Sep 16 2012

‘BRITAIN MUST BREAK’ TO DEFEND ‘REAL LABOUR’ or ‘THE BREAK-UP OF THE UK’ TO ADVANCE REPUBLICAN SOCIALISM?

Introduction

The Scottish government’s 2014 ‘independence’ referendum has produced a flurry of analysis and activity amongst the Left in Scotland. This has led several Socialist organisations to come together to promote the Radical Independence Conference (1) to be held in Glasgow on 24th November.  One of these organisations, the International Socialist Group (Scotland) (ISG) (2), has produced a pamphlet, Britain Must Break, written by James Foley, to explain its own thinking in adopting this course of action (3).

The RCN has already posted its own contributions to this debate online (4). We look forward to Socialist organisations’ assessments of our work in this regard. In the same spirit, we will comment on other Socialists’ contributions. Therefore, we welcome this pamphlet from James Foley and the ISG.

The purpose of this particular review and contribution is not to dismiss Britain Must Break from some ‘superior’ or ‘politically correct’ viewpoint, but to assess what is positive in it, to highlight areas where its arguments need to be further developed, but also to examine some possible false leads and dead-ends and to offer alternatives. By adopting such an overall approach, it is possible to see where the ISG’s pamphlet contributes to an independent working class perspective on the forthcoming referendum, or where it could pull the Scottish Left in other political directions.

Given the current divided nature of the Left in Scotland, and each organisation’s relatively small size, developing an independent working class perspective is unlikely to come from one group alone, but will result from our cooperative endeavours. After further discussion and debate, clear differences may still emerge. However, the significance of these will become more evident through their practical application. In the meantime, the best reason for conducting such debates is to see whether our collective understanding and practice can be raised to a mutually agreed higher level, the better to develop our practice.

The main purpose of the ISG’s pamphlet is highlighted by its title – Britain Must Break. James is mainly arguing against those from a British Left unionist background. He doesn’t give their names – but he is probably thinking of the likes of the Red Paper Collective in the Scottish Labour Party, the Communist Party of Britain, and George Galloway’s Respect (or is it just George!). There are other smaller British Left unionist groups like the Alliance for Workers Liberty and CPGB-Weekly Worker (5), but James doesn’t address them, mainly because his audience lies primarily in Scotland, where these two groups hardly exist.

 

Tackling Scottish Labour and SNP illusions in Holyrood

However, before addressing the British Left’s apologetics for the British (in reality UK) state, James first attempts to demolish the idea that Holyrood has been the vehicle through which Scotland’s much vaunted social democratic tradition has been able to advance by rejecting Thatcher’s political legacy. In Chapter 1, A Democratic Deficit?, James successfully undermines the notion that Scotland’s  devolved parliament has acted as an effective defence against the ongoing neo-liberal offensive.

This chapter is headed by an Enoch Powell quote, “We are a Parliamentary nation. If you… put us into the jar labelled ‘Democracy’… I can only tell you that you have understood very little about the United Kingdom” (6). This also reminds us of another candid statement from that key ideologue of British unionism, “Power devolved is power retained”!

James looks beyond certain comforting and self-serving illusions about Holyrood’s achievements. He begins by pointing to such welcome measures as “the abolition of feudal land tenure and the assisted places scheme, free personnel care for the elderly”, the opposition to NHS counter-reforms and the imposition of student fees (7) – but these have not reversed the overall slide to neo-liberal hegemony in Scotland. There has been  “a decline in left of centre values… The iron grip of firms over the economy has increased. The ‘openness’ of the ‘Holyrood village’ has only given corporations more access” (8). Or, as David Miller puts it, “Market democracy under business rule has been established” (9).

In making his critique, James is attacking not only the illusions peddled by Scottish Labour, but also by the SNP. The SNP has promoted itself as the best guarantor of the type of social democratic reforms that Scottish Labour might once have pursued. Indeed, as Alex Salmond demonstrated, at the official ‘Yes’ campaign launch on May 25th, he sees Scottish ‘independence’ as a logical continuation of the Holyrood devolved by Westminster. “Since devolution we have shown we can make a success of running our own health service, schools, local government, police and courts and much else besides” (10).

 

What has the SNP government got planned for us?

James, however, does not pursue the political logic of the SNP’s political trajectory far enough. Salmond and his government have absolutely no intention, under their ‘Independence-Lite’ proposals, of breaking from the existing global corporate order, the British Union or US/British imperialism. The Scottish economy is to remain firmly subordinated to the City of London, with sterling for its currency. The British queen is to remain head of state and this means the UK’s anti-democratic Crown Powers will remain in place. Scottish armed forces will be able to continue their long-standing historical role in upholding imperialism, as they remain firmly under the British High Command and NATO. The SNP leadership’s attempt to get this year’s Annual Conference to fully agree to the latter, will only be confirming existing Scottish government practice – as their support for the current  war in Afghanistan highlights.

This raises the issue of what a successful ‘Yes’ vote would actually amount to in 2014, especially if there is no well-organised independent class-based campaign, prepared to defy the SNP and its continued political retreats, and its readiness to pass on The City’s and Westminster’s austerity measures both at Holyrood and local council level.

The SNP has absolutely no intention of convening a Constituent Assembly in 2014, which could draw its democratic mandate directly from the people of Scotland. Sovereignty will remain with the British Crown, and its two existing subordinate components, the Westminster and Holyrood parliaments. Their two incumbent governments will then conduct any negotiations over just how much more power can be further devolved to a ‘Scottish Free State’, leaving  the UK state’s Crown Powers intact, to be used against us as required.

 

Addressing some illusions of the Left in Scotland

Therefore, it is necessary to go further than James does and puncture a few more illusions, only this time those held by some on the Scottish Left. Kevin Williamson of bella caledonia and Ian Bell, Herald columnist, have argued that voting ‘Yes’ is not voting for the SNP government, but for some new politically unconstrained Scottish democratic parliament where, in the 2016 elections, we can bring about the changes we really want.

However, given the SNP government’s acceptance of NATO, the Crown Powers and the City of London, they intend to have some decidedly unsavoury institutions, practices and people hardwired into any new Scottish state set-up right from the start – and that is before the British ruling class exerts its pressure in any post-referendum negotiations! Indeed, the influential SNP Right has already anticipated the need for further retreats. They are already openly stating that Trident should be accepted too. So Faslane could end up as a Scotland’s own ‘Guantanamac’ base – only, unlike Cuba, any future SNP government would then take the dirty money for its lease.

If some on the Left follow the logic of their illusions, they would have us all lying low until the day of the referendum, so only the Right will be publicly putting its case, as well as being involved in its constant behind-the-scenes lobbying. In the unlikely event of a ‘Yes’ victory in 2014 under these conditions, the Scottish electorate, in 2016, would face four pro-monarchist, pro-City, pro-NATO parties – SNP, Labour, Lib-Dem and Tory – who would have already set the political agenda, leaving any other opposition parties marginalised, particularly if they had been ‘keeping schtum’ up until 2014.

Some have argued, though, that the SNP leadership is just ‘playing clever’. They have to make all those verbal retreats so as not to scare off any potential ‘Yes’ voters. After ‘independence’, they can drop the pretence and open the door to a real break with The City, the Union and NATO. We have heard this type of argument before from those Left apologists for New Labour before the 1997 General Election. We were told that Tony Blair had to publicly ditch some of Old Labour’s ‘radical’ baggage, so that he could get elected with a big enough majority to overturn the whole Thatcherite legacy. After all, ‘things could only get better.’ Well, we all know how that panned out!

 

The real class nature of the SNP

Sir George Mathewson – SNP backer

Like New Labour before it, the SNP has become a lot more professional, and is attracting a lot more corporate money. This is because it is now the party of an important section of Scottish capital. For example, Brain Souter’s Stagecoach is a major global corporate player. The SNP has attracted influential support from Rupert Murdoch, who once performed a similar backing role for New Labour too. Like Gordon Brown, Salmond shares a belief that social democratic reforms can ‘trickle down’ courtesy of capitalism’s finance sector (11) – hence his courting of Sir George Mathewson.

However, although the Royal Bank of Scotland may have its head offices in Scotland, its majority ownership lies elsewhere, and it is thoroughly integrated into the workings of the City of London.  The 2008 Credit Crash, in which the Royal Bank and Bank of Scotland played their ignominious parts, may have dented many people’s illusions in a social democracy courtesy of the finance sector. Yet, Salmond has still ensured that Sir George has his place in the official ‘Yes’ campaign. So, it is easy to see why the interests of the City of London have to be built into the foundations of the SNP’s proposed new Scottish state.

The SNP still hasn’t won over the majority of the capitalist class and its supporters in Scotland, but Salmond’s main political aim is, more than anything else, to build up the economic, social and political weight of a wannabe Scottish ruling class. Therefore, more important than the referendum is the SNP government’s ability to use its electoral victories, within the existing institutions of the devolved Scottish state, to displace Labour as the main source of patronage. So, as James points out, “the natural path for the aspiring careerist is the SNP” (12). Meanwhile, SNP policy wonks are involved an a political triangulation exercise to outflank the Scottish Labour Party (with its hands tied by Millbank House in London) with social democratic promises, the better to dupe the working class in Scotland, in an attempt to provide some electoral cover for its promotion of those wannabes.

Just as Blair and New Labour were serious about all those public political retreats, and always intended to take the neo-liberal project on to new levels, so the SNP leadership intends to pursue a similar path after 2014 – beginning with cuts in corporation tax. This has been the one consistent SNP policy demand, throughout its submissions to Calman, Salmond’s kite-flying ‘Devolution-Max’ proposals and ‘Independence Lite’. Flat rate taxation could well follow. Holyrood’s current Finance Secretary, John Swinney, is a supporter; whilst, as James points out, another Right wing, Holyrood minister, Michael Russell, has wet dreams about “slash{ing} public spending to East Asian levels” (13).  The only thing partly disguising this constant Rightwards trajectory will be the willingness of current and any post-2014 Westminster governments –  Con-Dem, Conservative, Lab-Dem or Labour (14) – to move even more rapidly in the same direction.

 

Attacking the British Left unionist idea of a ‘progressive Britain’

James uses his next three chapters to undermine the notion, still peddled by Scottish Labour and other Scottish Left unionists, of a ‘progressive Britain’ bequeathed by the post-1945 British Labour government, which built on the British armed forces’ contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany, to go on to create the Welfare State. The titles of each of these chapters – Britain’s Economic Miracle; Rogue State: Britain in the American World Order; and Empire Denial: Continuity and British Identity, shows us James’ mounting anger. It rises to a crescendo when dealing with “B-L-I-A-R” (15) and his New Labour government’s commitment to Bush’s war in Iraq.

James quotes Scottish Labour’s very own Gordon Brown and his support for British imperialism, not only today, but in the past too (16). Chapter 4 highlights the fact, that far from longstanding imperial decline leading the British ruling class to reassess its imperial role in the world, it has remained firmly set on maintaining its war-mongering capabilities, only now as a loyal ‘spear carrier’ for US imperialism.

James undertakes his demolition job of ‘progressive Britain’ with an undoubted panache. The more recent the examples he provides, the stronger his arguments. It is obvious that James’ own experiences, as with those of many young people, have led him to a strong detestation of Blair’s and New Labour’s involvement in the Iraq War. I particularly enjoyed reading these chapters, since they reminded me very much of the my own ’68 days radicalised by the Vietnam War.

 

Going into the deeper roots of the ‘National Question’ in the UK

James does go back to the late 1960s and early 70s to provide some longer term evidence of the British (and US) state’s ‘dirty tricks’ department at work. However, James’ lack of direct knowledge of the period (through no fault of his own – he hadn’t been born yet!) leads him to make the following howler – “Airey Neave… went on to play a senior role in Thatcher’s government” (17). Unless, the Tory Cabinet conducted séances to get in touch with Airey Neave’s ghost, this would have been impossible, since the Irish National Liberation Army had blown him up in 1979, before Thatcher took office! (18)

Given its centrality to British ruling class’s plans to defend their state over the last 44 years, James’ lack of any mention of Ireland in this pamphlet, even where it directly impinges on an example he wants to make, highlights another area where his arguments need developed.

Furthermore, James appears to believe that the ‘National Question’ emerged as a significant issue in Scotland as a reaction to Thatcher’s Tory and Blair’s New Labour British governments. However, the ‘National Question’ has deeper roots than this, not only in Scotland, but also in Wales, and, of course, in that country James ignores – Ireland (19). Now, of course, James only has so much space, and I’m sure he would acknowledge that much still remains to be written to deal satisfactorily with all these issues. However, because James doesn’t deal with the long-term historical impact of the ‘National Question’, he comes up with the following misleading assessment of the impact of the Poll Tax in Scotland. “Many thought that Thatcher used Scotland as lab rats for an unpopular measure… Some of the narrative is dubious. The decision to trial the Poll Tax in Scotland was likely a bungle not a conspiracy” (20).

 

How the ‘National Question’ and the Anti-Poll Tax revolt in Scotland were related

Here I will draw on my own experience as Chair of the Lothians Anti-Poll Tax Federation and co-chair of the Scottish Anti-Poll Tax Conference. To understand the introduction of the Poll Tax first in Scotland, it is necessary to recognise the Tories’ wider political project at the time.  They came to power in 1979 directly as a result of the successful motion of ‘no confidence’ at Westminster brought by Thatcher, following the defeat of Labour’s Scottish and Welsh Devolution referenda. The ‘National Question’ didn’t just surface in the late 1980s, but had been politically present since the late 1960s. It  was at the very centre of the Tory thinking, when Thatcher came to power. It was a question they were determined not to answer, but to eliminate.

The Tories and their class backers were acutely aware that, with the economic crisis from the mid-70s, they were 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 inherited Butskellite policies. She needed to do this before she could break the official Labour movement, represented by the British Labour Party and TUC, preparatory to dismantling the post-war Welfare State, in an attempt to enhance corporate profitabilty.

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 the UK state machine, with liberal experiments like Devolution. She believed that authoritarian state 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 in 1980.

Thatcher developed those early links with the UK secret services (which James mentions), no doubt promising to go even further than the preceding Labour government’s own criminalisation offensive in ‘the Six Counties’. In Scotland, though, the Tories were still dominated by the ‘Wets’. 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 initially 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 thinking.

Another Tory Right body, albeit coming from a different angle, was the neo-liberal Adam Smith Institute (ASI), whose leading members came from St. Andrews University. This university contained Scotland’s own version of 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. It was the ASI that campaigned for the Tories to implement this tax, first in Scotland.

Of course, there was still no way the Tories’ could win majority support in Scotland for such an unpopular measure as the Poll Tax. So, Scotland became a classic case of how a privileged class minority in one particular nation is able to get support from its wider allies within the British unionist state to promote its interests (21).

A key figure in the Thatcherite offensive was Michael Forsyth, former St. Andrews university student. 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 a section of the Scottish Labour and Liberal supporting middle classes at prayer.  It was clearly targeted at particular Scottish national sensibilities. Thus, implementing the Poll Tax first in Scotland was designed to show just what Thatcher and the Tories could do to help their supporters under the Union, backed by a Westminster majority, and through resort to the UK’s local state machinery (poindings, jailings, etc.).

 

The political nature of the Anti-Poll Tax leadership in Scotland

Now, if it had been left to Scottish Labour and the STUC to deal with the Poll Tax, it would probably 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. Furthermore, Jim Sillars, the populist SNP candidate, won a spectacular by-election victory over Labour, in Govan in 1988.  The minority Tories had been seen to be abusing their power in Scotland.

However, the Socialist 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 some important lessons and to spread the campaign into England and Wales on an ‘internationalism from below’ basis. Thus, it is only by highlighting the important role which the ‘National Question’ played, that one can see how the situation finally came about by which “the Tax was beaten in a London riot” (22).

Acting independently of the leadership

James goes on to make a somewhat cryptic comment that this action “was condemned at the time by the leaders of the Scottish radical left” (23). This is doubly confusing, since those leaders would not have recognised themselves as part of the “Scottish radical left”. I presume James means Militant and, in particular, Tommy Sheridan, who were then part of the British unionist Left. After hearing a 40 minute speech by Tommy explaining his infamous “we will name names” speech, Lothian Anti Poll Tax Federation still voted to condemn his actions and numerous delegates referred to him as a”scab”. Another section of the British unionist Left in Scotland – the SWP – had earlier thrown in the towel, after the Scottish Labour Party and the STUC failed to support direct action. Some SWP members in Scotland went on to pay the Poll Tax. It was only one year later, when Tony Cliff woke up one day to find himself in the midst of an Anti-Poll Tax riot in Hackney, that the SWP made another famous policy U-turn!

Those Scottish Socialists who did play an important role (along with many others) in the Anti-Poll Tax campaign, did not consider themselves to be part of a “Scottish radical left”, a rather woolly term they would have rejected; but thought of themselves as republicans, and condemned both Sheridan’s actions and the SWP’s inaction.

 

Taking James’ arguments against Perry Anderson further to highlight the nature of the UK state

James also takes on a key member of the Left intelligentsia, Perry Anderson of the New Left Review. Here he develops a good argument against Anderson’s claim that “Thatcher has been ‘of little moment’” (24). New Left co-thinker, Tom Nairn, who hails from Scotland, also shares Anderson’s belief that “the British state was too worn out and archaic to enliven capitalism” (25). He has written a series of books to develop this point, from The Enchanted Glass: Britain and its Monarchy to Gordon Brown: ‘Bard of Britishness’.

Yet, both these thinkers’ contempt for, and concentration upon, all that monarchist frippery, and the reactionary appeals to the ‘Great British Tradition’, downplays an important aspect of the British state. Thus, James makes the important point that, instead of this state being left  behind by other more modern powers in the world,  Thatcher was able to remould it as a vehicle for a City of London finance-led, neo-liberal offensive. This placed ‘Britain’, alongside the USA, at the very centre of the corporate capital restructuring of the global economy.

To explain the limitations of Anderson’s arguments, James later makes the point that he failed “to provide an intense critical examination of British imperialism today” (26). To give Anderson his due, he is against British imperialism. However, more important for this argument, is that he has failed to adequately address the unionist nature of the UK state and the role the Crown Powers play.

It was precisely by resort to Anderson’s and Nairn’s ‘archaic’ UK state, that Thatcher and the Tories managed to completely overturn the previous Butskellite governing consensus, and pave the way for the following ‘Blatcherite’ era. Thus, despite Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales being politically recognised entities within the UK, it was quite legitimate, from a Unionist point of view, for a UK government to impose any  laws it saw fit, against the wishes of the majority living in these places. Thatcher’s Tories were certainly more than prepared to do this. Furthermore, if any opposition became too challenging,  they could always resort to  those profoundly anti-democratic Crown Powers. Therefore, disguised under all that apparently ridiculous traditionalist and monarchist flummery lay the hidden state machinery, which was protected by these powers. This machinery was not ‘archaic’, but has been constantly upgraded, ever ready for British ruling class use.

 

Ireland not mentioned, yet it is key to our understanding of British ruling class strategy for the whole of these islands (England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland)

James does point out that Thatcher was able to deploy  “civil war powers” to neuter the unions (27), most obviously in the 1984-5 war against the Miners – “the enemy within”. However, there is the even more blatant example, not made by James – the use of informers, Diplock Courts, internment camps, ‘shoot-to-kill’ and death squads to suppress the Irish Republican struggle.

Therefore, James’ argument here needs extending to examine the British ruling class’s own methods  for dealing with any mounting national democratic challenges in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. They can draw upon their long historical experience in this regard. Their current political strategy, to maintain domination over Great Britain and Ireland (North and South), has been designed to link up with their neo-liberal offensive, in order to maximise corporate profits. Thus, there is a Cameron/Clegg/Miliband consensus (accepted by successive Irish governments too) over the promotion of the ‘Peace (more accurately, pacification) Process’ in both parts of Ireland, and ‘Devolution-all-round’ for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. And, if the British ruling class has been  forced into making some constitutional concessions it would rather not have made, it has been more than rewarded by parties, like Sinn Fein and the SNP, accepting wholesale the broad neo-liberal economic parameters set down by Westminster.

Significantly, and in recognition of their subordinate position within this reformed constitutional order, the SNP has nothing to say about British government’s conduct in Northern Ireland; whilst Sinn Fein has adopted a self-denying ordinance over the forthcoming Scottish ‘independence’ referendum. This reflects Sinn Fein’s acceptance of its allotted role as representative of the Nationalists under the Good Friday Agreement, and hence its unwillingness to be seen as ‘sectarian’ and upset the Unionists  – something, of course, the Ulster Unionists (be they DUP, UUP or TUV), Orange Order and Loyalists don’t practice! Backed by  Scottish Loyalists, the BNP and SDL, they have thrown their weight behind the defence of the Union. The Labour/Tory/Lib-Dems ‘Better Together’ campaign has shown some reluctance to organise public meetings, rallies or marches. They are probably worried at the publicly unappealing forces they would conjure up.  Scottish Labour in the Central Belt has preferred to stick to its traditional behind-the-scenes role of playing one against the other – Protestant/Unionist and Catholic/Irish nationalist; suggesting that an independent Scotland means an end to Protestant privilege or the imposition of a new Stormont!

The current British ruling class strategy to maintain its control of the UK and wider domination of these islands, only emerged tentatively under the Tories in the mid-80s and early 90s. Initially it was confined to Northern Ireland (with official Irish government support), before being generalised to Scotland and Wales by New Labour. As a consequence of this, the leaderships of the various national movements have been drawn into administering and propping up the post-1998 reformed UK constitutional order. These leaderships have stretched from the onetime revolutionary nationalist, but now thoroughly ‘constitutionalised’, Sinn Fein in Ireland, to the moderate constitutional nationalists of the SNP and Plaid Cymru in Scotland and Wales.

Furthermore, ‘national partnerships’ have been supplemented by ‘social partnerships’ between governments (and/or state officials), bosses and the trade union bureaucrats, all of whom back  the ‘Peace Process’ and Devolution. And, in both these ‘national’ and ‘social’ partnerships, it is very clear who is the top dog, and who jumps at the master’s bidding.

Because James does not deal with the longer-term impact of national democratic challenges, he is unable to address the British ruling class’s wider strategy to maintain its rule throughout these islands. This also leads him to too narrow a focus upon Scotland. The most obvious indication of this lies in both the pamphlet’s title, Britain must break, and the constant referral to Britain, when what we are up against is the UK state, which also covers Northern Ireland.

To emphasise the point, the United Kingdom consists of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It was Tom Nairn who first raised the issue of The Break-up of Britain on the Left. Yet, despite his own confusion over Northern Ireland, he too later realised that the state we confront is ‘Ukania’ (in both its ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ manifestations).

 

Why we need to move beyond anti-monarchsim and the archaic nature of the British state

If Socialists are to mount a successful challenge to the British ruing class, ‘Ukania’, and those Crown Powers, we need some clear ideas about the nature of the state we are up against, and a clear socialist and democratic understanding of how it operates. The back cover of the ISG pamphlet claims that, “they are freeing ideas like ‘democracy’ and ‘socialism’ from their Cold War prison”. Unfortunately, from the evidence provided by James, socialism is to be rescued by being put in the ‘deep freeze’ – it is never mentioned; whilst nowhere is the most glaring restriction on any democracy in Scotland and the UK mentioned – the Crown Powers.

These powers are not to be conflated with the existence of the British monarchy, which only provides window-dressing (28).  It has become more acceptable on the Scottish Left to acknowledge the existence of an ‘archaic’ British monarchy, and to counter this with the need for a ‘modern democratic Scottish republic’. However, in some ways this is just another version of Anderson’s and Nairn’s belief that it is only the ‘archaic’ nature of certain British institutions like ‘the monarchy’ which needs to be overcome, before Scotland can enter the modern world. Such thinking looks to the future to achieve its ideal state of affairs, whilst largely ignoring those already modernised repressive agencies sanctioned by the UK state’s Crown Powers, and which also enjoy a close relationship with the US military and security services.

Murdoch – ‘Republican’ supporter of the Crown Powers

The famously republican USA may have got rid of the monarchy, but those anti-democratic Crown Powers were effectively transferred to the Presidency in a new Imperial Republic. When the viciously right wing, Robert Murdoch supported the ending of the monarchy in Australia, he wanted the Crown Powers transferred to the new President. And, as long as they exist, these Crown Powers will be continue to be used against us. They are already being used behind the scenes to ensure the defeat of the ‘Yes’ campaign. However, the extent to which the UK state’s hidden mailed fist becomes more exposed will be the extent to which any campaign for full Scottish self-determination looks like winning.

James’ inability to link the ISG’s use of the term ‘democracy’, on his pamphlet’s inside cover, with the need for anti-Crown Powers republicanism to be at the centre of any campaign, leaves us very much a hostage to fortune. Indeed, there is absolutely no mention of the need for a republican approach, or even a future republic in James’ concluding Towards an Alternative. However, merely adding the demand for a ‘modern democratic republic’ is not the full answer. Some will still say that we can safely leave the issue of the monarchy to the future – as though living in a “Scottish Free State’, under the Crown Powers, the NATO High Command, and the City of London, provides us with a level playing field for any further democratic advance!

When we say that the issue of Scottish independence is an issue of ‘democracy’ then we need to be very clear what we mean. It is only through the abolition of the Crown Powers that we can even begin to address the issue of democracy (which, of course, also has a whole social and economic dimension not recognised by liberal ‘democrats’). This means boldly declaring that we are Republicans. This is why it would be so much better if, after November 22nd, the ‘R’ in the Radical Independence Conference – RIC, became the ‘R’ in a new Republican Independence Convention – RIC.

 

Radicalism – a classless term leads to confused thinking

However, this then raises the question, what is the link between the “democracy” referred to by James in the pamphlet and the “socialism” only mentioned on its cover?   This is perhaps the weakest aspect of James’ contribution because, instead of using the word ‘socialism’, it falls back on the ambiguous word ‘radical’. ‘Radical’ is one of two words, along with ‘libertarian’, that has increasingly entered into Left discourse in recent years. Their ambiguity is reflected in the fact there are Left and Right radicals, as well as Left and Right libertarians.

Now, of course, I’m sure that James doesn’t want anything to do with Right radicals, or Right libertarians for that matter. But what are we to make of the following? “It follows that the break-up of Britain must be the cause of all British radicals, Scottish, English, Welsh, and Irish” (29). James, by including “Irish” amongst his “British radicals”, actually attempts to subsume people under this label who have already rejected this particular reactionary British identity!  Are there any British radicals in Ireland? Yes, there are – the radical Right  (OK, let’s not be mealy-mouthed, the fascist) Ulster-British UVF and UDA. So, we can see how James’ and the ISG’s use of the word ‘radical’ in a positive sense can allow a dangerous political slippage to take place.

James’ confusion here stems from his lack of any distinction between ‘Britain’ and the UK. It is not the “break-up of Britain” (a geographical entity) but the break-up of the UK state that we want. Certainly we would like to see the demise of ‘Britishness’, an imperialist, unionist and monarchist constructed political and cultural identity held by many people in England, Scotland and Wales, and by Unionists and Loyalists in Northern Ireland. This is not the same, though, as the calling for the end of geographical territory called ‘Britain’ (which would really require many millions of year’s of geological tectonic activity!) Furthermore, Britain, with or without the prefix ‘Great’, has never included Ireland in the past, nor does it include Northern Ireland today. These particular territories have been bound to ‘Britain’ by the UK state.

 

Rejecting Labourism, Social Democracy and official Communism means advancing a positive Socialism/Communism not retreating to an ambiguous Radicalism

Therefore, this raises the important point as to why an organisation calling itself the International Socialist Group is so reluctant to argue an openly socialist case, within a united front RIC they helped to initiate. The answer, of course, lies in the ignominious failure of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (and similar states) and the wholesale retreats of Labourism and Social Democracy (whose main protagonists were prepared, in the past, to call themselves Socialist) before the global corporate and neo-liberal offensive. Furthermore, this political vacuum has left behind a legacy of hopelessly competing small Socialist sects. On the few occasions when Socialists have managed to win wider electoral support, they have usually collapsed and started to display the same unattractive sectarian behaviour. This is all very unappealing to the young members of the ISG, and to a wider number of young activists too.

However, the RCN has argued that part of the answer to the dilemma facing the Left lies not in rejecting the public use of the word ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’, but in trying to recover their genuinely human emancipatory and liberatory meaning (30). Social Democracy and official (state-backed) Communism abandoned such thinking a long time ago. Furthermore, as capitalism enters a period of deeper and multifaceted crisis, then the time has arrived for us to point to the need to go beyond futile attempts to revive the old Social Democratic welfare state, or the Party-state directed economy and society of the official Communists (but also advocated by many dissident Communists too – e.g. Maoists and Trotskyists), and get to the real roots of capitalist exploitation and oppression.

 

To see the pressing need for Socialism, we must first understand the nature of capitalism

Capitalism is a system under which the capitalist state takes responsibility for setting the political and social conditions that allow continuous capitalist accumulation through the extraction of surplus value (profits) in a society where wage slavery is dominant.  At the heart of capitalism is the life and death struggle between ‘living labour’ and the ‘dead labour’. Dead labour is that part of our labour appropriated by the bosses as surplus value to create their capital, which they then use to dominate our lives. Under this process, the bosses constantly strive to lower their costs in the face of our struggles to meet our needs. One thing the current crisis has revealed to many, is the sharply contradictory nature of capitalism, with its obscene accumulation of riches for the few, and its growing immiseration for the many.

Any attempts merely to tinker with this, by trying to go back to the old Social Democratic welfare or official Communist-type states, or to confine ourselves to asking for jobs, higher wages and more welfare benefits, represents little more than we wage slaves trying to attain ‘house slave’ status. Furthermore, as the transformation of old Social Democratic and former official Communist Parties into promoters of neo-liberalism has shown, earlier economic and social gains can be withdrawn by the very political forces that first introduced them. Therefore, the answer does not lie in trying to recreate a ‘Real Labour’ or a ‘genuine Leninist’ party, since the Old Labour and the official Communist Parties helped to bring us to the situation, which prepared the grounds for the neo-liberal offensive.

Before the 2008 Credit Crunch, it was more difficult to claim that capitalism was a crisis-ridden system (certainly in the imperialist heartlands). Although real wage rates had failed to rise, welfare benefits were being remorselessly whittled back, and jobs were becoming ever more insecure, this appeared to be compensated for by the extension of ever-increasing credit (not so often called ‘debt’ then).

However, now that the crisis, and its differential effects upon the working and the capitalist classes, have become starkly visible, it is somewhat perverse, that the majority of the Left ends up trying to buttress the system through confining its demands to advocating neo-Keynesian reforms and nationalisation. The vista now offered to us by capitalism is of continued austerity, removal of existing rights, more wars and environmental degradation. As the independent Marxist, Istvan Meszaros has argued – the choice now facing us is “Socialism or Barbarism – if we are lucky!”

This situation should allow Socialists to relate directly to those – the working class and oppressed of the world – who find themselves thrown to one side by the emerging contradictions of the capitalist crisis. Socialism, as a practical alternative, means drawing these people into those organisations required to bring about the end of wage slavery through the development of communal democracy culminating in a global commune.

 

James’ radicalism takes us back to old-style Social Democracy

However, such a vision is beyond the ‘solutions’ James raises in his final section – Towards an Alternative. Throughout his pamphlet, James rejects the use of the term ‘socialism’ in favour of ‘radicalism’. Yet, although he wants to throw all that old Social Democratic and Stalinist verbiage  out through the front door, James radicalism ends up letting some of it back in through the back door.

To give a couple of examples:-

1) “We must argue that state-led green industrialisation is the way forward.”  But the state isn’t the socialist answer to capitalist accumulation, but the very necessary basis for its continuation. From the days of Reagan and Thatcher to the present day Tea Party and Right libertarians, utopian neo-liberals have argued for the ending of  state interference in the economy. Yet, state budgets rose relentlessly under both Thatcher and Reagan, although the beneficiaries were increasingly found amongst the controllers of corporate capital – whether through continued military expenditure, government contracts given to the private sector, or state resort to highly paid business consultants. Therefore, one of the strongest arguments we have is to point out the necessity to move beyond both the capitalist economy and its state (31).

2) “An equitable tax regime that makes the rich pay their share is the precondition for social justice.” Well no, for as long as the rich, i.e. the owners and controllers of capital, still exist, real social justice can not been achieved. People will still be working under conditions of wage slavery, and “the rich” will still have the economic and hence political power to undermine any ameliorative “social justice” measures (32).

The view that ‘radicalism’ is in some ways the contemporary name to be be given to the old economic and social gains, associated with a now increasingly distant, Welfare State left to us by Old Labour, is found throughout the pamphlet. Thus, James devotes the whole of chapter 5, trying to persuade ‘Real Labour’ supporters, particularly George Galloway, to follow the likes of Dennis Canavan (33) in joining the ‘Yes’ camp, in order to defend Old Labour’s legacy. After all, others like John McAllion have also already made that leap. But Old Labour failed us too. And the current crisis is of such depth that it requires a bold socialist or communist alternative, which is international in its scope.

James quite correctly states that, “If you don’t have a strategy you are part of someone else’s strategy” (34). But you need to go one step further, and ensure that any strategy you do develop does not also end up as being a sub-plot for somebody else’s plans too. The Left in Scotland needs to be very careful that it doesn’t end up as ‘useful idiots’ for the organisers of the SNP’s official ‘Yes’ campaign. In other words we need to develop an independent class strategy.

 

Downward moving escalators only

A tale of top storeys, basements and escalators!

If we can imagine a once well designed and constructed shop, where escalators lead up a to a beckoning top floor, then Old Labour (or James’ now much shrunken ‘Real Labour’) could imagine that floor as their ideal socialist state – where everybody gets ‘a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work’ and where they are looked after by the state ‘from the cradle to the grave’. However, since the advent of Thatcher’s Tories and of Blair’s New Labour, this shop now only has down-going escalators leading to a basement hell where a disorganised and demoralised rabble fight each other for tawdry consumer goods, with some taking a break to seek some solace in the entertainment provided by wall-mounted TV screens or in small alcoves with computer games.

And to extend this metaphor to Scotland, we have two main down-going escalators in this shop, one moving down more quickly than the other – but both in the same relentless direction. James does recognise (35) that both New Labour and the SNP are, in effect, on these two down-going escalators, but that the SNP has attracted more people on to its escalator by slowing down the rate of descent. Since James’ own vision apparently is still unable to see beyond that beckoning top storey, his strategy appears to be that we should therefore all try to run-up the SNP’s down-going escalator to get back up there.

James also tries to persuade ‘Real Labour’ supporters, particularly George Galloway, to jump off Labour’s rapidly descending escalator, on to the SNP’s more slowly descending escalator, hoping that this will prove easier to climb up.

However, unless Socialists within the RIC are able to provide a different vision – a socialism of genuine human emancipation and liberation – then the RIC are likely to end up giving the SNP government a blank check. This won’t be cashed in at the radical top storey James seems to look up to, but in the neo-capitalist basement. Meanwhile,  the down-going escalator catches some of those attempting to run upwards  in its treads, grinding them down; whilst it tosses others over its sides.

 

Conclusion

If we develop a different vision, based on an independent class strategy, we have to reject a campaign designed to pressure the SNP to turn Left. The SNP can adopt elements of verbal Leftism, if necessary, but they will not deliver much in practice. The SNP’s principal class backers will not permit this.  Therefore, the key strategic issue facing the November RIC conference is whether it can develop a campaign for genuine self-determination for Scotland, by taking the leadership of such a movement away from the SNP’s official ‘Yes’ campaign.

This may sound a tall order, but James points to Syriza in Greece (35). Syriza (which, in 2007, only had the support of 5% of the Greek electorate, about the same as the SSP in 2003) has now taken the leadership of the Left away from PASOK, because it seemed prepared to defy the Troika’s imposed austerity measures. The capitalist crisis hasn’t gone away, and the SNP government will be responsible for the implementation of harsh austerity measures in Scotland – especially as the planned cuts have only just begun.  This is the backdrop for a socialist republican campaign to make headway.

James does not spell out clearly where he sees the RIC going. He has started by making many good arguments against British Left unionists, including the Scottish Labour Party, and against important aspects of the SNP’s political trajectory. This contribution has suggested how some of these arguments need further developed – something James himself may accept, given the space limitations he had in this pamphlet. However, the ‘radicalism’ James espouses represents a weakness, pointing towards a likely political deadend.

Therefore, this contribution argues that James’ radicalism needs to be superceded by a clear republican socialist strategy, based on independent working class organisation and ‘internationalism from below’. James has started the debate for the RIC, for which he deserves our thanks. Let the debate proceed.

 Allan Armstrong, 9.9.12 (amended by Editorial Board on 14.9.12)

 

References and Notes

1.            http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2012/06/20/the-independence-lite-referendum-and-a-tale-of-two-campaign/

2.          This ISG is a Scottish breakaway from the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP). It was formed mostly from newly recruited SWP student members in Glasgow, who had been radicalised by the 2010 student revolt. However, they found the SWP’s top-down control freakery decidedly unattractive.

ISG (Scotland) is not to be confused with the British USFI section, also called  the International Socialist Group, which has been a tendency (but not an organised platform) within the SSP. The English and Welsh USFI/ISG members work in the Coalition of Resistance (anti-cuts organisation) with the ISG’s (Scotland’s) sister organisation in England and Wales, Counterfire (it split from the SWP a year earlier in 2010).

3.            In the recent past, though, it would have been the SSP leadership, or more specifically, Alan McCombes, you would have expected to produce the first pamphlet on the ‘Scottish independence’ referendum. However, partly as aconsequence of ‘Tommygate’, the SSP leadership appears to be split over how to proceed. One section, led by Colin Fox, based in Edinburgh, wants the SSP to be the officially recognised Left wing of the SNP run and controlled official ‘Yes’ campaign. Another wing, mainly from the old Glasgow SSP leadership, and backed by Frontline, is also committed to the Radical Independence Conference.

Although the most recent SSP Executive Committee meeting decided to ride both horses at once, there are still underlying tensions between these two approaches. Lack of confidence, amongst the Scottish leadership, though, has led to an increasing inertia, demonstrated most clearly by the pull of the SSP’s own youth organisation, Scottish Socialist Youth, towards the more dynamic ISG. Nevertheless, the SSP leadership will probably eventually get round to producing its own pamphlet.

4.            The Scottish Independence Referendum Debate, Part 3 at:-

http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2012/05/18/the-scottish-independence-referendum-debate-part-3/

            The Scottish Independence Referendum Debate, Part 2 at:-

http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2012/04/06/scottish-independence-referendum-debate-part-2/

            The Scottish Independence Referendum Debate at:-

http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2012/03/26/scottish-independence-referendum/

5.            Getting over the Hee Bee GB’s – An ‘Internationalism from Below’ critique of the British Left, Republican Communist Network pamphlet

6.             p. 14.

7.             p. 22.

8.             p. 22.

9.             p. 21.

10.          http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2012/06/20/the-independence-lite-referendum-and-a-tale-of-two-campaign/

11.           If social democracy, courtesy of the finance sector, seems heretical to much of Old Labour and what James terms ‘Real Labour’ today, this was just the logical next step. Social democrats believe that you can introduce meaningful reforms by having a buoyant capitalist sector, which can be taxed to provide a social wage. Prior to the rise of neo-liberalism, we had industrial capitalist economies in the West, which provided social democrats with the basis for their national welfare and other reforms. Now that the finance sector has displaced the industrial sector as the pacemaker for corporate capitalism, it was probably inevitable that a new social democracy would emerge in response to this.

One thing hasn’t changed though. When capitalism enters a period of crisis, whether it was in its industrial form in the past during the Great Depression, or in its finance form today after the ‘Credit Crunch’, the first job of social democracy is to rescue it, whatever it costs the working class, and largely at the expense of the reforms it once promoted. The line from Ramsay      MacDonald to George Brown and Alistair Darling is clear, although as George Papandreou, Greek PASOK leader, has shown, social democracy can still sink even lower!

12.             p. 73

13.             p. 58.

14.             We can get some idea of what to expect from any future Labour government, by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling’s  promise if Labour were to be re-elected in the 2010 General Election. He ” admitted tonight that Labour’s planned cuts in public spending will be “deeper and tougher” than Margaret Thatcher’s in the 1980s.” (Guardian, 25.3.10)

15.             p. 46.

16.             p. 73.

17.             p. 45.

18.            There are another two places, where James’ pamphlet could have benefited by prior proof reading. On page 27 he writes that Salmond “swallows a very British idea of free markets but he does not consider its real benefits” – and exactly what would those be?!

And on page 31, can be found the following, “Firstly, the capitalism {Blair} promoted was dynamic insofar as it was wearing its own long-term foundations through deregulation and debt-fuelled expansion”. It is not at all clear what is meant here.

19.             For an exploration of these roots see:- http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2012/01/11/internationalism-from-         below-2/

20.             p. 16.

21.            New Labour made its own contribution to this, when it used its Scottish MPs at Westminster to impose foundation hospitals upon England.

22.            p. 16.

23.            p. 16.

24.            p. 36.

25.            p. 16.

26.            p. 64.

27.            p. 16

28.            See The Crown rules Britannia by Steve Freeman and Phil Vellender at:-             http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2012/06/16/republican-socialists-and-the-diamond-jubilee/

29.            p. 11.

30.             The RCN has also persistently argued for a completely different, genuinely democratic culture on the Left, where real comradeship prevails, people’s views are listened to, political differences are seen primarily as a means to achieve a higher order of mutual understanding, and where education is about teaching people how to think, not what to think.

31.            p. 78.

32.            p. 77-8.

33.            p. 75.

34.            p. 80.

35.            pp. 22-4.

36.            p. 13.

 

 _____________________________

REPLY FROM JAMES FOLEY, ISG

 I very much enjoyed reading the review Allan. Firstly this is an immediate personal response, hence grammar, spelling.

A bit of humble pie on Airey Neave. We did notice it and it was supposed to get changed. But there was a printing and/or clerical error. It was no doubt the fault of a disgruntled civil servant.

Generally agree on the subject of Bell and Williamson. I think it is fairly clear that, although I do not take them to task specifically, I am writing to take the debate away from Left Nationalist grounds. Taking on the theoretical issues surrounding nationalism was part of my initial draft, until I realised it needed a pamphlet on its own. Looking back, I think I was right to shelve it for the moment.

At present, we need to conduct a debate on strategy with these people. The Yes Campaign, by its own steam, will lose on two counts. Firstly, its class prejudices will cause a failure to relate to the people who might vote for independence. Secondly, as a consequence of that, a bad defeat could drive us further down the neoliberal road.

Our tone should avoid being overly didactic, hectoring, or zealous towards people who are loyal to the SNP but who are increasingly wondering what the hell is going on with Yes Scotland. I’m sure you will agree on this but we can all forget it and it bears repeating.

This brings me to the subject of the “Radical”, “Republican”, and “Socialist” categories.

By the term “radical” left I meant to signify those elements that primarily pursue an extra-parliamentary strategy, encompassing the social movements and so on. This is partly because I think we need to engage in a serious, respectful dialogue with left wing environmentalists, feminists, and pacifists who do not share our socialist politics. But it is also partly a question of developing a strategy that relates to youth.

Take the term Republican. To some people, this signifies a pan-Irish tradition of rebellion. To others, increasingly, it signals a Guardian-reading, and rather Nairnish, anorak middle class obsession with the Monarchy to the exclusion of other social challenges. While I describe myself as a Republican (and even an anorak) wholeheartedly in both senses, I think using the term in a campaign name is a hostage to fortune. It is liable to fudge issues rather than clarify anything. Nobody thinks we’re going to sell out to monarchism any time soon. Having said this, whatever RIC becomes needs to be explicitly republican in my view. I mean this in both senses again.

Now the term “socialist”. Perhaps I should use this more. I am certainly not afraid of it, and believe me I have resisted calls to build any organisation called Demos. Our book, to which BMB was the first part, will have a third section entitled 21st Century Socialism (I can send u our book proposal if you want). I am trying to get round to working this into a pamphlet before conference but PhD time constraints etc etc.

Pete Ramand has rightly pointed out in an earlier article that the term “socialism” actually leads to a lot of left and right ambiguities. It plays on a grey area between the self emancipation of workers, which you talk about, and the bureaucratic corporatism of Old Labour and nationalised industries, which is what most people understand by it. Of course, Tommy Sheridan was at his best when he exploited this, with Left Nationalism thrown in, in his call for, “An independent socialist Scotland”.

You say I smuggle Stalinist or social democratic premises in by the back door. If I gave this impression I do apologise. However, I do honestly think we need to lead with anti-neoliberal demands when self-activity and grassroots resistance is incredibly low. “State led” planning, under democratic administration, is a key point in this context. I do not call this socialism for a simple reason – it is not. It might feel morally satisfying to say socialism when I mean state planning, but I wanted to be more precise. Clearly, socialism depends on much more than this – i.e. self emancipation.

This does not mean that socialists should not lead the call for such measures, to put more of the burden on capital rather than labour. Not to do so in this austerity context is criminal to my mind. We should not afraid to say that there is a massive infrastructure shortfall on renewable energy, if we want to achieve carbon targets, need green jobs, state planning, etc. I even think, and this is a controversial one, that it’s not so bad to call for “fairness” or “social justice” once in a while without deconstructing it to death like a Lacanian on speed.

The room for manoeuvre for the ruling class is not what it was in the 1970s. Calls that may have signified backsliding in earlier decades can have revolutionary connotations today.

This is most definitely the case with young people. We often counsel against “illusions in the Nordic model”. That’s all fine and dandy. Alas, I often think many young people don’t have ENOUGH illusions in the Nordic model. The idea of some minor reforms, in the interests of general fairness, reducing our Gini coefficient, etc, sounds like Narnia to a lot of them. I include those radicals on the Young Left who swing wildly between the sort of “autonomism” that means “I emancipate myself, here, now, and fuck waiting for the workers”; and an insipid Amnesty inspired moralism.

On the one hand, they naively and complacently assume that all the great collective battles have been won – hence I only have to “emancipate myself”. On the other hand, they assume that The Big Brother State has omnipotent controlling police powers, that any collective demands are immediately “incorporated” because of “leaders” anyway…

A mixture of good sense and common sense.

I recently encountered a young man on the Left who called himself “a nihilist” (rejecting all values) while he campaigned for Amnesty (a “human rights” group – surely these are values?!). These are the sorts I have regular engagement with. Trots do not exist under the age of 30, save for a handful of trainspotters. I still think we should try and teach them the virtues of collectivist morality, Marxist theory, and socialist strategy. But you have to start with where they are at.

The idea of telling them to run their call centre as a workers’ council…is a difficult one.

Telling people that society should be “socialist” and “led by workers” is actually very easy. But it doesn’t motivate anyone except fanboys. This is because it does not paint a clear picture of what we actually plan to do, it just plays on grey areas. I find the usual answer to this – “we need to rely on the spontaneity of the moment, the nature of the new society will be forged in the fire of class struggle” – rather lazy and convenient for the likes of me sitting in my armchair. It is revolutionary in phrasing but actually immobilises in practice. Oddly it plays into the hands of the nihilist Amnesty guy, who would rather wait for an apocalyptic moment of absolute struggle-convergence than get on the street with a petition and talk to ordinary people about what we’d like to change.

I do not go about defining myself as a radical Leftist. If I am forced to plump for anything in this game, I am a socialist and a Marxist and an internationalist first. But sometimes, just sometimes, I do think we achieve much more by stressing the values and aspirations we share in common with our near ideological neighbours, rather than dissecting ever thinner slices of minor disagreement. Call this “movementism”, many will. But we need to ask ourselves. What has been recently achieved or intellectually clarified by intensive internicene dynastic wars for the throne of Socialism?

Any victory for any grouping has been Pyrrhic at best.

Sorry that response was a bit of a rant.

 10. 9. 12

 

________________

 COMMENT FROM LIAM TURBOTT

Agree that there are issues with the direction of RIC and I hope that there will be room for discussion on this at some point in the future and that it can emerge as a properly democratic and inclusive movement. I think there will be wariness of labelling it an explicitly socialist campaign due to people wanting the involvement of the Greens, left-leaning cultural figures etc. Left triangulation maybe! There’s definitely room for more of a focus on republicanism, something which the ISG don’t appear to have much interest in – the points you make about the crown powers seem very valid and I think deserve to be highlighted more.

 

10.9.12

 ____________________

  COMMENT FROM BRENDAN McGEEVER

On Allan Armstrong

I am 100% in agreement that we need to carve out an independent profile in the independence debate, especially so given the severe limitations of both the Yes and No campaigns. As you say, if we don’t confront the SNP we will be left with a neoliberal Scotland with a government firmly opposed to our class interests. The question is How? How do we raise this profile? How do we engage with the debate as it currently stands? Much of this of course depends on the nature of the question on the ballot, but we do need to think practically (not just ideologically) about how to intervene in the current debate. In a sense Colin and the SSP have taken the easy option and aligned themselves with the official campaign. Our challenge seems to be how to influence things without succumbing to the narrow confines (and reactionary politics) of the Yes campaign as it currently stands. In other words, how do we practically engage in a ‘yes’ to independence and ‘no’ to SNP free market capitalism campaign? Assuming we support a yes vote for full independence, how do we simultaneously critique the official Yes campaign and fight for socialism and against the cuts etc. How does this effect how we engage with potential voters? Which institutional channels are open to us? Ie which parties, TUs and community groups can we work in/with?

I really enjoyed the review of Britain Must Break. I thought your argument about the need to move beyond he abstract notion of ‘radicalism’ is a good one. You rightly point out that Foley does not offer any real advocation, let alone discussion, of socialism. In your own critique though, I thought you could have made some pointers towards what socialism (even as a temporary isolated holding position, i.e. what Syriza are fighting for and what the Bolsheviks did in 1918-1921, see also the workers government debates in early 20s Comintern strategy) might look like or what the specific challenges are facing those wishing to build socialism in Scotland today (ie questions of political economy, consequences of leaving the Sterling). What I mean is, some discussion of the practical struggle of building a socialist society here in Scotland and what limitations might be posed on such a society given the current conditions in Scotland and its historic and contemporary role in the UK economy. I appreciate that a political economy of the prospects for socialism was a little outside of the scope of your essay (!), but I do think that this is something we have to confront urgently. Socialism needs to become a viable alternative, a project offering hope and an alternative to the nightmare of capitalism. I think if we argue for a Scottish Socialist Republic, we need to think through what that society might have to offer and what it’s limitations might be…

14.9.12

On James Foley

James, thanks for this interesting and thought provoking reply to Allan’s review. I think you touch on a crucial issue when you talk about having to “start where people are at” and how we need to “develop a strategy that speaks to youth” etc. I’d like to develop my previous comment in light of what you say. I think this is where a Gramsci-influenced approach is essential, i.e. an approach which taps into the lived experience of the class, young people, and develops its politics, language etc accordingly. That said, and whilst I obviously agree that revolution must be self-emancipation, I do think the onus is on us (the fringe left) to think seriously about socialism and how we can make a new society viable. This requires not only imagination, but a thorough materialist analysis of the present conjuncture. The second task, it seems to me, is to translate that vision into a language that relates to people “where they are at”. Also, yes, let’s stress the values we share with our ideological neighbours, but let’s ALSO take on the challenge of making socialism/an alternative society a viable and emancipatory vision with content which actually relates to people and offers them hope in the struggles they find themselves in.

17.9.12

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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