David Jamieson of the International Socialist Group (ISG) replies to a series of articles written by Allan Armstrong (RCN) on the Radical Independence Conference and the ISG (see links at the end of this article). The current crisis engulfing the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) highlights the necessity for openness, democracy and equality on the Left. One hallmark of the SWP has been its unwillingness to conduct proper debates with others on the Left. The ISG split from the SWP in 2011 in response to some of its negative practices. Therefore the RCN very much welcomes David Jamieson’s (and James Foley’s) willingness to enter into debates with others and to make contributions like this.
Socialism and the movement in Scotland
I should begin by re-stating what James Foley of the ISG has already stated, that I am a Marxist, a socialist and an internationalist. There is absolutely no ambiguity about this political identity – which is in full evidence in the content of the ISG’s website, in the organisation’s public statements and indeed in the organisation’s name. Rest assured my long view of class struggle in Scotland involves – amongst a great many other things – mass, grassroots, direct workers democracy, the armed seizure of power and even (horror) ‘The Party’.
I believe further, that the moving spirit of the genuine revolutionary socialist tradition, if not its contemporary form, could be called Bolshevism. Having once been a member of the SWP, and in responding to Allan’s call for reflection on this experience, I hope in the near future to elucidate what I believe to be this tradition’s strengths and its (very many) failings. For now it will suffice to say that I view the international ‘Trotskyist’ movement to be an utterly failed experiment.
As much as there is a necessity for generating revolutionary organisation and Marxist theory in Scotland today, there is also a need to engage in the building of broad radical left networks and operations – from campaigns to resist austerity and imperialism and to fight for independence amongst many other possible and necessary initiatives. By ‘radical’ I am invoking a modern leftist sense which has been growing, especially amongst the young, for over a decade and is represented throughout the world. This radical sensibility was on full variety and display, for instance, in the Free Hetherington, the Occupy movement, and the recent victorious student movement in Quebec. If phrases like ‘Radical’ or ‘Anti-capitalist’ are vague then that is because they represent movements which are profoundly ideologically diverse. To insist upon a communist identity for this movement and for these initiatives (Communists Against War, Communists for Independence, anyone?) would be an act of gross sectarian vandalism and would shrivel rather than expand the influence of communist ideas. In no way does engaging in broader movements mean the liquidation of a distinct Marxist position.
As for that position, there is no reason whatever to assert that “the ISG… appears to regard the market and neo-liberalism as the fundamental problem.” As far as I can tell, this supposition is based upon demands made for state intervention. When do demands for basic needs turn into ‘social democracy’ or ‘Keynesianism’? Is the demand for jobs for the unemployed , housing for the homeless, free school meals or a National Health Service incompatible with a revolutionary perspective? If so we should probably adopt Glenn Beck’s program today and sit and wait to enact communism in some political hereafter.
As an alternative to what he perceives (perhaps, or at least in some instances, fairly) to be a vagueness on what it understands as capitalism; Allan supplies two very different definitions. The first can be found in his review of James Foley’s ‘Britain Must Break’. Here the beating heart of capitalism is presented as what Marx termed the ‘Organic Composition of Capital’ – the conflicting relationship between ‘living’ and ‘dead’ labour and its proclivity to generate economic expansion and crisis. I would argue that such a definition threatens economic determinism, but that’s perhaps an argument for another time. The second definition asserts “Genuine socialism/communism…is based on an understanding of capitalism as being a system of wage slavery necessitating an oppressive state.” Yet it is precisely labour’s character as a commodity which distinguishes capitalist class relations from all previous epochs. If wage slavery were the norm under capitalism then the state’s role would have to be far more coercive than it presently is.
Republicanism and Scottish Independence
Allan invites a consideration of the contributions of James Connolly and John McLean, positing the former as the antecedent of the latter, and suggesting a significant contemporary relevance. To my mind, despite rhetorical similarities between the two men, there is little practical relationship between a prospective republican socialism in Scotland and republican socialism in Ireland. James Connolly’s republicanism was of proximate strategic concern to Irish revolutionary socialists – breaking Ireland from Britain would both foster and entail a revolutionary situation. This was arguably true of a break of Scotland from Britain during the highpoint of the revolutionary wave following the October revolution – since the British state may have sought to maintain homogeneity under almost any circumstances and given the degree of radicalisation amongst large numbers of workers. It is certainly not true today that Scottish independence (even of the most thoroughgoing kind) is an integral part of a socialist strategy. It is a profound weapon of progressive advance for a great many reasons; centrally that it undermines British imperialism – but it is not a recognisable part of the road to worker’s power.
Socialists must not underestimate the importance of anti-imperialism to their strategy, nor the differing nature of anti-imperialism in different quadrants of the world economy. James Connolly’s struggle was one for Irish independence and against British imperialism. Our struggle is one against British imperialism and therefore against Scotland’s place within Britain. We should make no mistake here – Scotland is an integral unit of British imperialism. So our parochial orientation on the national question is almost the opposite to that of Irish republicanism.
This is, of course, not the full story. Allan is right to criticise a traditional preponderance on a specifically British socialist strategy. In the 1926 general strike a very clear image of a distinctly British working class could be regarded. The bedrock of the Labour movement was the ‘Triple Alliance’ of coal, steel and railway workers. This militant workers movement depended, as the Alliance suggests, upon the core of the British economy of the day – upon its capital industry.
Without going into too much detail, the subsequent history of the British labour movement was conditioned to a significant extent by the steady unwinding of the traditional composition of British capitalism and with it, the British working class. The Scottish national question in recent times represents a frustration with traditional British reformism and its central institutions, which have declined against this backdrop, as well as the mostly successful state repression necessary to reform British capitalism. If we try and assert some eternal quest for ‘the Scottish Socialist Republic’ then we will misunderstand the conjunctural crisis of the British regime and the opportunities of this period.
This is the context wherein the Scottish national question has increasingly become the tactical locus of the struggle against neo-liberalism and austerity, and the struggle to rebuild a militant labour movement after decades of defeat and demoralisation. Surely absent from the modern field of battle is the material basis for a sort of ‘Celtic Communism’ imagined (and I do mean imagined) by both Connolly and McLean – that of a nascent communist sensibility in rural tradition.
Beyond that a Scottish republicanism means precisely what I take Allan to say it means – a struggle against the elitist constitutional regime, which helps to maintain the British state and whose abolition will be a necessary part of Scottish independence in almost any form bar the so called ‘independence lite’ offered by the current trajectory of the SNP. Further, an active and conscious struggle against the coercive influence of this regime will be necessary to achieve independence.
The ISG and the New Scottish Left
Finally the comparison between the ISM and the ISG has been missed by few in the ISG, and probably few in the wider Scottish left. Both represent a split from traditionally left unionist outfits, and both were/are concerned with a dual project of Scottish Independence and left unity. Both, I believe, represent the natural terrain of the Scottish far left. Both were vested from a relative left unionism and sectarian practice by recognition of these twin and related perspectives. Both had to overcome a London centred perspective which misunderstands not only the national question in Scotland but the general break-down in the traditional structures of the official labour movement. There is, however, one most significant difference, one that Allan alludes to in his article. That of class composition.
The ISG are by no means the ‘autonomist’, ‘Petit-bourgeoisie adventurists’ (I’ll spare the culprit’s blushes) of recent sectarian lore – we have many working class members and capable and often leading trade-unionists. But we certainly do lack the kind of profile in working class communities enjoyed by the ISM following the Poll Tax victory.
I note this to make an important point. For RIC to be a successful initiative it will need to reactivate a tradition of political community activism effectively dormant since the collapse of the SSP project. To do that we the full arsenal of backgrounds, experiences and abilities represented by the RIC conference in November will have to be enlisted. I would add that a tranche of anti-cuts, feminist and other activist initiatives have appeared in the last two years quite independently of the ISG, including the Glasgow Women’s Activist Network, a new Left Student Magazine, the Black Triangle Campaign and the highly successful Glasgow Won’t be fooled conference; all quite without the initiative of a small group activists called the ISG. The point being that the renewal of the Scottish left is a widespread process operating from numerous poles of activity. For RIC, to be successful and to lay a solid basis for a renewed Scottish left to continue to mature it should move in this direction – promoting as much independent initiative as possible.
And – as is the theme of much of Allan’s out-put on the Scottish left, this forward motion shouldn’t preclude the necessary reflection on both historic success and failure but on deeper theoretical and programmatic issues. I haven’t covered anywhere near as much ground as I would have liked to in this short article, but I certainly hope this is the beginning of future discussions of the many challenges we face together.
A reply to David can be found at:- Allan Armstrong (RCN) replies to David Jamieson (ISG) – part 1
For articles by Allan Armstrong on the Radical Independence Conference and the International Socialist Group see:-