Aug 24 2004

Suffering is no substitute for programme

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 08RCN @ 2:49 pm

D. Rayner O’Connor Lysaght, (Socialist Democracy, Dublin) argues that although the Jacobite Rising drew on social discontents it was incapable of resolving them postively.

Reading Dave Douglass’ passionate defence of the Jacobite Rising of ‘45, it became clear how much more relevant it is today than he seems to realise.

In the Middle East, hundreds of the oppressed and super-exploited are going out and blowing themselves up with their enemies. This is done in the name of a religious ideology of which the most definite social aspect is the affirmation of the subordinate status of one half of the human race. This allegiance does not make its advocates less oppressed or their imperial colonial enemies any less oppressive; yet the Islamists fight and die demanding more rather than less oppression. It is enlightening to read the finest political thinker produced by Edinburgh, James Connolly:-

In the first period of bondage the eyes of the subject class are always turned toward the past, and all its efforts in revolt are directed to the end of destroying the social system in order that it might march backward and re-establish the social order of ancient times – “the good old days”. That the goodness of those days was largely hypothetical seldom enters the imagination of men on whose limbs the fetters of oppression still sit awkwardly

Socialism Made Easy edition, p.41

So it was with the starving Highlanders of ‘45. So it is with the Arab volunteers of Hamas and Al Qaeda today. In both cases, the oppressed and exploited seek to liberate themselves using the nearest handy weapons. In both cases, the said weapons were/are not just blunted, but rotting.

Dave Douglass shows conclusive evidence why Highland clansmen and Northern English workers should commit themselves to the Young Chevalier. Where he fails is in showing that the said Chevalier and his associates had any perspective for liberating their plebian followers. In his later years, the not-so-bonny prince would weep drunkenly about the sufferings of his Highland followers, but he did little for them when it was possible to do anything, save of course leading them to defeat and decimation. Any consideration of his cause must include the fact that he betrayed his followers at the most basic level – by leading them without any political strategy, or any supply train worthy of the name before deserting them in the hour of defeat.

It seems probable that, had Charlie been luckier, he would have betrayed them at a higher level; that any strategy he had was based on an assumption that he could do a deal with enough sections of the current British ruling classes to facilitate his restoring something like the political status quo ante 1688.

As Dave Douglass admits, Nobody bothered to sign on the pitmen, keelmen and sailors of Tyneside and Northumbria. The Bonnie Prince and his clique were not interested. They sought their support amongst those with a stake in two countries. Douglass exposes this inadvertently, when he links the Northern English plebians to the Earls of Derwentwater. These cousins of the Stuarts hewed no coal and drew no water (even from the Derwent).

In fact the only thing that can be said for the Jacobite leaders is that they did not pretend to offer any social reforms. Their followers duped themselves, partially at least. Half a century previously, in the Williamite Wars, Ireland’s ‘Patriot’ Parliament had used its position of strength vis-a-vis James VII to act to remove the seventeenth century land settlements. In ‘45 no such parliament was even mooted. Charlie denounced the ‘pretended union’ of Scotland and England, but he did nothing to give his denunciation the only reality it could have: an independent Scottish parliament. (He never got far enough for a reconstituted English assembly to be imaginable.)

Perhaps he learnt much from his grandfather’s vicissitudes, or perhaps he recognised the balance of forces recorded in John Prebble’s statement that more Scots mobilised against him than for him. The only serious advance from a Stuart victory would have been toleration for Catholics. This was an obvious Stuart interest, and it would have been achieved probably by a deal with the English Anglican establishment, with the English dissenters being excluded.

Dave Douglass is correct, however, when he rubbishes the suggestion that capitalism in Britain would have been uninvented. The financial industrial economy would have continued, but in a more autocratic, unconstitutional environment. Internationally, some of the ideological underpinning of the French Revolution would have been discredited since the 1688 Glorious Revolution would have been seen as a failure. The Bastille might have had to wait longer for its storming. On the other hand, the Stuarts would have given the American colonists more cause for their insurrection. Indeed it is likely that a second restoration would have ended in a far more complete bourgeois seizure of state power than the 1688 compromise. These last two possibilities would have been positive results of a successful Jacobite rising; but they would have been reactions to it rather than direct achievements.

Undoubtedly, the ‘45 insurrection drew on valid social discontents. Equally certain is that its leaders were incapable of benefiting or resolving them. Those commoners who joined it were duped, albeit all too willingly. Of itself suffering is no substitute for programme.

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Aug 24 2004

‘Unionism’, Progress and the Socialist Tradition in Scottish History

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 08RCN @ 2:43 pm

Neil Davidson, author of Discovering the Scottish Revolution, replies to some of the discussion and debate his book has provoked.

I have been invited by the editors of Emancipation And Liberation to participate in the discussion about Discovering The Scottish Revolution here and in the pages of Scottish Socialist Voice and Frontline.(1) I was initially reluctant to respond, mainly because it is difficult to know where to begin, faced with the mixture of factual ignorance and ideological automatism which informed most contributions. Am I being too hard on comrades? Reader, you be the judge. Here are some of their Lamentable Groans and Complaints.

Contrary to what Dave Douglass writes, I have never claimed to be an ‘expert’ in Scottish history, but I think I can defend my conclusions by reference to the evidence. On the other hand, Dave’s entire knowledge of the Scottish Highlands seems to be derived from one book (Culloden) written by John Prebble over forty years ago. Now this was an important book in its day, but it and Prebble’s other writings have been one the main factors in fixing the image of Highlanders as different from Lowlanders – the Other, as we say nowadays. (An image which, incidentally, Prebble lifted more or less intact from Sir Walter Scott, the Unionist archfiend himself; but Prebble at any rate had no doubt that what happened in the Highlands was willed by British rather than ‘English’ class interests.) At one point in his polemic Dave throws back at me my own reference to a man he claims was a ‘captured clansman’ and a ‘condemned highlander’, forced to fight because of poverty.(2) This character was in fact the Earl of Kilmarnock who, as his title suggests, was a member of the Scottish nobility (‘Earl’) and from the Lowlands (‘Kilmarnock’); and his poverty was of a rather different order than that of the Highlanders who needlessly died attempting to restore his feudal estates.

Kevin Williamson finds his stomach churning at the suggestion that the Jacobite movement might have been connected with absolutism in some way. Well, let’s see. The reason for the existence of the Jacobite movement was the restoration of the Stuart dynasty; the Stuarts were committed to the Divine Right of Kings and to reversing the effects of the two revolutions which had removed them from the thrones of Great Britain (the technical term for this is, ‘counter-revolution’, by the way); they were furthermore aided in this endeavour by the King of France whose own absolutist regime was the model to which they aspired, and whose navy was mobilised to invade Britain on at least 3 occasions with a view to achieving the Stuart Restoration. Yup, it’s a hard one alright.

Joking apart, I assume that Kevin has in mind the notion that the Jacobite revolts were great popular uprisings against the Union which transcended their formal political ideology. Nice try, but this is a theory for which there is no supporting evidence whatsoever. There is, however, quite a lot of evidence for popular resistance to the Jacobites, to the point of armed struggle in Perth and Stirling, although one understands why Kevin, Gerry Cairns, et al, are not particularly interested in this aspect of our ‘hidden history’.(3)

(Incidentally, many comrades endlessly talk about uncovering the hidden history of popular revolt in Scotland, but do nothing to actually uncover it. On the other hand, despite my supposed unionism, I have written a more sustained discussion of the nature and extent of popular resistance to the Treaty of Union than any previous historian – certainly any other Marxist historian.(4))

Which brings us finally to Donald Anderson, who continues to happily revolve in an alternative dimension where desperate vassals forced by violence and hunger to fight for the continuation of their own feudal oppression are miraculously transformed into a liberation army intent on freeing ‘Scotland’ from ‘England’. Whatever disagreements I might have with the positions John Maclean adopted in the last years of his life, he at any rate never stopped basing his politics on a class analysis of society; the members of the Society which bears his name have yet to start.

I could go on, but what would be the point? It is, in short, questionable whether there has been a debate at all. Many comrades, including those mentioned above, evidently felt that they could dispense with the tiresome business of reading my book by basing their comments instead on what someone else had written about it, or by assuming that they already knew what my views were because of my factional affiliation within the SSP. Impressed though I am by the fact that my position on, say, the agrarian class structure of late seventeenth-century Scotland, can be deduced from reading the ‘Where We Stand’ column in Socialist Worker, this approach is scarcely a good advertisement for the culture of debate within the Party. Anyone relying on the letters page of the Voice to inform them about the contents of Discovering The Scottish Revolution would, like the comrade who thought that my position on the Highland Clearances was comparable that of Michael Fry, have been sadly misled. Here, for the record, are my actual views on the Highland Clearances:

Many Scots see the Highland Clearances – rightly, in my opinion – as a historical crime. … Even if the Clearances had been necessary for capitalist development, the solidarity of socialists would still be with the dispossessed peasants rather than with their oppressors… Far from being ‘necessary’ to the development of capitalism, the Highland Clearances were an example of an already triumphant capitalist class whose disregard for human life (and indeed, ‘development’) marked it as having long passed the stage of contributing to social progress. …the successful displacement of the Highlanders should not be seen as inevitable, but as an unnecessary political defeat.(5)

My views on the Treaty of Union have been as misrepresented as those on the Highland Clearances. My conclusions include this passage on the notion of its ‘progressiveness’:

Can this alliance of convenience between the Scottish and English ruling classes therefore be described as ‘progressive’ in any way? For Marxists, this term refers, in the context of the bourgeois revolution, to an event or process which leads either to the development of the productive forces or which heightens the political consciousness and organisation of the bourgeoisie – or indeed the classes below them in feudal society. In neither sense can the Union be said to qualify for such a description. It should be clear that it was, literally, a conservative measure for both the English bourgeoisie and the Scottish nobility. The very most that can be said for it is that, unlike the only realistic alternative, it was not actually reactionary in the sense of throwing society backwards.(6)

And so on. How is it possible that statements of this sort can seriously be presented as meaning that I think either event was ‘progressive’ in some way? Only if you haven’t bothered to read them, I suppose.

I was aware, of course, of the type of criticisms which the book was likely to provoke and tried to deal with them in advance by the remarkable expedient of providing evidence to support my arguments. However, comrades had a strategy for dealing with this – they simply ignored the evidence and repeated at greater volume the very positions which I had criticised in the first place. There seems to be a general unwillingness to empirically test claims and counter-claims, and to rely instead on long-established ideological positions supported by quotes or arguments derived from second or third-hand sources.

Let me make it clear that I am not dismissing contributions because they are not written by professional historians (or ‘experts’). I am not a historian, or indeed any sort of academic myself (I am a civil servant and do part-time tutorial work for the Open University), and I would certainly not recommend that anyone copy the plodding empiricism typical of most Scottish historiography. Nevertheless, unless comrades are prepared to engage with primary sources and to interrogate the historical meaning of concepts which they use (did nation mean the same thing in 1320 as it does today?, what kind of revolution was possible in the seventeenth century?), there cannot be any real debate.

Behind the hysteria and name calling here are, however, four serious issues which deserve further discussion: historical method; what ‘Unionism’ means in Scottish context; the components of the Socialist tradition; and the Marxist definition of progress. In what follows I will specifically refer to Allan Armstrong’s article, since it was virtually the only serious contribution from within the SSP, but in relation to these general issues rather than his detailed historical arguments.(7)

Reducing History to Politics

Questions of historical method may seem rather removed from our goal of transforming the world, but for those of who think that understanding history is necessary to our activity, they are of central importance. Virtually everybody involved in this episode seems to assume that not only are our interpretations of history determined by our current political views, but that it is entirely appropriate that they should be. Allan Armstrong thinks – quite wrongly, as it happens – that I am a ‘left Unionist’ and that my books were written in order to give historical support to this position. As I explain below, they were not. The point here is not that we all have specific positions and cannot step outside of them: I agree that impartial scholarship is not only impossible, but undesirable. Terry Eagleton puts the matter well:

Objectivity does not mean judging from nowhere. On the contrary, you can only know how the situation is if you are in a position to know. Only by standing at a certain angle to reality can it be illuminated for you. The wretched of the earth, for example, are likely to appreciate more of the truth of human history than their masters – not because they are innately more perceptive, but because they can glean from their own everyday experience that history for the vast majority of men and women has been largely a matter of despotic power and fruitless toil. … Only those who know how calamitous things actually are can be sufficiently free of illusion or vested interests to change them. … Objectivity and partisanship are allies, not rivals. What is not conducive to objectivity on this score is the judicious even-handedness of the liberal. It is the liberal who falls for the myth that you can only see things aright if you don’t take sides. It is the industrial chaplain view of reality. The liberal has difficulty with situations in which one side has a good deal more of the truth than the other – which is to say, all the key political situations.(8)

Note that Eagleton’s point is not just that we should be partisan, but that it is precisely partisanship which allows us – or rather demands of us – that we also be objective.

Allan’s approach is simply partisan, and is therefore incapable of assessing whether the Covenanters were actually capable of seizing power – or indeed what it would have meant if they had. This is a consequence of confusing three different things: how socialists intervene in contemporary politics (‘internationalism from below’); how socialists view the struggles of the past (‘the socialist tradition’); and how Marxists analyse history (historical materialism). Confusing the first or second with the third lead to what I call PJWHJ. Everyone knows how this works. We want to demonstrate the necessity for some course of action, say of revolution rather than reform, so we trail through history looking for episodes which confirm this position: Chile in 1970-3, Poland in 1980-1, or whatever. Now this is an important educational activity. It is the standard approach of left-wing newspapers – indeed, of all political newspapers – and in some cases it has risen to very high levels indeed (what else was Tom Paine doing?), but it is not the same as history, although it can lead to some very bad imitation history.

For one thing, with PJWHJ you already know in advance what your conclusions are going to be, and historical investigation must involve at least the possibility that your engagement with the evidence will prove your hypothesis to be wrong. For another, as your political positions change, so will the version of history which you uphold. We only need to think about the way in which the members of the ISM – whose historical views on Scotland (in so far as they had any) were not particularly different from those of the members of the SWP (in so far as we had any). But now you can barely open Frontline without coming across claims about Scottish oppression or Scottish radicalism which the authors would have scoffed at even ten years ago. The politics change first, and the history follows on to justify the change.

This is not the spirit in which I approach writing history. Indeed, my own positions have changed over the years as a result of precisely the process of research and investigation I commend to other comrades above. Donny Gluckstein and I wrote an article about Scotland back in 1990 (a classic example of PJWHJ) in which all the pre-modern sections, for which I was mainly responsible, reproduced positions taken straight from conventional bourgeois histories accounts and given a Marxist gloss(9). Thus, I uncritically accepted that there was some fundamental socioeconomic difference between the Highlands and the Lowlands, that the bourgeois revolution was essentially completed, at least in the Lowlands, by 1688 and that the Union was a deal between the Scottish and English bourgeoisies to exploit the Empire.

I now no longer believe that any of these positions is tenable: the Highlands and Lowlands were in fact quite similar at the socio-economic level, although in cultural-linguistic terms they were perceived to be different on both sides of the Highland Line; the bourgeois revolution – in the sense of the irreversible defeat of feudalism – was not completed until the aftermath of the ’45; the Scottish bourgeoisie were almost uniformly opposed to the Union and the Empire was not an issue in the negotiations. My research also led to the conclusion (which had not previously occurred to me) that Scottish national consciousness did not emerge until the mid-eighteenth-century and was consequently inseparable from Britishness – a position which, as far as I know, nobody else has argued before, not that my critics are aware of this fact.

The point about this is that where arguments are based on evidence it is possible to challenge them with other, superior evidence, which is not the same as exchanging anecdotes derived from secondary or tertiary sources. I claim that the Scottish working class between 1792 and 1820 was fundamentally British in political orientation. Others disagree. Fine.

So we have to find out what workers thought. How? By reading Berrisford Ellis’ and MacGhobain’s The Scottish Insurrection of 1820? I would not recommend this, unless your idea of amusement is spotting the largest number of factual errors possible in the pages of a single book. We have to go to the sources. What songs did workers sing? What images were on their banners? Which slogans did they raise at demonstrations? What resolutions were passed at trade union meetings? What do the autobiographies of the time say? How did the newspapers report events? Are there police reports? Spy reports? Poems?

Then we have to interrogate them more closely. Are the authors of the autobiographies typical or exceptional? Did they change their political positions between the events and writing their accounts? Were the newspapers biased for or against particular courses of action? How do we balance ‘Scots Wha Hae’ against ‘The Dumfries Volunteers’? One banner said ‘Scotland Free or a Desart’ – but did any others? Of course, if you already ‘know’ the answer, then none of this matters.

Finally, why should we assume someone’s views on the history of seventeenth century have any bearing on their political positions in the twenty-first? Angus Calder, whom Allan apparently regards as a Left Unionist on the strength of Revolutionary Empire, agrees with me about the dating of the Scottish nation, but is committed to independence as a principle in a way that I am not(10). This is not because Angus is a ‘Unionist’ as a historian and a ‘nationalist’ as an activist, but because as a historian he has to tell the truth as he finds it – regardless of the political demands which he currently supports. In one of the few sensible letters to the Voice during the entire controversy, Bill Scott – who, to my certain knowledge, is not a member of the SW Platform – pointed out that it was quite possible to agree with my views on the Scottish bourgeoisie revolution while remaining a firm supporter of the demand for an independent socialist Scotland today. I agree. My books are not an attempt to justify a political stance, but to explain why the main classes in Scottish society have behaved in the way they have done. Comrades may wish that they had behaved otherwise, but that is a different issue.


This brings me to the question of so-called ‘Unionism’. What does it mean in a Scottish context? One thing to note is that those who are forever declaiming about ‘Unionism’ appear to know very little about what its classic representatives actually believed. Take, for example, the supposed affinity between ‘Unionism’ and my views on the origin of Scottish nationhood. I once did a debate with Mark Stewart for the John Maclean Society at SSP conference – I think in 2001 – at which the promotional leaflet accused me of holding the ‘Unionist’ view on the post-Union basis of Scottish nationhood, as if this was a commonly held position. This kind of ignorance is incredible. No archival research beyond an afternoon with Sir Walter Scott’s Tales of a Grandfather is required here. One aspect of the Unionist argument is precisely to celebrate the achievement of Robert the Bruce – and in some cases, William Wallace – in maintaining the separate existence of the Scottish nation so that it could supposedly merge with England on equal terms in 1707, rather than on the forced basis imposed on Ireland a century later.

Otherwise it is difficult to explain how there is a bloody great statue of Wallace outside Union Terrace Gardens in Aberdeen which was erected during the late-19th century in part by subscriptions gathered from the unionist bourgeoisie. Most Unionists – Alan Massie is an exception – would find my arguments for the late emergence of Scottish nationhood as unacceptable as comrades in the John Maclean Society evidently do. It is difficult to ideologically combat political opponents if you make no effort to understand their views – their actual views, that is, and not the views you find it convenient to pretend that they hold. There are a number of reasons, however, why the term is meaningless in a Scottish context anyway.

First, the term is obviously meant to evoke parallels with Ireland, but the situations are completely different. In Ireland, Unionism is ideology of a distinct social group, the descendants of the colonial settlers who were marked out from the native population by their religion. This ideology, which only took its final form after the defeat of the Revolution of 1798 and the Union of 1801, is the expression of the relatively privileged position which ‘the Protestant community’ held within Irish – later Northern Irish – society. In the case of the Protestant working class those privileges have been very relative indeed, but no less effective for all that in dividing it from the Catholic working class. In other words, there is a material basis for Ulster Unionism which is linked to the way in which British – since we should not forget the Scottish role in Ulster – has been maintained in Ireland. None of this applies in Scotland. Here, ‘Unionism’ is simply a bogey-word thrown around by people – most of them Scottish or Welsh nationalists of one kind or another – who believe that the British state should be broken up along the lines of its constituent nations. From their perspective presumably everyone who doesn’t vote for one of the parties that support secession must be a ‘Unionist’, but the implications of this are of course that this term must apply to most members of the Scottish and Welsh working classes.

Second, and following on from this, it is completely misleading to keep talking about ‘the Union’ as if it was signed last week. What I have tried to establish in my books is that the British nation exists, in the sense that it is accepted as such by the majorities among all the major social classes, they have British ‘national consciousness’, in other words. Its not a trick, or the result of imperial bribery (for over 200 years!), any more than French or Swedish national consciousness is. To talk about a ‘Union’ state, as Allan Armstrong does, is to remain besotted by constitutional forms instead of focussing on the infinitely more important question of whether a British national consciousness determines the terrain on which the class struggle takes place. To claim that the Union somehow prevented Scotland from developing in a ‘natural’ way, as Alan McCombes increasingly does, is to treat nations as having some kind of real existence, rather than as being the imagined, invented formations appropriate to the capitalist stage of social development that they actually are.

Socialist Tradition

Allan Armstrong is not a nationalist any more than I am a unionist, but what concerns me about his attempt to construct a specifically Scottish ‘socialist tradition’ is that it gives ideological support to the soft nationalism within the SSP leadership(11). What does a socialist tradition mean in general terms, anyway? One answer would be that it is simply the record of working class struggles since the origins of capitalism, but this would be inadequate, since socialists clearly can also learn from, or be inspired by pre-working class struggles. However we cannot simply assimilate pre-working class struggles to our class traditions, for two main reasons.

First, the experience of these all inclusive traditions is that they are almost always conceived in national terms. Now at one level this is unexceptionable and, at the level of May Day platform rhetoric, most socialists who are not irredeemable sectarians have succumbed to it at one time or another. Furthermore, it is obviously the case that socialists who live and are active in a particular country need to know about its history (I would scarcely have written two books and several articles about Scotland if I did not believe that this was the case). But then doubts begin to set in. Why are these lists constructed on a national basis?

The early Atlantic working class was by experience and instinct international in orientation. The point is made very ably by Linebaugh and Rediker in The Many-Headed Hydra but, as they also demonstrate, by the time the class had stabilised and reformism had emerged as a coherent form of ideology and organisation, it increasingly split into narrowly defined national groupings, all with their own ‘traditions’. Thus, in British terms, Labourism and Stalinism both had their variations on ‘the People’s Story’ or ‘Our Story’, stretching from Magna Carta to the Welfare State, or the Peasant’s Revolt to the Miner’s Strike. There was a time when Tony Benn could scarcely appear on TV without intoning a litany involving ‘the Levellers, the Chartists, the Suffragettes’, etc. (I await the Scottish version: ‘From Calgacus to Sheridan’.)

Reformism, whatever the particular variant, always works in a national framework and its heroes and heroines are consequently picked from national history. (In Ireland the republican tradition even attempted to transform Connolly – who can scarcely be excluded from the pantheon – into an Irishman, even to the point where there are claims that he was born there rather than in Edinburgh.) But why should revolutionaries, who must, by definition, be internationalists, be constrained to a national agenda? Allan claims to operate within a framework of ‘internationalism from below’ – yet what we mainly hear about is Scotland. Allan might justify this by saying that the Covenanters were previously ignored, but is not so. Although I would not recommend the experience, a brief consultation of the collected speeches of Ramsay MacDonald and Keir Hardie will reveal just how far their historical memory had saturated the traditions of the Scottish labour movement. The reformist saint Hardie and arch-traitor MacDonald both referred to the Covenanters precisely because they knew that these references would be familiar to their listeners(12). But does the mere fact of their Scottishness necessarily mean that the Covenanters have more significance than the Levellers, that Maclean has more significance than Lenin? I think not in both cases. There have been historical episodes where the Scots have clearly been in advance of the English, notably during the Enlightenment and the General Strike of 1820, but for related reasons these are not events which nationalists are interested in claiming.

It is not just the retreat into nationalism that is a problem here, but what the Covenanters actually stood for. Edward Thompson once famously wrote, of modern attitudes towards English radicalism at the time of the French Revolution, that ‘so great has been the reaction against Whig or Marxist interpretations of history, that some scholars have propagated a ridiculous reversal of historical roles: the persecutors are seen as the forerunners of oppression, and the oppressors as the victims of persecution’(13). We can certainly find attitudes like this in Scottish history. ‘For certainly’, wrote George Ridpath, Church of Scotland Minister and member of the Moderate faction, ‘there never was a set of more barbarous, nonsensical bigots than the bulk of the Covenanters’(14). Against this we clearly have to state that the later Covenanters belonged to the oppressed, not the oppressors, but this does not mean that, in recognition of this fact, we should thereby sanitise their beliefs. Thompson also wrote elsewhere:

It is pointless to complain that the bourgeoisie have not been communitarians, or that the Levellers did not introduce an anarcho-syndicalist society. What we may do, rather, is identify with certain values which past actors upheld, and reject others. We may give our vote for Winstanley and for Swift; we may vote against Walpole and Sir Edwin Chadwick. Our vote will change nothing. Yet in another sense, it may change everything. For we are saying that these values, and not those other values, are the ones which make this history meaningful to us, and that these are the values which we intend to enlarge and sustain in our own present.(15)

But can we uncomplicatedly say that Covenanter ‘values’ are ones we should ‘enlarge and ‘sustain’? Two examples will demonstrate why I think we cannot. One relates to the attitude of conventiclers to other oppressed groups. In the summer of 1684, after months in hiding, Gilbert and Patrick Milroy of Kirkcalla were captured and tortured, although they refused to talk, before being sentenced to having their ears amputated and banished for 10 years to the West Indies. Put in an open prison in Port Royal, Jamaica, they were eventually sold as slaves to one of the colonists. What followed, recounted here from an uncritically admiring early twentieth-century account, tells us something about the contradictions which marked even the most radical elements of the time:

Gilbert Milroy refused to work for his master on the Sabbath, and one day, after his master had ordered him several times, he drew his sword and had well nigh killed him, but afterwards, finding him faithful, conscientious, and diligent, he altered his way, and made him overseer over all his negroes. The blacks hated him for his fidelity to his master and made various attempts to murder him.

These attempts included striking Milroy with a pole and poisoning him, both of which he survived:

Many of the prisoners died in their bondage, but Gilbert lived till the Revolution, and came home safe to his wife and relatives, and was a useful member of the [kirk] Session of Kirkowan.(16)

This is a tragedy, partly for Milroy, but even more so for the blacks over whom he stood, with King James Bible in one hand and a whip in the other. It is difficult to imagine, for example, Thomas Rainsborough being made an overseer of slaves, given the opposition of the Levellers to the entire system(17). It is no defence of Milroy to say that a hundred years later descendants of the Covenanters in America took a different position to slavery – they were clearly in a different social context and had equally clearly broken with their original ideology. In any case, we do not need to go as far as the Caribbean to find examples of their racism. We need only consult the minutes of the famous United Societies meeting at Douglas in 1690 includes references to both the ‘cut-throat Irishes’ (a standard description of the Irish in prose) and ‘the Highlanders (accustomed to rob)’(18). There were reasons for these attitudes, of which the sack of Aberdeen in 1644 is one and the Highland Host of 1678 another, but they were real and they had fatal implications for both the Irish and the Highlanders. (In this, if nothing else, I do agree with Donald Anderson.)

The second concerns their belief system more generally. Take Robert Law, a minister who was excluded in 1662 and became, along with many others, a field preacher. He was a moderate and, on the evidence of his memoirs, much of which is concerned to recount the supernatural fantasies of his time, was as credulous as the majority of his congregation. One entry reads: ‘February 1677. The witches already named were condemned by an assize to die, and be burnt at Paisley the twentieth day of that month.’ Only pages later we learn: ‘June 1677, there was great trouble to them that kept conventicles in and about Glasgow, and throughout the land, by soldiers’(19). The activities of the witches were as real to Law as those of the conventiclers.

I make these points not to judge Milroy or Law by modern standards, but by those of their English contemporaries – contemporaries whom, in other respects, also held beliefs which seem irrational to the modern mind. On the question of opposition to slavery (and not merely opposition to slavery when they were subjected to it) and persecution of witches, the Levellers seem to prefigure the modern world they were partly responsible for bringing into being. At one point during the debates of the Council of Officers at Whitehall in 1648, the discussion turned on whether magistrates should have any power over religious matters. One Leveller, John Wildman, commented: ‘That the magistrate should act to his conscience [might mean that he would] destroy and kill all men that would not come to such a worship as he had. [Accordingly] God hath not given a command to all magistrates to destroy idolatry, for in consequence it would destroy the world.’ Later in the same contribution Wildman speculated on the nature of God:

It is not easy by the light of nature to determine [more than that] there is a God. The sun may be that God. The moon may be that God. To frame a right conception or notion of the First Being, wherein all other things have had their being, is not possible in the light of nature alone. (20)

Wildman was not typical in his deistic views. As Christopher Hill says: ‘The Levellers had no distinctive religious policy, apart from wanting toleration and the abolition of tithes’(21). There is no need to imagine what even the most radical of the Covenanters would have made of these Horrid Blasphemies. These were precisely the reasons why they persisted in denouncing the English left as ‘sectarians’ and ‘schismatics’, even though the latter were their only conceivable allies against the Stuarts.

Allan writes of the Covenanters:

Their fight was not some misguided, backward-looking affair, holding back future progress. It was the cry of humanity, in a world where ‘salvation’, ‘improvement’ or ‘progress’ was nearly always promoted separately from the needs of the people. Resistance to this inhumanity should always be part of our socialist tradition.(22)

Well, the Covenanters were ‘backward-looking’ in the literal sense that after 1649 they wanted to return to the recently-ended halcyon days of the Solemn League and Covenant but, leaving that aside, I defy Allan to find any passage where I describe the Covenanters as ‘backward’ in this pejorative sense. My point is not that they were wrong to fight, but that if we look at the matter historically, and not as if we were retrospectively taking sides in football match, we are forced to conclude that the narrowness of their ideological, geographical and social base meant they were structurally incapable of overthrowing the state. Ultimately, such political radicalism as they possessed was implicit in their demands – in refusing to pay taxes for religious reasons, for example – rather than explicitly contained within their ideology.

We have inherited both sides of the Covenanters. On the one hand, radicalism: in Grey Granite Lewis Grassic Gibbon has Ewan Tavendale say of those ‘funny chaps the Covenanters’ that ‘he had always liked them – the advance guard of the common folk in those days, their God and their Covenant just formulae they hid the social rebellion in’(23). On the other, bigotry: the year after the publication of Grey Granite, Lewis Spence, a founding member of the National Party of Scotland, recalled another aspect of Covenanting ideology during an attack on Glasgow Corporation, the majority of whose members he denounced as ‘pro-Irish and pro-Muscovite’, for being ‘aggressive and offensive to the Scottish minority’ and for deliberately keeping the rates high in order to support the unemployed ‘Irish’ population: ‘Yet with a supineness which ill becomes the seed of the Covenanters, it bows patiently before the ebullient and contemptuous alien’(24). The racist hatred of the Catholic Irish (and Scottish Highlanders) invoked by Lewis Spence is as much a part of the Covenanting inheritance as the disguised social rebellion identified by Ewan Tavendale(25). Allan is aware of this, but what he fails to appreciate, I think, is that we cannot separate out the one from the other, in a completely undialectical way, into a ‘good’ side and a ‘bad’ side; we have to understand the Covenanting movement as a whole, which is why I do not think we can simply embrace it.


This brings us finally to the question of progress. Allan defines it as follows:

Progress must always be measured by its contemporary contribution to human welfare and emancipation, not by the number of acres enclosed, bushels of wheat grown, or by the tonnes of steel produced.(26)

If Allan really intends us to take this literally then I assume that he thinks that it would have been better if we had never moved beyond the stage of picking nuts and berries, and pushing the odd woolly mammoth off a cliff. Because, unfortunately, every increase in the productive powers of mankind to date – including the initial move beyond primitive communism – has only been achieved at the cost of the greater division of labour, and of more complex forms of class society. Marx and Engels were – in my view – quite rightly unflinching in their acceptance of the implications of their theory. Here is a particularly extreme example (which is in fact the source of the comments by Jeffrey Vogel that Allan finds so offensive):

It was slavery that first made possible the division of labour between agriculture and industry on a larger scale, and thereby also Hellenism, the flowering of the ancient world. Without slavery, no Greek state, no Greek art and science, without slavery, no Roman Empire. But without the basis laid by Hellenism and the Roman Empire, also no modern Europe. We should never forget that our whole economic, political and intellectual development presupposes a state of things in which slavery was as necessary as it was universally recognised. In this sense we are entitled to say: Without the slavery of antiquity no modern socialism.

It is very easy to inveigh against slavery and similar things in general terms, and to give vent to high moral indignation at such infamies. Unfortunately all that this conveys is only what everyone knows, namely, that these institutions of antiquity are no longer in accord with our present conditions and our sentiments, which these conditions determine. But it does not tell us one word as to how these institutions arose, why they existed, and what role they played in history. And when we examine these questions, we are compelled to say—however contradictory and heretical it may sound—that the introduction of slavery under the conditions prevailing at that time was a great step forward.(27)

I can imagine the outraged responses to this. How can Engels ignore the struggles of the oppressed in this way? What about Spartacus? (etc., etc.) Actually, even I think that Engels might be exaggerating ever so slightly here, but the core point is essentially sound, and has the great benefit of treating a serious issue seriously.

What is that issue? Leaving aside what happened in antiquity and further back, it is whether socialism is possible without at least some countries going through the experience of capitalism first.

The Marxist answer to this has always been an unqualified negative; indeed, this is one of the ways in which Marxism distinguishes itself from every kind of anarchism, feudal and petty bourgeois socialism, Third-Worldism, and so on. John Saville makes the point with great clarity in a book which deals precisely with the oppression faced by the British working class during the industrial revolution:

Socialists have always recognised capitalism as a system of productive relations that marked a historic stage in the development of the human race. There was a great leap forward in the control of the forces of nature, and for the first time in human history there emerged the technical possibilities of providing everyone in the world with freedom from starvation and an improvement in general standards of living.(28)

If we reject this – and no one has explicitly come out and said that they do, although Dave Douglass comes close – then several alternatives propose themselves. One is what fans of 1970s television advertising might call the Martini argument about the possibilities for socialism: any time, any place, anywhere. Spartacus, John Ball, Gerard Winstanley, the Cameronians – fill in your own favourite hero from the pantheon – all of them stood just as good a chance of achieving socialism as we do. Does anyone actually believe this nonsense? I trust not, but given some of the views that have been expressed in this controversy, I may be too optimistic here.

Another is that it would have been possible to arrive at a non-exploitative, form of capitalism, or rather market economy, which did not involve colonies, slaves, clearances, enclosures or the genocide of indigenous people. What is that song by Roy Orbison I can hear in the background? Oh yes, ‘In Dreams’. The primitive accumulation described by Marx was not some special path, or alternative that could be chosen at will: it was the basis of the system. Equally, the idea that we could have remained independent small commodity producers is fantasy which mistakes Marx’s analytic method for reality. There have never been any such societies. My mistake, there have been two, although neither exactly commend themselves to socialists: the Boer Republic prior to 1902 and the Confederate states of America prior to 1865.

So where does this leave us? In 1898, towards the end of an exhaustive study demonstrating that capitalism was already developing in Russia, Lenin wrote about the progressive role of capitalism: ‘Recognition of the progressiveness of this role is quite compatible…with the full recognition of the negative and dark sides of capitalism, with the full recognition of the profound and all-round social contradictions which are inevitably inherent in capitalism, and which reveal the historically transient character of the economic regime.’ His Narodnik opponents argued that ‘an admission of the historically progressive nature of capitalism means an apology for capitalism’, but Lenin rightly denied this and argued that it was possible to welcome capitalism at the same time as fighting against its effects.(29)

Nowadays, we don’t have to welcome capitalism, its progressive role is long over. But what many comrades seem to find difficult to accept is that capitalism, or its representative class, the bourgeoisie, has ever played a progressive role in the first place. The suffering unleashed by capitalism has been so great, so unendurable, that it is better to pretend that the whole thing could have been avoided. In the absence of any alternative explanation of how we could have got to the point where socialism was materially possible, I don’t think this is remotely tenable. This has nothing to do with ‘Second International Marxism’ or ‘determinism’, which comrades seem to confuse with Historical Materialism per se. At one point in his article, Dave Douglass sneers that ‘Uneven and Combined development seems to have escaped our expert’.(30)

On the contrary, I think that this theory is indispensable for an understanding of history(31). But it only makes sense in the context of an already existing capitalist economy. In other words, somebody has had to go through capitalism first. One of the groups who had to do so was the Scots. And it is partly because of what they endured, and suffered – although others had even worse experiences than the Scots, and often at Scottish hands – that we can contemplate a socialist future in which no-one ever has to endure, or suffer in that way again.

Neil Davidson


  • (1) Joe Hartney, Scots Far from Victims of Imperialism, Scottish Socialist Voice 140, 20 June 2003; letters by Donald Anderson, Jim Carroll, Donnie Fraser, Scot MacCreamhain, Eddie Truman, Kevin Williamson, Scottish Socialist Voice 141, 27 June 2003; letters from Joe Hartney and Keef Tomkinson, Scottish Socialist Voice 142, 4 July 2003; letters from Allan Armstrong, Ken Ferguson, Ken MacLeod and Bill Scott, Scottish Socialist Voice 143, 11 July 2003; J. Jamieson, Review of Discovering the Scottish Revolution, 1692-1746, Frontline 10, August 2003; A. Armstrong, The Cameronians and the Reclaiming of Scotland’s Revolutionary Tradition, Frontline 10, August 2003; A. Armstrong, Beyond Broadswords and Bayonets: Scotlands Revolutionary Tradition, Emancipation and Liberation 5/6, Autumn 2003; D. Douglass, Provocative and Insulting, Emancipation and Liberation 7, Spring 2004, D. Anderson, A Good, if One-Sided Account, Emancipation and Liberation 7, Spring 2004. The article by Douglass is not a response to Discovering, but to a talk by me given at the Communist Party of Great Britain Communist University and published – without my permission or editorial input – as Bourgeois Revolution and Breaking National Myths, Weekly Worker 500, 16 October 2003; the article by Anderson is a response to Armstrong which only pauses to criticise me in passing. The book has also been reviewed – although rather more temperately – in publications outwith those associated with the SSP. See G. Kerevan, Built Upon a Great Golden Myth, The Scotsman, 14 June 2003; P. Davidson, How the Middle Class Conquered Scotland, Scotland On Sunday, 29 June 2003; D. Renton, Scotch Myths Vanish into Scots Mist, Tribune, 11 July 2003; D. Sherry, No Tartan Gloss, Socialist Review 277, September 2003; P. H. Scott, Scots Revolution that Never Was, The Sunday Herald, 23 November 2003; R. Duncan, Review of Discovering The Scottish Revolution, 1692-1746, Scottish Labour History 37, 2003; T Byres, Review of Discovering The Scottish Revolution, 1692-1746 and The Myth Of 1648, Journal Of Agrarian Change, vol. 4, no. 4, October 2004.
  • 2 Douglas, Provocative and Insulting, p. 44.
  • 3 N. Davidson, Discovering The Scottish Revolution, 1692-1746 (London and Sterling, Virginia, 2003), p. 244-8.
  • 4 Davidson, Discovering The Scottish Revolution, 131-58.
  • 5 Ibid, pp. 294, 297, 298.
  • 6 Ibid, p. 170.
  • 7 A forthcoming article in Scottish Labour History will implicitly answer some of Allan’s claims concerning the role of the Cameronians in the Glorious Revolution. This was originally intended as part of the first chapter of Discovering, before I excised all the material prior to 1692 as belonging to a different historical period, which I think both Allan and I regard as that of the failed revolutions from below. See N.Davidson, Popular Insurgency During the Glorious Revolution in Scotland, 1688-1692, Scottish Labour History 38, 2004.
  • 8 T. Eagleton, After Theory (London, 2003), pp. 135-6. See also the comments of one of the greatest and most under-rated Scottish Marxist theoreticians: Both [tragic and dialectical] thought know that one cannot first understand the world and only then act on it. How one understands the world will depend on in part on the decisions implicit in one’s already taken actions. The wager of action is unavoidable. … Not eternity but the future provides a context which gives meaning to individual parts in the present. The future which does this is as yet unmade; we wager on it not as spectators, but as actors pledged to bring it into being. A. MacIntyre, Pascal and Marx: on Lucien Goldmann’s Hidden God, Against The Self Images Of The Age: Essays On Ideology And Philosophy (London, 1971), pp. 84-85.
  • 9 N. Davidson and D Gluckstein, Nationalism and the Class Struggle in Scotland, International Socialism, Second Series, 48, Autumn 1990, 109-118.
  • 10 A. Calder, When Was Scotland?, Scotlands Of The Mind (Edinburgh, 2002).
  • 11 At the debate between me and Allan Armstrong at Socialism 2003 Alan McCombes was quick to say how much he agreed with Allan’s argument.
  • 12 One example: John Duncan, a weaver from Stonehaven and later self-educated botanist, told his biographer how, as a child in the first decade of the 19th century, he had explored the environs of Dunnottar Castle: But in all their long, changeful and fascinating story, what charmed his young imagination most was, not the halls where royalty had rested; not the place where the Scottish Crown, sword and sceptre had lain and whence they had been cleverly borne to the neighbouring church of Kineff; not even the stirring story of Wallace and his gallant capture of the castle when he shook so grandly for Scottish Independence…it was the ‘Whig’s Vault’, on the edge of the cliff, where the Covenanters were immured. …Nothing coloured his whole existence more than the inspiring story of the struggle for Scottish religious freedom, which entered deep into his inner heart in after life, and infused his piety with the uncompromising fire of the old Covenanters. W. Jolly, The Life Of John Duncan, Scotch Weaver And Botanist With Sketches Of His Friends And Notices Of The Times, Second Edition, London, pp. 16-17.
  • 13 E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Revised Edition, Harmondsworth, 1980), p.110.
  • 14 G. Ridpath, Diary of George Ridpath, Minister of Stichell, 1755-1761 edited with notes and introduction by J. B. Paul (Edinburgh, 1922), entry for 8 April 1758, p. 179.
  • 15 E. P. Thompson, The Poverty Of Theory Or An Orrery of Errors, The Poverty Of Theory And Other Essays, p. 234.
  • 16 A. S. Morton, Galloway and the Covenanters (Paisley, 1914), pp. 444-45.
  • 17 P. Linebaugh and M. Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra (London and New York, 2000), p. 111.
  • 18 M. Shields, Faithful Contendings Displayed edited by J. Howie (Edinburgh, 1780), p. 442. Other references to the Catholic Irish as ‘bloody throat cutters’ and ‘bloody Irishes’ can be found in ibid, pp. 393, 396.
  • 19 R. Law, Memorials, or the Memorable Things that Fell Out Within the Island of Britain from 1638 to 1684 edited by C. K. Sharpe (Edinburgh, 1819), pp. 127, 134.
  • 20 ‘Council of Officers, 14 December 1648’, in Puritanism and Liberty: Being the Army Debates (1647-49) from the Clarke Manuscripts selected and edited with an introduction by A. S. P. Woodhouse and new preface by I. Roots (London, 1986), p. 161
  • 21 C. Hill, The Experience of Defeat (Second Edition, London, Chicago and Melbourne, 1994), p. 28.
  • 22 Armstrong, Beyond Broadswords and Bayonets, p. 44.
  • 23 L. Grassic Gibbon, 1935, Grey Granite (New York, 1935), p. 252.
  • 24 L. Spence, Edinburgh – Scotland – 1936, The Nineteenth Century and After, vol. 120, no. 717, 1936, pp.635-636.
  • 25 Spence also maintains another venerable Covenanting tradition in his contemptuous dismissal of the Highlanders as ‘a people so utterly comatose’ that they would never rebel against their landlords. Ibid, p. 640.
  • 26 Armstrong, Beyond Broadswords and Bayonets, p. 44.
  • 27 F Engels, Anti-Duhring, Collected Works (50 Volumes, London, 1975-2004), p. 168.
  • 28 J. Saville, The Consolidation Of The Capitalist State, 1800-1850 (London and Sterling, Virginia, 1994), p. vii.
  • 29 V. I. Lenin, The Development Of Capitalism In Russia, Collected Works, vol. 3 (Moscow, 1960), p. 596
  • 30 Douglass, Provocative and Insulting, p. 43.
  • 31 See N Davidson, Violating the Laws of History? The Necessity For The Theory Of Uneven And Combined Development (forthcoming).

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Aug 24 2004

Emancipatory Science

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 08RCN @ 2:41 pm

Despite its misuse and abuse by capitalism, Iain Robertson illustrates how science and scientists have a progressive role to play.

As debates continue about GM crops, global warming and environmental degradation, scientists can easily become regarded as a faceless group in the pay of the industrial/military machine that increasingly blights our lives across the globe. As with any other community, political convictions within the scientific community range across the full spectrum. Fortunately, given the power of science and its misuse and abuse on the part of corporations, the military and governments, in every generation there have been those who chose to serve human kind by promoting enlightenment and truth, and by linking their search for scientific truth to social and political justice. We are all aware of the involvement of scientists in the development of the ‘real’ WMD programmes of the UK and the USA but we are not so aware of those scientists who speak out against abuses of science and against abuses of human rights.

There are many historical examples of the involvement of scientists in the politics of the day. You will not be surprised to learn that most of their names are virtually unknown and that even where the names are in the history books, the science text books or in the media, their political activities are not.

Lavoisier had his head chopped off in France and Joseph Priestley was hounded by the mob in Birmingham. They were contemporaries; rivals in the search to isolate and identify the ‘active’ ingredient in air – oxygen gas. Lavoisier funded his scientific research using the generous cut he took as a tax farmer for King Louis XIV. In France, the revolution won and Lavoisier paid the price for his supposed Royalist sympathies, while in England the revolution had failed and Priestley, as a public supporter of the French and American revolutionary ideals, narrowly escaped death at the hands of a mob whipped up by the Tories of the day. To be fair to Lavoisier, it is reported that he was one of the more liberal minded tax collectors who attempted to secure reforms to the system.

Kathleen Lonsdale – woman pioneer in a man’s world

But this article is about a 20th century mathematician, physicist, chemist and mother of three imprisoned by the British government during the WWII and later awarded the CBE. Her name is Kathleen Lonsdale (nee Yardley). Kathleen Yardley was the youngest of ten children, born to Harry and Jessie Yardley, in Newbridge, Co. Kildare. Her father was postmaster at Newbridge Post Office, following a career in the British army. He married Jessie Cameron, a Scot, in 1889. He read widely and Kathleen later said, I think it was from him that I inherited my passion for facts. Unfortunately he had a drink problem and the home wasn’t happy, and in 1908 Kathleen’s mother left him and brought the children to Seven Kings in Essex. He only visited them occasionally and died when Kathleen was 20. Her mother was a Christian of the Strict Baptist persuasion and Kathleen’s earliest memories are of attending Church of Ireland services and the Methodist Sunday School in Newbridge, and learning to count with yellow balls in the local school. She was the youngest of ten children, four girls and six boys. Four of her brothers died in infancy and Kathleen commented in later life, Perhaps, for my sake, it was as well that there was no testimony against a high birth rate in those days.

She attended classes in Physics, Chemistry and Higher Mathematics at the High School for Boys (the only girl) as her school didn’t offer these subjects. Poverty forced her older siblings to quit school and go out to work to help support the family. [Her brother Fred Yardley became one of the earliest wireless operators and was the person who received the last signals from the Titanic in 1912.]

Being the only girl in a male world was the beginning of a lifetime’s struggle. She was encouraged to come into the developing field of X-ray crystallography by its leading exponent, William Bragg. Kathleen Lonsdale made the most of this opportunity and her abilities, despite an unfavourable family background, the heavy demands of family life and several moves. She said, in her characteristically humble way,

My own research life has been greatly enriched by having been broken into by periods of enforced change. I was not idle while I had my three children; far from it. But it gave me the opportunity of standing back, as it were, and looking at my work. And I came back with new ideas.

Blazing a trail

One of the fruits of these ‘new ideas’ was the breakthrough in techniques for mapping the exact structure, atom by atom in 3 dimensions, of molecules such as penicillin. It was this that allowed the laboratory synthesis of these important molecules previously only available naturally in small quantities. In short, she played a critical part in making modern medicines available to the masses. Of course, today her work would be the intellectual property of Monsanto or Glaxo and it is this, rather than ‘science’ or scientists, that is the problem.

She achieved many firsts in the arena of professional science and broke through several glass ceilings, particularly in the field of crystallography where women now have one of the highest representations compared to other physical sciences.

Kathleen Lonsdale was one of the women pioneers in a man’s world, the world of professional scientists. She opened the way for other women, and crystallography became an area of the physical sciences where women became prominent. Maureen Julian showed in a survey of crystallographers that around 14% were women in the early 1990s, compared to around 2% of physicists. Thus women are more numerous and more prominent in this area of science than in related sciences. This was due firstly to the influences of William and his son, Lawrence Bragg, in the 1920s and 1930s. They encouraged many women to take up crystallography, and then to the influence of Kathleen Lonsdale, who was one of the most prominent women in science from the late 1930s to her death in 1971.

Dorothy Hodgkin, although not a student of Kathleen Lonsdale, was influenced by reading one of her papers while an undergraduate. Dorothy Hodgkin went on to win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her application of crystallography to solving the structures of important biological molecules, and she also encouraged many women to take up crystallography as a career. But Kathleen Lonsdale was the pioneer woman in this area and was recognized as follows:

  • One of the first two women elected as Fellows of the Royal Society (1945)
  • First woman professor at University College, London (1949)
  • First woman president of the International Union of Crystallography (1966)
  • First woman president of the British Association of Science (1968)

There is an irony about the date of her election to the Royal Society at the close of WWII. This is an ‘honour’ given by scientists to each other and it may have been the scientific community recognizing more than just her contribution to science. Kathleen Lonsdale was brought up as a Strict Baptist by her mother but as an adult she found its beliefs rather restrictive. She and her husband, having looked around for a suitable church to join, eventually joined the Quakers, or Society of Friends.

Their strongly pacifist yet activist position appealed to Kathleen, whose abhorrence of war had grown since WWI when she lived near London under the Zeppelin flight path. At the beginning of WWII everyone was expected to register for war service of some sort, but Kathleen refused registration since there was no exception on the grounds of being a conscientious objector. She was eventually summonsed and fined £2. When she refused to pay the fine she was sent to Holloway Prison for one month, wearing prison clothes, cleaning floors and doing other jobs. She took this course of action despite the fact that she would have been exempted as a mother of three young children. However, she was allowed books and papers and managed seven hours scientific work every day.

Prison reform

This marked the start of a life-long interest in prison reform and she became a Prison Visitor for several women’s prisons after the war. 1945 was also the year she joined the growing movement of scientists against the Atomic bomb. She visited many countries after the war including Russia and China, but she had trouble getting a visa to visit the USA. One embassy official told her: You’ve been to the three most difficult places’ Russia, China and gaol. While in prison she discovered a fallacy behind statistics used by the authorities. This surfaced again in 1998 when her daughter, Nancy, wrote to the Guardian as follows:

I was intrigued by the statistic in Peter Gorman’s letter (March 7th) that in 1996-7 ‘while 11 per cent of people in England and Wales are Roman Catholic, 17 per cent of those in prison are’. My mother, Kathleen Lonsdale, spent a month in Holloway prison in 1943. She was a Quaker and had refused to pay a fine for not registering for fire watching. On arrival a friendly inmate whispered that it was better to register as a Roman Catholic. They were issued with bibles with red covers, which, if wetted, could produce a passable substitute for lipstick. Protestants were given blue covered bibles. My mother used this anecdote to illustrate the pitfalls of interpreting statistics.

In many ways her work for peace and for prison reform, in the best traditions of Christian activism, were as significant as her scientific work. The title of one of her non-scientific books was Is Peace Possible? and another was The Christian Life Lived Experimentally. She was an activist in the best sense of the word, and she implemented this in her scientific as well as in her Christian and social activities. In one of her talks on religion she said: It is necessary to believe that in God’s world there is always a right course of immediate action. That was a philosophy that she put into action herself and persuaded others around her to do the same.

Coming as she did from a poor Irish/Scots working class background and being a successful woman in a male world she could so easily have ‘sold out’, accepted the honours and accolades and become part of the establishment. Instead she fought for women’s rights and prison reform, and was very active in anti-war work.

Emancipatory role

And while tens of thousands of senior science pupils and science undergraduates study her discoveries few, if any, will know her name, and while thousands of science teachers and lecturers teach her discoveries few, if any, will know anything about her life even if they do know the name. And this is because today’s scientists are largely cut off from their own history and heritage. They do not know of the emancipatory role that scientists have often played in freeing the human mind from myth and superstition and in challenging the philosophical basis upon which the ruling classes of the day have depended.

We need within the SSP to address the issue of education. We need to create systems that encourage our pupils and student how to think, not just what to think; we need to foster greater awareness of the history of ideas and we need to reinvigorate scientists with as sense of social responsibility.

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Aug 24 2004

The Politics of Disability

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 08RCN @ 2:38 pm

Why is disability a question for socialists and what issues does it raise for us as socialists? Well, you only need to look at the Disability Rights Section of the
SSP manifesto to answer these questions:

There are about 800,000 disabled people in Scotland. 68 % of households with a disabled person have an Income of less than £10,000 per year. Disabled people are almost twice as likely as non-disabled people to be out of work, and 110,000 Scottish households including a disabled person said they required adaptations.

(DRC, Disability in Scotland 2001 Key Facts and Figures).

To understand the exclusion of disabled people we need to understand the history of the movement and of disability itself. A good starting point is to look at two models of disability, which those in the disability movement will be familiar with – the medical model and the social model.

Medical model

The medical model reflects what most people understand about disability. This understanding is based on the idea that my disability is that I am blind; therefore I am disabled by being unable to see. The response of society is to try to help me. So I was sent away from home at the age of five to a special school. At this school I was taught skills, in addition to the standard curriculum, such as how to use a white cane to get around and how to touch type so I can send letters to sighted folk. The Benefits Agency gives me benefits to compensate for the fact that I will probably earn less, or have to pay more for travel, clothes etc. Anything over and above this the state expects me to request from a charity. So if I want a holiday I should ask my friends to run the London Marathon for me or to collect milk bottle tops.

This is the common conception of disability which pervades society. It is based on a medical understanding of disability. To get the benefits you must be prodded and poked by doctors to make sure you are not cheating and to make sure you are not just lazy and want to stay at home rather than work. It is an individualistic view of disability – it’s my disability and therefore its my problem that I can’t fully participate in society. Our institutions enforce this concept of disability upon us. Our children are fed it at school when they are encouraged to dress up for sponsorship to raise money for disabled children.

Social model – disabled by society

In contrast to this is the social model. This outstanding achievement of the disability movement has been to conceive of disability in a radical new way, a potentially revolutionary new way. Developed by Vic Finkelstein, Mike Oliver, Paul Hunt and Colin Barnes (amongst others), the social model of disability turned the traditional conception on its head. No longer was a disability the disadvantage caused by a medical impairment, such as blindness or deafness. Now disability was the disadvantage caused by the way society is organised, the way the environment is built and the attitudes of others. The blame was shifted away from disabled people and their impairments and onto society. My impairment is my lack of sight. I am disabled by a society which is structured in such a way that I cannot read most written materials, know what bus is coming, or read the contents of a food tin. I am disabled by a society which patronises me, pats me on the head and goes “oh dear how brave” when I walk past. Disabled by a society which believes that I should go to a special school, not have sex and certainly not help create another baby which may be blind.

This social model in itself has been a very liberating understanding for thousands of disabled people. No longer do we have to feel guilty, grateful or thankful. We could now feel angry and realise that if we wanted to improve our conditions it wasn’t by popping more pills or undergoing more therapy. It was by changing the way the world was structured. And that is what disabled people started to do. They started to form their own organisations. At first these focused on being released from institutions – care homes and long stay hospitals. They demanded services in the community to enable them to live independent lives or to start families of their own. They demanded decent benefits. They demanded the right not to be discriminated against when shopping, using services or, god forbid, trying to get a job. They demanded accessible public transport and accessible buildings.

Many victories have been won – some better than others, some leaving a very bitter taste in the mouth. But we have had successes and the lives of many disabled people have consequently been improved . If it were not for the likes of Finkelstein and Hunt I would have been condemned to a life of basket weaving or piano tuning – I could effectively have kissed goodbye to going to university. Wheelchair users would still have to sit in the guard’s van on trains and public buildings would not have wheel chair access.

But the social model, as it is commonly understood, only takes us so far. So society disables us because of the way it is organised. That insight is fine. But why is society organised in this way? Why do people have the attitudes they do towards disabled people? And most crucially, how then can we change society into one where disabled people are equal and included in the mainstream of life and not left on the margins?

Radical conscience of the movement

This is an issue which has been addressed by Vic Finkelstein. For two and a half decades now he has been the radical conscience of the movement. As a disabled communist in South Africa he found out that in some ways he was equal to non-disabled people when he was arrested and imprisoned – no patronising attitude then. But in other ways he was treated differently. When he received details of his banning order which restricted what buildings he could go into, what groups he could join, colleges he could attend or workplaces he could visit, he remarked that this was nothing new as he couldn’t enter most of them anyway as they were inaccessible to him as a wheelchair user. He was effectively exiled to Britain in the 1960s only to discover that his freedom to enter buildings, travel or find work, was similarly restricted.

For Finkelstein the root cause of society being organised in such a way as to exclude disabled people, economically, socially and ideologically is industrial capitalism. The growth of mechanised industry in the nineteenth century meant that people had to fit in with machines and tools and not the other way round. They had to work at the pace of the machines. People with impairments were those who could not fit in with these factory production methods. Hence they were excluded from the factory. The industrial capitalist had no work for them and hence they were left to fend for themselves and to rely on their families and charity. Massive charities grew up to feed and house disabled people – they portrayed disabled people as poor and unfortunate in order to extract money from the middle classes. The state had to step in and provide a modicum of support in the form of workhouses. But their fear was that if they made the lives of disabled people too comfortable then the non-disabled workers would not have any incentive to work. People would pretend to be disabled.

Therefore disability was handed over to the new medical profession to measure and weigh us, to test and probe us, to define us and rank us. We can see this treatment of disabled people continues today. Disabled people are stigmatised for being a burden, they have to jump through unbelievable hoops to get even the most modest benefits and are categorised and classified at every turn. Tony Blair’s attack on the benefits of disabled people over the last few years stands proudly in the same tradition as those who forced disabled people into the Victorian workhouses.

The historical origins

Other activists, including Barnes, sought to redefine the origins of disability. For them the origins of disability could be traced back much further than industrial capitalism. Contemporary attitudes to cultural representations of people with impairments have their roots in ancient Greece and this has been a thread running consistently (if different in detail) from early Christian and feudal societies in Britain to the modern day. Barnes, for example, cites the practice of infanticide where impaired babies would be left to die. The Greeks, particularly the Spartans, idealised the perfect body. He constructs a direct lineage of negative attitudes to disability from the ancient world to the modern day – from the link between impairment and punishment for sin, through developing themes such as people with impairments being objects of pity and charity and the individualisation and medicalisation of disability.

This ideological approach adds a degree of subtlety to the understanding of how disability impacts upon people’s lives and the mechanisms by which it is transmitted and renewed. However, it opens the door to a post-modernist interpretation because it is not rooted in a materialist understanding of exclusion from work but is heavily reliant on social attitudes being the cause. The post-modernist theorists such as Tom Shakespeare, Jenny Morris and Sally French have borrowed heavily from feminist concepts of the ‘other’ and applied them to disability. This school of thought argues disabled people were now oppressed – not due to material circumstances or their relation to the means of production – but because disabled people represented the fragile body, reminding non-disabled people of what they too would become one day. We were then cast out as the other, to be shunned, isolated and disempowered.

The problem with this understanding of disability (and I will be brief because I don’t like to give post-modernism too much space) is that the solution it points to is to reclaim a positive identity, to develop our own culture, engage in peer support etc. Not that these are not worthy activities but if you think liberation comes that way you are fooling yourself. It also leads to separatism because as all non-disabled people are oppressors there is no point in making alliances with them. The proof of the folly of this has been the moribund nature of the disability movement ever since it adopted such ideas. It has followed feminism up the same cul-de-sac, both use post-modernism as their a-z!

Radical & liberating

The social model of disability includes several differing perspectives meaning different things to different people. Its core message is radical and liberating. It says that the fault does not lie with the disabled individual it lies with society. But when married with a proper understanding of the causes of disability it can provide a direction for a movement. It points the way to a revolutionary response.

The first question we must ask is the one that has led to contention between Finkelstein, Oliver and Barnes. Is disability, the systematic oppression and exclusion of disabled people from mainstream life, rooted in the industrial revolution or has it always existed? Barnes rightly describes exclusion of the most violent form, taking place in Ancient Greece – infanticide, the murder of babies with impairments. He explains how in feudal times people with emotional distress were burned as witches, because it was believed they were possessed by the devil. There is no doubt that people with impairments were frequently castigated, excluded or even killed under pre-capitalist societies.

But there is also lots of evidence that disabled people were not always excluded or marginalised. For example, Marta Russell writes that, in feudal times the vast majority of people with impairments remained within the family home or within the local community. They would be expected to contribute towards production, undertaking whatever tasks they could. If they couldn’t work in the fields then they would be expected to undertake domestic tasks, care for children, mend tools, repair clothes etc. There was no systematic exclusion from mainstream life.

The impact of capitalism

The big change, I would argue, came however not with the industrial revolution and mechanisation as Finkelstein argues. Instead it came a couple of hundred years earlier with the growth of wage labour and the beginnings of capitalism.

Increasingly work was organised around profit. Production had previously been controlled by the peasant farmer, who decided how and when to work, given the demands set by the feudal lord. Now production was controlled by the boss. Those who could not produce as much as quickly as others were either paid less or were sacked. So people with impairments became disabled as they were thrown out of work and became unproductive and dependent.

But this is not the end of the story. Just as slavery is not the be all and end all of racism, neither is disabled people’s exclusion from the wage labour system. If disabled people were to be excluded from work how was this to be justified. They were labeled as abnormal, afflicted, pitiful and, in many cases, considered subhuman. They were a drain on society that the capitalists were not willing to pay for. The market was king and the Enlightenment ideas of rights, free labour, and individualism laid the blame for their poverty and marginalisation firmly at their own door. It was not up to the capitalist boss to subsidise the disabled worker. For that the capitalist turned to welfare: the family (i.e. women), charity and, if that failed, the state.

Disabled people were condemned to a life of dependency. This created resentment and economic strains within families. When families could no longer cope it forced separation and reliance on either charity or the workhouse. The system had to be severe. A constant theme for the last 300 years for disabled people has been the chancer, the fraud, the shirker and the faker. The bosses knew that working conditions were so poor that people would consider faking impairment if it meant they could survive without having to work. They therefore had to medicalise disability – to hand disabled people over to the new medical profession for categorisation and verification. They also ensured that the life of disabled people was harsh – to ensure the grass was never greener for the worker on the other side of the factory wall.

Contradictions of capitalism

An interesting contradiction also arose with capitalism however. It turned people with impairments into disabled people by excluding them from work. It marginalised, excluded and degraded them. It created the work ethic and then excluded large numbers from being able to contribute. But the contradiction was multiplied. Not only did capitalism create disabled people it did so in previously unimaginable numbers. The technological, scientific and social developments brought forth by capitalism meant that more people were able to survive impairment than ever before. People lived longer with impairments, people survived injuries and others survived disease but with impairments. Babies born impaired now lived instead of dying.

We are also familiar with how capitalism helps create disabled people in less constructive ways. Work place injuries and diseases, pollution, poverty and wars all swell the ranks of disabled people by the tens of thousands.

The bosses are not oblivious to this contradiction and they relentlessly try to prevent it. So they sterilise disabled people to prevent them from breeding. Or they screen embryos for signs of impairment and deny mothers any prospect of constructive support should they give birth to a disabled child. They force disabled people to seek cures, even if the treatment is worse than the impairment. So mental health service users are sedated and numbed. Deaf children are forced to speak and forbidden from using sign language. Children with speech impairments are dragged into the speech therapist and told to sing not talk – all without any real success. There is no evidence to suggest that fewer disabled people are being born or more being ‘cured’ – in fact quite the reverse.

But the oppression and exclusion of disabled people is not a static unchanging process either. The changing nature of work will create as many new disabled people as it will ever take back into the fold. The move from factory work to office work was heralded by some as meaning that disabled people would be able to compete equally for jobs. However, disregarding the economics that refutes this, office work has simply created new types of disabled people. People with dyslexia or people with learning difficulties could previously work in factories or in fields etc without anyone ever thinking they were disabled. Put them in a modern office environment and they are disabled by the way such offices are set up and run. They need adaptations in the workplace and that costs money and that affects the bottom line.

This is then the essential dynamic of disability. The capitalists find they cannot extract as much surplus value from disabled people as they can non-disabled people, therefore they are excluded, considered a burden and therefore become subject to the ideological trappings of prejudice and fear.

A socialist solution

So is there a solution? Can we defeat disability and if so how? Reforms have been fought for over many years, even centuries. They have had a dramatic effect on the lives of many disabled people. Real progress has been made. But this is not victory. Too many disabled people remain incarcerated in institutions. Public transport is still highly inaccessible. Disabled people are still five times more likely to be out of work than non-disabled people. Public services are being cut and increasingly charges are being imposed. Services are increasingly run for profit and reasonable adjustments are again denied because they cut into profits. Buildings are still being built that do not meet the needs of disabled people because it is arguably too expensive for them to do so.

Mothers are still pressured to abort impaired foetuses which could have as fulfilled a life as any other child if society put need before profit. Mental health service users will now be forced to take medication against their will. Capitalism still fights wars which injure and maim thousands. Capitalism enforces the poverty which impairs millions every year. So whilst we must campaign for reforms for disabled people we cannot stop there. No reforms challenge the central dynamic of disability – the wage labour system. Whilst work is organised around the pursuit of profit and controlled by people other than those who do the work there will always be disabled people.

Socialists have a vision of society where this need not be the case. Where involvement in decision making, inclusion in community social life, access to resources and control over work does not depend on the amount of surplus value that can be extracted. Socialism provides us with a vision of a society where work is organised around people and not people around work; where every member contributes what they can, how they can; where what is produced is not defined by the need to make the maximum profit but by the benefit it brings to the community and where everyone in the community is involved in the democratic decision making because only that way will work and distribution meet the needs of the community. With socialism there will be no disability, only people.

But socialism offers us more than a vision of where we want to be. It also offers us, as disabled people, a means of getting there. If we understand that disability is a function of the wage labour system then we understand that we are oppressed by exactly the same mechanism as everyone else – the pursuit of profit before people. If we understand that our allies are non-disabled working class people, then by uniting with them we can have the power to liberate ourselves for good.

I hope this quick tour of the politics and history of disability makes clear to comrades that the struggle of disabled people to end their oppression and marginalisation is the same fight that all working-class people need to fight – that is the overthrow of the capitalist system and its replacement with a socialist one and that the struggles of disabled people for change is one that non-disabled people can identify as one which they should recognize and support.

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Aug 24 2004

Loyalist reaction the dominant theme at the Social Democratic and Labour Party deathbed

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 08RCN @ 2:34 pm

Andrew Johnson and John McAnulty examine the Euro election results in the North of Ireland. (Reprinted from Socialist Democracy website)

Anyone seeking to understand the outcome of the European elections in the North of Ireland must first of all understand the extent to which the mix of colonialism, partition and sectarianism dominate local politics and force other issues off the agenda. This has always been the case and the effect has become even more exaggerated with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the political collapse of republican consciousness, and the further institutionalising of sectarianism within the tiny statelet. So it was that in the local elections all the debates about enlargement and a European constitution passed the local politicians by. What we had instead was a sectarian headcount which showed yet again that the unionists continue as a mass base for the British presence in Ireland and, with British support, are able to mount a veto on Irish Unity.

That wasn’t particularly news. What was news was a reinforcement and confirmation of the results of the last local elections, that the Good Friday Agreement had exploded in British faces, decimating the two parties it was supposed to benefit most and confirming majority support for Sinn Fein and the DUP, who are not able to come to an agreement and leave the situation as a permanent instability. The British are desperately (and successfully) moving discussion towards a new settlement lightyears to the right of Good Friday. They are winning further compromises from Sinn Fein, but it is hard to imagine any deal that the loyalists would be willing to buy.

The raw results are:

The DUP continued to top the poll, with Jim Allister taking Ian Paisley’s old seat; Bairbre de Brun of Sinn Fein slaughtered a Humeless SDLP; and the low-profile UUP man Jim Nicholson took the third seat without many people noticing.

The raw figures, on a low turnout of 51.7%, are as follows:

Candidate Vote %
Allister (DUP) 175,761 31.7%
De Brun (SF) 144,541 26.1%
Nicholson (UUP) 91,164 16.4%
Morgan (SDLP) 87,559 15.8%
Gilliland (Ind) 36,270 6.5%
McCann (SEA) 9,172 1.7%
Whitcroft (Green) 4,810 0.9%

On the unionist side the DUP confirmed their new-won dominance and even gained a couple of percentage points further over the UUP. The UUP have traditionally done badly in the European elections and Nicholson’s performance shows that they retain their hardcore base despite frequent predictions of collapse. The UUP may be on the ropes but it is not about to expire just yet. But there is a real political significance to the DUP’s recent dominance of unionism. As local nationalist commentator Brian Feeney has pointed out, the majority of unionists don’t want power-sharing even with the SDLP, don’t want devolution if it involves power-sharing, and won’t support any settlement that gives Catholics even paper equality. The DUP is performing well because it speaks to that sentiment. The claim that always followed arch-bigot Paisley’s topping of each European poll was that it was a tribute to the big fella’s personality. The fact that Allister, with all the personality of a wet dishcloth, got a higher percentage turnout speaks volumes for the waves of bigotry and reaction sweeping through unionism, a current given force by the realisation that Britain remain determined to defend their unionist base.

SF face contradictions

The turnaround on the nationalist side – SF gaining a further 10 points and the SDLP dropping 12 – was dramatic and confirms the reversal in fortunes of the two parties. The decline in the SDLP appears to be terminal – and while SF have lost some of their traditional base to abstention, this has been more than made up for by the human waves of new voters coming their way. The political significance of the Sinn Fein strategy is such that the decay of the SDLP is much less earth- shattering than the collapse of a major bourgeois party is considered to be. The fact is that while the SDLP as a party has failed, the politics of the SDLP – acceptance of the partitioned sectarian state, the search for influence within that state and the lobbying of the British imperialist rulers for reforms – these have all been adopted lock, stock and barrel by Sinn Fein.

There are some differences. The IRA is still extant and needs to be disappeared if Sinn Fein are to complete their political journey. The Adams leadership have a more radical tactic than the SDLP and imagine that if they become a major party in Ireland as a whole the British will be forced to make concessions to them – as if the whole history of partition didn’t show British disinterest in Irish voting patterns!

In fact the electoral successes of Sinn Fein – and their breakthrough in the South is hugely important here – serve as the republican leadership’s main alibi as they abandon republican goals. While the SF vote keeps rising, the leadership can claim that republicanism is advancing while they carry out retreat after retreat. The historic parallel with Fianna Fail is striking indeed.

Not that SF’s pragmatic line will do them any good. Adams has frequently said that the DUP will negotiate with SF just as the UUP did. One hopes Gerry isn’t holding his breath. But even if they did, what then? Good Friday was a huge compromise by the Provos and its importance can be seen in the way SF leaders are constantly demanding the full implementation of the Agreement. What compromise can there be with a DUP harking after a majority-rule Stormont and an all-Protestant RUC? The DUP is only interested in surrender, and might not even accept that – while Mitchel McLaughlin was floating the disbandment of the IRA, Allister’s leaflets were full of pictures of balaclava-wearing gunmen. The Provos are coming to the end of the road for their much vaunted peace strategy.

But that end is not yet. There are further, major steps to be made. Now that the electorate has been put to bed and £90 million in ‘Peace 3’ funding is on its way from Brussels, the secret deals that pass for politics here can get under way again. Allister has made the DUP’s position absolutely clear: ‘ No more pushover unionism’ and ‘peace without terror’ – IRA disbandment is required even to begin talks. Adams has made his position absolutely clear: ‘The DUP must be put to the test.’ A child of two could decipher that one!

How not to build a left

The three minor candidates are of little importance in the scheme of things. The forlorn hope for non-sectarian liberalism has never made much headway in the Euro headcount, and the most one can say for John Gilliland – a non-political candidate backed by Alliance and the Workers Party – is that he did a little better than Alliance’s last disastrous performance. However, there was no mould-breaking going on. Eamonn McCann’s candidacy for the Socialist Environmental Alliance – a post-modern combo of the Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Party – does have some interest as the left should be the force trying to provide an alternative political leadership.

The main problem with the SEA campaign was not its presidential style. These Euro elections are presidential by nature, and in McCann they had an extremely eloquent candidate who has a high media profile and a personal following in and around Derry. No, the problem was that, especially as McCann had conceded he wouldn’t come close to being elected, the campaign could have provided a platform for educating radical workers and carrying out propaganda around socialism and its application to Ireland. Primarily it would have involved taking aim at the imperialist peace process, even if that meant losing the fiercely pro-Agreement Communist Party.

Instead, and this is now a tradition on the Irish left, the SEA appeared to be trying to actually lower political consciousness. The politics of the campaign could have been summed up as It’s Iraq, stupid. While the SEA congratulated themselves on being non-sectarian, it was impossible to see any strategy for breaking sectarian politics. Beneath the surface – we’re anti-war, non-sectarian and have fabulous film noir posters – there was little but a pink unionism that the old Northern Ireland Labour Party might have found a bit mild. The fact that the Socialist Party could denounce the SEA with the headline Workers Unity Not Left Republicanism only demonstrates their own drift towards a form of left loyalism.

The election has been trumpeted as the coming of age of republicanism, but its aftermath will see yet further major concessions to Britain and to loyalist reaction. The Irish socialist movement that can break us out of this cycle of sectarian reaction has yet to be built.

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Aug 24 2004

Welsh election results

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 08RCN @ 2:32 pm

Mike Davies gives his views on the council and Euro-elections in Wales

Ten candidates for the Welsh Euro-election seats left the two left parties squeezed badly. Forward Wales, whose lead candidate Ron Davies surprisingly failed to gather much in the way of media attention, polled 17,000 votes (1.9%) fairly evenly across the country. Respect polled a poor 0.6% – worse than any region in England. This was despite including an imam on their list and launching its Welsh campaign in a mosque – but Galloway has little pulling power in Wales and there is only a small Muslim community. FW stood on a People Before Profits platform and Davies pledged to take the average workers’ wage if elected. This was the first time the vast majority of Welsh voters would have heard of Forward Wales, formed just eight months earlier. In many respects it was putting down a marker for future activity and expansion outside its stronghold in North East Wales.

It’s cold comfort to note that the two extreme-right parties, the BNP (2.9%) and UKIP (7.4%), performed significantly worse than in England.

The other story of the Euro-election in Wales was the ability of Labour to retain its 32% share of the vote while Plaid Cymru slipped back badly to 17%. Its problems mirror those of the SNP in that its appeal to left and right is unsustainable. In recent years it has emphasised its cultural nationalism and support for the Celtic Tiger model of the Irish, although without the explicit right-wing shift of Swinney in Scotland. The nationalists’ high-water mark in 1999 is unlikely to be regained, given that many were voting on the back of a sense of national identity that’s since been tarnished by the poor performance of Assembly politicians of all colours. The council election results were far more volatile, with the Liberal Democrats capitalising on Labour’s unpopularity in the cities while Labour managed to claw back two councils from Plaid in the Valleys. Plaid in power had shown themselves to be supporters of PFI and environmentally damaging schemes and voters decided that Labour was a better bet. The Tories barely feature in Welsh local politics but did win affluent Monmouthshire Council as their lone outpost.

What of the left? Six SP candidates in Cardiff and Swansea performed creditably and long-standing SWPer Huw Pudner stood in Neath and got a creditable 28% vote as the sole Respect council candidate.

A grass-roots group called People before Politics won nine seats in Merthyr Tydfil, a sign of frustration with establishment politics and included some progressive elements opposed to opencast mining in the area.

The main left challenge came from Forward Wales. It stood 29 candidates in north and south Wales, getting an average 23% of the vote. It won one council seat in its Wrexham stronghold – Dave Bithell, a local RMT branch secretary and the party’s union organiser, won Johnstown in a straight fight with Labour. FW missed another seat by just seven votes and failed to unseat the council leader by just 14 votes. Given that most of the candidates were community activists who had never stood before, many of the votes were heartening but there is a general perception within the party of an opportunity missed.

Another FW member in Flintshire, Colin Bithell, won a seat as an independent environmentalist along with two others also involved in a long-running campaign against a toxic waste kiln near Buckley. The aftermath in Wrexham has been massive relief among Labourites that they withstood the strong FW challenge. We have since learned that the Liberal Democrats stretched themselves to the limit to put up candidates to try to capitalise on the split Labour vote and they certainly picked up some radical anti-Labour votes at FW’s expense.

The Labour group on the council reacted quickly to the threat and ditched their ineffectual leader. The new leader has pledged to only take the average manual workers’ wage – surely an attempt to undercut FW’s pledge about only taking the average skilled workers’ wage? Despite the frustrating failure to break through, FW has demonstrated it can shift the political landscape in Wales to the left.

What is needed now is to try to overcome the divisions among the left and build on the small successes gained. It is to be hoped that Respect will show the same respect as they did for the SSP in Scotland by not splitting the left vote again.

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Aug 24 2004

European Anti Capitalist Left Manifesto

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 08RCN @ 2:29 pm

Anti Capitalist Manifesto for a Different Europe: social and democratic, feminist and ecologist, peaceful and in solidarity. (The EACL manifesto for the June 10 Euro elections.)

February 15, 2003, was a historic date: tens of millions of people, all around the world, demonstrated to stop the war. Moreover, these unprecedented mobilisations show a strong political will to impose universal peace, justice, international solidarity and social equality on those in power. That day a new Europe was born. A rank and file Europe that is confronting the European Union and the ruling classes whose instrument it is.

The world of labour has remobilised. In almost every country the working classes have come out for demonstrations and strikes – sectoral, multi-sectoral and general. After Italy, Spain, Greece and France, which led the way, countries like Germany and Austria have shown an exemplary militancy and shaken Europe’s most powerful and monolithic trade-union bureaucracies. Agenda 2010 is running up against stubborn resistance; and Schröder, discredited, has had to give up the SPD presidency in order to save his party from defeats in future elections. The shock wave of the anti-war movement is still far from exhausted. Demonstrations in the streets, a year after Bush launched his war, have once again been very large, above all in Spain, Italy and Britain. They are continuing to have an impact on ‘official policies’. Contrary to all expectations, Bush’s friend Aznar was thrown out in parliamentary elections, thanks to a spectacular intervention by the people; the people took its revenge for Aznar’s flagrant defiance of their massive opposition to the war and his contemptible official lies. The conclusion is clear: the policy of ‘unlimited war’ and neo-liberal policies are unpopular and have been rejected.

Right-wing governments thrown out by popular vote are succeeded by centre-left governments that don’t break with neo-liberal and imperialist policies. The social strength of the anti-war movements and European Social Forum should extend onto the political terrain, in elections, and in the formation of a broad, pluralist, anti-capitalist political movement.

The June 2004 European elections will be an opportunity to fight for demands and proposals that the European global justice movement has fought for unceasingly: against the EU’s reactionary, undemocratic and anti-social constitution, against imperialist war and European militarism, for peace and general disarmament – starting in our own countries -against neo-liberal policies and for a social, anti-capitalist programme.

A decent life for all of us, in Europe and the rest of the world.

Social matters are the most important to the lives of millions of people. It is the priority: Each man and woman has the right to a stable, full-time job, a decent wage, unemployment benefits, sick pay, disability benefits or pensions, a house to live in, education and professional training and quality health services. And to enjoy and ameliorate those rights we need to recover all that has been taken from us during the last twenty years. This implies for sure a radical improvement of women’s position on all levels: social, political, legal and institutional. Moreover, environmental conditions are part of our well being. It is impossible to separate economic policy from the necessary criteria of sustained development, urban and rural planning, mobility and transport systems, rational use of natural resources, agriculture and food security.

In their struggle to maximize profit, employers and governments pretend that all that is impossible and unworkable. But since 1970, wealth created in the European Union (before enlargement) has doubled while population has not grown. It has been the ruling classes who have profited from the enormous leap forward of productivity (technical progress, longer and more intense work and restructuring of manufacturing systems). It will suffice to tackle this huge social inequality by distributing wealth to the working classes and breaking open and reorganising the public sector. We have to stop the growing privatisation of the biosphere, which subordinates our lives to capitalist profits.

If these conditions are fulfilled, then we can say: yes, our societies and economies can provide wealth for all of us.

Break away from the neoliberal system: People before profit!

The European Union has established an institutional framework through the Maastricht Treaty that imposes strict budget limitations. The European Central Bank has become the inflexible guardian of this orthodox neo-liberal monetarism. That kind of policy leads to drastic cuts in social expenditure and makes any alternative economic policy impossible. By pushing the mass of the population into poverty and squeezing the budget of the public and social sectors, they are trying to make privatisation unavoidable. In this way capital finds lucrative new fields for investment. Its objective is not economic growth but re-establishing its rate of profit. These economic policies and their institutional framework must be changed. We need to break the hard core of European neo-liberalism and suppress the Maastricht convergence criteria and the Stability Pact. Like the global justice movement, we support the Tobin-Tax as a step to attack neo-liberal capitalism and its international institutions, struggle against financial speculation and to favour a genuine social policy. We struggle in our countries and on a European scale for social equality through full employment, expansion of the public sector, social investment, a decent guaranteed minimum wage.

A peaceful Europe, against the European Super-State!

The Lisbon Summit in March 2002 adopted as its goal to become the strongest and most productive economy of the world as the European Union’s main objective! That can only happen if it strengthens its economic, monetary, technological, political, cultural, media and military capacities to confront the two other major world powers, the US and Japan. It means exploiting the countries in the periphery of the capitalist world system and the working classes that labour in the European Union.

For the first time, the ruling classes most identified with European construction have obtained some legitimacy from the European population by opposing the US ruling class, thanks to President Bush’s illegal and wild policies. However, we hold no illusions about what the European Union can do. Our position is: No to war! The European Union must renounce to the use of war as a way to intervene in international conflicts.

No support for US policies of permanent war and preventive military interventions. We are against its anti-terrorist war, whose first victims are our civil rights and freedoms! No to NATO! No to the new European militarism! Withdrawal of European imperialist military forces, whether they are under an EU flag or those of its member states! No to ‘humanitarian’ military operations! The Eurocorps and its special brigades must be dissolved!

All weapons of mass destruction – nuclear, chemical or biological – must be destroyed!

No to the creation and development of the European arms industry! End weapons exports! Close the existing military industries and reconvert them to civilian production!

Defend our democratic freedoms

The strategy of ‘unlimited war’ has been a powerful lever for attacking democratic freedoms and narrowing the space in which the popular masses can act. By creating a permanent atmosphere of uncertainty and fear, the ruling classes seek to force a choice on us: ‘to guarantee your safety, we have to reduce your freedom’. In the name of the struggle against terrorism, Bush has legalised state terrorism. And Sharon is right in step with him.

As early as September 2001, the EU had used ‘the struggle against terrorism’, not to attack terrorist groups that didn’t exist at the time in Europe. In fact it took the opportunity to outlaw trade-union, social, feminist, anti-racist and political movements and their public, democratic activities, which it can now call

offences internationally committed by an individual or a group against one or more countries, their institutions or people, with the aim of intimidating them and seriously altering or destroying the political, social or economic structures of a country.

Since then the EU has been strengthening the panoply of repressive means at a European level: the European arrest warrant, Europol, faster and more complete information exchanges, closer cooperation with the CIA, repression of immigrants, creation of spaces where the rule of law no longer exists, etc. – even though rivalries among member states’ state apparatuses are slowing down this operation. Capitalism is in difficulties. From below it is discredited and is once more being openly and massively challenged. At the same time it is restricting or even repressing movements and mobilisations.

Defending and extending threatened democratic freedoms is once more becoming imperative.

Defend immigrants, refugees and the right of asylum! Against Fortress Europe, against the far-right!

Millions of workers of both sexes around the world are victims of capitalist globalisation or repression by the state. They survive in steadily worsening conditions. Some of them try to cross the fortified borders and get illegally inside the imperialist fortress. The European Union has built such a fortress with its 1985 Schengen Agreement.

However, the European employers have since requested and obtained a selective legal immigration policy. It is applied according only to their needs for labour. Citizenship rights are denied to immigrants without protest to exclude them from social benefits as workers and taxpayers. As a result of these policies the human situation of these immigrant workers is unbearable. At the same time there is ruthless competition between the poorest sector of the native working classes and the new defenceless immigrants without rights. The far right and Nazi parties (and sometime also traditional parties of both right and left) profit from this latent conflict so as to encourage racism, xenophobia and hate.

We are in favour of the free movement of persons ! No to the Schengen Agreements! Equal citizen and labour rights for all immigrant workers! For quality social infrastructure and public services for all! We are against all forms of xenophobia and racism, whatever their origin or pretext! The working class movement has to struggle so that immigrants, both male and female, do not suffer any discrimination in wage levels or rights at work. It should be not only a political and social priority but also a moral one for the trade union and social movements.

We offer our solidarity to all those who have to demand asylum, who have to escape repression because their struggle for liberty, civil rights, freedom of conscience, democracy, their social or revolutionary convictions or simply a better life.

No to the anti-democratic Constitution of multinational Capital

The bourgeoisies are struggling to put an end to the inconsistencies of the EU state apparatus. This is the expressed will of the financial industrial oligarchy and the biggest imperialist states in Europe.

First, they need urgently a strong regime in the perspective of a European superpower. This apparatus is developing a semi-authoritarian democracy: the European executive (Council of Ministers, Commission, EC) is not elected on the European level and it dominates the Parliament, which is elected by universal franchise, putting the parliament under its tutelage. This process undermines all democratic rules and institutions.

Second, the Constitution sets the principles of today’s capitalism in stone: absolute priority to the market principle, protection of private ownership of the means of production and exchange, and even the current neo-liberal, monetarist policies. On the other hand, it excludes labour legislation, obligatory rules and norms, and inter professional (national) collective bargaining between trade unions and bosses from the European level. But, financial, monetary, commercial and economic policies are supported by a powerful centralized apparatus on the European level. This leads to ongoing competition between the working classes of the member states. It introduces an uninterrupted downward trend of all living and working conditions in all EU countries.

Third, it opens the way for and organises European militarism, an indispensable part of a European imperialism: the obligatory and systematic rise in military spending; organisation of a European armament industry; a continuing link with NATO while opening the gates for an autonomous European armed force; and integration in the “unlimited war on terrorism”.

Fourth, the reinforcement of the European executive bodies (European Commission, European Council, Inter-Governmental Conferences, ECB) worsens the democratic deficit. It is leading to more EU control over national state apparatuses, more control by the big member states of the smaller states, and the negation of ‘minor’ peoples by the national states. The undemocratic nature of the Constitution corresponds perfectly with the method which has been used to create it: behind closed doors, a harsh selection of reliable people led by ‘eminent statesmen’, and tight control by the big states.

One thing is certain: this constitution has nothing to do with the European peoples’ will ! For all these reasons, we are opposed to the EU constitution. It is illegitimate, undemocratic and profoundly anti-social ! It cannot be reformed. It can only be thrown out! In order to attain this objective we support the organization of the referendums.

We struggle for a different society and a different Europe, which will be social and democratic, ecologist and feminist, peaceful and in solidarity with the South. It is up to the peoples and nations of Europe to decide how and under which social and institutional principles they want to live together. We believe that all power must be in the hands of the sovereign peoples.

We recognise the right of the nations without states to determine their future, and we are in solidarity with the left forces that struggle in that direction, whatever our own political analysis may be. Since the electoral campaign coincides with the preparation behind closed doors of the constituent Inter-Governmental Conference, we will use this opportunity to denounce this pseudo-constitution and develop our alternatives.

Break with social-liberalism! Another Europe is possible!

Yes, but this will require an extraordinary mobilisation of all progressive forces. Governments are more fragile, but the EU has become, notwithstanding its repeated crises, a formidable imperialist force in today’s world It is a machine to destroy the social and democratic gains that the working classes have won in 150 years of battles.

This EU is in the first place the child of the bourgeoisie and its parties. But it could never have triumphed without the active collaboration of Blair, Schröder, Jospin, Felipe Gonzalez – that is to say European social democracy. They were in government for years. They dominated national governments and the EU leading bodies (Commission, European Council, even the ECB) at key moments. But instead of breaking with neo-liberalism they became social liberals themselves! Nothing suggests that have any intention of breaking with that policy.

We will not leave the neo-liberal, imperialist system in a gradual way. We need a radical political break and an alternative, anti-capitalist strategy and programme.

This struggle is in the hands of the other Europe, the Europe from below. This movement is growing and maturing through the anti-war demonstrations, social and ecological struggles, the citizens’ initiatives, the women’s mobilisations. It is progressing through the activists and the organisations: trade unions, peasant organisations, ecological groups, the movements of those ‘without’ (the jobless, homeless, undocumented, asylum seekers), anti-racist networks, academic and intellectual initiatives, Third World campaigns and NGOs.

The European Social Forum has created an extraordinary framework, democratic and unitary, a new movement of emancipation on a European scale.This social movement is already a force that counts for something. But it has to conquer the political field yet.

Under its pressure, the traditional trade union movements who for twenty years have fallen in line with the EU and its policies, have taken action again, but without developing, for the time being, a coherent strategy to reverse the tide and struggle for a strong social alternative.

Yes, another Europe is possible, but it depends on the radical forces involved – anti-capitalist and ecologist, anti-imperialist and antiwar, feminist and for citizenship, anti-racist and internationalist – whether they are ready to mobilise in the streets and at the ballot box, in struggles and elections. The alternative to capitalism is raising again its head: a socialist and democratic society, self-managed from below, without exploitation of labour or women’s oppression, based on sustainable development and opposed to the growth model that threatens the planet.

Brussels. 29 April 2004


  • Left Bloc (BE, Portugal)
  • Red Green Alliance (RGA, Denmark)
  • Scottish Socialist Party (SSP, Scotland, UK)
  • RESPECT-Unity List (England, Wales)
  • Socialist Workers Party (SWP,
  • Revolutionary Communist League (LCR, France)
  • The Left (LG/DL, Luxemburg)
  • United and Alternative Left (EuiA, Catalonia, Spain)
  • Alternative Space (EA, Spain)
  • Coalition Radical Left (Greece).

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Aug 24 2004

Another Europe Is Possible

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 08RCN @ 2:23 pm

The Left and the Euro-elections Allan Armstrong assesses the state of the left in Europe after the Euro elections

A euro-sceptic SSP?

The SSP has in the past described its attitude towards Europe as pro-Europe; anti-EU. In the run up towards the Euro-elections, held on June 10th, Alan McCombes subtly shifted the emphasis stating, We are taking what some might call a eurosceptic stance(SSV 176). And certainly, nowhere else in this report of the SSP’s Euro-manifesto launch was there any mention that we stood on a joint Euro-election platform with other socialist parties and groupings in the EU. Our scepticism seemed to cover, not only the EU itself, its careerist MEPs and big business backers, but the whole of the Left, including our allies in the EACL! Although the EACL Manifesto is displayed on the SSP website, it went unannounced in the Party press. Now the RCN has consistently pushed for an ‘internationalism from below’ stance in the SSP, particularly in relation to fellow socialists and socialist republicans in England, Wales and Ireland. We have often received verbal assurances from the leadership, and won occasional written policy concessions, but have found it harder to penetrate the wall of indifference when it comes to practical proposals for greater unity throughout these islands.

Despite our continued support for the SSP as an independent organisation and our championing of it as the best model available for other socialists, such moves are still seen as a possible threat by the leadership to their ‘Scottish road’. Yet, on paper anyhow, the ISM, the majority platform in the SSP leadership, also claims to stress the international nature of our struggle and sees the highest point of internationalism as the building of a workers’ international (Aims of the ISM in Frontline).

However, this year’s SSP Conference, held in Edinburgh on March 27th and 28th, gave us the opportunity to put the ‘internationalism from below’ stance into a new, perhaps less threatening context, with the opportunity provided by the Euro elections on June 10th.

We put forward a motion which called for a joint platform {to} include:-

  • a) Opposition to the permanent war drive.
  • b) The expansion, not the erosion of human and civil rights internationally.
  • c) Support for asylum seekers and migrant workers and opposition to ‘Fortress Europe’.
  • d) Opposition to privatisation, labour flexibility and austerity drives.
  • e) Opposition to trade union/employer/state partnership deals.
  • f) Support for a more democratic and accountable Europe.

This motion was not opposed or even mildly criticised by the leadership or any other platform for that matter! It was passed with nobody voting against. The Conference gave our leadership a mandate to seek a common platform with our allies in the EACL. A common manifesto, which incorporated these demands, was indeed achieved on 29th April, at a meeting of the EACL held in Brussels. There are points in this much broader manifesto which could be questioned (such as the belief that capitalists can renounce war), yet, despite some weaknesses, the final manifesto was broadly consistent with SSP Conference policies – therefore, so far, so good.

Yet this joint manifesto wasn’t acknowledged in any subsequent Scottish Socialist Voice, or even the May/June Members’ Bulletin devoted to the Euro-elections, despite its promising headline, ‘Another Europe is possible’. The prospect of launching a genuinely internationalist election campaign, with visiting prominent speakers from our fraternal organisations in the EACL, was not considered. What is even more remarkable is that the very nationalist BNP did bring the well-known French fascist, National Front leader, Jean Le Pen, to address meetings in England and Wales in April for their election campaign. It’s a sad day when British nationalists show more ‘internationalism’ than Scottish (English or Welsh) socialists!

Therefore, with our leadership consciously placing the SSP in the euro-sceptic camp, it is not surprising that we found our message somewhat swamped. The voters were spoilt for choice amongst the eurosceptics. The UKIP fought with the Tories for the British chauvinist vote, characterised by The Times letter writer, ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’; and with the BNP for the xenophobic, Union Jack T-shirt wearing, lager swilling, British tourist abroad vote. Now Alan certainly wanted the SSP to distance ourselves from such “Union Jackwaving, Rule Britannia singing Great British supremacists” (SSV 176); but just how successful can you be, whilst simultaneously claiming to be part of what is a Right dominated euro-sceptic camp?

UKIP received more votes in Scotland than the SSP, despite it coming across as overwhelmingly English, white, male and middle class! Whilst, in the short run, UKIP probably thwarted BNP electoral growth (hindered both by its fascist politics and ‘British’ label in Scotland), the prominent media coverage given to UKIP and its policy of withdrawal from the EU enabled it to overcome its own electoral disadvantages. In a Euro election it helps if you have something distinctive to say about Europe – in contrast to UKIP the SSP’s European message was decidedly muffled.

Now, of course, the SSP did far better than UKIP in the Scottish Parliamentary elections last year, when we did have something distinctive to say about Scotland (as well as the war in Iraq). UKIP itself is unlikely to present a permanent political barrier for the SSP. It is a top-down creation, with few real roots, and many of its members see themselves as a pressure group on the Tories, rather than as a long term party. This would mean adopting a raft of other potentially divisive policies, causing a split, benefiting the Tories and the BNP.

Scottish euroscepticism

However, the backwash from the rising tide of euro-sceptism isn’t just confined to those who wave the Union Jack. Saltire wavers, particularly in the SNP, are feeling its impact too. For many years the SNP was pro-Europe. In the late 1970s Jim Sillars and Alex Neil, from the old SNP Left, persuaded the party to ditch its then anti-EEC stance and to adopt a policy of ‘Independence in Europe’. This was meant both to simultaneously neutralise Labour’s ‘separatist’ label for the party and to place the SNP clearly in the camp of European social democracy. This was at a time when there was a more distinctive European social economic model, compared to the rising Thatcher/Reagan neo-liberal juggernaut. The Left wing ‘79 Group, also attempted to reorientate the SNP away from its base in former Tory areas, particularly in the north east, to Labour areas, particularly in the Central Belt. This meant less emphasis on farmers, fishing boat owners and small manufacturers and more on the needs of workers and their families.

The SNP has clearly failed to make this switch, and with the growth of the SSP, especially in the west Central Belt, is even less likely to. As a consequence, the SNP has been forced back to its one-time Tory support of small businessmen – particularly in the fishing industry which has been gutted by the EU Common Fisheries Policy. As a consequence, anti-EU sentiment is once more on the rise in the SNP too. This is reinforced by political competition from the Tories (and even UKIP) as they bid to regain this Scottish small business vote. So, despite Alan’s blindspot, Euroscepticism, doesn’t just come dressed in the British red, white and blue; it can come in Scottish blue and white colours too.

It is within the Scottish nationalist wing of Euro-scepticism that the SSP is trying to raise its own banner. The pre-Euro election issue of the SSV (178), gave the most prominent place, not to our opposition to the war, but to ‘A community that still believes in cod’. Now there is certainly nothing wrong with having an article which highlights the devastating impact of government policy on a particular area – 20 years after the Great Strike, the plight of former mining communities springs to mind. Yet, some of the emphases in the article seem a little strange – the boat owner’s need for a handy £3.5 million– the cost of a white fish vessel; or he used to employ thirty people; he’s down to eight. It’s difficult to imagine that Keith Baldassara meets people with these kind of problems in his council surgeries in Pollok!

Yes, it is a strength of SSP policy that it covers areas not previously considered by socialists, showing we are serious about mounting a national challenge. But would a little more emphasis on employees, rather than employers, not be appropriate? Is the real political significance of the pre-election prominence given to this issue not more to do with establishing the SSP’s euro-sceptic credentials?

Retreats in the EACL in the face of rising liberal imperialism

However, it must be admitted that it wasn’t only the SSP which put the common EACL manifesto on the back burner. It would appear that all the major signatories retreated into running essentially national campaigns, with internationalism left at the level of rhetoric. This weakness showed itself even over the issue which should have been the EACL’s strength – opposition to the war in Iraq.

Everybody remembers the magnificent millions-strong international anti-war demonstrations held on February 15th 2003 (2/15). Yet, there was a decided paucity of international initiatives in 2004. The EACL could have called for coordinated demonstrations against the continued occupation and proposed ‘handover of power’ on the weekend before the June 10th Euro-election. Certainly these wouldn’t have been as big as the pre-war marches, but they could have captured the imagination of many who had been involved. Instead there was a myriad of small, locally organised demonstrations held over several days at the end of June.

EACL speakers at any European-wide coordinated rallies could also have highlighted the international list of MEP candidates being put forward by the various sponsoring organisations. Inviting speakers from other countries could have underlined this point. The supporters of the anti-war movement could have been offered the attractive prospect of a solid block of consistently anti-war MEPs. Furthermore, since socialists are in competition with the Greens for the radical youth vote, speeches and leaflets could have pointed out the Greens’ somewhat less than glorious ‘antiwar’ record where they have held office, particularly in Germany. If each national component of the EACL only contests its own particular Green adversary, then it is harder to highlight their shallow internationalism.

So the SSP’s retreat into a more narrowly nationalist euro-sceptic stance can be seen as part of an overall retreat by the Left in Europe since the heady days of 2/15. There can be little doubt that, despite its failure to prevent the war in Iraq, the international Left has put a decided dent in the Bush/ Blair neo-conservative imperial offensive. However, the long established imperial order has more than one string to its bow. Bush’s gung-ho, go-it-alone, you’re either with us or against us imperialism isn’t the only option. Imperialism can also adopt a liberal multilateral face, with a ‘humanitarian’ UN fronting the interests of the big players.

The spectacular ousting of Bush’s ally in Spain, Aznar’s Popular Party-led coalition, by the anti-war, centre PSOE, in the Spanish parliamentary elections held on March 14th, could spell the end of the neo-conservative ‘Coalition of the Willing’. PSOE leader, Zapatero, has honoured his promise to remove Spanish troops from Iraq, but has not ruled out the possibility of their returning as part of a UN controlled taskforce. Indeed Zapatero has considerably increased the Spanish forces in Afghanistan, whilst also sending civil guards to Haiti after the overthrow of Aristide.

On June 10th Berlusconi’s Forza Italia vote trailed behind the centre anti-war Olive Branch coalition in Italy, possibly putting the skids under this particularly corrupt media big businessman and politician. His close friend Tony Blair (holiday villa supplied) stumbles from crisis to crisis, unable to shake off New Labour’s unpopular pro-war stance.

Kennedy’s Liberal-Democrats have picked up votes from the ‘soft’ wing of the anti-war movement. The Liberal Democrats expressed no concern over the misery brought about by UN sanctions in Iraq before the war and were quick to give support to ‘our boys’ once the war started. And of course, US Democrat, Kerry’s Presidential challenge to Bush is gaining strength – fuelled by the growing resentment in the USA at being duped by the Republican neo-cons, highlighted by Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Kerry, who voted for the Iraq war, however, would use the multilateral links he advocates to step-up the antiterrorist offensive and would continue to support Sharon’s Israel!

Therefore imperial designs aren’t merely confined to the rapacious neo-con company executives backing Bush such as those of the omnipresent Halliburton Corporation. George Soros, multi-billionaire currency speculator, advocates an imperialism ‘with a human face’ in his latest book, The Bubble of American Supremacy – Correcting the Misuse of American Power. Precisely because of the huge impact of the anti-war movement, there has been growing support for the liberal imperialist strategy offered by various think-tanks. These compete with their neo-con counterparts for the ear of both politicians and company executives. The global corporations are showing growing signs of re-groupment around the liberal alternative to neutralise the impact of the anti-war and anti-globalisation movements.

The negative role of the old official Communist tradition

Perhaps the most significant indicator of this new liberal imperialist pressure on the Left in Europe was the decision made by the Italian RC not to join the EACL for the Euro-election campaign. RC was originally founded as a splinter from the old CPI, mainly as a result of the CPI’s disastrous support for the Blairite Olive Tree Coalition government which attacked workers in the 1990s. The pre-1989 CPI was heavily compromised too. Along with the old Spanish CP, its leadership was prominent in repositioning the Party in the camp of social democracy under the banner of Eurocommunism.

However, the forces of communism in Italy extended much further than the reformist Eurocommunist leadership. In Italy official Communism has a tradition which included armed partisan units during the Second World War. It was heavily influenced by the large revolutionary groups which grew outside its ranks in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Indeed many of their members were later drawn into the CPI’s ranks. Thus, having formally broken from the official Communist tradition, RC recently moved to the Left, pushed by the anti-war and anti-globalisation movements. Many were pleasantly surprised when RC adopted a new direction at its 5th Congress held in April 2002. The agreed perspectives, Opening and Innovation – Changing ourselves to transform society began with a stirring call.

It may just be that the world is now moving towards a situation in which a new beginning can be made in the revolutionary process, for a conscious commitment to the highest task imaginable for politics: the overcoming of the existing order, of capitalist society itself.

But then again, with the re-groupment of imperialists under a liberal banner, it may just not be that the world is immediately moving towards such new beginnings. Therefore, earlier this year, the RC leadership, without any consultation with the members, suddenly announced its support for a rapprochment with the forces of the Olive Tree Coalition, with the intent of removing Berlusconi’s neo-conservative Forza Italia-led government coalition in the 2006 parliamentary elections. Furthermore, the leadership declared its willingness to provide ministers in a government led by the centre-left! This government would most likely be led by Romano Prodi, President of the European Commission.

The SSP should note where the pressure for this dramatic U-turn came from in RC. RC had retained the support of some of the old CPI led trade unions and their leaders. These unions remained largely unreformed with leaders retaining extensive privileges. Their leaders are a major conservative force in the RC. At the first faltering signs of the anti-war offensive, they quickly reasserted their influence, effectively reversing the gains of RC’s 1992 Conference and sidelining the new younger antiwar, anti-globalisation activists. Therefore we in the SSP should see that breaking the trade union link with New Labour is not enough. The unions themselves need democratised and put under rank and file control; whilst their leaders should earn the average wage of the members they represent, if they are to join the SSP.

Perhaps not surprisingly then, with prospect of ‘ministerial opportunities’ in the air, the RC leadership didn’t sign the EACL manifesto (despite having attended earlier Conferences). It opted instead to form a new PEL, mainly around MEPs from the existing Euro-parliamentary bloc, the European United Left (GUE/NGL). This consists for the most part of representatives from the old official Communist Parties.

PEL also includes the CPE-dominated alliance, IU. Some of its Platforms have attended EACL Conferences. However, these represent minorities. Unlike the CPI, the old CPE long bore the scars of its defeat in the Spanish Civil War. Whilst it certainly played an important part in the subsequent anti-Franco resistance, this was along with others, who could justifiably claim just as prominent a role, not least the armed forces of ETA in Euskadi (the Basque Country). The leadership of the old CPE and newer IU often competed/s with the Right to be seen as the most avid supporter of ‘one Spain indivisible’. When the Madrid bombings occurred on March 11th, IU leader, Llamazares, supported Aznar’s attempt to blame ETA! Furthermore, like the CPI, the IU leadership had in the past given its support to anti-working class policies; only this time of the Gonzales-led PSOE government in the 1980s.

More influential still in PEL is the French Communist Party, with its own history of joining the antiworking class Mitterand-led Socialist Party government in the 1980’s. PEL also includes the German PDS, the made-over heir to the German Communist Party which ruled East Germany until 1989!

Quite clearly, the majority of the component parts of PEL see their current role as giving critical support to liberal imperialist politicians (hoping to push any newly elected centre-Left governments further Left with the presence of their own ministers!). This is how they intend to take up the fight against the neo-conservative imperialists. PEL has taken no distinctive position on the Euro-bosses’ proposed European Constitution for the EU. This leaves the door open for ‘critical support’ and joint work with its architects, particularly Romano Prodi! When IU invoked the slogan ‘Another Europe is possible’ for its Euro-election campaign its possible connotations were decidedly ambiguous.

The contraditions within the EACL and the need for a positive ‘internationalism from below’

However, if PEL is stumbling towards a policy of ‘critical support’ for the proposed EU Constitution then the EACL needs to go beyond its strident ‘No to the new European Constitution’ if it wishes to escape the embrace of the eurosceptic Right. The dangers are shown up most clearly in Denmark, where EACL affiliate, the Red-Green Alliance, failed to put up an independent candidate in the Euro-election, but joined the Popular Movement Against the EU, Folkebevgaelson, with same demand as the xenophobic right populist, Danish Peoples Party – ‘withdrawal from the EU’.

Ironically, the RGA’s standing MEP remained a member of the former official Communist Party bloc, GUE/NGL, in the Euro-parliament. In the guise of the new PEL, this now appears to be moving towards a greater acceptance of the EU. Meantime Denmark’s other eurosceptic alliance, the June Movement, Junibevaegelsen, previously led by the former Communist, left social democratic Socialist Peoples Party, has moved in the other direction. In the previous European Parliamant, Junibevaegelsen’s MEP, sat with UKIP in the parliamentary EED! But in the Euroelection they adopted the softer ‘Yes to Europe, No to the EU state’ stance and are moving towards support for a reformed EU, more green and peaceful, but nevertheless with a strong military arm for ‘peacekeeping’ and ‘humanitarian’ interventions!

The contradictory pressures on the Left can be seen quite clearly – towards accommodation with the pro-EU social democratic Left, or with the populist camp of opposition and withdrawal. The EACL needs to sharpen up its criticism of imperialism in both its contemporary forms – neo-conservative and liberal. This means adopting a critical attitude towards all those involved in the retreat towards the liberal imperialist camp, whether they be former Communists, left social democrats or Greens. However, the EACL, including the SSP, also has to be aware of the dangers of populism, particularly, but not solely, in the smaller nations of the EU. We must ensure that opposition to the designs of the Euro-bosses doesn’t lead us into the embrace of the anti-European Right populists.

The top-down, bureaucratically imposed, Bosses’ Europe offered in the proposed new EU Constitution has succeeded in pushing many voters into deep apathy, and others into the arms of racist and chauvinist nationalism. In contrast, the Liberal Democrats’ internationalism is designed to make things easier for the middle class vacationers in Tuscany or the Dordogne – hence their support for the euro. This isn’t the concern of the majority of workers. The Greens invoke their own woolly notion of internationalism – the ‘global village’. Yet most workers are acutely aware of the marked differences between the ‘desirable’ and ‘less desirable’ parts of every single city, town and even many villages we live in.

Our internationalism has to be real, grounded in the experience of a working class, increasingly employed directly or indirectly by global corporations, transported by private transport companies, housed in private estates, shopping in corporate retail parks and taking part in corporate-dominated leisure activities. Therefore, as well as attempting to build EU-wide campaigns and demonstrations in defence of workers’ immediate interests in the face of the continued employers’ offensive; as well as opposing the permanent imperialist war drive under whatever guise, the EACL needs to project its alternative vision for Europe. As a minimum, this means calling for a European Constituent Assembly linked to other democratic, economic, social, environmental and cultural demands. We can then have a tactical debate over whether to vote ‘No’ or mount an abstentionist campaign in any country holding a referendum on the proposed constitution.

We shouldn’t be euro-sceptic, we should be genuinely pro-Europe. However, we don’t accept the bosses’ EU. We believe another Europe is possible. That Europe is socialist. The SSP needs to play a more active part in ensuring this dream becomes a reality. We need to pursue an active strategy of ‘internationalism from below’. Yes, this means we will need to take on all those advocates of bureaucratic internationalism, even within the EACL and amongst the British socialist sects. However, a go-it-alone, separatist strategy will only store up problems for the future. Any serious moves to enhance workers control of society in Scotland will be met with strong opposition from the British, EU and US ruling class. We need all the allies we can get in the here and now.

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Aug 24 2004

Republican alternative to royal pantomime

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 08RCN @ 2:20 pm

The Scottish Socialist Party Group in the Scottish Parliament met at the end of the last session of the Parliament to consider what attitude our MSP’s should take to the official opening of the new Parliament by the Queen on October 9 this year.

Our group decided unanimously to boycott the event. We believe that there is a grotesque contradiction in celebrating the opening of a lavishly expensive parliament building which does not have the power to prevent Scotland being dragged into murderous wars, or to rid our country of the monstrosity of nuclear weapons, or to use our wealth to banish poverty and homelessness, or to open our doors to those fleeing persecution and famine.

As a party which passionately strives to build a more equal society, we have no wish to parade behind a feudal figurehead who symbolises elitism, privilege and deference.

Instead of participating in a royal pantomime, the SSP group will be asking individuals and organisations who wish to see a genuinely free Scottish republic to participate in an alternative ceremony, on the symbolic Calton Hill site, on October 9th.

The focal point of the event will be a signing ceremony of a declaration in support of the call for full democracy for Scotland in the form of a free, independent republic answerable only to the people of Scotland; The Declaration of Calton Hill.

Although this event has been initiated by the six Scottish Socialist MSPs, we hope to broaden it out and involve MSPs and councillors from other political parties – including those who sit as independents – and from nonparty groups including anti-war, anti-nuclear, anti-racist and antipoverty campaigns. We would also encourage the general public to attend this event.

Our immediate intention is to form an ad-hoc organising committee to move the plans forward and to draw up a Declaration of Calton Hill.

We would welcome your participation in what will be an historic occasion.

Tommy Sheridan MSP

(On behalf of the Scottish Parliament SSP Group)


Aug 24 2004


Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 08RCN @ 2:18 pm

This wall between us slowly grows
slinking along the dusty earth
like some snake in the desert sands

Once in Jericho it fell down
by those who now do the building
the heirs of the trumpet blowers

Once Belshazzar saw the writing
on the wall, Daniel read the words
Mene, mene, tekel, parsin.

The days of your kingdom will end
for your acts have been found wanting
and your kingdom is divided

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