May 11 2015

‘NONE OF THE ABOVE’ AND ‘ABANDON THE MIND-FORG’D MANACLES’

Jim Slaven of the James Connolly Society in None of the Above calls upon socialists and republicans to have a closer look at the nature and record of the SNP. This was first posted at:- http://107cowgate.com/2015/05/05/none-of-the-above/

Murdo Ritchie (RCN ) in his Abandon the Mind-forg’d Manacles offers an alternative analysis of the rise of the SNP.

 

1. NONE OF THE ABOVE

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None of the above? This is the question I’ve been asking myself for the last few weeks. Or perhaps more accurately for the last few years. Having never been a member of a political party, I’m what pollsters call a floating voter. Granted, as someone who has been a political activist for nearly 30 years, I might not be the stereotypical floating voter but nonetheless I have no tribal loyalty to any political party.

The Cause of Labour Is The Cause of…….

A key objective for the SNP over the last 20 years has been to replace the Labour Party as the dominant political party in Scotland. Various factors have assisted them in achieving that goal. Importantly the establishment of the Scottish parliament (by Labour) and then the introduction of a proportional voting system (by Labour) at local government elections. Politically the Blair years and all that went with that sickened many Labour voters In Scotland (and elsewhere).

As Labour abandoned working class communities, not just politically but also physically on the ground, voters looked elsewhere. In England traditional Labour heartlands occasionally turned rightwards as the left has been unwilling to adapt to enable it to fill the vacuum in these communities. In Scotland the SNP have stepped in. Positioning themselves as more traditionally Labour than the Scottish Labour Party.

The job is done. Labour’s hegemony in Scotland is over. The SNP are now the dominant force in Scottish politics. The gravitational pull that comes with being the party of government coupled with the power of patronage that comes with being the dominant political force is now firmly in the hands of the nationalists. The result is familiar. The careerists and opportunists that used to populate the Scottish Labour Party are now in the SNP. If you doubt that just ask yourself if you were motivated by self-advancement in politics would you join the Scottish Labour Party. See what I mean.

Unlike many others I cannot blame Tony Blair for my dissatisfaction with Labour. Coming from the socialist republican tradition of James Connolly and John Maclean I’ve never bought into the British Labour movement narrative. This was a party which had no problem with the British state and in some instances argued the British state has been a force for good in the world. Irish republicans want to see the break-up of the state and view the British state as responsible for many of the problems in the world. For every historical reason posited for working class people to vote for Labour we could counter with a historical reason to do the opposite. Labour’s ideological retreat is not the result of Tony Blair and New Labour rather Tony Blair and New Labour were the result of Labour’s long ideological retreat and rightward drift.

As is often the case the personal and the political collide. It was the Labour Party that banned the James Connolly march in Edinburgh back in 1992-93. Although instigated by the Orange Order and the Police, it was Labour who made the political decision to deny our community our right to assemble and freedom of speech. Although we defeated the ban it resulted in dozens of our members being arrested, some losing their jobs and others physically attacked by police officers. When I was eventually convicted of organising an illegal march (after we’d ignored the state ban) one of the state’s witnesses against me was a Labour councillor. I’ve never voted Labour in my life and I’ve shed no tears over the collapse of Labour support in Scotland.

The SNP Swerve

In short the Labour Party in Scotland are in many ways the authors of their own destruction. However it would be wrong to suggest this has just fell in the SNP’s lap, they have very skillfully maximised these political opportunities for their party. To replace Labour in their heartlands they have started preaching some of that Old Time Religion, or perhaps that should be Old Labour Religion, to Labour voters.

I’ve called this manoeuvre the SNP Swerve. They are like a tricky winger moving at speed towards a defender. They drop their shoulder to go left and then, as the defender alters his position, they move back to the centre. Of course the SNP are not the first political party to campaign on the left then move back to the centre once elected. But the fact remains that for all their progressive rhetoric and nice smiles their actual record in Government is anything but progressive. In fact in eight years in Government they have not introduced one redistributive measure. Not one.

An oft cited example of the SNP’s left wing credentials is their opposition to Trident. Of course opposition to Trident is a good thing. But let’s be clear the SNP are arguing to have Trident removed from Scotland while simultaneously arguing for an independent Scotland to join NATO, a nuclear alliance. So Trident is bad but nuclear armed NATO submarines in Scottish waters is good? Their opposition, like so much else, is based not on principle but opportunism.

Ideologically promiscuous constitutional nationalists may be but that doesn’t make them the worst people in the world of course. I’ve known many SNP politicians for more than 20 years and several of them are perfectly decent people. I know many of their activists and know they are genuine in their desire to make this place better. Likewise I’ve met many Labour politicians and activists who work tirelessly for their communities. And it may well be that you live in an area where there is a republican, a socialist, or perhaps even a working class candidate that would be perfectly reasonable to vote for despite their respective party policies.

Sadly in this constituency that is not the case. The incumbent Labour candidate is, even in a crowded field, one of the most obnoxious candidates in this election. She was heading to certain defeat even without the imminent SNP tsunami. Incredibly the SNP candidate is no better. One of the mysteries of this election is how, given it often seems like the whole country has joined the party, the SNP have managed to select such useless candidates? In this constituency the SNP chose a wealthy businessman who, having spent much of the last 40 years opposing independence (many of those as a Labour Party official), decided after the referendum that nationalism was the best solution for Scotland (and of course himself).

Political Principles Matter

 

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Given the herd mentality that has developed around the SNP the presence of a few carpetbaggers is unlikely to deter their new found followers. It’s totally understandable that long time nationalists and perhaps even their new members should be swept along with the cheerleading. Less obvious is why leftists should become some of the loudest cheerleaders for a monarchist party who have turned support for British militarism into a fetish and buy into whacky right wing economic myths like the Laffer Curve.

The collapse of the left in Scotland into left nationalism is one of the most remarkable referendum developments. The fact we predicted it gives us no satisfaction at all. After decades of defeats there is no doubt part of the motivation for many left wing activists is safety in numbers. Simply put they look overjoyed to be part of a crowd. Just delighted to be on the winning side. If the price of this new found popularity and social life is the ditching of political principle, so be it.

Similarly any Irish republicans in Scotland voting (or joining) the SNP are just kidding themselves on. Not only for the reasons above but because this is the party whose single police force, the Met of the North, and the Offensive Behaviour Act have been used relentlessly to target our politics and our history. Many of these people were, rightly, outraged when Martin McGuinness met Betty Battenburg. It is absurd that these same people can now be voting for an openly, and enthusiastically, monarchist party. This is not serious politics. For republicans or leftists to park their critical faculties in search of a small niche within nationalism is the road to ruin. Any short term gain, will inevitably be followed by long term pain.

All of this might seem like the ruminations and observations of an old misery guts. Someone just unable to recognise the transformed political landscape. In other words someone who should just shut up and vote SNP. Well, if I wanted to take the path of least resistance in politics I would not be an Irish republican in Scotland. Having opinions which are inimical to our personal interests are just par for the course. Solace comes in finding some comfort in uncomfortable truths. Politics is about so much more than elections.

In many ways I feel deeply frustrated being unable to actively support (never mind vote for) a working class, left candidate. Like many on the left, Irish republicans have suffered enough defeats to have long abandoned any notions of absolutism. Our idealism beaten out of us by the hard knocks of realpolitik. We long since realised that life is not as simple as we once believed. And with that realisation came an acceptance that politicians, like the rest of us, are deeply flawed. It also brought a recognition that the path we have been on for the last 30 years contained many signs we mistook for directions when in fact they were warnings.

Working class people need to be better represented, that much is true. To be effective that representation must be authentic, based on an understanding that the current economic system is built on exploitation. We need representatives prepared to challenge privilege and state ideology. Political principles do matter. Settling for, or recommending the least worst option is not the answer to anything. It just encourages the parties to continue to shaft us. Investing all your energies and hopes in the SNP or the Labour Party is ultimately a fool’s errand. These parties do not represent me, they do not represent my class and they never will.

And no amount of flag waving, spin, face paint or delusion will alter that fact.

 

Jim Slaven, 5.5.15

 

2. ABANDON THE MIND FORG’D MANACLES!

Lenin is reputed to have said that there are decades in which nothing happens and weeks when decades happen. We are currently experiencing a period of rapid political change in Scotland. Republican socialists cannot have policies only for those moments of rapid transformation but need them for those long seeming placid times too. It is far too easy to become cynical and disillusioned by those long periods and fail, even refuse to see when significant shifts are taking place. Inability to see the difference can produce a kind of ossified paralysis. It is necessary to recognise the time in which we live and respond appropriately.

Political changes cannot be simply engineered by some Machiavellian mastermind like some James Bond villain sitting at a control panel manipulating every minute movement. Massive shifts in popular consciousness are rarely anticipated. Mass moods are never instantaneously manufactured. Regardless of what can be said about the Scottish National Party, a sizable shift has occurred when fifty-six out of fifty-nine seats are won by one political party. This suggests shifts are occurring elsewhere too.

Political change is always movement through a resistant medium. The absence of resistance usually indicates that no real powerful forces are being challenged. There are very rarely outright unambiguous victories often making it appear that little has changed. Yet it is seemingly small movements that create openings that have to be developed for further change to happen. Two tectonic plates may only shift a very small distance over, under or against each other, but this occurs over an great length producing enormous disturbances in the environment around them.

No political party or formation should be held to blame if it fails to achieve its goals against opposition. But it is correct to condemn if it abandons those declared goals and refuses to sincerely fight for them. Recognising the difference is an essential political skill. However, many on the so-called socialist left have trapped themselves inside mind forg’d manacles where they fail to even notice that enormous changes are occurring. This makes it difficult for them to identify them, then find the will to pursue them.

During the early eighties when transformations were happening in Central America and the Caribbean, I was amazed at how little interest was shown by many self-identifying revolutionaries. Frequently, I was told these revolutions were not socialist, even not real revolutions. President Ronald Reagan didn’t take their advice and funded and trained the entire “contra” army to overthrow the Sandinista government and sent a massive invasion force to overthrow the government of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada. For many of these people this was inexplicable, even irrelevant; for many more it was a lesson that was never learned and quickly forgotten. Karl Marx’ description of the Bourbon monarchy had a wider application; these so-called revolutionaries learned nothing and they forgot nothing. I am grateful that I ignored their wise counsels and organised what solidarity I could when it was needed, despite the direction taken by these movements.

A similar mind-set existed during the miners’ strike. From some so-called socialists it was never possible to decide if they supported or opposed the strike, so central to their arguments were their criticisms of various features such as ad hominen attacks on Arthur Scargill, demands for ballots, etc., etc., the central purpose seemed forgotten. In every human activity it will always be possible to do this or that better, but the deciding criteria has to be were the general principles maintained. That is why the working class and trade union movement were better for the miners’ strike than without it. Perfection in all matters before any struggle begins is not humanly possible, even big mistakes are not always catastrophic.

A mind-set that traps itself into a political cul-de-sac is a problem because it creates a paralysis or a cynicism that works against any declared goals and can rarely proceed effectively. Rather, it is important to be able to detect openings in every situation and eagerly grasp them. James Connolly was a member and leader in many flawed organisations, working with many individuals where he was only in partial agreement. At no time was he trapped solipsistic despair. He applied this approach to an Ireland held prisoner within the United Kingdom’s Empire. By identifying points of connection he challenged the prevailing view that the country was too backward for national independence. “This is why, even when he is from the economic point-of-view intensely conservative, the Irish nationalist, even with his false reasoning, is an active agent in social regeneration, insofar as he seeks to invest with full power over its own destinies a people actually governed in the interests of a feudal aristocracy.”1   It is important to understand just how counter-intuitive is that view, but also how foundational it has been to building a revolutionary alliance in a mainly peasant country with only a small working class. This type of alliance never stopped Connolly fighting for workers’ and peasants’ government in a workers’ republic.

Making partial or limited agreements with all sorts of dubious forces is inevitable in politics, there is no escape from unreliable allies. No political party or formation can ever be entirely free of career hunters, self-servers or opportunists. Indeed the presence of such people may often indicate that a movement has some value otherwise they would not attach themselves. But such assessments always have a subjective basis that can be proved wrong. But it serves little purpose to refuse to work with them in advance. They have to be taken at their word and their deceit and duplicity clearly established, often in the eyes of the working class, before they can be denounced. But such people are still committed to a political programme even though they may dislike it or seek and easier, less controversial life. Careerists, self-servers or opportunists won’t cease to exist but they can be set in motion for wanted political goals rather than in opposition for those goals the opposition desires.

It is far too easy to minimise the demand to remove the Trident missile system from Scottish bases and territorial waters by pointing out that the SNP is also pledged to a future Independent Scotland becoming a member of NATO. Even with these limitations, imperialism would still be affronted by such a policy. (It is worth noting that this is currently being eclipsed by the greater emphasis on the coming Trident renewal.) It is correct to point out that NATO membership will enable other members to transport and store such weapons in Scotland against the stated wishes of the Scottish Government. But it is highly important to recognise that it is better to campaign against NATO membership and the presence of foreign weapons of mass destruction when there is a commitment to remove the Trident submarines and close the bases. Even if the Westminster Government attempt to move the submarines and missiles to a new location at Devonport or Falmouth, their rejection in Scotland will make it more difficult to get them accepted. Making sure they implement their declared policy is more important than concentrating on its limitations. No other party is making this commitment. This is why I have argued for the strengthening of this pledge by calling for a nationwide referendum on the bases’ presence so that it becomes more difficult to renege on this commitment. If the battle against NATO is fought later this is still better than never fought at all. Besides, it will always be possible to campaign against NATO.

The SNP is capitalist party, despite its inability to attract much support from within the capitalist class –though that may change. For that reason I would never give –or lend- my vote to it. Yet there are a number of initiatives it has launched where I will give support such as closing the Faslane and Coulport bases, the Independence Referendum, launching the Scottish Constitutional Convention. In every case, there are severe limitations on these policies, but they still create enormous new political openings. Identifying opportunities no matter how small rather than seeing problems is a very important political skill that needs to be encouraged; always having a realistic appraisal that avoids self-delusion matters too; but, most importantly, recognising that it is almost always better to act than not to act. Doing nothing is always the easiest course of action; resist it. Mistakes are always made, but they are rarely catastrophic. Paralysis of the will leads to self-disenfranchisement; and self-disenfranchisement only strengthens the conservative forces of the rich and powerful. It is essential to never to be confined by the mind forg’d manacles. It is important to be aware of them and to stop making them.

A political party is not like a row of perfectly packaged washing powders sitting on a supermarket shelf with a clearly specified list of ingredients. Withdrawing from political involvement is like withdrawing from breathing; even polluted air is still better than nothing. None of the above is a statement of passive acceptance of the status quo. It is a denial of an individual’s ability to change the collective status quo. Expecting a party to appear fully formed correctly addressing each issue is naïve. Political parties have only a temporary, transitional character and are changed with each engagement. Hostile and divergent forces will always be present and they can only be challenged by short-term alliances with often unreliable allies. Yet even with these impediments, important changes can still take place.

The recent campaign by Steve Freeman, the Bermondsey Republican Socialist, was an example of what can be done when the existing political forces are felt to be inadequate: he assembled as many like-minded allies as possible and stood himself. He didn’t wait for permission from others, he acted. Although he appeared to act as an individual he represented a powerful collective identity. He became a focus for others by his actions. He showed that mood and mind-set can be just as important as policies. But, most significantly, he didn’t allow himself to be disenfranchised.   An inability to act is a victory for others where the status quo has won.

However, republicans are not political individualists. The term republic originates from the Latin term res publica, the public thing, the public act, public action. Perhaps Sartre was right about Hell being other people, but in public life there is no escape from them, perhaps also like Hell. Assembling a group of people requires organising around political principles, making sure there is a high enough consciousness, sufficient class similarities limits different interests crippling the achievement of the specified goals, and, of course, decision making structures are also required. So remaining isolated in a tower seems an inappropriate place for a republican to be. Yet as Steve has shown this shackling is only a mind forg’d manacle that can be discarded if sufficient will is shown..

“Settling for, or recommending the least worst option is not the answer to anything” suggests the best or even acceptable options are available. Because collective actions require working with others’ agendas, almost every choice will always be the “least worst option.” The important point is does the acceptance of that option help move towards a better situation? Despite the return of a majority Conservative government, there is an SNP majority in Scotland, a Labour government in Wales and a DUP led administration in Northern Ireland. Movements in political consciousness are occurring. The UK is in a more unstable condition than before the General Election. A strategy of forward motion is appearing. The number of possible openings is increasing. None may be perfect but they are there: it is important to recognise them and to act on at least one of them.

 

Murdo Ritchie, 9.5.15

  1. p. 316 , James Connolly, Socialism and Irish Nationalism, Selected Works, New Books Publications, Dublin. http://www.marxists.org/archive/connolly/1897/xx/scirenat.htm

 

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