. Only establishing Scotland as a sort of low-tax, low-regulation, business friendly environment could stop this.

ii) It is likely that an independent capitalist Scotland would simply rejoin the US/UK imperialist bloc. Imperialism is today, far more than in the 19th century, an interstate system, although there are always very much senior and junior partners. With the same material resources, the bloc would be no weaker than before, just composed of one more state. So it is not even clear that US imperialism would be effectively weakened. Note that this is in no way precluded by the proto-revolutionary independence scenario, assuming that capitalist social relations are left in place.

iii) Even if it didn’t join the US/UK bloc, Scotland – still capitalist in the absence of international communist revolution – would simply be forced to join another imperialist bloc, which would be no better. Once again, because proto-revolutionary waves can subside, this possibility is not precluded by the proto-revolutionary scenario. Even if a more ‘left-wing’ capitalist government held power in a Scotland outside the US/UK imperialist bloc, there is no guarantee it would be less imperialist. Consider the example of France – one possible imperialist partner for an independent Scotland. In 1994 it facilitated the Rwandan genocide under the presidency of Parti Socialiste leader Francois Mitterrand and in the context of one of the most self-confident and class-conscious proletariats anywhere in the world.

iv) Even if it was true that the US/UK bloc was weakened, this would not necessarily contribute greatly to the weakening of imperialism as such. The US-led bloc is early in what is most likely to be a long but terminal decline from global hegemony, whilst Chinese imperialism – most clearly of all – is on the rise.

Since, at least in the proto-revolutionary scenario, Scottish independence may be a relatively distant prospect, the overall significance of any minor weakening of the US/UK power bloc may be much reduced.

v) The most important “weakness” of any state is its own working class, that is currently the English as well as Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish working class. Potentially by placing a relatively militant, leftward Scottish working class outside the UK state, independence could conceivably make the UK state stronger.

vi) Just because the UK ruling class is opposed to something doesn’t mean the working class should be for it.  It is quite possible that a given national ruling class is opposed to a certain measure because it involves losing ground to another national ruling class, rather than to the working class.  In such cases, the working class has no need to take sides.

vii) As has been said before:

But, someone may ask, why the support in the first place? The answer provided [by Trotskyists] is an example of historical scheme -making: U.S. imperialism will be weakened’ by such movements. Such a ‘weakening’ will impart another ‘transitional’ twitch to the ‘death agony of capitalism’ which in turn will foster other twitches … and so on. Like all mystifications, Trotskyism fails to give a coherent answer as to why, especially since 1945, imperialism has been able to grant political independence to many ex -colonial countries, a possibility that Lenin and Trotsky explicitly denied.1

Indeed, it seems true that whilst imperialism has changed vastly since World War II, it is not now weaker as a global phenomenon than it was then — despite the global unfolding of national independence.

b) “The demand for Scottish independence is a democratic, republican demand. It is therefore a necessary component of a communist perspective.”

Here I will confine myself to the relation between republicanism and national independence, rather than provide a general perspective on republicanism.

In a RCN pamphlet Bob Goupillot explains that republicanism:

seeks to develop a programme for expanding democracy under capitalism as far as it will go. It concerns itself with progressive and in some senses transitional demands. To the extent that we achieve these democratic demands, it will strengthen our class and will weaken the ruling class and its allies. It is a necessary and unavoidable part of the struggle for socialism.2

For the RCN, independence would represent a democratic advance under capitalism and would therefore “strengthen our class”. While republicanism in general is a “necessary and unavoidable” part of the revolutionary process, it is not clear whether Scottish independence, specifically, is held to be necessary in this way or not. I would like to offer some arguments against seeing independence for Scotland as a necessary component of republicanism, or republican demands as a necessary part of communist propaganda.

i) In general, I agree that, all other things being equal (they never are) greater capitalist democracy is an advantage for the working class in its grassroots struggle. For example, I tend to think the AMS (additional member system), not to mention citizen initiated recall votes and referenda for representatives would make capitalists less likely to attack the working class (none of which necessarily makes such reforms an item on the agenda of the class struggle). However, it is hard to see why Scottish independence as such would provide an instance of that. This is because neither smaller states as such, nor states with roughly national boundaries are – all things being equal – ipso facto more democratic. Neither, in itself, implies a greater level of formal democracy.

ii) Secondly, communists ought not to reify “national independence” and hence do not reify the nation as such – but rather are in favour of the fullest local autonomy for all those who want it, regardless of whether the unit in question constitutes a “nation”. That is, republicanism as such need not see Scotland as more (or less) deserving of autonomy than Fife or North Yorkshire. The republican demand is surely “autonomy for all those who want it”, not “autonomy for each nation”. The question here is not “is Scotland a nation?” – it is – but ought communists necessarily to privilege the nation as a political unit? I argue, not at all.

Sometimes, movements against national oppression may mean that some nations end up developing as immediate bases for political autonomy. In such cases, perhaps it may make sense to positively support a concrete, working class movement for such autonomy. But as I argue below, Scotland is not subject to national oppression in this way.

iii) It is true that the UK state has on its statute books a whole array of “crown powers” which could be used to legitimate attacks on the revolutionary working class in any part of the UK. But, firstly, there is no necessary reason why the Scottish working class should not end up fighting these powers on the same terms as the English working class. Secondly, there is no reason that the working class will necessarily fight against the crown powers as laws, rather than just in terms of concrete battles against their manifestations. Thirdly, these crown powers are merely the legal expression of things which the UK or Scottish ruling class would likely be prepared to do illegally if those laws did not exist.

The above arguments criticise the positive demand for independence on republican, democratic grounds. They show that the most ardent republican democrat would not necessarily be compelled to call for Scottish independence.

c) “Even under capitalism, an independent Scottish state – perhaps somewhat more republican – would deliver a more ‘progressive’, left wing social and fiscal policy.”

The RCN, as internationalists, are not for socialism in one country. However, whilst talking about Scottish independence, the above sentiment does sometimes emerge as a theme of discussion. Indeed, it is an implicit premise of the argument that “struggles to defend social provision” can take the form of an independence struggle.

Today, in numerous areas, including higher education and homelessness, Scotland does indeed use its limited devolved powers to pursue policies which are somewhat more pro-working class than those effective in England and Wales.

However, if the international decline of left social democracy over the last 30 years tells us anything, it is that ‘progressive’ fiscal policy cannot be detached from the dynamism of domestic capital.

At present, ignoring revenues from North Sea Oil, Scotland is subsidised by the rest of the UK to the tune of about £1,500 per head. Taking oil into account the flow does run somewhat the other way but as mentioned previously, (a) It is unlikely that North Sea Oil would be controlled by an independent Scotland, and (b) the oil probably does not have very long left to run and may well dry up before Scottish independence is assured.

In consequence, it may very well be the case that independence would precipitate a decline in the fiscal position of the Scottish state apparatus, and consequent decline in social provision in Scotland. As a further consequence therefore, it is at best unclear how independence would form part of struggles to defend the ‘social wage’ in Scotland.

d) “Although the Scottish do not experience national oppression in an equivalent way to Palestinians in Palestine or Tamils in Tamil Eelam, there are nonetheless ways in which Scotland is subject to real national oppression which materially affects the day to day lives of its population”

In this section I will not consider the argument that the lack of independence in itself constitutes national oppression consisting of the denial of democratic rights. This perspective, I examine in the section dealing with republicanism as a political perspective. Here, I am concerned with national oppression insofar as it affects the day to day lives of people in Scotland.

Calls for independence are not necessarily the correct response to national oppression, but serious national oppression could seem to strengthen the case for calls for independence.

In conversations with RCN members, I have heard it suggested that the early implementation of the poll tax in Scotland and the closing of Scotland’s heavy industries – particularly mining and ship building – have constituted national oppression.  In the case of the heavy industries, I am not aware of any evidence that Scottish workplaces have been targeted more because they are Scottish, any more that those in Labour-voting areas in the north of England for example.

The Scottish working class ignited the struggle against the poll tax – but is the demand for independence a positive one?

 Concerning the poll tax, however, it is possible to be more definite.  Contrary to popular perception, the poll tax was not implemented in Scotland first in order to use Scotland as a “guinea pig”. Nor was any part of the reason for implementing the tax in Scotland a year earlier than England and Wales as part of an assault on the Scottish working class as such. Rather, the poll tax came first to Scotland as a consequence of two main factors.

Firstly, the limited extent to which Scotland was already enshrined in UK law at the time as a distinct administrative entity. The 1975 Local Government (Scotland) Act mandated a ratings (local government tax) revaluations system distinct from that prevailing in England and Wales, although 5 yearly revaluations had once been uniform. (see McConnell, Alan (1995), State Policy Formation and the origins of the Poll Tax, pages 80 and 200). The fact that rates revaluations were on a different timetable – even given the provision for delay which were utilised from the 1981 Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions)(Scotland) Act – in Scotland prompted the Conservative government to rush in the Poll tax, rather than raise rates.

Secondly, against this background, the need of Scottish Tories – in particular senior figures like George Younger and Malcolm Rifkind – to secure their core vote. That core vote, as epitomised by single, elderly people living in large family houses, was heavily hostile to the rates, and could not be expected, it was thought, to accept the financial consequences of revaluation. In consequence, as one authoritative volume puts it, the poll tax “was only introduced in Scotland first because of George Younger’s determination to have the necessary legislation on the statute-books before the general election, expected to be in 1987″ (Butler, Adonis, Travers (1994) Failure in British Government: the Politics of the Poll Tax, page 101). Tory MPs “were told by Younger and Rifkind that it was ‘utterly vital’ for the Tories’ electoral prospects north of the border.” (p. 103)

In this context, the early introduction of the poll tax in Scotland was less an intentional attack on the Scottish working class because they were Scottish, but rather an accidental product of differentiated – but not necessarily discriminatory – UK law, and the sectional, electoral interests of Scottish Tories.

e) “Independence for Scotland could be a spark that ignites working class insurgency against the UK state, and perhaps other capitalist states”

As advocates of working class internationalism, the RCN are not interested only in the Scottish working class, but the broader UK and global working class as well. They believe Scottish independence could contribute to the struggle of the proletariat outside Scotland, for two reasons.

The first is that an independence struggle on the proto-revolutionary model, over economic or social demands, could spark equivalent action over similar demands elsewhere. However, it is not clear why working class action in Scotland would have to have a specifically pro-independence character in order to have such a “contagious” effect on the Scottish proletariat. (In fact, it is conceivable that national demands could obscure the social, class base of these demands and hence tend to retard their generalisation). Working class struggles have a record of spreading internationally that indicates no necessary need for them to have a national character. This first argument, therefore, does not provide a reason for communists to advocate Scottish independence in addition to the militant mobilisation on which we all agree.

The second argument raised by comrades in the RCN says that, since the UK ruling class would do everything in its power to thwart any independence movement, the mobilisation of militants in England and Wales would be necessary to defeat the ruling class, and achieve independence. However, once again, the UK ruling class can be expected to react with similar vehemence to a proto-revolutionary insurgency around purely socio-economic demands, thereby providing the same potential spark for the struggle to be generalised.

f) “There is a real dynamic towards independence in the Scottish working class. We need to relate to that dynamic to stop it turning ugly and because it represents a legitimate, democratic – even socialistic – aspiration.”

In truth, the dynamic, such as it is, is rather minor. Most polls demonstrate support for greater devolution of tax-raising powers is more popular than independence. Even given a straight choice between independence or the status quo, even the polls showing the greatest pro-independence sentiment only show barely 50% backing for secession from the UK.

As indicated earlier, there are some circumstances under which – in the context of a working class upsurge and a strong pro-independence dynamic within that – it may make sense to support that demand due to its implicit class character. Chris Ford has argued that Ukraine during the revolutionary wave of 1916-22 was such a case – though I do not know enough about that myself to evaluate the claim independently.  Thus, my argument here against the demand for independence is not a timeless one. Rather it is based on the concrete balance of class forces, and the subjective position of the Scottish working class in particular.  However, it is very, very far from guaranteed — it is even very unlikely — that a national independence movement with a positive class character would ever emerge.  The reality is that examples of such movements in history are very few and far between, and all are contested.


Any proto-revolutionary scenario is far away.  But in such a scenario, what would be the significance of demands for national independence?  The RCN argue in good faith that their potential significance would be a means to make the workers’ struggle more powerful, and help it spread internationally.  But there must be real reasons to doubt this.  Is it not at least as possible that emphasis on the nation as a political unit, and the independent “republican” state as a worthwhile aim in itself, will inevitably de-emphasise tendencies toward generalising the struggle internationally, on a revolutionary class basis?

I offer the above arguments for the consideration of comrades in the RCN, and others, as part of an ongoing dialogue within the communist milieu. In that light I would like to make a couple of things clear about my position.

Firstly it is not a cryptic attempt to justify the idea that Scottish revolutionary organisations ought to be ‘subject’ to a broader UK one. I disagree with this view. As suggested earlier, I am for the maximum of local (or group, or individual) autonomy at every level insofar as that is compatible with whatever organisation’s platform is in question.

Secondly, I would be totally opposed to any attempts of the UK state to suppress any real working class independence movement, and would support mobilisation against such attempts.

Finally, I am certainly not a “unionist”, nor a British or English nationalist. I consider myself an internationalist, and at that one who thinks all good things come from below. My objection is to neither of these component parts of ‘internationalism from below’ but to the specific conclusion that communists ought to be involved in calling for Scottish independence.

1 http://libcom.org/library/third-worldism-or-socialism-solidarity-group

2 RCN, Republicanism, socialism and democracy








The RCN would like to thank Joe for his contribution to the ongoing debate amongst the commune membership on the ‘National Question’. This has followed from the paper, The communist case for ‘internationalism from below’, which Allan Armstrong presented to the second Global Commune event in Edinburgh on May 22nd, 2010. In one of the two workshops held on this topic, Joe and others raised a number of specific questions about the RCN’s attitude to Scottish independence. Joe followed this up by writing, The RCN’s ‘internationalism from below’ and the case of Scotland: a critical view.

Joe’s questions have been thought provoking, hence the considerable delay in our collective reply. We have used Joe’s questions at two of our RCN meetings to further develop our own thinking.  In expressing his criticisms, Joe has also provided us with some of his own underlying theoretical assumptions. This is very helpful when trying to appraise the relative merits of differing approaches. Joe’s method contrasts with much of what passes for debate on the Left – purely negative criticisms (without any openly declared theoretical underpinnings), heresy hunting, name calling, or demands for denunciations (of nationalism, feminism, or whatever).

Joes’s thinking seems to be drawn mainly from Anarchist and dissident Marxist (i.e. non-orthodox Leninist or Trotskyist) approaches. Many of the commune members come from one of these two backgrounds, as indeed do some RCN members. Therefore, in the process of answering Joe’s specific questions, we will also critically examine elements of these two theoretical approaches when dealing with the ‘National Question’.

We will break-up our answer into three sections:-

A) Explaining some of the contradictions of present day corporate imperialism

B) Understanding the ‘National Question’

 C) The ‘Scottish Question’ in its UK state and British imperial framework



 1. Facing up to the Jeremiahs on the Left

Some of Joe’s questioning of the RCN’s thinking on the ‘National Question’ flows from his particular understanding of the limitations imposed on nation states and national movements by capitalism since the Second World War. {Since the 1970’s, this capitalism has morphed into its latest corporate imperialist form – henceforth just called Imperialism}. Joe argues that, “Imperialism has changed vastly since World War II, and is not now weaker as a global phenomenon than it was then – despite the global unfolding of national independence.”

Joe further elaborates when he argues that all attempts by newly independent states or national movements to assert their particular nation’s independence have merely resulted in them being reabsorbed into their original imperialist bloc on new terms {e.g. neo-colonialism}, or having to turn to another imperialist bloc for support {e.g. the Soviet Union before 1989-91}.

Joe does think that, if Scotland became an independent state, the loss to the UK state of 5 million citizens, 5% of its GDP, Europe’s sixth largest financial sector, a considerable proportion of Britain’s military {particularly nuclear} bases and North Sea Oil, that this “would weaken the UK state’s ability to project imperial power, at least in the short term.”

Joe then goes on to argue that, “However, there are several reasons to think that such a weakening would be relatively minor, partial and – most importantly – would not lead to an overall weakening of imperialism as such, or even the particular imperialist bloc of which Britain is part”. His reasons include the ability of the UK state to make alternative military arrangements, the economic constraints imposed on EU member states by its neo-liberal policies, and the lack of any other likely imperial blocs to provide alternative support. We could also add – and the extreme hostility that attempts to find such backing would face from the ruling class within a diminished British imperialism, as well as from US, and EU (or German/French) imperialisms.

The RCN would agree with Joe that an independent Scottish state, of whatever political hue, would face considerable economic and political restraints. However, Joe should be wary that he doesn’t follow the Jeremiahs of the British Labour Party and the British Left. They usually argue that there is no possibility for future working class advance in Scotland outside the political framework of the British unionist state [1]. Such arguments are similar to those coming from trade union bureaucrats and Right-wingers, whenever workers are considering taking industrial action. They like to raise all sorts of obstacles due to the ‘objective conditions’, e.g. the unfavourable international economic climate, the currently strong position of the bosses, the lack of wider support, etc., etc..

We’re sure that Joe would oppose the Jeremiahs of the trade union world. The RCN also opposes their counterparts in the political world. Of course, communists must make a specific analysis of the capitalist structures and institutions we are confronting, and examine the balance of class forces in both the economic and political spheres, as well as recognising their connection under capitalism (see section A.5).

Appreciating the balance of class forces, though, is somewhat different from meekly accepting the existence of ‘objective conditions’, with the outcomes of any class struggles pre-determined by Imperialism. Such an approach doesn’t allow for this ‘fixed objectivity’ to be broken through independent working class action.

2. Independent organisation for our class does not depend on reacting to the capitalists’ chosen state forms

Thus, despite the huge problems currently facing ‘the 26 Counties’ Irish economy, there is no significant political voice there, especially amongst the working class, saying, “To hell with political independence, let us rejoin the UK”! Irish workers would rather deal with their own ruling class than be returned to the tender mercies of the British ruling class. Irish workers’ current weakness stems from ‘their’ leaders confining themselves to pressuring the Irish ruling class, and very half-heartedly at that.

The Irish ruling class, however, has powerful allies amongst the ruling classes and political leaders of the UK, EU and USA, which strengthen its position immensely in relation to the Irish working class. In this sense, the restraints imposed by a wider Imperialism are very real. However, they can be loosened through independent class action.  Irish workers’ current leaders, though, make no efforts to forge international links and promote common actions with workers in the EU – the Greeks or French for example. The trade union bureaucrats prefer to settle for the security and privileges they enjoy through acting as a personnel management service for the employers and for successive Irish governments under ‘social partnerships’.

Norway provides a different example, sometimes invoked in Scotland, especially after the problems now facing our previously much vaunted, neighbouring, Irish ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy. Norway’s national economy has been able to operate outside the institutions of the EU, and hasn’t been so badly affected as others during the current recession. This is partly due to policy decisions taken earlier, by its then non neo-liberal political leaders. The position of workers and their trade unions in Norway is certainly no worse than those in the UK, nor most of the EU.

Whatever the constraints placed upon independent states (and these can be extremely restrictive), political independence provides those in control of the state with a voice and some representation in the wider political arena, in an analogous manner to an organisationally independent trade union for workers in ‘their’ company or particular sector of state employment.

Workers can face bleak economic prospects in their workplaces, such as the immediate threat of closure and loss of employment. However, this isn’t an argument against having independent organisation and representation. The issue therefore is, whose voice is to be heard:- 1) in the workplace – the trade union bureaucrats or the workers’ representatives; 2)  in the political arena – the banksters and the bosses, or popular and workers’ representatives?

The RCN isn’t advocating either Ireland’s or Norway’s chosen economic affiliations for a possible future ‘independent Scotland’. We are merely pointing out that being part of the UK economy isn’t the only possible option. Whether Scotland remains inside the UK, and/or the EU, presents our class with different situations to deal with.

Neither of these particular economic scenarios automatically offers workers a more secure economic future; nor, of course, does Scotland’s continued incorporation in the UK.  Only our own actions can do that, and there is no convincing evidence that we could not maintain our capacity to fight back in the first two scenarios – political independence inside or outside the EU. This would depend on the strategies adopted, and, in particular, the practical international alliances, which we sought to develop.

If, for example, the leaders of a politically independent Scotland (still dominated by capitalist social relations) opted to remain in the EU, this would mean that the working class in Scotland would need to seek greater unity with other European workers to combat the effects of the EU’s neo-liberal policies; just, as workers in Scotland have tried to link up with those elsewhere in the UK to combat the effects of the British employers’ and UK governments’ (New Labour and Con-Dem) even more vicious neo-liberal policies – however inadequately at present. Many of these inadequacies stem from the influence of the British TUC and the British Labour Party, and from the sectarianism of the British Left.

In 2009, the Scottish Socialist Party formed part of the European Anti-Capitalist Alliance (EACA) challenge in the Euro-elections. A section of the British Left opted instead for the British chauvinist (and indeed only thinly disguised racist, ‘No to social dumping’) No2EU campaign. None of the British Left opted for participation in the EACA’s electoral challenge.

If others on the British Left believe that only the full political integration of the EU can create the basis for a united socialist/communist and wider working class organisation, then they are arguing that the working class must wait until others create the political framework within which we can act in the future. The RCN wants to challenge such political tail-ending. This just leaves our class reacting to the political initiatives put forward by sections of the British ruling class, or other would-be ruling classes, e.g. amongst the backers of the SNP.

Communists in all EU member states need to encourage European-wide links and organisation on the basis of ‘internationalism from below’. This is the same principle that the RCN has been advocating and helping to organise within the UK and ‘26 Counties’ states – England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (‘North’ and ‘South’). It applies whatever the degree of political integration of the state (e.g. the UK), or wider state-in-making (e.g. the EU), already brought about by the ruling classes concerned. We need to take the initiative, not passively react to the political impact of the capitalist class’s chosen state forms.

3. See yon awfie Imperialism – y’ just cannae beat it!

So far, we have only been dealing with the some possible economic scenarios provided by, or hinted at, by Joe. However, the RCN is not in the business of trying to create an economically independent Scottish state, either under capitalism or socialism – the lower phase of communism. We want to create a new global communist order.

Yet, in the current non-revolutionary situation we face, the RCN thinks that it is possible to increase the political weight of the working class, both in these islands, and to a lesser extent in Europe and the wider world, by weakening the existing UK state and the US/British imperial alliance. This alliance still constitutes the politically and militarily dominant force at a global level.  From our perspective, though, any successful immediate political challenge would only be preparatory to more decisive ones, once some of the current deadweight is lifted from our backs.

Now Joe and others on the Left have criticised the notion of merely advocating the weakening of the existing state, instead of campaigning to overthrow it. Back in the late 1970s, faced with the forthcoming Scottish and Welsh devolution referenda, sections of the Left in Scotland shouted, “No to Devolution – Yes to Revolution”. Unfortunately, there were no workers’ councils in place ready to make this leap. So what we got instead was ‘No to Devolution – Yes to Thatcher’! Here we had a case of rhetorical Socialist Propagandism aiding our class enemy.

Yet, many on the Left have been able to take a more considered view of strategy and tactics in capitalism’s economic sphere (for the theory behind capitalism’s division into political and economic spheres see section A.5). Here, the Left has pursued a variety of approaches to weaken management attempts to control us in the workplace. It is not usual to hear the Left shouting during a strike for better wages, ‘No to a Pay Increase – Yes to the Abolition of Wage Slavery’!

So let us further develop Joe’s arguments and compare the impact of national democratic demands made in the political sphere, to workplace demands made in the economic sphere.  Since the Second World War, which Joe goes back to, many of the significant wage increases and major improvements in conditions have been confined to particular sectors of employment.  Employers have often been able to get round any setbacks they have faced by moving their production to less militant areas with green-field sites or to overseas. As in the case of those national democratic demands criticised by Joe, all those economic demands have also left capitalism/Imperialism intact.  And where they have been won, they are also being increasingly undermined in the current global Capitalist Offensive.

Furthermore, the very demands often ‘spontaneously’ raised by workers in struggle, e.g. better wages, seem to assume the continuation of wage slavery – the very essence of industrial (and so-called post-industrial) capitalism; just as the demands for ‘national independence’ appear to assume the continuation of the wider world system, i.e. Imperialism.

Many Trotskyists would go further than Joe.  They hold a particular disdain for all immediate democratic demands (i.e. those which do not transcend capitalism in the here and now). Trotskyists, though, usually do support a raft of immediate economic demands, which they term ‘transitional’, to avoid the charge of being supporters of a ‘minimum programme’.

Therefore, if we transpose Joe’s and many Trotskyists’ arguments about the inevitable limitations imposed by Imperialism upon demands made in the political sphere back to the economic sphere, this would lead us to some very pessimistic conclusions. For, ‘despite the global unfolding of major workers’ struggles’ since the Second World War, “Imperialism is not now a weaker global phenomenon than it was then.”  See yon awfie Imperialism – y’ just cannae beat it!

4. Learning from Socialist propaganda or from immediate struggles

 There is, of course a Socialist Propagandist (e.g. SPGB) ‘answer’ to all this. We shouldn’t be fighting for immediate demands (i.e. ‘palliatives’) at all, but confine ourselves to propaganda for the abolition of ‘money’, ‘the wages system’ or ‘the state’. This is the ‘Big Bang’ theory of revolution, which amounts to a contemporary secular version of an older religious approach – pietism punctuated by occasional messianistic political ‘revivals’.

In contrast, the RCN, Joe and most members of the commune would probably agree that workers learn best in the hard school of class struggle.  Revolutionary situations don’t arise every day, so most of these struggles are around immediate demands. A rising crescendo of struggle definitely widens the possibilities, but also puts a much greater responsibility upon communists, whose voices will be increasingly listened to in such situations. What we say would then become a material factor in the struggle. This is when clarity of thought becomes most important. The balance of class forces on particular occasions may still lead to setbacks, but provided it’s not communists who have ‘let the side down’, our class is likely to return, before too long, to independent class action, when the balance of class forces is more propitious.

Now interestingly, Joe does appear to support the use of some immediate democratic demands, e.g. the Additional Member System (AMS) of voting, citizen-initiated referenda and recall votes for elected representatives. Yet, the AMS currently practised in the GLC, Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, and German Federal elections have patently not undermined capitalism, nor have they opened up the road to direct democracy.  Similarly, the main beneficiaries, recently, of citizen-initiated referenda in California and Switzerland have been on the Right.

Should Joe’s demand for ‘recall of elected representatives’ be achieved, it doesn’t take much imagination to see that the Right, with its powerful corporate media support, could not only live with this; but, as in the case of citizen-initiated referenda, add such a measure to its armoury too – especially when dealing with elected Left, dissident or even just unpopular liberal representatives. Yes, we might well chuckle at the thought of that political fraudster, Barack Obama, being recalled from the Presidency in the USA – but would we still be smiling if he was replaced by Sarah Palin?!

Presumably, though, Joe believes that his own immediate democratic demands could be utilised in a different way, perhaps connected to others, which are more clearly linked to workers’ immediate interests. In which case, he is approaching the method the RCN also uses when we raise immediate democratic demands.

5. The significance of the separation of economic and political spheres under capitalism

To achieve a better theoretical understanding of the possibilities for our class and for a communist future, we need to go beyond Joe’s own eclectic approach, which draws on elements of both Anarchist and Marxist thinking (both dissident and orthodox).  If Joe wants to provide support for a wider range of struggles, including some around immediate democratic demands, it is necessary to develop a theory of present day Imperialism, which shows up its contradictions and hence the possibilities for effective resistance more clearly. Fortunately, Oleg Resin has pointed to such a theory, no escape from theory: cuts and the state debate, in the commune, issue 17.

As a first step to achieving greater clarity, Oleg explains that, “Only the development of capital as a social relationship… brings about the separation of the political sphere from the economic…This makes the capitalist form of class exploitation different from the previous ones… A feudal lord… disposed of both… ‘economic’ and ‘legal’ power”.

It is this understanding of capitalism, with its distinct ‘economic’ and ‘political’ spheres, through which exploitation and oppression are enforced, which also informs the RCN’s thinking.  The contradictions, which arise from capitalist exploitation and oppression, produce class struggles in both the economic and the political spheres of capitalism, which Oleg has identified. Workers experience exploitation in the workplace, and oppression both in our workplaces and outside in our communities. Furthermore, others face oppression too – women, gay men and lesbians, certain nations, ethnic groups and religious minorities. All of these groups are class-divided, with a considerable proportion belonging to the working class.

Exploitation and oppression are rarely meekly accepted. There is nearly always resistance, either passive or active. Sometimes resistance takes ineffective or counter-productive forms – escapism, sectionalism, or various forms of chauvinism directed against others. It is the job of communists to push for resistance, which takes effective forms through class struggle, practical solidarity – including internationally, and most importantly, through the creation of independent class organisation.

When resistance to exploitation is targeted at capitalists, it usually takes the form of industrial struggles around immediate economic demands – e.g. better wages, improved conditions, defence of jobs, etc.. When resistance to oppression is targeted at the state, it takes the form of political struggles around immediate democratic demands – e.g. the ending of anti-union laws, for abortion on demand, equal rights for women, gay men and lesbians, removal of occupying troops, etc.

Once you acknowledge that the division of capitalism into economic and political spheres produces both exploitation and oppression, which each give rise to resistance, then it is much easier to appreciate the significance of political struggles around immediate democratic, including national democratic, demands. The failure to recognise this, and to adequately account for it theoretically, contributes to the contradictions in Joe’s own thinking, and the abstention over, or denigration of, immediate democratic demands by Anarchists, and many Marxists, including those Socialist Propagandists.

Anarchists think that  ‘the state’ is the real enemy, whilst many Marxists, think that the political form of the state is of secondary or marginal concern, since it performs an entirely functional and economy-derivative role under capitalism.  This leads to a denial or a downplaying of the significance of those immediate democratic struggles, which arise from the contradictions of a particular state’s existence (including in our case, the UK), and which can produce real resistance.

Instead, for communists to be really effective, we should fight capitalism in both its spheres of existence – economic and political. The negation of our exploitation and oppression is brought about through our emancipation and liberation. The capitalist division between the economic and political is addressed first by independent class organisation, which attempts to link the struggles in both of these spheres. In a revolutionary situation, new forms of human association can transcend the economic and political division bequeathed by capitalism altogether, with the setting-up of communes, which abolish our condition both as wage-slaves (or alienated labour) and oppressed subjects of the state (2).

6. The fight against the cuts is important, but leaves us firing only on one (economic) cylinder

At the moment, nearly all the Left, the commune members included, have thrown themselves into the battle against the cuts. Therefore, there is a realistic assumption here that workers have made real gains in the past, which the capitalist class (or, for most of the Left, the nasty Tories and their Lib-Dem stooges) want to take away.

Most workers know that, whatever the welfare state’s limitations, access to free health care, education, social security, carers, etc. (and for workers and peasants in the ‘Developing World’ – subsidised basic food items, such as bread and rice, before the imposition of Structural Adjustment Programmes), represent/ed something worth defending. We can remember that these things weren’t just handed down from on high. They had to be fought for. Many actions throughout the world, from strikes and occupations to riots, have demonstrated this.

Therefore, if we just confined ourselves to pointing out the undoubted limitations of the welfare state, we would end up joining the ranks of those already mentioned Socialist Propagandists, who bewail the possibility of ever making any advances based on struggles around immediate demands. Once again – ‘See thon awfie Imperialism, y’ just cannae beat it’ – or, at least, not until the workers finally ‘see the light’ and join or vote for their party or group.

Now, communists should certainly point out that the post-war welfare state was and is demonstrably inadequate to meet workers’ needs (whilst it only ever minimally extended to workers and peasants in the colonial or neo-colonial states). Furthermore, the welfare state has remained under the capitalist class’s bureaucratic domination.  Finding better ways of making these connections and criticisms effectively, in the process of supporting the immediate struggles of our class to defend social provision, is one of the reasons why the RCN has been working with the commune. The rest of the Left just falls back on neo-Keynesianism, and consequently ends up tail-ending those Labour and trade union bureaucrats who pursue this strategy. Thus, the traditional Left’s strategy cannot lead to independent class organisation, but only to the buttressing of existing bureaucratic institutions and the promotion of various Left careerists. Any temporary gains can be recuperated and later reversed.

Our class’s greater understanding of the restrictions imposed upon our lives, under both the earlier welfare capitalism and today’s austerity capitalism, comes primarily through our experiences and from our struggles, even though these may initially have been limited in scope. Our class has certainly made its mark on capitalist society since the Second World War.  We have registered real gains, whatever their limitations. We made these through various forms of class struggle, sometimes of major proportions. And our gains have been made in both the economic and political spheres.

The very fact that the leaders of this current crisis-ridden capitalist system have to undermine and overturn these gains – e.g. attack wages, conditions, pensions, educational and health provision, introduce new racist citizenship criteria, scapegoat migrant workers, impose ‘equal pay’ by lowering men’s wages, reduce most education to training, open the door to state-backed creationist and other anti-scientific ideologies (and these are just some UK examples) – highlights some of the gains we stand to lose, if we don’t mount defensive struggles around immediate demands.

Once again, Oleg makes an important point in his article that helps us to understand theoretically what is at stake here. He argues that {as in the case of capitalist social relations in the economy} “the state is a form of social relations too.” So, looking first at the post-war gains we have made in capitalism’s economic sphere, let us then extend this appreciation to the political sphere too.

A worker, in say Liverpool or Glasgow in the 1970s, could easily recognise the difference between working in a well-organised union workplace (not only in terms of wages and conditions, but also when it came to contesting management directives, i.e. weakening their control), compared to their parents’ days in the workplace (or just as likely, out of it), in the pre-war Depression.

However, post-war workers’ struggles have registered gains at the state level too – leading, for example, to a significant increase in our social wage. Women workers, whose oppression was specifically structured by the state, went further and pushed beyond claims for equality in particular workplaces by raising the immediate democratic demand for equal rights in the early 1970s (again never fully realised and now often going into reverse).

Nationalist workers in Northern Ireland had to confront their local Orange statelet when demanding equal access to jobs and housing in the late 1960s.  Therefore, they linked their socio-economic struggles with immediate democratic demands – civil rights (again never fully realised). Few would deny that women and Nationalist workers face less overt discrimination now, either by the state, or by men or Unionists (however much privately some many yearn for ‘the good old days’), than they did say in the 1960s. Gains have been made, although these are again under attack.

Returning once more to the economic sphere, most commune members would undoubtedly recognise the significance of the different workplace regimes, which workers have experienced throughout the post-war world, and the different possibilities they offer for class struggle. Workers have laboured under conditions of illegality (where unions are politically banned); in non-union workplaces (where managements prevent union organisation); in workplaces with state or company unions; in workplaces where the representatives of formally independent unions work hand-in-glove with the management (now institutionalised under ‘social partnership’); and in workplaces with independent unions under workers’ control.

Now, Socialist Propagandists could claim that all these workplace regimes merely represent different forms of continued capitalist exploitation. Therefore, there is no point trying to weaken management’s authority. Instead we need propaganda for full-blown socialism. Many on the wider Left, and certainly not just the RCN, would argue, though, that it is through struggles, which weaken management’s ability to control us, that we can develop our own independent class organisation. This is the way to bring us closer today to asserting full workers’ control under the first phase of communism in the future.

So, now let us move again from capitalism’s economic sphere back to its political sphere. Here workers have lived in state regimes with personal, one-party or military dictatorships, absolute or constitutional monarchies, imperial states, multi-party and social republics, and various hybrids of these forms. Under each of these state regimes, workers have experienced a different range of legal freedoms. Each of these regimes has provoked political struggles to try to make further democratic gains to enhance our class’s ability to organise.

Once again, Socialist Propagandists could claim that all these political regimes merely represent different forms of capitalist oppression. Therefore, there is no point trying to weaken the state’s authority. Instead, we need propaganda for full-blown socialism. However, Joe’s eclectic support for some immediate democratic demands seems to show that he partially accepts the RCN’s argument that we need to support political struggles around those demands that can weaken the state’s ability to control us.

As Oleg has shown, the political sphere or the state {like the economic sphere} is “the fossil of previous class struggles”.  This theory recognises that, “The welfare state  {or any other capitalist state form for that matter} is seen not as a meta-structure imposing external constraints… but as a flexible result of constant class struggle.” Following from such an understanding, we can better appreciate the different managerial and state regimes we confront and those gains which still need defending, and those immediate demands that can help to weaken their control over our lives and increase our scope for independent class organisation.

It is only in a revolutionary situation, that our class is presented with the opportunity to finally eliminate exploitation and oppression. Therefore, under present conditions, a weakening of managerial or state control provides evidence of successful immediate struggle.  Of course, such gains can still be recuperated. The important question is, whether struggles just allow new layers of Leftist careerists to buttress a shaky capitalist system, or whether they give rise to independent class organisation, genuinely under workers’ control, which can lead to further advances for our class.



1. Addressing the issue of ‘imaginary communities’ in both the political and economic spheres

However, Joe also has a second string to his bow. Having given tentative support to some immediate democratic demands, e.g. AMS, Joe has to provide other reasons for not extending his support to immediate national democratic demands. Thus, Joe states that, “Communists ought not to reify ‘national independence and hence do not reify the nation as such… The question here is not ‘is Scotland a nation? – it is – but ought communists necessarily to privilege the nation as a political unit? I argue not at all.”

The RCN doesn’t reify or privilege nations, national movements, or the ‘nation’-state. We do accept, however, that under capitalism they represent socio-cultural and/or political realities. This is but the first step to developing practical, as opposed to purely denunciatory Socialist Propagandist attempts to oppose nationalism.

The RCN doesn’t reify national independence either, but uses our very specific analysis of socio-political relations under the UK state and US/British imperialism to make a proper assessment of the class forces found behind existing political arrangements, examining their contradictions, and the scope for developing an independent working class course of action.

The UK state and British imperialism have a special position in the current global order. Once the dominant imperial power in its own right, the UK now plays second fiddle to US imperialism. The British ruling class still maintains its bloated imperial bureaucratic state machinery, with its costly military and security services and its extravagant imperial monarchy, its anti-democratic Crown Powers, limited parliamentary sovereignty and unelected House of Lords, its denial of self-determination to the UK’s national constituent bodies, its traditional class-biased senior personnel in the judiciary, diplomatic and civil and diplomatic services, and its pompous state ceremonial occasions. In other words, the UK and British imperialism plays an analogous support role to the USA today, which the Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire did to the Romanov Russian Empire, for much of the nineteenth century.

This means that we have to dig a little deeper than just condemning all national democratic movements that arise to contest this situation.  We have to examine the class content of any nationalism, or the national ‘imaginings’, which confront this US/British imperial set-up. We recognise that nationalism, no matter how revolutionary, only represents a partial negation of an aspect of capitalism, just like feminism or syndicalism. However, communists still need to engage positively with those involved in such resistance.  Through working with those contesting their immediate exploitation, oppression and alienation, we can also learn and deepen our own understanding.

Joe accepts the RCN’s definition of nationalism, although he slightly misrepresents it, possibly because he doesn’t fully appreciate the difference between a nation and a nationality/ethnic group (more on this in section B.2). So, we will offer a fuller provisional definition of nationalism to make this distinction. Where a ‘nation’-state has already been set up, then nationalism promotes the interests of its ruling class and those supporting the existing state. In the case of stateless nations and ethnic groups, nationalism is used to promote the interests of those who wish to enhance their political power, often by seeking the setting up of a new ‘nation’-state.

Joe also usefully adds that, “A nation… is understood as an ‘imagined community’ which despite being imagined, i.e. there is no overall unity of interest, for communists, between the conflicting social classes represented in the nation – is nonetheless real because it constitutes a politically powerful aspect of the subjective landscape. Nations are imagined but real…”  So, Joe is arguing, in effect, that these ‘imaginings’ form the basis for a nationalism, which makes its presence felt primarily in the political sphere. For Joe, any nationalism is designed to subsume all classes under the hegemony of, either a ruling class, or a would-be ruling class.

Once again, a comparison with capitalism’s economic sphere is useful. A strong case could be made for saying that class consciousness here is ‘imagined’ too, whilst still being based on real socio-economic relations. Furthermore, the ways the working class is, or has been ‘imagined’ – e.g. as industrial workers (sometimes even more narrowly in the craftism of skilled workers), as heterosexual male workers, or as national workers (ranging from British Labourism to the German National Socialist Workers Party) – place real barriers to the development of an alternative imagination, i.e. an international working class or genuine communist consciousness. Clearly communists need to contest those other forms of working class imagination, whilst also developing other ‘imaginings’, which can lead to a clearer class awareness of our need to transcend capitalism altogether.

Nevertheless, communists need to be able to relate to those workers, including both skilled and male, as well as those belonging to the same nationality as the ruling class within imperialist countries. Yes, and we need to be able to relate to Labour-voting workers too (3). Indeed, there were Trotskyists, in the Second World War, who produced material for German Nazi soldiers, arguing that they were ‘workers in uniform’.

Now, the extent to which communists might try to relate to such a range of workers should be the subject of debate. Different approaches would be required in each case, and these would involve challenging sectionalism, chauvinism, racism and sectarianism. In Scotland, there are also considerable numbers of workers who have Scottish national ‘imaginings’ (just as there are others with British national ‘imaginings’). Communists need to relate to such workers too, and devise effective means to win them over to an internationalist perspective.  This means teasing out and developing particular ‘imaginings’ arising from particular experiences under capitalism, showing how they relate to others on a class basis, and how their international ‘sum’ could offer us a future with greater scope for human emancipation and liberation, than more limited part (e.g. nationalist) ‘imaginings’.

Joe, of course, is quite right in maintaining that existing or would-be national ruling classes try to win wider acceptance for their particular ‘imaginings’ of the nation. However, this doesn’t go without challenge. Once again, taking examples in the economic sphere, we can get a better understanding of such attempts, and the challenges they face, in the political sphere.

Let us look first at some ‘imagined communities’ in the economic sphere, i.e. particular companies or industries. Attempts by Japanese employers to get workers to identify with ‘their’ companies – by means of lifetime contracts, team-working and company-organised socialising outside of work – are well known. They are less common today, now that Japanese employers are cutting costs. US bosses have also tried to use similar methods to achieve the same end – e.g. team building, as well as non-union employee representation on company bodies at a workplace level. These have been less successful due to most US bosses’ addiction to maximum ‘labour flexibility’. The Left would have no problem condemning these particular employer-induced ‘imaginings’, designed to encourage workers to believe they share in ‘their’ companies’ interests.

However, workers can be found giving a positive ‘imagining’ to ‘their’ particular industry – and not only in workers’ songs associated with particular jobs and industries. The NUM’s 1991 ‘Save Our Pits’ campaign was designed to unite everybody, regardless of class – ‘from bishops to brickies’ – around the defence of a particular industry. Some on the Left condemned this campaign. Others tried to become involved to push it in a different direction.  The 1984-5 Miners’ Strike was also mobilised around the defence of mining communities – ‘Coal not Dole’. Despite the apparently sectionalist nature of this demand (as opposed to say, ‘Bring Down the Thatcher Government’), virtually all of the Left threw themselves into this epic struggle (yes, even the SWP, after initially being wrong-footed by their doom and gloom ‘Downturn’ analysis.)

Clearly, how workers ‘imagine’ themselves will have some bearing on how they act, but the process of struggle also changes meanings and understandings. This suggests that communists have to raise their voices as communists to further widen those existing ‘imaginings’. But, if you just start out by condemning people’s limited ‘imaginings’, because they don’t reflect ‘true’ class or socialist consciousness, you are unlikely to open up those contradictions, allowing for further movement, first in thought, then through effective action.

So, let us return to Joe’s ‘imagined nations’. These too are class contested. Different classes ‘imagine’ the nation differently. Whilst there are certainly criticisms to be made of Lenin’s approach to national democratic movements, he did make one important contribution. He wrote that, “The elements of democratic and socialist culture are present, if only in rudimentary form, in every national culture, since in every nation there are toiling and exploited masses, whose conditions give rise to the ideology of democracy and socialism.   But every nation also possesses a bourgeois culture (and most nations a reactionary clerical culture as well) in the form, not merely of ‘elements’ but of the dominant culture.”

However, we should never just see ‘nation’-states or national movements in isolation. Even self-proclaimed nationalists have international links and allies. For example, those bourgeois nationalists, who now dominate the SNP, still want to maintain their own international connections. They support the continued existence of a global corporate order (having close contacts with people from Sir George Mathewson of the Royal Bank of Scotland to the maverick American tycoon, Donald Trump); with the UK (they want to return to the pre-parliamentary union dating from before 1707, whilst maintaining the monarchical union dating from 1603); with the Euro-bosses’ EU (and its neo-liberal economics enshrined in the post-Lisbon constitution); and they increasingly accept NATO too (none more so, than their current Westminster defence spokesperson, Angus Robertson).  And, as has already been pointed out, the Irish ruling class draws on a range of international allies to support its current anti-working class offensive.

This is why the RCN advocates a class-based strategy of ‘internationalism from below’ to link workers, socialists/communists and others across borders. Our strategy is not based upon unity being a reflection of the existing state’s organisational forms, nor their replication in Labour and Socialist organisations. We strongly support migrant workers’ struggles, and seek more effective solidarity action with workers and the oppressed throughout a world dominated by capitalist imperialism (or corporate capital).  We are not Scottish nationalists, but Scottish internationalists. We are trying to develop a political path to bring the more effective unity of the working class – firstly throughout these islands, and then by joining with others, in Europe, and on a global scale, to bring about a communism based on new forms of workers’ association.

2. Territorial nation-states – a capital-constricted move towards a universal world order; territorial nationalities – a reactionary step backwards

Joe goes on to make an additional point, which acknowledges the republican nature of the RCN’s immediate democratic demands.  “The republican demand is surely ‘autonomy for all those who want it’, not autonomy for each nation.” His point appears to be close to that of the Anarchist, Bakunin – “I demand only one thing: that to each people, to each large or small tribe or race should be accorded the right to act according to its wishes”.

Now, do we really support territorial autonomy or independence for all who want it – Protestants in Northern Ireland or Jews/Hebrews (4) in Israel, for example? For some, autonomy or independence goes along with ethnic or ethno-religious supremacy and discrimination and worse against minorities.

We can now begin to appreciate the need to make a distinction between a nationality (i.e. particular ethnic group) and a nation, which Joe previously glossed over. Many, perhaps including Joe, use the term ‘nationality’ almost interchangeably with that of a quite different phenomenon, ‘nation’ (5). To avoid confusion we will now use the term ‘ethnic group’ instead of ‘nationality’ to distinguish it from the term ‘nation’.

An ethnic group shares common cultural features, especially language, but does not necessarily live in a common territory, and indeed often lives amongst other ethnic groups. Some ethnic groups practise or have practised a migratory, nomadic, or semi-nomadic way of life, travelling considerable distances looking for better opportunities, or trying to overcome resource depletion and hostile encroachment by others.  Whilst these nomadic ethnic groups may have vivid ‘imagined’ connections with particular places of cultural significance to them, this does not lead them to create ‘imagined communities’ with clearly defined territories and state borders.

Nations, though, are the product of particular class struggles. They have developed through the historical mixing and merging of more than one ethnic group.  Nations do have a more definite link with particular territories than ethnic groups. Therefore, this does, as Joe points out, lead to nations becoming ‘imagined {territorial} communities’. But, as Lenin also pointed out, all such nations are class divided too, so these national ‘imaginings’ are also contested.

The capacity to integrate different ethnic groups, in a specific bounded territory, is an important feature of a nation.  Whilst many ethnic groups have also assimilated others, this is not their defining feature. The extent of the integration of ethnic groups into a particular nation is very important when it comes to making any political assessment.  Many ‘nation’-states, in the process of their historical development, have gone through phases where their ruling classes rejected the assimilation or integration of certain ethnic groups, or of people belonging to particular religions.  Some officially recognised ‘nation’-states never evolved beyond being ethnic states, e.g. apartheid South Africa and Israel.

The UK does not coincide with any ‘British nation’ but constitutes a multi-nation imperial state run by the British ruling class, reinforced by its anti-democratic Crown Powers. The UK’s unwritten constitution only concedes the minimum democratic accountability, of the institutions and leading personnel of its state, to the political representatives of its constituent nations (and part nation) that it can get away with in the circumstances of the time.

Non-nation states, whether ethnic, e.g. Israel, or multi-nation imperial, e.g. the UK (see section B.3), confront us with additional barriers to achieving working class unity. Of course, even those nation-states, which constitutionally provide equal political rights to all their citizens, regardless of their ethnic or religious backgrounds, often have residual anti-national democratic features. Under the current conditions of capitalist crisis, the number of nation states placing greater barriers upon inward migration and the naturalisation of migrant residents is also rapidly increasing in number.

So, when it comes to a political assessment of particular ‘nation’-states, the failure of states to provide certain ethnic groups or particular religions with the means to integrate (e.g. naturalisation procedures), and to enjoy equality under the law, is an indication of a ‘democratic deficit’. This provides opportunities for the state to resort to divide-and-rule tactics or to promote ethnic repression, and for racist/chauvinist organisations to mobilise, intimidate and coerce minorities.  And just as communists would soon recognise and then organise against management imposed attempts to divide workers in the workplace on ethnic grounds, so communists should contest such ‘democratic deficits’ that allow the state and the employers to divide workers on an even wider basis.

Fortunately, ‘democratic deficits’ also lead to resistance and political struggles for equality, either within (assimilation, integration, greater autonomy) or outside (political independence) of their current states.  As communists, we have to relate to these immediate democratic struggles and make an assessment of the differing possibilities for enhancing class unity and for successful independent class organisation. That is why we need to be clear about the difference between nation-states, multi-nation imperial states and ethnic states (or ethnocracies).

It is from such an appreciation that the RCN supports national democratic demands, whilst also supporting other immediate democratic, economic, social and cultural demands, many of which already find open or tacit support amongst the commune members, even if they might use different terminology to describe them.

3. Anarchism and the difference between national independence and regional autonomy

Joe also appears not to appreciate the political significance of the difference between nation-states and other territorial forms of organisation. He seems to think that nations and regional, or other local forms of organisation, are politically equivalent. Joe concedes the fact that Scotland is a nation, but he would be happier if any national ‘imaginings’, resulting from this fact, could be downgraded to a more regional or local focus. “Republicanism as such need not see Scotland as more (or less) deserving of autonomy than Fife or North Yorkshire.”

There is a strong hint of an Anarchist approach here. Anarchists are particularly wary of nation-states (states being a uniformly ‘bad thing’), and feel more at home with more local forms of territorial organisation. Such an approach is also designed to avoid an openly declared ‘state solution’, in favour of autonomous and non-state communal forms of organisation.

Now, in The Communist Case for ‘Internationalism from Below’, it was made clear that the RCN places itself firmly amongst those communists who advocate a new worldwide order, with planning at a global level, and with forms of accountability extending to this level too. We do not envisage a communist world with a multitude of economically independent states or communes, all involved in economic exchange or diplomatic relations with each other.

At the sub-global level, we would anticipate that national territorial frameworks would form the likely starting point in a communist transition to a world without borders.  This is because we are likely to inherit a world made up of already existing ‘nation’-states, and we also have national movements contesting the existing territorial order. Under Imperialism, the world’s ‘nation’-states are presently structured in a hierarchical manner. This will leave behind a legacy of unmet national democratic aspirations (as well as that other legacy, of undemocratic chauvinist and racist supremacism, which still needs to be challenged). Therefore, the first phase of communism would require some transitional national territorial arrangements, until new forms of communal association enable all national borders to be transcended.

Ever since capitalist socio-economic relations came to be dominant in the world, there has been an accelerated merger of peoples from different ethnic groups within ‘nation’-states. This has been a far from smooth process, with many aborted cases, e.g. ethnic states and multi-nation imperial states, leaving people as second-class status or worse within particular states.  Furthermore, this process of merger has become ‘frozen’ within ‘nation’-state boundaries.

As we create a new communist society, this process would become ‘unfrozen’. There would likely be increased movement of people as full freedom of movement was established. Thus, we could anticipate that any future transitional semi-state/s would begin to shed its/their specific national characteristics, in an analogous manner to the ending of specific religious characteristics in the transition to secular states. And, as in the case of religious identities in secular states, any remaining national identities would become a personal matter.

However, what territorial form would the vitally important base communes take, first in the new international order, and then in a fully integrated global order? This is more difficult to anticipate. However, it is very unlikely that the base communes’ territorial extent would coincide with those inherited bureaucratically determined regions, e.g. North Yorkshire and Fife, which Joe gives as examples.

North Yorkshire was only formed in 1974, from parts of other regions, including North, West and East Riding, whilst Middlesbrough and other areas south of the Tees, were separated from the North Riding at the same time to form Cleveland, and the City of York was only separated as recently as 1996.

Joe’s other example – Fife – drawn from Scotland, has also undergone territorial changes over time. A British Labour government formed the new Fife Region from the existing County in 1975 (when some local pressure did stop it being absorbed into a larger proposed Forth Region). This new Region was divided into three Districts – Dunfermline, Kirkcaldy and North East Fife (centred on Cupar). A British Tory government abolished these Districts and created a purely unitary Fife local authority in 1994. So, even in the case of Fife, which, unlike many other current local authority councils in Scotland, has existed, in some form, for a long period of history, it is not clear, what the appropriate territorial focus for Joe’s suggested autonomy should be.

Joe’s suggested autonomous areas are not linked to any visible democratic movements to achieve their territorial autonomy, which he could use as a real counterpoint to existing national democratic movements.  They merely constitute certain ‘hypotheticals’, which have the effect of avoiding a proper analysis of existing national democratic movements, and the wider possibilities they bring.

4. Orthodox Marxists and the confusion between national oppression and national repression

Joe asks – is Scotland an oppressed nation? He argues that ”the Scottish do not experience national oppression in an equivalent way to Palestinians in Palestine or Tamils in Tamil Eelam.”  Here the RCN agrees with Joe.  However, by invoking cases like Palestine and Tamil Eelam, Joe is falling back on that wider orthodox Marxist tradition (often still drawn on by dissident Marxism), which fails to make a clear distinction between national oppression and national repression.

Therefore, it probably helps to get to the theoretical roots of this failure to distinguish adequately between national repression (a bad thing for orthodox Marxists) and national oppression (something orthodox Marxists tend to adopt an abstentionist or wait-and-see approach to).

Orthodox Marxism has maintained that the global spread of capitalism tends to undermine the ‘objective basis’ for national consciousness. As a result, wherever national consciousness still exists, this must be the product of a territory’s colonial status imposed by imperialist regimes, or of a particularly backward regime’s resort to repressive measures against subordinate nations and ethnic groups, e.g. Tsarist Russia in Lenin’s day.

In the latter case, orthodox Marxists have maintained that, once the backward regime is overthrown, any lingering national consciousness will soon evaporate, and workers will be happy enough, with all the new opportunities, that the issue of political independence will become redundant. Instead, any residual national consciousness will find its resolution in either federal or autonomous forms of territorial organisation (clearly there is some overlap here with Anarchism, and with Tom’s own earlier understanding of autonomy), to be sorted out after ‘the Revolution’ is secured.

In the meantime, whilst the ‘old regimes’ still exist, orthodox Marxists of a Leninist stripe, offer their support to ‘the right of national self-determination’, in the hope of winning across nationally oppressed workers (and peasants); but ‘come the Revolution’, they then join those other orthodox Marxists (e.g. the Luxemburgists) in believing that workers will abandon any demand for national independence. In this new situation, Leninists believe there would no longer be any demand for ‘the right of national self-determination’ to be exercised. Indeed, many orthodox Marxists believe we need not wait that long, since any new wave of class struggle could also render this demand largely irrelevant.

However, some orthodox Marxists have realised that, with the global triumph of Imperialism, the ‘objective basis’ for national oppression under capitalism has not evaporated. Indeed, it has gone on to show itself in stronger terms, even within states where people, like Luxemburg and Lenin (before 1916 in his case), thought the ‘National Question’ was demonstrably a thing of the past, e.g. in Western Europe.

Some orthodox Marxists have had to augment Lenin’s earlier analysis and suggest further political policies, in the face of the fact that national oppression and repression have not been confined to particularly backward political regimes, or to overseas colonies. For example, even many orthodox British Marxists have had to recognise the repressive role of the parliamentary democratic UK in its own backyard – first in Ireland, and then in ‘the Six Counties’.

Therefore, Lenin’s earlier belief that ‘the right of national self-determination’ was enough to counter, what they considered to be the inevitably bourgeois or petty bourgeois leaders of national movements, has had to be fleshed out a little.  Some ‘objective’ criteria have to be drawn up to decide when the people of a particular nation have ‘earned’ enough points on a ‘scale of repression’ to win the support of orthodox Marxists to be permitted to exercise their ‘right of national self determination’. This is the point that Joe seems to have arrived at with the distinction he makes between the situation in Scotland and Palestine or Tamil Eelam.  He sees no need for communists to address the situation of national oppression we find in Scotland. We only need to become involved when national repression occurs.

The RCN argues that national repression means the police, military or state-approved death squad suppression of national democratic rights (as in Palestine and Tamil Eelam), whilst national oppression means the constitutional denial of national democratic rights (as in Scotland). The approach communists should take to address these two cases is different; just as our approach would be in workplaces where unions are illegal and attempts to organise are met by goon squads; and those workplaces where there are company unions, or organisationally independent unions that work in partnership with the management.

Furthermore, where there is an underlying ‘National Question’, a changing political situation can rapidly lead from national oppression to national repression. If this occurs, then any Left ‘Johnny-come-latelys’ are unlikely to command much support. We can see this over the British Left’s relationship to the ‘Irish Question’.  For the overwhelming majority, this question only arose when the British Army began to militarily repress the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) from 1969-71.

Many leaders of the CRM (often influenced by British Left organisations) had also believed that the ‘Irish Question’ could be neatly sidestepped by a concentration on economic and social demands, coupled either to reform of the existing Stormont regime or, in some cases, the belief that a post-1968 global revolution would soon make any need for political reforms redundant.

The only political group that had a handle on the hidden ‘mailed fist’ aspect of the wider UK state, were the Irish Republicans. The CRM certainly knew all about the repressive role of their local Orange statelet, with its RUC and B-Specials, the Orange Order and the loyalist paramilitaries of the UVF; but how this all related to a wider British ruling class strategy, and its likely resort to repressive methods, to maintain its rule over the whole of these islands, was not well understood. For most CRM leaders and supporters, the shock over the British Army’s role in Derry on ‘Bloody Sunday’, in January 1972, was genuine.

Yet, nowhere in the UK, since the Second World War, has the Left had such an influence, through its involvement in a mass movement, as it did during the Civil Rights struggle. Bernadette Devlin/McAliskey won the Mid-Ulster parliamentary seat at Westminster in 1969. This didn’t stop her continuing to fight on the barricades in ‘Free Derry’ though. However, after Bloody Sunday, the CRM went into decline, and its most thoughtful activists, including Bernadette, had to take much greater cognisance of the ‘Irish Question’. They had to come to terms with the fact that the Republicans were correct in respect of their understanding of the preparedness of the British state to resort to very violent methods.

Until 1969, as far as most orthodox British Marxists were concerned, there had been no visible external UK state imposed national repression in Ireland or Scotland for more than a generation. That nasty Orange statelet, when its existence was considered at all, was seen as a merely local problem, with little bearing on how the Left should conduct its struggles at the ‘more important’ British level.  It was as long ago as 1921-3, that the British ruling class, directly using its UK state machine, had promoted the Partition of Ireland, the Irish Civil War, and backed the Unionist pogroms in the ‘Six Counties’. Their success in this counter-offensive appeared to eliminate the ‘Irish Question’ as an active factor in British politics for 50 years.  The negative manner in which this was achieved, should have alerted Marxists, to an underlying unresolved democratic issue.

The defeat for the national democratic movement in Ireland also followed the final demise of the 1916-21 International Revolutionary Wave, after the crushing of Kronstadt and the introduction of the New Economic Policy in the USSR.  The new international situation greatly assisted the would-be Irish ruling class in consolidating its position. The British state execution of the socialist republican, James Connolly, in 1916, had also been an early blow to Irish internationalism.

Meantime in Scotland, those ILP ‘Red Clydesiders’, who were returned to Westminster in 1922, quickly abandoned their previous support for Scottish self-determination.  They fully entered the ranks of British Labour, with its focus on seeking reforms through the British state.  The premature death of the communist and Scottish Workers Republican, John Maclean, in 1923, also made it difficult for other communists to maintain his ‘internationalism from below’, ‘break up of the British Union and Empire’ strategy as a conscious revolutionary aspiration, when the international workers’ movement was in wholesale retreat.  Once again, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see why the ‘Scottish Question’ also seemed to disappear for a further forty odd years.

The RCN argues though, that there have always been deep-seated contradictions in the formation of the UK as a specifically unionist and imperial state. Contradictions can be found today arising from the British ruling class’s current favoured strategy for maintaining their rule over these islands. ‘The ‘National Question’ hasn’t gone away, you know!’ Therefore, unfulfilled national democratic aspirations will open up these contradictions further, particularly in the context of growing capitalist crisis.

We cannot anticipate, in advance, whether class struggles arising from such contradictions will lead to a revolutionary situation. However, Joe insists that he would only give his support if such a situation can be conclusively predicted. This is not the attitude he adopts towards our class’s immediate economic demands. To what extent class struggles around immediate democratic demands open up further fissures in the capitalists’ control of the UK state can only be shown in practice.  However, those fissures are not imagined, but real.

You can not take the ‘National Question’ in isolation. In the late 1960’s, the demands of the CRM in Northern Ireland, for socio-economic reforms and civil rights within the existing UK state, brought the link with the ‘Irish Question’ to the fore.  The British Left (and most of their Irish allies in the CRM) did not understand this clearly. The British ruling class, along with their Ulster Unionist and ‘26 counties’ Irish allies, certainly did. They took ‘appropriate measures’.

The Irish Republicans could also see the ‘Irish Question’ staring them in the face. However, they tried to prevent the now obvious political fissures from linking up effectively with the socio-economic fissures emerging in both ‘Six Counties’ and ‘26 Counties’ Ireland at the time (being helped, from the other end of this political/economist divide, by most of the leaders of the CRM).

Joe argues, quite correctly, that the UK state will also resort to its Crown Powers to deal with future major working class struggles around economic and social issues. Unfortunately, as in the case of most leaders and supporters of the CRM, the immediate response is more likely to be one of shock, because workers haven’t been prepared for such an eventuality. Communists raising such issues, in the here and now, don’t have much of an immediate audience, particularly amongst those who accept a British, or more accurately a UK political framework, as a fixed reality. Those British Labourists, Marxists (both dissident and orthodox), and Anarchists further accentuate this problem, when they dismiss the raising of immediate political demands, preferring to concentrate on ‘bread and butter’ or ‘real class’ issues.

However, there is already a wider willingness to question the nature and role of the British state amongst those supporting national democratic demands. For over a quarter of a century this became most apparent in ‘the Six Counties’ of the UK. At present though, the British and Irish ruling classes have won over the (tempting to say official!) Irish Republican Movement to its plans, and the leaders of Sinn Fein will be able to ‘live off’ their past revolutionary nationalist credentials for some time yet.

Scotland in 2010 isn’t the ‘Six Counties’ in 1969, in terms of an overt fight back at present. Nevertheless, communists can learn from the mistakes of the British Left, including its orthodox and dissident Marxist components, and from the CRM, and begin to seriously analyse the political contradictions the UK state faces, and the prospects for our class’s advance.

And just as the old Northern Nationalists in Stormont, in 1969, wedded to the Catholic middle class and Church hierarchy, proved not to be an insurmountable barrier to socialists then; so, neither should the thoroughly constitutional nationalist SNP, wedded to corporate capital and in ever closer alliance with advocates of social reaction, prove to be an insurmountable barrier to communists tomorrow. The one thing, which communists do have today, is time to analyse, learn lessons and think ahead!



1. Joe takes two steps forward – then two steps back again! 

To his credit, though, Joe states that his “mind’s not made up” over political independence for Scotland. He could “see independence as a demand {he} could support. In outline, this would be in the context of a strong, independent working class movement, for whom independence was a broad and deep demand…”

Now, whilst Joe allows for this possibility, there is a glaring contradiction in his approach. How on earth could a working class movement be formed in Scotland, “for whom independence was a broad and deep demand”, if communists, socialists or revolutionary democrats had not been raising this already, in the context of the immediate struggles of our class? If communists merely adopted a wait-and-see, or an abstentionist attitude, then attempts to relate to Scottish workers’ national ‘imaginings’ would only be addressed by Scottish nationalists, either in the SNP, or in the Left nationalist wings of the SSP and Solidarity.

Yet, Joe is prepared, in certain circumstances, to go even further in his support for independence. He thinks “that if the people {i.e. a numerical majority and not just his strong, independent working class movement’} in Scotland want independence they should have it, and any attempts – whether violent or bureaucratic – to stop them should be opposed.” Then Joe hastily steps back again. “Such circumstances may arise, but they are far from guaranteed to do so. In fact {he} confesses, {he} thinks them unlikely.” Here, once again, we are probably seeing the influence on Joe of that orthodox Marxism, which still influences dissident Marxism.

Most orthodox British Marxists claim that the working class in Scotland already forms part of a wider ‘British working class’, following from capitalism’s long period of historical development since the 1707 Act of Union. Therefore, is this ‘British working class’ unity not an objective fact, which must be recognised? And surely in a period of heightened class struggle, such British unity is likely to trump any ‘separatist’ demand for political independence on a Scottish territorial basis.

However, such a state of affairs is not an objective fact but a politically contested reality. Yes, the inherited British unionist and imperial state framework, which we currently live under, has very influential supporters amongst the working class of these islands, including in Scotland. When, you examine these sources of support more carefully though  – the British Labour Party, the British TUC and the British Left – you soon see the problems associated with them. There are countless bonds, from thick ropes to the finest of threads, which tie these bodies, either into direct support for the British state and its imperial policies, or to Leftist trade union and political careerists who, in promising some reforms, also hope to personally benefit from Britain’s prior ‘great achievements’.

The RCN, though, does not equate the unity of the working class in these islands, with maintaining the unity of a British state, or those British Labour and Socialist organisations, which replicate some of its features. In contrast, we see the continuation of the UK state, and much of the British Left, as a barrier to achieving such unity.  We look to independent class organisation, built on the basis of ‘internationalism from below’, to achieve such unity.

The failure of British institutions to bring about class unity can be seen most clearly in Ireland, where the UK state, with the help of the ‘26 Counties’ Irish state, actively promotes continued political and socio-economic division on ethnic (or religio-ethnic) lines.

However, even within the three nations  – England, Scotland and Wales – making up most of the UK’s territorial extent, the unionist form of state still allows the British ruling class to play one nation off against another. Furthermore, both British trade union leaders and Labour politicians are quite prepared to go along with this. When British Navy submarine facilities were threatened with closure in 1994, either at Rosyth in Scotland, or Devonport in England, ‘their’ respective trade union and Labour representatives played different national cards in their competition to be ‘saved’ by the British state. The unionist form of the UK state is specifically designed to unite the British ruling class, and to disunite the peoples and working class of the various nations in its make-up, whenever they offer a challenge.

This process of promoting disunity has been further refined for ethnic minorities under the Scarman Report, produced after the 1981 Brixton Riots. The UK state provides official recognition to approved representatives of certain ethnic communities, and encourages them to bid for state (national and local) support and resources on an ethnic basis in competition with others. As A. Sivanandan has shown, this was specifically designed to break down earlier, multi-ethnic, economic and political struggles (e.g. for equal pay and against fascists), which were based on a developing, ‘internationalism from below’ basis, as the RCN would term it.

The majority of RCN members have come from various British Left backgrounds. Those of us so involved also once believed that there was an alternative ‘British road’, which could contest that of the British ruling class, and also that of its reformist practitioners, e.g. the old CPGB’s ‘British road to socialism’. We spent a long time defending the ‘British unity’ of our class, seeing this politically expressed, no matter how inadequately, through the existence of a British TUC, British Labour Party and/or by various British Left organisations.

Bitter experience has shown us that being members of British organisations, far from inoculating you against petty nationalism (i.e. Scottish, Welsh, etc), just makes its supporters blind to their own British ‘great nation’ chauvinism. Furthermore, many of the bureaucratic and divide-and-rule tactics so prevalent on the British Left seem to mirror the practices of the UK state. It is the British Left’s failure to comprehend the real nature of the UK state and British nationalism, which has allowed such practices to seep into their organisations and, in many cases, become hard-wired into their make-up.

Now, Joe is considerably younger than those RCN members, who have been through the British Left. He has no such illusions in any of these particular British organisations. However, Joe’s apparent dismissal of the need to understand the specific form of the UK state and its internal contradictions (after all its just another nasty capitalist state), leads him, at best, to miss the opportunities provided by immediate national democratic struggles.

But, in a different political situation, Joe’s apparent dismissal could lead him to declaring, ‘Political Independence – No; Revolution – Yes’. Only we could end up instead with ‘Political independence – No; A gung-ho British Imperial State – Yes’!  But, the good news is, Joe’s “mind’s not made up.”  We hope to change it.

2. Is Scotland an oppressed nation today?

Earlier we dealt with the wider issue of the difference between national repression and national oppression, which Joe failed to distinguish between. This blind spot enables him to go on to state that, “I will not consider that the lack of independence in itself constitutes national oppression consisting of the denial of democratic rights.”

This is even more confusing, since Joe’s dismissal of “the lack of independence constituting national oppression” doesn’t address the particular version of national oppression we face in Scotland. National oppression currently lies, not in Scotland’s lack of political independence, but in the absence of any official mechanism for Scottish political self-determination to be expressed, despite the fact that the existence of constituent nations is officially conceded, and national democratic movements have made their strong presence felt within the UK since the late 1960s.

Today, the Tories enjoy very limited electoral support in Scotland. There is a majority here wanting to defend social provision, to oppose Trident bases and current US/British imperial wars. There are contradictions in this situation, which could allow us to weaken the British ruling class and its UK state, and to strengthen the position of our class.  But, to lessen the possibility of any later Imperial recuperation, which Joe sees as inevitable, we also need to use the opportunity to develop independent class organisation.

Orthodox Marxism, when addressing the ‘National Question’, likes to demonstrate a direct link from a particular political practice to an underlying economic cause.  Therefore, national oppression/repression must immediately reveal itself as a mechanism to ensure national exploitation – a transfer of resources and profits to the nationally dominant state. This is perhaps the thinking behind Joe’s question in his particular workshop group at the 2nd Global Commune event, when he asked RCN members in what ways Scotland is oppressed?

Whilst Joe is probably unaware of it, his question is the subject of a recurring and ill-tempered debate between Scottish nationalists and the British Left over the extent to which England exploits Scotland.  Depending on which side is involved – Scottish nationalist or British Left – the answers range from, “A lot”, due to the political stranglehold which a conservative English majority at Westminster holds over Scotland; to “None at all”, because the British ruling class has Scottish members, and there are poor wages and living conditions on Merseyside, Tyneside, etc., and even in London.

Some more sophisticated British Marxists also like to embarrass Scottish nationalists, by adding, well there might be have been some real national oppression in the past, directed at Gaelic-speaking Highlanders, but its strongest practitioners were Lowland Scots!

The problem with this debate is that it fails to get to grips with the real nature of the British ruling class, its British unionist state and the kinds of British nationalism it promotes.  There is indeed an integrated British ruling class, which draws its membership from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (and from the ‘Anglo-Irish’ Ascendancy in the past).  They have long formed a partnership for wider imperial purposes.

However, this British ruling class has never been able to create a unitary British nation. It has opted instead for a unionist form of state to maintain its control over the four nations on these islands. This constitutional monarchist and imperialist state also provides the British ruling class with a whole host of anti-democratic Crown Powers, beyond even any formal parliamentary scrutiny.  The UK state has always provided some political recognition to Scotland and Ireland/Northern Ireland, and has even permitted the phoenix-like resurrection of a distinct Wales, which had originally been politically fully integrated into England in the 1530’s.

The pre-existing Scottish and ‘Anglo-Irish’ ruling classes maintained  ‘national’ parliaments, under the monarchical forms of union found in Scotland between 1603-1705, and in Ireland between 1541-1801. After the abolition of the Scottish Parliament in 1707, and of the Irish Parliament 1801, these ruling classes, whilst uniting with others in the UK, still ensured that they had some nationally devolved forms of power sanctioned by Westminster (e.g. over the Church, the legal and education systems in Scotland,  and local forces of coercion in Ireland), to control members of the ‘lower orders’ in their particular countries.

The rise of the bourgeoisie in the nineteenth century led many to think that an integrated British nation might indeed be formed.  However, as the franchise was further extended throughout the state, there was increased opposition amongst the ‘lower orders’ to being fully absorbed into the ‘British nation’ of their class antagonists. Their integration was so clearly meant to be on ‘master and servant’ terms. This was most apparent in Ireland. However, even in Wales, the extension of the franchise led to increased national demands, contributing to the protracted ‘reappearance’ of specifically Welsh territorial forms of organisation to deal with this, under the auspices of the UK state.

Hybrid unionist and imperialist forms of British nationalism – English-British, Welsh-British, Scottish-British and Irish- or ‘Ulster’-British – have been actively promoted to try and extend support for ‘Britishness’ beyond the ruling class. These tend to promote class deference, be historically nostalgic, and celebrate their supporters’ great martial and imperial achievements. More liberal and radical versions of British nationalism (and its various hybrid forms) can also be found.

Those British Marxists, who support these, whenever they are forced to acknowledge the UK state’s brutal imperial history, tend to say, “Yes, but this was all historically necessary, as it prepared the ground for Labour or for Socialists to claim their historical desserts.” Indeed, the creation of the UK has somehow been considered progressive, despite the defeat of popular forces such as the Levellers in the 1640s, and the ‘internationalism from below’ alliance of the United Irishmen, United Scotsmen and the London Corresponding Society in the 1790s; the first by Cromwell’s Greater England imperialists, the second by a British imperial ruling class.

However, the prime impetus for the creation of this British unionist state – the UK – came about, not as part of a popular national democratic movement from below, but as part of a top-down joint ruling class imperial offensive.  This is why the British pole of these hybrid national identities has been most widely supported during the British Empire’s heyday, and most strongly promoted by the ruling class during times of imperial crisis – e.g. 1789-1815 Revolutionary Wave and the First and Second World Wars.  As a result, those British Marxist ‘historical inevitabilists’ have imbibed far more than their claimed ‘British objectivity’, rising above any petty nationalist concerns. They have ‘mainlined’ many of the ‘great nation’ chauvinist and anti-democratic practices associated with  ‘Britishness’.

Recent national democratic political pressures have led the British ruling class to change its preferred form of unionist control from administrative devolution under Westminster direct rule, to political devolution still under Westminster, in order to best maintain its rule. Yet, the key repressive institutions of the UK state remain beyond the accountability even of Westminster.  They are protected under the Crown Powers.  These important recent changes in the forms of British ruling class control have hardly registered with the British Left.

3. How the British ruling class is able to use the UK state for divide-and-rule purposes.

The British ruling class has not only promoted its own forms of British nationalism to try to win class unity around its desired objectives. It has utilised the unionist form of the UK state, with its officially recognised Scottish, Welsh and Irish/Northern Irish components, to resort to divide and rule tactics, playing workers off against each other.

Earlier we mentioned one such case of tactics under the Union, when the Tory government proposed the closure of Rosyth or Devonport naval shipyards in 1993. Today, we are likely to see far more examples of this divide-and-rule strategy, as the Con-Dem coalition’s planned cuts, drawn up in Westminster, impact upon Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the regions of England.  The government will try to place itself in the position of ‘honest broker’, mediating between the claims emanating from the different nations and regions for support or resources, whilst also promoting national division behind the scenes, with the encouragement of sections of the media.

In Northern Ireland (and to a certain extent in Wales, where a South/North, English/Welsh-speaking divide has been actively promoted by the state and sections of the media) these divide and rule tactics can even be used on an ethnic basis within a single constituent unit of the UK.  The effect of the Downing Street, St. Andrews and Hillsborough Agreements has been to change British ruling class policy in Northern Ireland from their earlier unquestioning support for the Ulster Unionists, to acting now as ‘honest broker’ between two constitutionally recognised groups represented in the reformed Stormont – the Ulster Unionists and the Irish Nationalists.

Prior to devolution, one indicator of the UK state’s democratic deficit was the inability to get certain widely supported reforms in Scotland passed through Westminster (e.g. Highland land reform). This was because of the larger number of more conservative political representatives from England (some of whom were Scots, e.g. that early Thatcherite, Teddy Taylor, and that one-time prominent Tory ‘Wet’, the former Earl, now Marquis, Michael Ancram (6)) in the House of Commons and, of course, the parliamentary veto of the reactionary House of Lords.

However, this ruling class ability to build an all-UK conservative voting majority, to be wielded against reforms emanating from Scotland (or Wales), can also be directed to bolster conservatism in England. Thus, in 2003, Tony Blair had to resort to Scottish Labour votes to force through plans for foundation hospitals in England. New Labour, is openly committed to pro-business neo-liberal policies as, of course, is Ed Miliband, despite his completely unconvincing attempt to pose as post-New Labour.

Furthermore, there is another way in which the British ruling class can use its unionist state to support its local national members. For 50 years, the Ulster Unionists were able to maintain their control over the Irish Nationalist population in ‘the Six Counties’, by drawing on the RUC, B-Specials and Loyalists in the Orange Order when necessary. In 1969, though, these forces buckled, particularly in Derry, under the onslaught of Civil Rights protestors. The then Labour government obligingly provided British regiments from England and Scotland to support the Ulster Unionist regime at Stormont. They have remained there to this day.

In 1919, in Glasgow, at the highpoint of the 40 Hours Strike challenge to mainly Scottish employers, 10,000 troops armed with machine guns, tanks and a howitzer, were brought up from England, because it was thought that Scottish regiments might prove unreliable in the heady political climate of the day. In 1910, Churchill ordered the use of London’s Metropolitan Police and the Lancashire Fusiliers to help the largely Welsh coal owners suppress striking and rioting coal miners in Tonypandy.

Joe mentions two examples, offered by different RCN members, of how the Scottish people have appeared to be oppressed or discriminated against under the Union.  The first mentioned example – the closure of heavy industry in Scotland under Thatcher – did not come about as policy of national oppression. Heavy industry was closed down throughout the UK, with many areas in England suffering badly too (as was shown tragically in Boys from the Blackstuff, and poignantly but comically in The Full Monty).

Scotland was even more dependent on traditional heavy industry than England as a whole. However, it suffered, not because it was being discriminated against on national grounds, but because it formed part of the wider British unionist and imperialist state. This had led to Scotland’s development following a particular socio-economic path. Another consequence of this was Scotland’s (particularly the Highlands’) disproportionately large contribution to the British army.  This was also the case with Ireland in the nineteenth century.

Furthermore, those Scottish members of the British ruling class have proved to be particularly brutal.  Under their local rule, Glasgow – the ‘Second City of the Empire’ – produced generations of workers whose physical size and life expectancy deteriorated, compared to people from the Highlands and Ireland, from whence many had migrated.  Glasgow’s workers experienced some of the worst housing conditions in the UK.  Scottish Tories and Liberal Unionists, with the help of the Orange Order, often subjected their employees to vicious attempts to divide them along sectarian lines at work.

Yet, those Scottish (Union Jock) members of the British ruling class still felt quite at home celebrating, dressed up in their mock Highland costumes, whether at St. Andrew’s Day Balls or sanitised Burns Suppers, or as members of exclusive overseas Caledonian Societies, formed for Scottish businessmen, diplomats, senior army officers and their wives, all in the service of British imperialism.

4. An alternative explanation to Joe’s for Tory actions in Scotland under Thatcher

Joe might well find himself in agreement with this. However, he then goes on to criticise the other example RCN members gave, this time to show specific national oppression – the testing of the poll tax first in Scotland.  Joe counters this with the claim that the “early introduction of the poll tax in Scotland was less an intentional attack on the Scottish working class because they were Scottish, but rather an accidental product of differentiated – but not necessarily discriminatory – UK law”.

This is a bit like claiming that the miners weren’t the victims of a Tory class offensive, but merely the unfortunate collateral damage of an economically driven policy to shift Britain’s dependence from a particular outdated and government subsidised traditional primary industry to the wider opportunities offered by the new post-industrial service sector.

To understand the introduction of the poll tax in Scotland, we need to recognise the Tories’ wider political project at the time.  The Tories came to power in 1979, directly as a result of the successful motion of ‘no confidence’ brought by Thatcher, following the defeat of Labour’s Scottish and Welsh devolution referenda, and of Labour’s resort to buttressing its slender majority by bringing in the Ulster Unionists. (The Ulster Unionists particularly liked Labour’s Northern Ireland Minister, Roy ‘Stone’ Mason.)  The ‘National Question’ was therefore at the very centre of the Tory thinking. It was a question they were determined not to answer, but to eliminate. As Thatcher was later to boldly say, “Northern Ireland is as British as Finchley”!

The Tories were acutely aware that, since the economic crisis of the mid-70s, they were now living in an increasingly competitive capitalist world. Thatcher was the leader of their new neo-liberal wing, determined to oust, first the Tories’ old patrician guard (soon to be called the ‘Wets’), who were still prepared to support some of the UK’s inherited Butskellite policies. She needed to do this before she could break the organised official Labour movement, represented by the British Labour Party and TUC, preparatory to dismantling the post-war welfare state.

However, unlike much of the British Left, the Tory Right understood the link between the British unionist form of the state and the economy.  So Thatcher also wanted to launch a full frontal assault on those who threatened to weaken a UK state machine, with liberal experiments like Devolution. She believed that authoritarian centralisation was required. What was needed was to batten down the hatches of UK Ltd., to maintain as much of its affiliated British Imperial Co. as could be managed, and to renew the imperial partnership with USA, especially after the neo-liberal President Reagan came to office the following year.

Thatcher had developed early links with the UK secret services, no doubt promising to supplement Labour’s own criminalisation offensive in ‘the Six Counties’ with further extra-legal security measures to be sanctioned under the Crown Powers. Thatcher’s initial reaction was to give wholehearted support to the Ulster Unionists, who shared her belief that repression was the best policy for dealing with national democratic opposition.

In Scotland though, the Tories were still very much dominated by their patrician wing. Indeed, it had not been too long since the Scottish-British Harold Macmillan and Alex Douglas-Hume were the Tory government leaders for the whole of the UK. The continued strong influence of the ‘Wets’ in Scotland meant that the Thatcherite offensive needed new forces to buttress her Rightist offensive. A number of bodies helped in this.

They included the ‘Blue Guards’ of the Federation of Conservative Students (FCS) in Scotland. In addition to making visits to the Contras in Nicaragua and UNITA in Angola, wearing ‘Hang Mandela’ t-shirts, and sporting ‘Dole not Coal’ badges, they tried to re-establish the Tories’ earlier links with the Orange Order. They took an active interest in the Loyalists’ activities in ‘the Six Counties’ and tried to offer their support. The wider ‘National Question’ in the UK, and the need to break any national democratic challenges arising from these, were at the centre of the FCS’s attention.

Another Tory Rightist body, albeit coming from a different angle, was the neo-liberal Adam Smith Institute (ASI), whose leading members came from St. Andrews University. St Andrews University contained Scotland’s own answer to the ‘Chicago School’ of ‘free marketeers’ in the USA.  Two of its members, Madsen Pirie and Douglas Mason, were the original formulators of the poll tax.  The ASI then campaigned for the Tories to implement this tax, first in Scotland. Joe is correct in saying the campaign was taken to “single, elderly people living in large family houses… {who were} heavily hostile to the rates”, but it was also extended to the members of the well-heeled Tory middle class in the affluent suburbs.

However, there was still no way this limited electoral base could be used to impose a poll tax upon Scotland. So, Scotland became a classic case of how a privileged class minority in one particular nation was able to get support from its wider allies within the British unionist state to promote its interests.

A key figure in the Thatcherite offensive was Michael Forsyth, former St. Andrews university student. Elected to Westminster from Stirling in 1983 (after serving on the notorious Tory controlled Westminster City Council), he helped to coordinate the new Tory Right.  He linked up with the ASI, whilst also making use of those ‘Blue Guards’ of the FCS, disbanded by the party  in 1986, to intimidate the ‘Wets’ amongst the older patrician Tories.

The Tories in Scotland were riding high after the defeat of the miners. If the miners could be defeated, then how about rubbing Scottish Labour and the STUC’s noses in the dirt, and highlighting their total impotence?  Thatcher even came up to Edinburgh, the year the poll tax was launched in Scotland, in 1988 to deliver her notorious ‘Sermon on the Mound’.  Here she denied that there was such a thing as society. This attack was delivered in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, which represented the Scottish Labour and Liberal supporting middle classes at prayer.  It was clearly targeted at particular Scottish national sensibilities, and was designed to demonstrate wider British Tory support for their local supporters. The UK state was at hand.

Now, if it had been left to Scottish Labour and the STUC to deal with the poll tax, it would likely still be in place today. Fortunately, the Tories had never considered the possibility there might be independent opposition outside of the traditional official bodies ‘representing’ the working class. Jim Sillars’, the populist SNP candidate, won a spectacular electoral victory in Govan over Labour, in 1988.  The minority Tories had been seen to be abusing their power in Scotland.

However, the organisers of the anti-poll tax campaign didn’t let the SNP turn the campaign into a Scotland-only, or an anti-English campaign, but used the one year’s advance experience to learn lessons and to spread the campaign into England and Wales on an ‘internationalism from below’ basis.

5. The British ruling class is forced to change its strategy for defending the Union.   The Left makes a unity initiative in Scotland, which inspires Socialists in England, Wales and Ireland.

Now, the ‘lady who was not for turning’ had already been forced into a U-turn over Tory policy in ‘the Six Counties’. In the face of the Irish Republican offensive, after the election victories following the Hunger Strike in 1981, the Tories had to link-up with those very liberals that Thatcher despised. Under the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, the ultra-conservative Ulster Unionists were told to accommodate the very constitutional nationalist SDLP, and horror of horrors, to seek assistance from the ‘26 counties’ Irish government (whose leader Garrett Fitzgerald, Thatcher had humiliated the year before by her “Out, out, out” rejection of his very mild ‘New Irish Forum’ proposals).

Thatcher’s change of course marked the first step taken, by the majority of the British ruling class, towards the adoption of a new liberal unionist policy to maintain the UK.  This policy, by attempting to bring on board the existing moderate leaderships of national democratic movements, and making some concessions, was designed to restore effective British ruling class control over these islands.

However, such was the strength of the Republican resistance in ‘the Six Counties’, that the constitutional nationalist SDLP’s support proved inadequate for ruling class purposes.  One consequence of the Tory government’s lack of sure-footedness was that no poll tax was ever introduced into ‘the Six Counties’ – filling any vacancies for bailiffs might have proved a bit of a problem!  Thatcher had already been made painfully aware that there was a ‘National Question’, and that Northern Ireland was not as British as Finchley.  Indeed, in October 1984, Brighton nearly became as Irish as Belfast!

Eventually, after Thatcher’s demise, the Tories were forced to come to a new accommodation with the Republican Movement through the Downing Street Declaration of 1993. Stormont, abolished in 1972, was to be reinstated, but now in a power-sharing form previously rejected by the majority of Ulster Unionists.  The Peace (more accurately the pacification) Process was inaugurated, with the full support of ‘the 26 counties’ Irish and the US governments.

In Scotland, however, although support for greater national democratic rights increased, largely as a result of the resistance to the poll tax, the Tories still thought they could hold their conservative unionist, Westminster Direct Rule line here. Nevertheless, even they were forced to recognise they still faced a ‘Scottish Question’. After the defeat of the poll tax, a now somewhat chastened Michael Forsyth became the new Tory Scottish Secretary.  The ‘Blue Guards’ of the FCS, which Forsyth had helped to initiate, were closed down by the party in 1986. Forsyth had earlier been happy to use disbanded FCS members in Thatcher’s attempt to implement the poll tax, and the Conservative Party’s ‘Militant’ wing had continued in other forms. Now, however, Forsyth was as happy to see the ‘Blue Guards’ demise, as Mao was, when he dispensed with his youthful ‘Red Guards’.

Forsyth hoped that a little bit of concessionary cultural nationalism would be enough to see off the new national democratic challenge, especially since the Labour Party in Scotland could be depended on to curtail any popular movement from below. As it turned out, though, Forsyth’s rather comic restoration of the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey to Scotland in 1996 didn’t do the trick. The Tories were completely wiped out in Scotland, in the 1997 General Election. Forsyth went on to join the Tory patricians as Baron Dunleath in the House of Lords. Liberal constitutional unionism, confined only to Northern Ireland (i.e. devolution in one part of a country, and in one part of the UK state), was not going to be enough.

But Forsyth was right in thinking that New Labour could be relied on to try and ‘hold the British fort’. Thatcher also knew this and subsequently declared that the creation of ‘New Labour’ was one of the Tories’ biggest successes. The Adam Smith Institute gave Gordon Brown, the incoming New Labour Chancellor, “nine points out of ten” after he abolished government controls over the Bank of England.  Butskellism gave way to Blatcherism.

By now, the majority of the British ruling class also realised that New Labour’s preferred policy of ‘Devolution-all-round’ – Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – was the best mechanism for containing the wider national democratic challenge, and restoring their political power over these islands. New Labour, a firm supporter of US/UK imperialism, deregulation and privatisation, offered corporate capital a policy providing the best political framework for maximising its profits throughout these islands.

Now, how did all this impact on the Left in Scotland, which was so prominently placed in the anti-poll tax campaign? In 1997, a poll in the Labour supporting, pro-unionist Daily Record, the biggest selling Scottish based paper, with an overwhelmingly working class readership, showed 56% support for an independent Scottish republic.

Joe has pointed to the normally less-than-majority support for Scotland’s independence amongst the working class here. In the current political climate of retreat and despondency, this is certainly the case. However, such support rises when the class appears to gain more confidence. Joe makes passing reference to the case of Ukraine, where he thinks there may have been a case for supporting political independence at the time of the ‘Russian’ Revolution.  Majority working class support for political independence in Ukraine only came about due to the experience gained in the International Revolutionary Wave of 1916-21.  Prior to 1917, such support was at a much lower level, even compared to Scotland today.

As a result of their experience in the anti-poll tax campaign, Militant (CWI), the then most influential Left organisation in Scotland, shifted from being the most unionist organisation amongst British Marxists (7) (crassly so in regard to Northern Ireland) to a limited questioning of this British legacy. They made paper moves towards support for much greater Scottish self-determination. However, in the process, a major section of its Scottish membership broke from the traditional sectarianism of the British Left, and initiated the setting-up of the open, multi-platform Scottish Socialist Alliance (SSA). They also helped to lead a successful campaign against Scottish water privatisation in 1994, as well as the providing the support for the successful workers’ occupation at the Glaciers factory in Glasgow in 1996.  Soon, they had to break with their parent organisation, the CWI, which still remained addicted to the British Left’s sectarianism.

Once again, following from the experience of the anti-poll tax campaign initiated in Scotland, the setting up of the SSA, then later the SSP, can not be seen in isolation. An ‘internationalism from below’ policy was actively pursued, which contributed to the formation of the Socialist Alliance, the Welsh Socialist Alliance and the Irish Socialist Network. And exactly who initially sabotaged these other initiatives? Yes, the sectarian British Left of course – first Militant and then the SWP, along with their co-thinkers in Ireland (which both, in practice, accept Irish Partitionist politics).

In the end, though, it was ‘our very own’ Scottish Left nationalist, celebrity seeker, Tommy Sheridan (8), who sabotaged the SSP; but even in this, he has been massively encouraged by the CWI and SWP, in an unprincipled  ‘marriage-of-convenience’ for their own sectarian ends.  And just to ensure that British Left unionists continue their attempted wrecking role, George Galloway (with the support of Respect) has decided to become a Holyrood carpet-bagger, offering himself as an alternative celebrity candidate to Tommy, whilst hoping to be readmitted to the Labour Party, a la Ken Livingstone.

However, over this period, an overt socialist republican tendency has also emerged in Scotland. This has tried to reconnect with the lost ‘internationalism from below’ traditions of the revolutionary social democratic James Connolly and the communist John Maclean. This is the tradition that we in the Republican Communist Network place ourselves in.

6. Looking to the future

The approach the RCN takes to the ‘National Question’ in Scotland should now be clearer. We don’t separate this issue from, but link it to, other working class issues and events elsewhere in these islands and beyond. We actively seek out communists and others to join forces in an ‘internationalism from below’ alliance.  Furthermore, we see this principle not only as a matter for communists and the wider working class in these islands. We have presented the global significance of such an approach in The Communist Case for ‘Internationalism from Below’.  This meant challenging theories, which are held by many dissident and orthodox Marxists, and by some Anarchists, which continue to hold sway on the Left over the issue of the ‘National Question’.

The RCN has spent a lot of time examining the nature of the UK state, and the contradictions its rulers face, particularly in the face of working class upsurge. One member of the commune in England, M, also seems to utilise analytic methods, when he examines the changing management strategies in the workplace and particular sectors of employment, the contradictions they open up, and the opportunities for the workers concerned to take the initiative and develop independent class organisation. We have extended such analysis from the economic to the political sphere.

We have examined the various class ‘imaginings’ associated with the ‘Scottish Question’. We have looked to how a distinctive working class internationalist ‘imagining’ can be developed and rooted in our class’s struggle against the British ruling class, wannabe members of a Scottish ruling class, the British unionist parties, the SNP, and their British Left unionist and Scottish Left nationalist outriders.

The SNP has raised the prospect of an ‘independence (still under British Crown) referendum’, and organised under Westminster rules. The SNP’s acceptance, that the running of such a referendum could be conducted through the UK state, hardly meets stringent democratic criteria.  Therefore, it would be a tactical question about whether to participate in any referendum in such circumstances (9).

In the lead up to the 1979 Scottish devolution referendum, sections of the British ruling class had already started to use the UK’s  ‘hidden state’ to promote threatening naval and army exercises, and agent provocateur activity, ostensibly to cow any ‘nationalist threat’ in Scotland.  However, they were also demonstrating that, despite Scottish Devolution being official government policy, they were openly contemptuous of such ‘democratic niceties’.  Their beloved UK state was too precious to them to allow any ‘unnecessary’ liberal political experimentation.  An earlier Liberal government found itself facing a similar, if even more serious, dilemma in the face of the 1914 Curragh Mutiny by sections of the British Army in Ireland. This mutiny was mounted to prevent the implementation of an earlier devolution proposal – the Third Irish Home Rule Bill.

In 1979, because of the political timidity of the Labour government and the impeccably constitutional nationalist nature of the SNP, the UK state’s normally domestically concealed ‘mailed fist’ only had to reveal its ‘pinkie’. The political split amongst an ever weakening Labour government (helped to a small degree by sections of the British Left), a Labour Right winger’s parliamentary amendment, a Tory ‘promise’ of another referendum, and the Queen’s Christmas speech, proved sufficient to torpedo the Scottish Devolution Bill.

Today, unlike 1979, there is no significant British ruling class division over how to maintain its rule over the peoples on these islands. The ‘Peace Process’ and ‘Devolution-all-round’ enjoy the British ruling class’s (and their US and EU allies) overwhelming support. The main dissent comes, not from the very weak liberal unionist supporters of British federalism, but from the ultra-conservative Cadogan Group, with its strong Northern Ireland connections.

Should there ever be an SNP-initiated Scottish independence referendum, the British ruling class would be quite prepared to reveal far more than its ‘pinkie’. The Crown Powers are firmly in place to provide constitutional sanction to the sort of measures they would use. Furthermore, last year, Nick Griffin used the Glasgow North East by-election, to indicate that the BNP could be called upon to help quash any moves to achieve political independence during a referendum campaign (10). He is hoping, no doubt, to receive an official ‘nod-and-a-wink’ and to link up with local Scottish Loyalists, just as successive UK governments and the Ulster Unionists have looked to the Ulster Loyalists for a bit of extra muscle on the streets when required.

One thing is very clear though. Just as Right wing pressure split the Labour government and Labour Party support for Devolution in 1979, so Right wing pressure today is in the process of splitting the SNP over any ‘independence referendum’. Following other constitutional nationalist parties, such as Catalan Convergence, the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and Parti Quebecois (and in the case of Sinn Fein, and probably soon, Herri Batasuna, revolutionary nationalist parties too), the dominant sections of the SNP leadership have increasingly accepted ‘Devolution-max’, i.e. winning enough new political powers in the devolved institutions of the wider UK state, to enable local business interests to have greater clout within the existing global corporate order.

Prominent SNP leaders, such as Michael Russell, have already openly come out and argued for a renegotiated Union. Those businessmen who have been giving behind-the-scenes advice to the SNP – e.g. Brian Souter (homophobic co-owner of Stagecoach) and Sir Tom Farmer (Con-Dem cuts praising owner of Kwikfit) – have been pushing the SNP leadership to dump its commitment to an independence referendum, and were probably also instrumental, behind-the-scenes, in getting SNP Finance Minster, John Swinney, to abandon the Holyrood tax raising powers voted for in the 2007 Devolution referendum. In the unlikely event of the SNP commanding the necessary parliamentary majority to put forward an independence referendum bill in Holyrood, after next April’s election, they would be in a weaker position than the divided 1974-9 Labour government ever was over the constitutional issue back then.

The RCN thinks that there is little likelihood of there being an SNP initiated ‘independence referendum’. Even if one did come about, there is no way that the present extremely timid constitutional nationalist leadership could stand up against the likely British ruling class onslaught.  It certainly wouldn’t be prepared to look to any wider unconstitutional action for backing. This would quickly scare off its current business backers.

If such an official campaign ever got launched, various national ‘imaginings’ would be aired. There could be the ‘imagining’ of the wannabe Scottish ruling class, hoping for a greater political say for Scottish business within the existing global corporate order; direct representation at the tables of the bosses’ EU and the imperialists’ UN; and a downgrading of Scotland’s presence in the nuclear frontline of NATO to membership of its lower tier ‘Partnership for Peace’. Their key economic policy would likely be the promotion of Scotland as a low tax haven for corporate capital.

This ‘imagining’ would not be very attractive for the majority of people in Scotland, and may well be downplayed in public, or supplemented by policies to bolster sections of Scotland’s middle class – those owning small businesses and those in managerial jobs in the state sector. Some social democratic-style  ‘promises’ could also be expected to woo over sections of the working class (just as the SNP did in the 2007 Holyrood election, before being ‘blown out the water’ by the ‘Credit Crunch’).

Any big business leaders still supporting an ‘independence referendum’ (and there are unlikely to be many, with ‘Devolution-max as their favoured policy at present), would declare that ‘national cross-class unity’ was needed to win a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum. They would strongly oppose any independent economic, social or political initiatives coming from the working class.

Furthermore, they would likely get tacit backing from Left nationalists, who would argue, ‘independence first’, other demands later. In other words, they would curtail any wider class ‘imaginings’ and play right into the hands of the most conservative Scottish nationalist elements. The latter, at least, have the class sense to realise that ‘possession is nine tenths of the law’, and that if they can maintain their unquestioned economic power until any new ‘political independence’ was achieved, they would find themselves in a considerably strengthened political position as a result.

Perhaps, its worth remembering that one of the first things the new Irish ruling class did, in the 1920s, after it had consolidated its power, with the help of the UK state, was to dismantle much of the earlier inherited Liberal welfare reforms and promote Catholic charities instead. And, you can be sure that, in the very unlikely event of political independence being achieved by the SNP, a new Scottish ruling class would also be able to draw support from the British, US and Euro ruling classes, to crack down on any working class opposition. Furthermore, under any SNP administered ‘independence-lite’ Scottish regime, those Crown Powers would still be in place.

The most advanced ‘imaginings’ in Scotland are presently to be found in the cultural sphere, which so much of the British Left ignores or downplays. Cultural renaissance is often associated with frustrations arising out of major setbacks stemming from earlier political challenges, e.g. the Irish Literary Revival after the defeat of the Second Home Rule Bill in 1893.

The beginnings of a second phase of a Scottish Cultural Renaissance (11) occurred after the defeat of the 1979 Devolution referendum. This new phase has been marked by a stronger pull to the Left (12), in the form of the Left populism of the authors Irving Welsh and actress Elaine C. Smith, through the Left radicalism of the author, Ian Banks, the author and artist, Alasdair Gray, the poet Jackie Kay, the poet and playwright, Liz Lochead, to the more openly Scottish internationalism of the author, James Kelman, the poet, Tom Leonard, and the actor, Tam Dean Burn. The latter three have added to Scottish internationalist traditions already established by the follow deceased artists – poet and folklorist, Hamish Henderson, the Gaelic poet, Sorley Maclean and the Glasgow poet, Edwin Morgan.

These form a far from comprehensive list, and indeed their political characterisation is perhaps overly glib, since cultural activity often shows greater political ambiguity than such labels suggest.  Nevertheless, there is little doubt that these and other artists have made a substantial contribution to a wider Scottish ‘imaginings’, both national and international. These ‘imaginings’ are sometimes linked to ideas of what constitutes a better, non-alienated life, than that imposed under capitalism/Imperialism today.

Most of these artists could be expected to give their support to the wider opposition in Scotland against cuts in social provision, continuing imperial wars, Trident nuclear submarine bases, membership of NATO, and to British government backed Israeli state attempts to crush the Palestinians. These artists’ support is increasingly tied up to demands for greater Scottish self-determination and republicanism (social and socialist).

There are, of course, also supporters to be found in England and Wales, around most of these economic, social and political issues.  However, the British Left has become more compromised and fragmented in Scotland. There have been recent indications that even some of its prominent members realise this. The Scottish SWP theoretician, Neil Davidson, once their leading Left unionist advocate, seems to have had a ‘Damascus road’ conversion.  He has persuaded the SWP to advocate a ‘Yes’ vote in any possible future SNP initiated ‘independence referendum’.  Typically though, the SWP makes no attempt to develop independent working class organisation around the issue.  As a result, like so much of the Left, it just ends up tail-ending the political ‘solutions’ offered by others.

Now, there is another possible British Left response to the situation in Scotland.  Since the above-mentioned issues do have their supporters in England and Wales, let us prepare instead for a wider British-wide fight back. Of course, to the degree there is such a fight back, including by trade unions mainly organised on an all-Britain or all-UK basis (but sometimes on an all-islands or a national basis), this will be critically supported by communists and socialists in Scotland, independence supporters included.

The problem arises, when there are sections of our class who move ahead. This could happen in Scotland, on a local trade union basis, but is far more likely to take place when socio-economic aspirations become focussed on a wider political issue, which brings struggles into sharper conflict with the UK state.

In the first scenario, there is nothing specifically Scottish about the job of communists. We would try to extend workers’ solidarity action, as quickly as possible across the border, just as the Left in Scotland did, the other way round, in response to the Liverpool Dockers’ Strike from 1995-8 (13).

In the second scenario, a British Left response could be to say, “Hold on a minute, don’t get involved in premature action before the rest of the British working class is ready”, or “We will support your immediate economic but not your political demands”.

The RCN would argue that communists throughout the UK (and beyond, where possible) should welcome any more overt political challenge here to the UK state, and supplement practical attempts to win supportive action, with a welcoming of the increased questioning of the UK state. This should be coupled with practical attempts to counter any specific divide-and-rule or coercive measures directed against those involved.

There is a communist tradition, which applies when there is an immediate mismatch between the political possibilities in two countries. During the ‘Russian’ Revolution, communists elsewhere tried to build up support for their own later revolutionary challenges, by building ‘Hands Off’ movements to prevent ‘their’ states providing support to reactionary forces. In any situation where the political situation in Scotland had developed in advance of England, then a communist response there, should also be (UK state) ‘Hands off Scotland’ coupled, of course, to our own class’s very ‘hands on’ support through ‘internationalism from below’.

A key feature, though, of a specific communist campaign for the exercise of Scottish self-determination, would be to link our immediate national democratic demands with those immediate economic and social demands, which are arising out of ongoing class struggle.  To be effective, and to counter current ruling class and wannabe ruling class resort to their ‘international’ allies, such a campaign would, of necessity, have to be mounted on an ‘internationalism from below’ basis. There are no advance guarantees that we would be successful, or that the British ruling class could not recuperate their situation. Countering this will need a successful building of independent class organisations and the class confidence to say –  “Wur no feart, t’gither we can beat thon awfie Imperialism’!



Once again we would like to thank Joe for his contribution to the debate. Due to the machinations of the traditional British Marxists, first the CPGB and some RDG members in the once wider RCN, which they sabotaged, and more recently, those SWP and CWI members, who along with the Scottish Left nationalist, Tommy Sheridan, collaborated to sabotage the SSP, the RCN has been organised solely in Scotland for some time.

We have been instrumental in beginning to develop a tentative new socialist republican ‘internationalism from below’ alliance in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England, around immediate demands. Yet, we are very aware that, without a fuller global communist perspective, based on wider independent international working class organisation, such a movement would eventually be marginalised and recuperated.

This is why we have taken up the opportunity offered by the commune to develop such a global perspective. Our first contributions to the commune were about developing a vision of a communist future, which could be located in the contradictions and possibilities emanating from a crisis-ridden capitalism today. The two day schools, which we have organised in Edinburgh, have been Global Commune events. In these, we have tried to show our commitment to open, democratic and comradely debate and behaviour.

We see our contribution, The communist case for ‘internationalism from below’, as part of this wider project.  However, in the process, we have been forced to re-engage by members of the commune with the ‘National Question’ in the Scotland. Joe’s questions have led us to deepen our previous understanding, which has only been challenged in the post-split SSP from a Left nationalist perspective. Whilst we hope that we have demonstrated that there are some unacknowledged and inadequately theorised Left unionist aspects in Joe’s thinking, he has prompted us to theorise our own position in a more adequate manner.  So the first fruits of the RCN/the commune ‘internationalism from below’ alliance have certainly been beneficial for us.



Republican Communist Network, 2.12.10

1             In the case of the British Labour Party this, of course, is just another way of  saying that they can not conceive of another political set-up which would give them so many privileges, financial rewards and other opportunities to line their pockets, as they enjoy under the UK state. But they daren’t say that publicly.  Baron (George) Foulkes is a particularly odious example of this type.

2             Another major feature of capitalism is its ability to mystify the source of its power through various forms of fetishism, particularly commodity fetishism, and through our alienation. In this topsy-turvy world of capitalism, our condition as wage slaves becomes ‘free labour’; whilst our condition as oppressed subjects becomes ‘free citizenship’.  Nevertheless people still question these conditions. They become involved in cultural resistance to their alienation. This resistance contributes to artistic ‘imaginings’ of possible future non-alienated worlds, including a genuine communism.

3             Which, of course, is not the same as either joining the Labour Party, or offering support to such obvious ‘Left’ careerists as Dianne Abbott.

4             We think that Moshe Machover makes a very useful distinction between Jews living throughout the world as citizens or subjects of many states (where they form religious or ethnic minorities), and the Zionist attempt to create a new exclusive Hebrew ethnic group in Israel, which also makes revanchist claims upon Jews elsewhere in the world, whether or not they wish to adopt such an identity.

5             In the English language the word ‘nationality’ is used in a three-fold sense, which adds further to the confusion, i.e. as conferring membership of a particular state, e.g. British; of a particular (multi-ethnic) nation, e.g. Scottish; or of a particular ethnic group, e.g. Scots.

6             Ancram was the first Catholic Tory to be elected in Scotland, something only possible when the Scottish Tories broke their official links with both the Ulster Unionists and the Orange Order.

7             OK, this award should go to the very British unionist and social imperialist AWL,  but this organisation has never enjoyed that much influence on the Left.

8            It is significant that Sheridan came originally from the very unionist, British Left CWI.  However, in transforming himself into Scottish Left nationalist (and thus still retaining a Left nationalist political core inherited from his prior British unionism), he was only following in a tradition seen elsewhere, when unionist politics are questioned or under threat, e.g. prominent former USSR politician, Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia, and Stipe Mesic, former member of the League of Communists of  Yugoslavia in Croatia.

9             The two main groupings, which went on to form the RCN, both argued for an active abstentionist position in the 1997 Scottish referendum. We saw New Labour’s Devolution proposals as a liberal unionist device means to enable the British ruling class to assert its control over these islands more effectively. Of course, we did not support a ‘No’ vote, the favoured option of the now discredited Tories (backed by the Orange Order).

Back in 1979, only one of our current members was politically involved. He supported Scottish devolution in Labour’s referendum, because the growing ruling class opposition to this particular measure was the political counterpart to their neo-liberal economic offensive against the working class, then headed by Thatcher and the Conservative Party.

10             Indeed, along with Michael Forsyth of the Tory Party, and Wendy Alexander of the Scottish Labour Party, Griffin wants a referendum in order to see off the  ‘National Question’ once and for all, in a similar manner to the Ulster  Unionists’ use of the Northern Ireland Border Poll in 1973. Their confidence reflects the fact that, in any referendum campaign, they would accept UK state anti-democratic measures sanctioned under the Crown Powers.

 11             The first phase of the Scottish Cultural Renaissance developed after the defeat of the 1916-21 International Revolutionary Wave. This period also saw  the emergence of the Harlem Renaissance amongst Afr0-Americans in the USA.

 12             The dominant figure in the first phase was undoubtedly Hugh MacDiarmid.  He was originally an ILP member. He then flirted with fascism, before his Scottish nationalism adopted a Stalinist colouration. He shared this background of political ambiguity with other notable artists of the time, e.g. T.S. Elliot (England and USA), William Yeats (Ireland) and Saunders Lewis (Wales).

 13             We provide this example, because the Liverpool Dockers were involved in independent strike action, and won international support, including from the continent. At a support meeting organised in Edinburgh, one of the platform speakers said there had been far more enthusiastic support from SNP trade unionists in Dundee than from the British Labour Party in some areas of England.