Aug 17 2017



This is the third part of A Critique of Jeremy Corbyn and British Left Social Democracy, written by Allan Armstrong. The first part can be read at:- the second part can be read at:-





Contents of part 3

 a.     The limits placed on social democracy during a crisis of global capitalism

 b.     From revolutionary democratic social democracy to existing state-accommodating reformist social  democracy

 c.     A further shift in the meaning of social democracy; the brief emergence of an alternative revolutionary democratic communism; and the descent to state-backed official communism and dissident communism

 d.     Social democracy and official communism morph into social neo-liberalism

 e.     From social liberalism to populism



a.     The limits placed on social democracy during a crisis of global capitalism

i.       We are living through a period of unprecedented global crisis – political, economic, social, and cultural. This means that ideas will be tested continuously. A class-based democratic party will have people from a whole number of tendencies – communist (as outlined 2.f.iii), republican socialist, social democratic, movementist, green socialist, socialist feminist, environmental, etc.

ii.        Any new party needs to recognise that political ideas will be in ferment, and not try to come up with some deal, which freezes the political relationship between particular tendencies, in order to bring about diplomatic ‘unity’. In a fast changing situation, the relationship between these tendencies, and the relevance of the arguments they make, will change. Thus, it is not some political deal that is required (which usually means marginalising those people and suppressing those arguments which it is thought will undermine this unity), but promoting the most advanced democratic culture, where different ideas can be thoroughly debated, applied and tested.

iii.       The current extent of the multifaceted crisis we confront is such that it is highly unlikely that any of the dominant forms of politics in the world can bring an end to the uncertainty, insecurity and threats to human lives. In the run-up to the horrific 1914-18 First World War, which marked the culmination of an earlier period of imperial crisis, Rosa Luxemburg said that the choice facing humanity lay between ‘Barbarism or Socialism’. In the event, humanity had to endure this war, and after a relatively short post-war boom, they then had to go through the growing barbarism of the late 1920s and 30s. This culminated in the even more horrific 1939-45 Second World War.

iv.       However, the resulting massive destruction of capital allowed for a new (but still pretty destructive) period of post-war reconstruction. Keynesian state intervention in the ‘West’, and Party-state controlled planning in the ‘East’, were able to deliver real gains in such a period of economic expansion. These provided the material basis for renewed national statist, social democratic politics in their different forms – ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’.

v.         It is not surprising that social democracy has deep roots, particularly in a long-standing state like the UK, which once dominated the world economy, and hence was more shielded from the effects of crisis than other more peripheral imperially dominated countries. This meant the British ruling class could make concessions to its working class. Due the conservative nature of the UK state though, such concessions were only made after considerable political pressure. And these concessions were made in return for ‘lower orders’ support for the UK state and for continued British imperial policies.

vi.         Ignoring or downplaying these aspects of British rule, British social democracy became associated in many workers’ minds with the periods when they enjoyed more secure lives, their best pay and conditions, and improved access to health, education, leisure and cultural provision. Hence, there is the desire to turn back the clock – to the ‘Spirit of 45’ or 1972-5. These dates correspond to the beginning and the end of the post-war boom. The idea that capitalism can be permanently reformed and eventually lead to a post-capitalist society (which some social democrats might call socialism) has formed the basis of social democratic politics, at least since the First World War.

vii.       However today, such is the threat from continued economic recession, environmental degradation, and nuclear and other forms of warfare, that for Rosa Luxemburg’s ‘Barbarism’, the independent marxist, Istvan Mezsaros has substituted ‘Barbarism or Worse’. We have entered another period of imperialist crisis, and as during previous crises, social democracy will be found wanting.


b.        From revolutionary democratic social democracy to existing state-accommodating reformist social democracy

i.          Before examining more contemporary events, it is necessary to go back much further and understand the changes in the meaning of social democracy. In the lead up to the 1847-9 International Revolutionary Wave, democracy was understood as being based on the principle of the sovereignty of the people expressed in a republican constitution. Thus democracy and republicanism were closely linked revolutionary ideas. This is why people saw that the struggle to attain popular sovereignty was to be achieved by revolutionary democratic means. There were already divisions over how this was to be done, whether by Jacobin ‘Party’ methods, or by communes and revolutionary societies. These divisions had already appeared in the first phase of the International Revolutionary Wave between 1789 and 1795. They were to reappear in the future.

ii.         In the lead up to, and during the 1847-9 International Revolutionary Wave, a minority began to analyse the deeper contradictions in the emerging new society. They recognised the significance of the labour/capitalist divide, and not just the older monarchy/aristocracy and people divide. They realised that, unless the labour/capitalist divide, which provided the real underpinning of the new rising capitalism order, was transcended, then exploitation, oppression and alienation would be reconstituted in a new form. Wage slavery would replace earlier forms of exploitation. This is why they argued that capitalism’s social conditions would also need to be ended – hence the ‘social’ prefix to democracy. As understood in this sense, social democracy was synonymous with communism.

iii.        Despite the defeat of that vision, the 1847-9 International Revolutionary Wave still resulted in the end of feudalism and exclusive monarchical/aristocratic power in Europe and further undermined other tributary social systems in the world, e.g. in India, China, Japan, the Ottoman and Persian Empires. This led to the massive expansion of capitalism, particularly in the leading imperial states – the UK, France, and later Prussia/Germany. This contributed to the consolidation of parliamentary representative forms of government. Although there were still considerable democratic limitations (as could be seen in the UK and Prussia/Germany), what had been understood to be democracy before – a republic based on the principle of the sovereignty of the people – became replaced with the much more limited concept of parliamentary democracy with an extended franchise.

iv.         In the leading imperial countries, the expansion of capital helped to create a new working class, whose living standards did improve. They now accepted this capitalist framework as given. In the UK, following the defeat of the social republican wing of the Chartists, new working class organisations appeared. These included the Model Trade Unions, which looked, not for the ending of wage slavery, but for ‘a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work’. Their members often also worked within the Radical, and later the Lib-Lab sections of the Liberal Party to press for economic and social reforms and an extension of the franchise.

v.          Non-conformist and other Christian influences also became more deeply rooted in the working class, leading to the marginalisation of freethinking and secularism. As the state’s remaining political and social restrictions on non-conformism were removed, the leaders of these denominations began to have greater influence after their bourgeois members joined the British ruling class. (This process occurred more slowly for Catholics and Jews). A Christian cross-class social liberalism was promoted to undermine any independent working class thinking or organisation. Although this Christian social liberalism could give its support to improved economic and social conditions for the working class, it remained socially conservative in other respects, particularly in its attitudes to gendered roles. This encouraged a divide between men’s world of work and women’s domestic world. Rather than secular education, denominational schooling was increasingly promoted, the better to discipline working class children and prepare them for their allotted role within capitalist society.

vi.           A more ecumenical, but still Christian, wing of social liberalism emerged (indeed some would call themselves Christian socialists), which did hold to a vision of a new society; but one that would come about through the gradual evolutionary changes, as a projection of an almost inevitable ‘British road to progress’ under divine providence. The ‘British road to progress’ became useful to the British ruling class’s wider imperial aims. Indeed this could be exported, particularly to the white settler colonies.

vii.       Social liberalism had a major impact upon the British social democracy, which emerged form the 1880s. Whereas the earlier social democrats understood the need for a revolutionary democratic overthrow of the state, the ending of wage slavery, and the transformation of the world order, the new social democrats accepted the existing UK state, the wages system and the British Empire. They even welcomed the attention and honours they received from monarchs, aristocrats and business leaders. Following the ruling class, they equated democracy with Westminster, seeking mainly to extend the franchise and educational provision.

viii.       Soon, social democracy came to mean, in effect, social parliamentarianism, with an acceptance of such blatantly undemocratic features as the monarchy, House of Lords, Crown Powers, an established religion, and unionist and imperialist suppression of national self-determination. The word ‘social’ began to appear before many other terms, e.g. monarchy, imperialism, patriotism and liberalism. The growing acceptance of the legitimacy of such institutions and practices represented an extension of social democratic acceptance of the anti-democratic features of the existing states in which they operated.

ix.         Following this early shift in the understanding of social democracy, the main working class organisation, which emerged in the UK, the Independent Labour Party (ILP), was treated with some reservation by other social democrats in the orthodox Marxist-dominated Second International. The ILP was often pulled into political dependence upon the Liberal Party, particularly when it became more overtly social liberal under Lloyd George. The ILP’s name did not proclaim its commitment to social democracy/socialism because the leadership thought that its ideal future society could be obtained by stealth, through the gradual reform of capitalism and Westminster under the existing UK constitution. Influenced by the Fabian Society, the ILP’s name did not include social democracy or socialism, because these still had revolutionary connotations and would scare off the social liberals.

x.         Nevertheless, the ILP passed another test of the Second International. It represented significant sections of the organised working class, particularly those in British trade unions. The self-proclaimed Marxist Social Democratic Workers Party had already been prepared to join with the non-Marxist General German Workers Association to form the SAPD in 1875, because of the latter’s larger organised working class support. Marx expressed his reservations about this deal in the Critique of the Gotha Programme.

xi.        The SAPD became the SPD, when legalised in 1890. In 1891, Engels noted, in his Critique of the Erfurt Programme, that the by now orthodox social democratic SPD did not oppose key elements of the reactionary Prussian/German constitution. Even official social democracy was beginning to give primacy to the continuation of its host state, which underpinned the capitalism to which it applied its minimum programme of reforms.

xii.       After the Second International was formed in 1889, it sought to recognise member parties on the basis of one state/one party. However, since there was, as yet, no official state backing for such a notion, a number of parties, not formed on this principle, were still recognised. Ironically, this happened because inter-imperial conflict was beginning to make its impact, and some non-state parties in particular states could get support from the one-state parties in other states, when there was some imperialist tension between them. Hence, James Connolly’s Irish Socialist Republican Party was able to get recognition at the 1900 Second International conference, against the wishes of the British social democratic representatives.

xiii.     Internationalism was now pursued through diplomacy between state-based member parties. This mirrored the way the imperialist states conducted their business. Any severe crisis was likely to disrupt particular states’ and parties’ diplomatic arrangements. The degree to which the SPD accepted its host state was finally displayed by its support for the First World War in 1914. The degree to which this was true of the majority of other state-based member parties was highlighted by the collapse of the Second International in the face of this war. Even when the true horrors of this war began to impinge on these social democrats’ thinking, they looked little further than to the re-establishment of peaceful diplomatic relations between their states and within a reconstituted  Second International.

xiv.       Thus, over quite an extended period of time, earlier in some states than others, depending on how well they were placed in the global pecking order, the term social democracy relinquished its earlier revolutionary democratic connotations.


c.          A further shift in the meaning of social democracy; the brief emergence of an alternative revolutionary democratic communism; and the descent to state-backed official communism and dissident communism

i.            In the face of the horrors of the First World War, the minority revolutionary democratic wing of the Second International began to prepare for a new International. The Communist or Third International was formed in 1919, in the midst of the 1916-23 International Revolutionary Wave.

ii.          This International Revolutionary Wave produced some of the most advanced thinking, in regard to defining and putting emancipation, liberation and self-determination into practice, that has ever been witnessed. Even after its final crushing in 1923, ripples and eddies still occurred in various places around the world. Although, as happens after all major defeats, they often took place in the form of a cultural renaissance.

iii.         The dilution of any rounded and connected vision of emancipation, liberation and self-determination took an extended period of time in the case of the  earlier social democracy. However, this process happened much more quickly with the establishment of state-backed official communism, following the spectacular rise and fall of the 1916-23 International Revolutionary Wave.

iv.         Furthermore, this process also occurred amongst many of the dissident sects, which left the Third International, after the crushing of the Kronstadt Rising in 1921; after the exile of Trotsky in 1928; and after 1956 following the CPSU revelations once Stalin had died. Official communism had become equated with Party-state presiding over a nationalised economy. Many dissident communists whilst no longer accepting the legitimacy of the official Party running the state, still upheld the revolutionary nature of the nationalised property relations it was based on.

v.           For the official communists, a new global communist society would no longer come about through a revolutionary democratic extension of socialist republicanism wherever the exploited had won power, but by an extension of a national state-based ‘socialisms in one country’. Internationalism increasingly took the form of unquestioning support for a Third International, which was subordinated to the interests the USSR Party-state. Wherever new Party-states were created these were meant to become part of a new international socio-economic order through a process of diplomacy. New international economic bodies like COMECON (1949) were set up. As long as the old imperialists still threatened, then the Warsaw Pact (1955) was meant to provide military defence.

vi.          However, the leaders of those  states participating in the bodies set up by the USSR soon realised their own subordinate position within this new set-up. This resulted in the freeze in relationships between USSR and Yugoslavia after 1947, Albania in 1961, and Romania in the 1960s. It was shown by the USSR-state promoted Warsaw Pact military interventions in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. China never joined COMECON and border skirmishes with the USSR broke out in 1969. Bigger wars took place between Vietnam and Kampuchea in 1978 and China and Vietnam in 1979.

vii.        The Party-states’ inability to deal with the National Question, even within their own borders, has been highlighted by the break-up Yugoslavia in 1990 and the USSR in 1991; and the continued national resistance in in Tibet and Xinjiang to their incorporation within the Chinese state.

viii.       The old policy one-state/one-party policy of the Second International was taken a step further in the official Party-states, where defence of the one Party-state became official policy. The USSR provided an interesting comparison with another Union state – the UK. Both officially recognised their own multi-national make-up. They both created ‘international’ identities – Soviet and British, which incorporated hyphenated subordinate identities, e.g. Russian and Ukrainian Soviet or Scottish, Welsh and ‘Ulster’ British. In the UK, the Crown Powers negate any right of national self-determination. In the USSR, the supremacy of the one-state Party had the same effect.

ix.         In the meantime, the original national reformist social democracy, which had developed in the period leading up to the First World War, became organised in a new Labour and Socialist International (L&SI), set up in 1923. The addition of the word ‘Labour’ reflected two things. First was a dilution of any specific socialist requirement as a condition of affiliation. The second was the ongoing battle with the new Third International as to which party best represented the working class.

x.          Where, in the immediate context of 1916-23 International Revolutionary Wave, the working class became drawn into major class struggles, e.g. France and Italy, or struggles facing the additional whip of competing state powers’ imperial oppression, e.g. Germany, then the infant Third International-affiliated communist parties threatened to replace the L&SI-affiliated social democratic parties. In France the PCF outgrew the SFIO. However, although growing in influence until Hitler crushed all the opposition, the KPD did not outgrow the SPD. Social democratic and official communist party competition continued. Sometimes, as in Britain, the Third International section, in this case the CPGB, whilst remaining a minority, related better than the social democrats to the most exploited and oppressed sections of the working class (e.g. Maerdy in South Wales, West Dunbartonshire’s Vale of Leven, the Fife coalfield, Chopwell in County Durham and East London).

xi.         However, the key area in which competition for working class support took place was the trade unions. The Third International set up Profintern in 1921. In France, Profintern was able to win over the largest section of the trade union movement, the CGT. In Germany, however, the continued drastic economic effects of the World War I defeat (e.g. the heavy cost of the imposed of reparations) and then the Depression, as well as some bad political decisions, made it harder to increase the KPD’s influence in the trade union movement. The official communists increasingly recognised that outside those areas in which they enjoyed state control (the USSR before Second World War and Eastern Europe afterwards), they would have to adapt to official social democracy. Profintern was closed down in 1937. Although the CPI emerged as the largest Left party in Italy after the Second World War, it pushed for the development of the CGIL, a new Italian trade union federation, to organise official communist, social democratic and Christian democratic trade unionists. The CGIL was set up in 1951.

xii.        Instead of building new unions or federations, or adopting an industrial republican approach and democratising the trade unions, the official communists pursued what was termed a popular frontist, or in its British trade union context a Broad Left, approach. This involved allying with Left social democrats to replace the Right social democratic leaders of the existing trade unions, whilst largely leaving their bureaucratic structures intact. One of the weaknesses of this approach became evident, when new Broad Left candidates had to stand against old Broad Left officials, who had become bureaucratised in their outlook.

xiii.       However, it was the largely one-sided inter-imperialist competition, which emerged between the USA and the USSR in the Cold War period between 1947 and 1989, which pushed official communism and a section of Left social democracy closer together. This had precedents in the pre-Second World War popular frontist politics, particularly Third International support for Leon Blum’s SFIO led French government (1936) and Juan Negrin’s PSOE participation in the Republican government of Spain (1936-9).

xiv.       During the Cold War, Right social democracy sided with the US state, and where any ‘Moscow’ sympathising popular frontism existed in national social democratic parties, trade unions and cultural organisations, they worked to break this connection. Every level of the US state was involved, including the CIA. What became known as an Atlanticist political orientation was promoted using US state funding, including money for US visits and other forms of ‘hospitality’. Against the Left, blacklisting, political show trails, were all resorted to in the USA and Western Europe, military coups elsewhere, including Greece in 1967.

xv.         There was even a Leftist version of this crusade against official communists and their supporters. This extended to some dissident communists, e.g. Max Schachtman and his followers from 1958. (Today the Alliance for Workers Liberty follow in this tradition.)

xvi.       Most Left social democrats aligned themselves with the official communists. In the UK, there was a lot of shared thinking in the British Road to Socialism (published under Stalin in 1951, with further revisions in 1952, 1958, 1968 and 1977). An indication of the linkage was the CPGB’s support for Left social democrat, Tony Benn’s Alternative Economic Strategy (AES)(1976) based on the promotion of neo-Keynesian economics. The Broad Left in the trade unions pushed the AES at the same time as several of them accepted the Labour government’s Social Contract.

xvii.      The Third International proved to be more attractive in states subjected to western imperialism. Here, as a result of the imperial control and distortion of their economies, the working class usually formed small minorities. So, the Third International affiliated parties sought to represent the interests of other oppressed classes, particularly the peasantry. It abandoned the notion of international democratic revolution in favour of the building what it saw as the preconditions for socialism, further capitalist development but on the basis of national state protectionism, and making economic deals with the USSR. Thus, the Third International extended its appeals to those who wanted to form a would-be state capitalist class.

xviii.     International competition took place on the basis of whether the US or the USSR backed models offered the best roads for national economic development. The USSR-backed model proved particularly attractive to those  who held to a top-down bureaucratic managerialist ethos. These people considered it the duty of the workers and peasants to make sacrifices for further national development.

xix.       Therefore, the period between 1923 and 1975 saw a trend to a coalescence of Left social democracy and official communism. This involved no revolutionary democratic vision of emancipation, liberation and self-determination, but a shared, top-down managerialist concern for greater state promoted economic development. There were differences over the balance between the degree of state control, from complete nationalisation to state regulation and nationalisation of key strategic sectors of the economy. Official state-backed orthodox marxism justified the first, social democratic neo-Keynesians the second. There was still a considerable overlap between the two.

xx.       Thus, the national state focus of pre-First World War social democracy was taken further by both later social democracy and official communism. This approach was justified as taking a national road to socialism. The next section will show that these roads did not lead to socialism but contributed instead to the latest phase of global imperialism, dominated by finance capital beyond the effective control of any national state.


d.        Social democracy and official communism morph into morphs into social neo- liberalism

i.           Both social democracy and official communism reached the highpoint of their influence in the prolonged post war boom. Their decline was also linked. Transnational corporations became increasingly able to escape the restrictions of national states and developed global institutions, particularly in the financial sector, e.g. IMF, to pressurise existing states to bow to their needs. Following the new global economic crisis, which developed from the mid 1970s, Thatcher’s Tories and Reagan’s Republicans launched a neo-liberal offensive through the 1980s. This succeeded in reversing earlier social democratic and official communist inspired reforms, and led to an increasing accommodation by these two groups to this rising neo-liberalism.

ii.          In accommodating to this latest form of capitalism, and the sacrifices it demanded of the working class, a new Right social democracy gained ascendancy over its Left and Centre predecessors in the West. This slide to Right social democracy took place throughout the western world. In New Zealand it was the Labour Party under Finance Minister, Roger Douglas, which actually initiated neo-liberal restructuring in 1984. It took the experience of Thatcher’s Tories and the defeat of the miners, before social neo-liberalism became more entrenched in the British Labour Party.

iii.         Eurocommunism had developed in in Italy, Spain and elsewhere in the 1970s. Eurocommunism represented a more dissident strain in relation to official communism, until official communism itself adopted Perestroika and Glasnost in the USSR to prop up the state and economy. There were similar Eurocommunist style developments in several Warsaw Pact states, e.g. Poland and Hungary (but they were still restrained by a slower moving USSR). Had the USSR been able to survive, a version of Eurocommunism might have become the new official communism. The fact that Eurocommunism, which increasingly accommodated to existing western capitalism, inspired Perestroika and Glasnost in the USSR, highlighted the growing ascendancy of Western social democracy over Eastern official communism. This in turn was a product of the growing accommodation of social democracy to the neo-liberal offensive.

iv.          The Party-states had also been stagnating for sometime. Key sectors of their economy had become dysfunctional. This was reflected in their low productivity rates as working class resistance, under police state conditions, took the form of, ‘If they pretend to pay us, we’ll pretend to work’. Political battles in these states took place over the degree to which the dominant state protectionism should give way to a new engagement with the global economy, with further marketisation of the economy and the legalisation of the already extensive market-based black market.

v.          When the Party-states collapsed, their successor states abandoned the state protectionism, which had shielded then from the direct impact of the global economy. The capitalist economic relations already latent in these states were able to firmly establish themselves. There was no need to mount a bloody counter-revolution such as occurred after the 1871 Paris Commune, in order to remove the working class from power. It was the Party-state bureaucrats who had wielded power, and not the working class. Instead there was the brutal neo-liberal assault on jobs, pay and welfare provision. The neo-liberal attacks on traditional industries and welfare provision in the East have been similar, but more brutal than those that occurred in the West with the support of Right social democrats. The levels of state protectionism had been considerably greater and these had to be removed, however drastic the social effects.

vi.          In the aftermath of the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and USSR, many well placed former official communist party officials were able to make the transition to being individual capitalists, sometimes in league with new gangster capitalists. Together they opened up the Russian Federation’s state resources to foreign capitalists, aided by the ”Chicago Boys’ – western finance capital’s own buccaneers. In the process, Boris Yeltsin ousted Mikhail Gorbachev. The latter’s policies of Perestroika and Glasnost, designed to reform the USSR, in order to maintain it, failed spectacularly in 1991. The post-1991 joint looting of the old USSR by a new kleptocracy led to a catastrophic decline in production, living standards, welfare provision and even life expectancy. But in the process a new class of oligarchs was forming.

vii.         Official communism had led to a particular form of economic development with its simultaneous high rate of exploitation of workers and peasants, and its increase in the provision of education and skills needed to speed up industrialisation. Eventually, the living standards of the working class in the Party-states did rise during the global post-war boom. Official communism’s main advantage over social democracy was that it enjoyed official state backing. When this ended between 1989-91, the official communist model evaporated.

viii.       Triumphalist neo-liberals highlighted the common statist approach shared by official communism and social democracy. They stepped up their offensive. Furthermore, since the official communists had used their state power to marginalise any genuine communism based on a vision of emancipation, liberation and self-determination, the Right was now able to say, “There is no alternative’.

ix.         But it wasn’t a completely one-sided take-over. The major global corporations are often run, not by individual capitalists, but by professional managers, led by a CEO. They did take on board some of the managerialist techniques developed in the Party-states. Target setting for lower managers and an atomised workforce were borrowed from the Five Year Plans. New corporate plans were often launched before earlier ones had been completed, because the main function of planning was to impose managerial discipline. Glossy corporate brochures boasted of successes that were as far from the reality experienced by the workforce as the old Soviet Weekly.

x.          After the experience of Tiananmen Square, Peking, in 1989, the Chinese CP leadership decided the Party-state would have to preside over the transition from a heavily protectionist to a turbo-capitalist economy. Under the CPC’s continued political domination, a new powerful capitalist class began to grow rapidly. The CPC opened up Special Economic Zones’ to transnational corporations, with the intention of massively increasing exports to gain access to global financial markets, and to create a working class in the most advanced sectors of the global economy.

xi.         However, the attacks on welfare in China were even more draconian, the super-exploitation of labour even harsher, with internal controls over labour movement as brutal as much of the cross-border movement of labour in Europe and the USA. A segmented labour force was created, with an ever decreasing proportion being protected by the ‘Iron Bowl’, and an increasing proportion being dependent on balancing their existence between resort to urban industrial employment and whatever support they could get from their home rural communities. Land in these communities has often been sold illegally with the connivance of corrupt party officials, further weakening the working class. And beyond this there is an extensive semi-legal and black economy where ‘illegals’ are employed, including North Koreans fleeing repression.

xii.        Meanwhile, a further shift occurred in the meaning of social democracy under the Right. In the UK, the Labour Party first accommodated to the rise of Thatcher through the ‘dented shield’ policy of Centre social democrats under Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and John Smith. After the defeat of the Miners’ Strike though, the political trajectory moved relentlessly to the Right, until Tony Blair emerged as leader of New Labour. He ditched Old Labour, Centre and Left social democratic Clause 4 pretensions.

xiii.         Following the earlier historically premature breakaway of the Social Democratic Party, which went on to merge with the Liberal Party, Blair talked about reintegrating the social democratic and liberal traditions. He began to investigate the possibility of state funding to marginalise the hold of the trade unions on the party. Which class actually Labour represented became decidedly vague, as Peter Mandelson declared, “He was extremely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”.

xiv.         Tony Blair, fully taking on board the earlier political degeneration of the term social democracy, went on to describe himself as a ‘social-ist’. This concept meant putting the word ‘social’, not only before democracy, by which he meant Westminster; but monarchy, hence his suggestion of the ‘Peoples Princess’; neo-liberalism, by which some of elite’s wealth might trickle down to the minions; and imperialism under which he took the UK into war with Iraq, by such democratic means as sanctioning covert military actions before the war was officially declared, the use of the ‘Dodgy Dossier’, the sacking of journalist Andrew Gilligan from the BBC, and the ‘suicide’ of weapons expert, David Kelly.

xv.        Right social democrats did come into conflict with the neo-conservatives over the kind of society they wanted neo-liberal economics to create. Social democrats could support women, gay and LGBT and other minority rights. However, the emphasis was on improving access to higher managerial jobs, providing niche consumer markets and seeking legal recognition within the existing order, not on drawing together the oppressed to create a wider vision of social possibilities based on emancipation, liberation and self-determination in its widest sense.

xvi.        Right social democracy’s abandonment of any commitment to the state other than to maximise the opportunities for corporate profitabilty in its particular ‘branch’ of the global economy; to any particular commitment to the working class other than as individual consumers; to democracy other than the existing UK state and the use of focus groups to help make policy, led to the ditching of even the remotest prospect of a reformist alternative to existing society. They bought heavily into TINA, offering nothing more than ‘neo-liberalism with a human face’.

xvii.       Thus, instead of leading workers along their ‘national roads to socialism’, and social democracy and official communism dragged then into the dead end of neo-liberal integration into the world economy.


e.        From social liberalism to populism

i.        The most widespread political reaction across the globe to the regressive impact of neo-liberalism has been the rise of populism. Populist politics should not be conflated with popular politics. In popular politics, the well-organised sections of the working class use their power and influence to win support from the more marginal exploited and oppressed groups in society. Populist politics, however, reverses this. Particular charismatic leaders, anti-democratic movements or parties try to impose their views upon a marginalised, atomised and alienated working class, peasantry (where this still exists) and a downwardly mobile middle class. Populism also means mobilising on a national, cross-class basis. Thus populism, Left or Right, is always nationalist.

ii.         Populism can take root after particular defeats, in the context of the disintegration of class organisations – whether older social democratic, official communist or independent – which had previously provided the basis for gaining reforms or for resistance. Populism, instead of uniting workers and promoting class confidence from their own collective experience and organisation, turns to atomised individuals who look for saviours and scapegoats. They still crave collective identities – but these begin to take other alienated forms – ethnic, ethno-religious, racist and male chauvinist -which break-up working class unity. Furthermore, the lack of an organised class-conscious pole of attraction means populism can oscillate between Left and Right.

iii.         As early victims of US imperialism’s and the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programs imposed upon South America, a Left populist politics appeared in the form of Hugo Chavez’s proposed 2000 Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela and Rafael Correa’s 2008 Citizens’ Revolution in Ecuador. More ambiguously, the vice president of Bolivia, self-styled Marxist, Alvaro Garcia Linera, has termed Evo Morale’s post-2006 government, “Andean and Amazonian capitalism”, whilst Aymara Indian activist, Felipe Quispe, has termed it ~”neo-liberalism with an Indian face” [i]. This slippage along a Left/Right spectrum is characteristic of populism.

iv.          In the Russian Federation neo-liberalism was imposed in such a brutal way, under Boris Yeltsin and the kleptocracy, between 1991-99, that a Right populist alternative emerged around Vladimir Putin. He was Depute Prime Minister under Yeltsin, before becoming President in 2000. However, to gain popularity he began challenging ‘unpatriotic’ elements amongst the rising class of oligarchs and their neo-liberal ‘excesses’. Putin centralised state executive power into his hands, taking on both non-compliant oligarchs and any independently minded journalists. He had some killed. Putin acted as the political front man for the interests of one section of the Russian oligarchy. Even before the demise of the old USSR, a particularly virulent Great Russian chauvinist and right wing street politics had emerged in the form of Pamyat, under the protection of the KGB. Putin, an ex-KGB officer, based his Right populist politics in the revival Great Russian nationalism, Russian Orthodoxy and the promotion of very traditional social values.

v.            Putin has made international overtures both on the Right and Left. He has backed Russian neo-fascist forces in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Some from old official and dissident communist organisations have been prepared to form Red-Brown alliances with these forces. Although Putin clearly fronts a Russian capitalist state, he shares a Great Russian chauvinism with neo-Stalinists and a Soviet pan-unionism with some Trotskyists. They see the Russian Federation as a victim of imperialism or western imperialism, rather than a declining imperial power, like the Spanish Empire in relation to a rising US imperialism in the nineteenth century. This, rather than uncritical support for ‘existing socialism’, which led to such earlier Red Brown alliances as the Molotov-Ribbentrop (or Hitler-Stalin) Pact from 1939-41, helps to explain, but not excuse such alliances.

vi.           Putin’s most consistent overtures have been to the Far Right in Europe – Golden Dawn in Greece, Attak in Bulgaria, Jobbik in Hungary, Northern League in Italy and Front National in France. He has recognised fellow Right populists in Farage and Trump. However, the Russian state backed Russia Today is more designed to appeal to Left populists. Some overtures, like his attempt to woo the SNP led government in Scotland have not worked because, although Scottish independence was opposed between 2012-14 by the UK, US governments and leading EU bureaucrats, the SNP has remained pro-EU. Putin and his oligarchic backers see the EU as an economic threat to Russian interests, and its lack of an independent military strategy and force, as making it subordinate to NATO’s policy of encirclement of the Russian Federation.

vii.         The full impact of neo-liberalism only became obvious in the EU, including the UK, during the 2007-8 Financial Crash, which has led to a prolonged recession.   Many of neo-liberalism’s leading proponents were initially shell-shocked. Gordon Brown, who as UK Chancellor, abolished any remaining government regulation of the City of London in 1997, had been claiming for a number of years that the old boom and bust days were over. He fully accepted the economic basis of neo-liberal economic thinking, but opposed its ‘excesses’. Under Labour, neo-liberalism could be made to work for the majority of the British people, including its working class, through the trickle down of the wealth ‘created’ by a turbo-charged global economy. He joined the massive Make History Poverty demonstration in Edinburgh in 2005, coinciding with the G8 conference at Gleneagles. In a throwback to old nineteenth century Christian moralism and pacifism, this protest was made to bring about a change in the consciences of global capitalists. They remained unmoved.

viii.       In 2008, following the Crash, Alan Greenspan, Chair of the US Federal Reserve and arch-advocate of finance capital-led neo-liberalism declared, “I have found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I have been very distressed by that fact [ii]“. Traditionally, it has been thought it is the Left, which would welcome a major economic crisis, because this highlights the bankruptcy of the capitalist system. However, one effect of a serious crisis is to provide new opportunities for some capitalists – “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. Strongly placed supporters of old-style neo-liberalism soon took this idea up. Naomi Klein called this The Shock Doctrine. Many global corporations may have lost billions on paper, but they still had real billions of assets left. Yet their demand that others, the exploited and oppressed, pay the banksters’ debts produced an inevitable reaction. Therefore the 1% became particularly exposed politically.

ix.         The post 2007/8 economic crisis hit the EU. As a consequence the Troika (IMF, European Central Bank-ECB and European Commission – EC) resorted to an updated version of the Structural Adjustment Programmes previously imposed upon the ‘Third World’. In the process, the EU’s southern tier – Greece, Italy, Spain to Portugal, plus Ireland (which was done over by both the EU and The City) – were the worst hit.

x.         In 2011, a year of mounting resistance across the world (from the massive Arab Spring to the student demonstration in London and the Hetherington occupation at Glasgow University) two new movementist organisations appeared in the EU – Direct Democracy Now in Greece and the Indignados in Spain. Initially though, the movement with the most international clout was Occupy. This was launched in the very heart of the beast – New York’s Wall Street. Occupy, which celebrated its own spontaneous nature was to rapidly rise and fall. However, in the context of even deeper crisis in Greece and Spain, many of those who had been involved in Direct Democracy Now and the Indignados saw the need for a specific political challenge.

xi.          Therefore, in both Greece and Spain, new Left populist and increasingly electoral organisations arose – Syriza and Podemos. Both claimed inspiration from Venezuela. However, they have been more circumspect in any resort to revolutionary talk than Chavez. They both accepted their existing state frameworks as an adequate vehicle to begin their challenge. Two charismatic leaders came to the fore – Alex Tspiras in Greece and Pablo Iglesias in Spain. Under the guise of marginalising the sects (whose behaviour usually alienated many), these two individuals increasingly concentrated real power in a leadership built around themselves.

xii.         Syriza’s Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, who describes himself as an ”erratic marxist” was quite clear about why he adopted Left populism. This was done to “save European capitalism from itself…. Not out of love for European capitalism, for the eurozone, for Brussels, or for the European Central Bank, but just because we want to minimise the unnecessary human toll from this crisis”. “I have campaigned on an agenda founded on the assumption that the left was, and remains, squarely defeated”. The link between populism and perceived Left defeat could not be clearer.

xiii.        Furthermore, Varoufakis went on to recognise the negative historical role of “the communist and social democratic parties. Both of them, in addition to their other errors (and, indeed, crimes) failed, to their detriment, to follow Marx’s lead in a crucial regard: instead of embracing liberty and rationality as their rallying cries and organising concepts, they opted for equality and justice, bequeathing the concept of freedom to the neoliberals. Marx was adamant: The problem with capitalism is not that it is unfair but that it is irrational, as it habitually condemns whole generations to deprivation and unemployment and even turns capitalists into angst-ridden automata, living in permanent fear that unless they commodify their fellow humans fully so as to serve capital accumulation more efficiently, they will cease to be capitalists. So, if capitalism appears unjust this is because it enslaves everyone; it wastes human and natural resources; the same production line that pumps out remarkable gizmos and untold wealth, also produces deep unhappiness and crises [iii]“.

xiv.        There is real substance to Varoufakis’s criticism of the “left for failing to put forward a vision embracing liberty… and bequeathing the concept of freedom to the neo-liberals [iv]“. Varoufakis stated that he has “been accused, by well-meaning radical voices, of being ‘defeatist’ and of trying to save an indefensible European socio-economic system. This criticism, I confess, hurts. And it hurts because it contains more than a kernel of truth [v].” However, it also needs to be recognised that Varoufakis’s criticism of the Left itself contains more than “a kernel of truth”, even if it hurts.

xv.         Nevertheless, in abandoning the bureaucratic politics of traditional social democracy and official communism and the sectarian politics of dissident communism, what alternative economic course did Varoufakis advocate, to save European capitalism from itself, and to prevent a slide to the Far Right? Populism has no distinct economic programme of its own, so Syriza borrowed heavily from the Left social democratic neo-Keynesianism. George Papandreou, leader of Greece’s mainstream social democratic party, PASOK, had already abandoned this course. On occasions Papandreou had not been averse to making his own Left populist appeals. He won the 2009 election on the basis of challenging austerity (just as Francois Hollande’s social democratic PSF did in 2012, with a programme similar to Corbyn’s). Yet, within months, Papandreou was imposing the EU’s drastic austerity package, without mounting any opposition (as Hollande was to do too).

xvi.         Syriza aimed for government office in the belief that it could persuade the European capitalist class to act in its own best longer-term interests (a somewhat Lefter version of Gordon Brown’s ‘Make Poverty History’ thinking). However, the European capitalists’ representatives in the ECB were not operating in an international vacuum. The post 2007/8 crisis had placed the EU in increasing economic competition with the US and China. This was a time to batten down the hatches of the EU Megacorp, and not encourage any of its ‘branch offices’ to come up with alternative experiments. This could only lead to the undermining of the centralised financial power of the ECB, the coordinator of the European capitalist response to the global crisis it found itself in. Furthermore, the US under Obama, the UK under Brown and Cameron were already to the forefront of making their working class’s pay for the crisis, so the ECB, backed by the EC, were not going to follow a neo-Keynesian course, which could lead to global financial and speculative attacks on the euro.

xvii.       When Left populist Syriza took office in 2015, it formed a coalition with the Right populist ANEL. This again highlights the ability of populism to behave in a chameleon like fashion. Although Syriza belongs to the EL and its parliamentary group GUE/NGL, Prime Minister Tspiras was aware that its internationalism was largely sentimental. Its leaders much preferred diplomacy behind the scenes to taking the lead in organising effective international solidarity. He also knew that the Greek Communist Party’s (KKE) sect international – the Initiative of Communist and Workers’ Parties [vi]– and those of Antarsaya [vii] (a coalition of several sects) – the USFI and IST – were unable to provide any effective solidarity for their alternative Grexit policy. This is why, on the international plane, Tspiras turned to Putin, the Right populist leader of the Russian Federation, for an ally to help him deal with the Troika. Putin, however, hedged his bets, and also made overtures, on a pan-Orthodox basis, to the Greek fascist Golden Dawn.

xviii.       There is a strong likelihood that Tspiras, knowing that his Syriza/ANEL coalition only enjoyed 40% electoral backing [viii], conducted his Greek bailout referendum on 5th July 2125, in the expectation that he would only get minority backing for defiance. This would provide Syriza with the excuse Tspiras was looking for to back off. However, the Greek people gave a defiant 61% ‘Oxi’ (No) vote to the deal the ECB was trying to impose. Therefore, when Tspiras capitulated, three days later, the limitations of national populist challenges to corporate capital became very apparent. A gloating ECB was able to impose an even harsher austerity package than the one the Greek people had rejected.

xix.        Unable to offer the Greek people any practical alternative, which would have required effective international solidarity, neither the KKE nor Antarsya made any breakthrough in Tsipras’ rushed September 2015 election. Syriza, despite a fall in their vote, held on to office [ix]. The increased abstention rate and the rise in the vote for Golden Dawn was an indication of the politics of demoralisation. The mainstream Greek parties did not mind Syriza carrying the can for the ECB’s austerity measures. Furthermore, now that the Syriza/ANEL coalition has become directly responsible for implementing these (including pensions cuts and more privatisations), the neo-fascism of Golden Dawn is also likely to benefit.

xx.     However, the impact of the crisis struck even closer to the centres of corporate power – in the UK and US. Although the ‘1%’ appeared to be out on a limb politically, crises that downgrade the economic and hence political clout of some players also raise the prospects for others. And some of these new players are extremely ambitious. This has meant that those, less obviously linked to the existing state institutions and mainstream parties, were in a better position to seize the new opportunities presented to them. Hedge funds owners and managers, e.g. BlackRock and Ray Dalio [x], and certain major companies, e.g. Uber, Coors appreciated this. They financed Donald Trump’s presidential bid. Trump, himself a major corporate business owner, could attack the Washington establishment, and its prime political representative, Hilary Clinton. She was so obviously in the pockets of major US corporations that Trump could claim he did not need to bribe any government. He could miss out the middle {wo}man and bring his ‘successful’ business skills directly to government. He knew that Clinton would not want to run her campaign on the ethics of big business!

xxi.       It was Trump’s personal wealth (and that of his wealthy backers), coupled to his political outsider status, which gave him a decided advantage when appealing to the workers in the rust-belt communities. They had faced decades of industrial decline, the loss of skilled work, increasingly precarious labour, and removal of much of what was already weak welfare support. They now confronted the world as atomised and alienated individuals, with whatever support they received often coming from fundamentalist evangelist churches. The National Rifle Association, and Far right organisations like the KKK and various militias also operated in this milieu.

xxii.     Few workers in the rust belt any longer had independent class organisations of their own. They had been ‘groomed’ for decades to think only individually, through watching highly competitive TV games shows at home, and to look to celebrities as role models. The major TV channels, NBC, Fox News and CNN were overwhelmingly pro-corporate America. However, they became outflanked by a whole online media world, which encouraged audience participation. This increased the possibility of drawing people into supporting new celebrity politicians. Trump was already well known as the US producer of The Apprentice. So he straddled the two worlds of commercial TV and the massive online world of Twitter. This was a world that his AltRight backers had also colonised, through such outlets as Breibart. Too much focus, though, on the role of the hard Right can draw attention away form the fact it was the economic conditions and hyper-individualism promoted under neo-liberalism that allowed this new political phenomenon to grow. No matter how unsavoury Trump’s ‘America First’ appeared to the Old Guard of Democrats and Republicans, he represents a ‘blowback’ consequence of their own neo-liberalism.

xxiii.     Trump’s supporters also saw Brexit as a possible dry run for their US ambitions. Thus Robert Mercer, hedge fund billionaire and co-owner of Breitbart, provided free backing for Nigel Farage [xi]. But one-time City trader, Farage did not have the same economic muscle of Trump, and only had the support of a few wealthy business figures, like Arron Banks, But Brexit also had another parallel campaign, with far more significant backers in the Tory Right. Once the vote for Brexit had been won, Trump would go on to his own “Brexit, plus, plus, plus” victory. Having seen Theresa May adopt Brexit, he tried to get her to make Farage the UK ambassador to the US. The British ruling class were happy enough for the Tories to adopt UKIP’s clothes, but not its erratic leader or its other prominent and unpredictable figures. Trump could see the lie of the land and got May to meet him in the Oval Office, to plan for his ‘America First’ US-UK ‘free trade’ deal.

xxiv.    And this, in turn, is the immediate political context in which Jeremy Corbyn and British Left social democratic politics have emerged. Therefore, it is not surprising that some of his closest political advisors are calling upon Corbyn to adopt a specifically Left populist politics, which ramps up the British nationalism already inherent in social democracy. Independent working class organisation, whether industrial or communal, is currently weak, but a national statist politics can draw support across a wider Left/Right political spectrum.

xxv.    Leading trade union bureaucrats welcome the prospect of increased power, after years of their marginalisation under neo-liberalism and Right social democracy. In return for trying to persuade their members (but not themselves of course) to make the necessary ‘sacrifices’ to prop up a Corbyn-led government, they expect to be given a much more central role in the running of the UK state. All of McCluskey’s years of political manoeuvring in the TUC and Labour Party could yet bear fruit for him. May Day ‘socialist’ rhetoric aside his political vision represents an extension of the best deal he thinks that a trade union bureaucrat can deliver at any particular time. His ‘socialism’ is designed to come about through an accumulation of good deals, which improve everyone’s pay, conditions and welfare provision. So collective bargaining needs to be supplemented by neo-Keynesian state regulation.

xxvi.    But the overwhelming weakness of this revived Left social democratic economics is that it ignores the massive pressures exerted on the competing nation-based capitalist classes, particularly in a period of continued economic crisis. Keynesian measures may be able to iron out short term cyclical movements in the economy, during a prolonged period of overall growth. However, once the rate of profit has slowed down due to the prolonged post-war build up of vast amounts of capital, then neo-Keynesian measures threaten corporate profits even more, particularly in the context of growing inter-imperialist rivalry. No national capitalist class is prepared to make the sacrifices demanded of them in the name of ‘the many not the few’, because their international competitors will go for the jugular to try to eliminate or subordinate them to their interests. Furthermore, the UK state, which the British Left social democrats hold to be the vehicle for their neo-Keynesian reforms has been developed over the centuries to best meet the interests of the few not the many. The Crown Powers serve the British ruling class. This is why any sustainable challenge to the existing global corporate order, and its local centres of accumulated power, involves the development of a party and international advocating revolutionary democracy and independent working class organisation.







[iv]    ibid.

[v]     ibid.



[viii]  The Greek electoral system gives a parliamentary representative boost to the leading party.

[ix]    However, Tsipiras had to sack one of his ANEL coalition ministers, Dimitris Kammenos, because of his anti-semitism –



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Mar 02 2016


Steve Freeman (Left Unity and RISE) sees the forthcoming EU referendum as undermining the potential for a European democratic revolution.



The UK’s European referendum is no more than an opportunity for the Crown to extract more concessions for the City, whilst promoting its anti-working class racist neo-liberal agenda. It is not enough, however, to say that the working class should not vote in any way to endorse Cameron’s dirty little deal.

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Jun 27 2015


The RCN and Republican Socialists (Scotland) gave their backing to Steve Freeman who stood as a republican socialist and anti-unionist candidate in Bermondsey in the General Election. Here we are posting Steve’s political assessment of the campaign.




This paper will not address the important question of what is ‘Republican Socialism’ beyond identifying it as the “republican road to socialism” which puts the issue of democracy at the heart of working class politics. This stands in contrast to the dominant idea in the UK and especially England of a “British road to Socialism”. The next steps here are mainly focused on London and do not address how Republican Socialists in the rest of the UK can use our election campaign to advance our common cause.

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Apr 20 2015


Allan Armstrong (RCN) was invited to speak on Republicanism and Democracy  at the Assembly for Democracy event in Glasgow on Saturday, April 11th. He gave an update of the talk at the first Radical Independence Conference in Glasgow in November 2012 (see


Allan Armstrong speaking at the Glasgow Assembly for Democracy


Most of the discussions today we have been having today have been about bringing democracy into our own campaigns and developing an opposition to the ongoing British ruling class offensive.

However, as one contributor to the debate has already said, ‘democracy’ is one of the most promiscuous terms to be found in politics. Indeed, the British ruling class likes to claim that “Westminster is the mother of parliaments”, with the implication that it represents a deeply rooted democratic tradition. So it is worth taking a closer look at this Westminster, based on the political notion of the ‘Crown in parliament’.

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Dec 04 2014

EMANCIPATION & LIBERATION RIC 2014 conference special magazine

We are posting the two lead articles from Emancipation & Liberation, issue no. 23, produced for the 3000 strong Radical Independence Campaign conference held in Glasgow, in the Clydeside Auditorium on Saturday, November 22nd. The first is by Murdo Ritchie (RCN), the second by Allan Armstrong (RCN).






“There are decades in which nothing happens and there are weeks in which decades happen.” Lenin

When 1,517,989 voters (44.7%) declared they were prepared to abandon their primary, legal national identity to build a better Scotland, it was clear that Scottish national independence was coming. The defeated felt triumphant; the victorious worried.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s statement on the morning of the ballot declaration was filled with wishful thinking, “the debate has settled for a generation or as Alex Salmond has said, perhaps for a lifetime. So there can be no disputes, no re-runs –we have heard the settled will of the Scottish people.” The media may have declared the result decisive but the numbers and mood told otherwise.

Continue reading “EMANCIPATION & LIBERATION RIC 2014 conference special magazine”

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Feb 01 2014


Murdo Ritchie, a new member of the RCN, writes about the political significance of the issue of a written constitution raised the SNP government’s White Paper.


Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon present the SNP government's 'White Paper' to a press conference

Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon present the SNP government’s ‘White Paper’ to a press conference


Although the First Minister has abandoned the SNP’s commitments to referenda on a future independent Scotland’s membership of NATO and the European Union as well as continuing the current monarch as head-of-state, he has remained quite firm on the importance of a written constitution for a future Scotland.  Indeed he has emphasised this policy more strenuously than many others.  It may be the single most important policy proposal he has made.  It is central to a full and proper understanding of the importance of the White Paper (1).


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Nov 25 2013



The RCN received the unanimous backing of  the Edinburgh branch of RIC to ask the  RIC National Steering Committee to organise a session at the second national RIC conference on November 23rd in Glasgow, entitled ‘The break-up of the UK – the case for ‘internationalism from below’’. This was then unanimously agreed by the Steering Committee, subject to availability of speakers and any modifications required by the overall conference programme. In the event, the session was renamed ‘After the UK: the future for 4 nations’.

The initial choice of speaker for Ireland was agreed to be Bernadette McAliskey, and for Wales, Leanne Wood, a republican and the president of Plaid Cymru. Leanne initially indicated her interest, but later had to give her apologies because the conference clashed with a Plaid Cymru event, which also meant that a substitute speaker could not be arranged. Steve Freeman of the Republican Socialist Alliance was also proposed as a speaker for England, and after the organisers’  consideration this was also agreed. The organisers were left to arrange a speaker for Scotland. In the meantime, Mary McGregor (RCN and Dundee RIC) was proposed to chair the session. Later the organisers came back and, in the interest of preserving gender balance, transferred Mary to speak on Scotland. Tony Kenny, a republican and former SNP member and council candidate was asked to chair the meeting instead.

Below we provide a video link which shows Bernadette’s contribution to this session. After this we provide both videos  and the full texts of Steve Freeman’s and Mary McGregor’s contributions (which was slightly curtailed because of time considerations).

This is followed by a reply to David Torrance’s report of the conference in The Herald.

Videos by Patricia Kirk and John Lanigan


Bernadette McAliskey, Mary McGregor, Steve Freeman and Allan Armstrong at the RIC conference

Bernadette McAliskey, Mary McGregor, Steve Freeman and Allan Armstrong at the RIC conference




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Oct 28 2012


Murdo Richie who runs the blog ( that the Radical Independence Conference faces a choice of taking one of two political paths – tailending the official SNP campaign or developing the best politicies for an independent Scotland

The Radical Independence Convention can only travel in one of two directions after the Conference of Saturday, November 24th. (1)  It can either become a component in a delivery mechanism for a “Yes” vote in the forthcoming Independence Referendum in 2014 or it can attempt to design the best kind of policies for a future independent Scotland.   It is a great mistake to believe that both are possible.

The Conference can become “mood music” outlining a different kind of Scotland from the one on offer from the trinity of Alex Salmond, the Scottish Government and the Scottish National Party to promote an “aspirational” picture that is unlikely to be achieved by voting for the “Yes” on offer.  Or, it can discuss the kind of Scotland that many of the participants want to build.


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Mar 02 2004

The Scottish Independence Covention

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 07RCN @ 3:22 pm

Independence under the Crown or a Scottish Republic?

Allan Armstrong examines the case put by the proponents and opponents of the Scottish Independence Convention in the SSP and develops the RCN’s distinct republican approach.

The political nature of and the ambiguities in the Pro-Convention camp

After last May’s election to the Scottish Parliament, Alan McCombes, on behalf of the SSP leadership, put forward a proposal that our party should give its backing to a Scottish Independence Convention. The principle was agreed at last August’s National Council meeting. This proposal has probably produced more internal debate than any other issue since the party’s foundation. This has also spilled over into a historical debate conducted in books, pamphlets, magazine articles, letters to Scottish Socialist Voice and at Socialism 2003.

There have been two responses – Pro and Anti. To date we have seen the following major contributions from the Pro-Convention camp:-

  • 1. After May 1st: Which way forward towards independence and socialism? by Alan McCombes and the SSP Executive Committee.
  • 2. Socialism, the national question and the Independence Convention in Scotland by Gregor Gall (formerly of the SW Platform, but now supporting the leadership on this issue).
  • 3. The Independence Convention and socialist strategy by Duncan Rowan of the ISM Platform (1).

So far, the contributions from the Pro camp have come from two political perspectives – Left social democratic and Left nationalist. Gregor’s contribution calls for a transitional approach to socialism. He argues that a movement for a Scottish Independence Convention offers the prospect of creating at least a more favourable, i.e. Social democratic, political settlement in Scotland (2). Gregor provides survey evidence to show that the forces favouring independence come mainly from the supporters of progressive reform in Scotland. Therefore, in the present political situation, independence would strengthen these forces and provide a better terrain upon which to advance towards socialism.

In Alan’s own contribution the two political perspectives are somewhat uneasily combined. One ambiguous statement has been interpreted by the SSP’s Left nationalists (the SRSM – and influential office bearers like Kevin Williamson) as giving unqualified support for Scottish independence. Alan states that, Even on a non-socialist basis, we should support independence as a progressive democratic advance…(3) This, of course begs the question – What sort of non-socialist independence? Could we be party to the creation of a Scottish Free State which retained most of the key features of the British state, but gave them a good lick of tartan paint?

Although the SSP supports ‘an independent socialist Scotland’, Alan, and most others, would agree that this is not how the issue of Scottish independence is likely to be presented at first. The option of an ‘independent socialist Scotland’ is not going to be found on any Independence referendum ballot paper, even if the SSP wins the political leadership of the Scottish Independence Convention. The numbers of SNP local council and Scottish, Westminster and European parliamentary representatives (fluctuating levels of support notwithstanding) show that the idea of a capitalist ‘independent’ Scotland currently has more political purchase than any support for socialism, with or without a Scottish prefix.

The need for a democratic republican approach

The RCN takes a distinctive approach to the issue of the Scottish Independence Convention. The very political ambiguity, which has been a continuing feature of the SSA and now the SSP, is also present in the idea of the Scottish Independence Convention. Any campaign, which the SSP mounts for such a Convention, can only help us advance the cause of socialism if it offers substantial democratic change. This article will make the case for building the Scottish Independence Convention on democratic republican principles. The RCN has always placed a high priority on contesting the UK state’s Crown Powers. Anti-monarchism is not the same thing as consistent democratic republicanism. The former only opposes the UK’s hereditary office-bearers. The latter challenges all the state’s anti-democratic powers. This is why at SSA/SSP Conferences we have proposed that any elected MSP’s should refuse the oath of allegiance which gives sanction to these powers. Whilst we are a minority Platform, this demand has always been well supported at Conference, with a third of delegates voting in favour in 2002, i.e. a majority of non-Platform delegates.

The RCN believes a widespread republican sentiment already exists in Scotland. If we build on firm democratic republican principles, this sentiment can be organised as a political force demanding a Scottish republic. This would end any prospect of anti-democratic powers being transferred to the new representatives of a Scottish ruling class in a ‘Scottish Free State’. A Scottish republic isn’t yet socialism, but it represents much firmer ground on which to advance than devolution, federalism under the Crown or ‘independence’ under the Windsors.

Since it is popular democratic advance we seek, our strategy should incorporate this principle by seeking the widest participation from the beginning. This means rejecting a narrow cross-Party pressure group approach, with its emphasis on party political representatives supplemented by the ‘great and good’ (or the ‘unco guid’!) Our aim should be for a Constituent Assembly with wide-ranging popular representatives. Many of these would be drawn from the network of trade union, community and cultural campaigns, which the SSP should encourage from the outset. Gregor’s contribution also recognises this need.

Furthermore, we should realise that the British ruling class strategy to maintain its control covers England, Wales and Northern Ireland, not just Scotland. Jack McConnell can call for support from Labour and other unionists throughout Britain when necessary to prop up his administration in Scotland. SSP proposals will meet with nothing but hostility from the rulers of the UK and their state. We have to draw upon socialist and democratic allies throughout these islands to further our strategy. This means we need to adopt an ‘internationalism from below’ perspective.

Economic or political independence?

First, we have to consider exactly what we mean by ‘Scottish independence’. We need to draw a distinction between economic and political independence. Economically, Scotland is fully part of the global capitalist system. Scotland would remain so even if it had a politically independent state such as Norway’s. Commentators have long bemoaned the branch plant nature of Scotland’s economy. However, this type of situation is now a global phenomenon. The transnational companies broke up much single plant, integrated production in response to the major international working class offensive which took place from 1968 to 1975. They have dispersed the manufacture of component parts to many plants in different countries. The assembly plants along the production chain now usually rely on multi-sourcing for their components.

In the 1970s it might have been possible for a government to nationalise a particular industry – say Chrysler’s Linwood car plant. Now there are few important integrated industries left in Scotland. If a particular industry was to be nationalised, its factories would not link together the whole of the production chain through to the finished products. Any incoming reforming government would find that all they had taken over through nationalising say, the ‘car industry’, was carburettor and windscreen wiper production. Such a state-owned industry would get short shrift from the global corporations. Chrysler, for example, could easily turn to alternative sources for components.

Scotland is the location of one significant player in present-day global capitalism. Many financial institutions have offices in Edinburgh. Tommy Sheridan has pointed out that the Royal Bank and Bank of Scotland alone make £2 billion profit annually (4). Untold millions pass daily along the electronic circuits monitored by Edinburgh’s banks and finance offices. Yet this ‘money’ would not be available to any socialist or radical reforming government. Finance is the most liquid of all forms of capital. It only passes through particular nodes in the international electronic network when these are subjected to minimum or to no taxation. Trying to collect a tax from such networks would be harder than trying to recover sunken treasure at the bottom of the ocean with a magnet tied to a fishing line!

Quite clearly, the economic constraints imposed by global capitalism mean that any longer term socialist strategy must be international from the start. However, we don’t have to join the Jeremiahs on the Left who say that little or nothing is possible unless the whole international working class strikes simultaneously. Most socialists can recognise the difference between pay awards and conditions found in unorganised and organised workplaces, or those dictated by the employers and those won by workers’ own action. So we should be able to recognise the difference between living in a more democratic state – even under global capitalism.

Whether there be trade unions or no trade unions; collective or no collective agreements, capitalist economic power still exists. Whether we live under parliamentary democratic, one party or military rule, capitalist political power still exists. Yet the differences in each of these cases are still important, particularly in the scope they give us to organise. This means we have to examine the nature of political independence in today’s world.

The nature of political independence

New Labour’s imperial apologists like to pretend that national sovereignty is meaningless in a globalised world of interdependent production, distribution and exchange. Therefore we should all to bow to the dictates of the global corporations. National governments should create the best conditions to attract these firms, hoping for a ‘trickle-down’ of the ‘benefits’ to their citizens, or subjects in the case of the UK.

This is a bit like saying to women that it doesn’t really matter whether you have the freedom to choose your own partner. Arranged or forced marriages are just another form of partnership in a world where economic, social and emotional pressures make marriages for most a necessity. The best way wives can gain the ‘benefits’ in such arrangement is to bow to their husbands’ every demand! No – having the right to self-determination, holding sovereignty, or exercising the freedom to choose, are still very important, even when there are considerable external restraints and relatively few choices.

Thus the type of national state is important when it comes to the pressure socialists and the wider working class can exert in society. If that wasn’t the case, the neo-liberal governments, at the behest of the powerful corporations, would not be putting so much effort into undermining what democratic rights remain. Scotland forms part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK). The UK state is a unionist, imperialist, constitutional monarchy.

The hard-won democratic elements within this state are limited. The formula through which the UK state rulers seek legitimacy for their activities is ‘the sovereignty of the Crown in parliament’. When it comes to the crunch it is the parliamentary element which is subordinate. This poses major limitations on our ability to organise.

The constitutional monarchy gives the ruling class a whole battery of repressive Crown Powers – in effect, their ‘hidden state’. This means they wield their real political power behind our backs, whilst the royal family acts as its highly privileged public cover. All the flummery surrounding the royal family provides a useful fig-leaf for these powers. However, the ruling class would soon sacrifice these royal parasites if they no longer served their interests. But when it comes to the state’s repressive powers that is another matter altogether!

The UK is also a unionist state. The right to genuine Scottish self-determination is not only denied by the Westminster Parliament, but also by the continued Union of the Crowns. Therefore, if ‘independence’ is only defined as breaking from Westminster, this would still leave a whole host of powers affecting Scotland untouched. Secession from the Union Parliament at Westminster still leaves ‘Elizabrit’ as head of state. This continued link will be used by all the conservative forces in an ‘independent’ Scotland to ensure that as much as possible of the unaccountable Crown Powers are left in any new Scottish constitution.

If we don’t break the Crown Powers and the full UK constitutional link, we could see the ‘Hooray Hamishes’ of the Scottish establishment, or the forelock-tuggers of New and Old Labour, putting forward Prince William as senior Commanding Officer of ‘her majesty’s forces’ in Scotland. Alternatively maybe some knighted clan chief could be lined up as Governor General of Scotland. It doesn’t need much imagination to see which side he would come down on if there was a proposal to scrap the Trident nuclear submarine base. Is Faslane to become the UK state’s ‘Guantanamo Bay’ in Scotland?!

The sentimental republicans in the SNP will try to promise us a referendum on the continuation of the monarchy after ‘independence’. By then the significant Crown Powers could have constitutional force – with SNP government approval! This is why Alan McCombes leaves us hostage to fortune when he argues that one of the purposes of a Scottish Independence Convention is to draw up a constitutional plan, in which some constitutional issues would have to be left to one side… possibly {my emphasis} the issue of monarchy vs republic…! Instead the Independence Convention would concentrate on questions such as how powers will be transferred…(5). Which powers are we talking about here – the Crown Powers? We don’t want to transfer them, we want to abolish them!

The British ruling class and the link between imperialism and unionism in their UK state

The UK state has been forged to serve British ruling class interests throughout the world. Their unionist state is fundamentally an imperialist state. This British ruling class was formed, over a long period of time, from the landlords, merchants, financiers and industrialists of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. They have developed a common project in promoting the British Empire. There was even an historic possibility of this united ruling class imposing a top-down unitary British state and hence forging a united British nation and national identity. However, the very unionist nature of the state (as well as the role of ultra-unionist reactionaries in Ireland) worked against this.

The 1707 Act of Union retained certain privileges for the old Scottish landlord and merchant class within the reformed UK. The 1801 Act of Union brought the Irish landlords and bigger merchants more fully on board too. Special provision still had to be made to govern Ireland through Dublin Castle, since peasant resentment towards the regime remained. Yet, with the restricted franchise, Tories and Whigs dominated official politics in every constituent nation of the UK during the hey-day of the ‘free-trade empire’ in the early nineteenth century.

In the later nineteenth century, the UK state conceded increased measures of administrative devolution to the newer Irish, Scottish and Welsh middle classes. These measures acted as a further barrier to the formation of a unitary British state. Neither did the concessions, made to the middle classes in the later nineteenth century, weaken the imperialist nature of the UK state – far from it. Most of those pushing for Home Rule in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, wanted a better division of the imperial spoils and were keen to maintain an Imperial Parliament at Westminster.

There was another barrier to forming a unitary British nation – this time from below. The popular classes from the constituent nations increasingly participated in politics as they won an extension to the franchise. This led to the recognition of various hybrid nationalities (e.g. Scottish-British, Welsh-British and Irish-British), with special political, administrative and cultural arrangements for each. As the power of British imperialism has declined, so has the relative strength of the British pole of each of these hybrid nationality identifications.

One exception to this lies in Northern Ireland, where a new Ulster-British identification has gained in strength since 1922. However, the Ulster-Britishers’ ferocious adherence to the Union Jack and their celebration of overseas British military exploits, highlights the imperial connection. This is tied to their defence of real and imagined privileges within the UK state and what remains of the British Empire.

The denial of the right to self-determination for the constituent nations of the UK is disguised by invoking a united British ‘nation-state’. Yet Britishness is an imperially created state identity, which has forged chains for the nations of Ireland, Wales, Scotland and now, even for England (as Scottish Labour unionist votes at Westminster for foundation hospitals and top-up fees have recently highlighted!). Just as Labourism represents a stillborn socialism; so Britishness represents a failed unitary nation or a bureaucratically imposed ‘internationalism’. Indeed the two are intimately connected in the British unionist Labour party.

British unionism and the right to self-determination

The unionist nature of the state means that the constituent nations of England, Scotland, Wales and part of Ireland may be given some constitutional recognition within the UK. However, they have no constitutionally recognised right to self-determination. Sometimes it is argued that, since the UK has no written constitution, this right lies with political parties winning a democratic mandate. The repression meted out by the British state, in the face of the large majority in Ireland who voted for Sinn Fein and independence in 1918, shows the falsity of this view.

Significant measures of constitutional reform, even within the UK state framework, have been met by ruling class resort to extra-parliamentary force. The 1912 Irish Home Rule Bill led to the formation of the reactionary armed Ulster Volunteer Force and the Curragh Mutiny of British army officers, all with active Conservative and Unionist Party support.

In 1969 the Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland came up against the armed force of the RUC and B Specials (some actively involved in pogroms). These paramiltary forces were held at the disposal of the Ulster Unionist Party and its Orange statelet (with its large UK state financial subventions). As their control faltered a British Labour government rushed in troops to give them support.

During the late 1960s and the 1970s serious divisions once more developed amongst the ruling class over the best strategy to maintain their UK state. This occurred in the context of rising labour unrest and a dramatic upsurge of national democratic movements, including those in Scotland and Wales. The Royal Commission, which eventually reported under Lord Kilbrandon in 1973, came down in favour of adopting a liberal devolutionary approach. However, this was heavily contested by the mainly conservative advocates of Direct Rule.

The liberal forces pushing for Devolution remained impeccably constitutional. This meant that their opponents did not have to use many of the extra-parliamentary powers at their disposal. Nevertheless, the Queen used the Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1977 to remind {us} of the benefits which the Union has conferred, at home and in our international dealings – the union and empire obviously going hand-in-hand!

The relative mildness of the actual rebuke could not cover-up the seriousness behind the public jettisoning of the Queen’s supposed political neutrality – A Majestic Mistake as the Daily Record put it at the time (6). Of course, this was no mistake but an opening ‘whiff of grapeshot’ designed to panic all her loyal supporters in the monarchist-supporting SNP.

However, this particular intervention was also combined with a series of British military exercises with Scottish nationalists as their putative target. In one of these exercises, Royal Marines asked participants to shout, English Go Home to make it more realistic! (7) Since the late 1960s, the state security agencies have been involved in agent provocateur activities. These often emphasise anti-English sentiment. Parcel bombs were posted by duped individuals to selected addresses with messages denouncing the English nature of the target.

The long-standing anti-English, ‘post-box’ in Dublin, which has remained suspiciously unchallenged by successive governments, has all the hallmarks of state-supported entrapment. Last year saw the jailing of a naïve 17 year old Dunbartonshire schoolboy, Paul Smith, after he contacted the internet address of an anti-English ‘organisation’. He was encouraged to post letters containing poison to Prince William, Cherie Blair and Mike Rumbles, MSP (8). Those in the security agencies wanting to defend the existing constitutional set-up, hope to sideline democratic opposition to the British UK state into anti-English chauvinism. The state security agencies’ activities may have been considerably reduced in Scotland since the 1970s and early ‘80s. However, if a campaign for a Scottish Independence Convention takes-off, it will be those nationalist forces which pedal anti-English chauvinism who will become the immediate focus for such state attention. Scottish Socialist Voice needs to be acutely aware of this. It must combat anti-English chauvinism in the same principled manner that it attacks racism. Otherwise those drawn to such sentiments could well become unwitting conduits for clandestine state promoted division-mongering.

The use of the Crown Powers to support ruling class interests in the UK and abroad

We can’t afford to lightly dismiss the ruling class’ ‘hidden state’. The Crown Powers provide the British ruling class with a whole repressive armoury to counter any serious challenge to its rule – be it economic, social or political. They have been widely used.

The murderous suppression of the Civil Rights demonstrators on the streets of Derry on Bloody Sunday in 1971 and the undemocratic imposition of the poll-tax in Scotland in 1987, both led to a rise in democratic republican feeling. If socialists fail to see this and leave the politics to others, it’s not surprising that non-socialist forces take the political lead. What socialist would leave the current leaders of the trade unions unchallenged? Such leaders would soon be openly acting as a personnel management service for the employers! So socialists should aim to lead economic, social and political challenges to the bosses and their state.

Just as we champion workers’ struggles for better pay, conditions and welfare reforms, so we need to advocate democratic republican reform too. Our ‘school of struggle’ for socialism must prepare us for political as well as for economic power. However, more immediately, you can’t make significant advances on the economic and social front without beginning the process of dismantling the ruling class’s draconian political powers. Poll tax protesters found themselves detained at ‘her majesty’s pleasure’. Civil rights demonstrators were gunned down by ‘her majesty’s paratroopers. So what has our ruling class in reserve if faced with a serious socialist challenge to its power?! In the present corporate business-dominated world, any government considering a significant measure of economic and social reform is subject to serious measures of destabilisation by the major imperial powers, particularly the USA and UK. The elected Chavez government in Venezuela is currently under sustained attack by the US state and oil corporations. The vicious Uribe Velez government in neighbouring Colombia, with its death squads and merciless repression, represents Bush and Blairs’ favoured model when corporate business power is seriously challenged.

And we have ‘pre-emptive’ armed strikes, followed by occupying military and domestic client dictatorships, when ‘rogue regimes’ get in the way of US and British imperial interests. Few are going to shed any tears over the demise of the formerly imperially backed Taliban and Saddam regimes. Yet their replacement, by a motley crew of imperially-approved, mafia-style gangsters and clerical supremacists, offers no democratic future for the long suffering people of Afghanistan or Iraq.

However, the destabilisation treatment isn’t just reserved for ‘non-white’ regimes. Back in 1975, the Crown-appointed Governor General of Australia deposed the mildly reforming Australian Labour Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam. He had proposed the closure of Australian ports to US nuclear submarines.

Today British and US imperialism are more closely linked under Blair – with the former now more than willing to act at the bidding of the latter. Therefore any serious movement, even for economic and social reforms within the UK, will soon come up against the force of the ruling class’s ‘hidden state’. The head of every repressive state agency swears an oath of loyalty to the Crown – not to parliament. Every elected politician at Westminster, Edinburgh or Cardiff also has to swear this oath of loyalty. This is done to show their compliance with the ‘hidden state’ which our rulers may have to invoke if normal parliamentary government does not suffice.

The oath of loyalty is the ‘polite’ political equivalent of the Orange arches erected over Northern Irish roads every July, to belittle all forced to walk under them. It shows who’s boss and exactly who has the right to trample on any lowly subject’s assumed rights. Pro-Scottish Independence Convention supporters need to have the measure of the forces we are up against.

The economism and Left unionism underlying the Anti-Convention camp

However, there has been opposition to the proposals for a Scottish Independence Convention from an Anti-Convention camp formed by the CWI, SW and WU Platforms. So far they have made the following major contributions to the debate:-

  • 1. Scotland and the National Question, Statement from the International Socialists, CWI Platform.
  • 2. The debate that will not go away by Mike Gonzalez of the SW Platform.
  • 3. Is Independence a road to Socialism in Scotland? by Neil Davidson of the SW Platform.
  • 4. Socialism and Scottish independence by Nick Rogers of the WU Platform.

These Platforms also represent two overlapping perspectives – the economistic and the Left unionist – within the SSP, despite there being considerable differences between them in other respects. Economism puts emphasis on the struggle for pay, conditions and welfare reforms, whilst downplaying the need for political or democratic reforms. Left unionism best describes those who believe a British state still provides the most favourable framework for advance towards socialism (whatever specific arrangements might have to be accommodated to acknowledge Scotland, Wales and Northern Irelands’ political existence, e.g. Devolution). Economism tends to unionism in the UK, because it tacitly accepts the existing state framework as the basis for its economic and social reforms. The CWI is the most consistently economistic tendency. This has led to a distinct tension within the CWI ranks. They have been forced to recognise the impact of the wider national challenges to the UK state upon working class consciousness.

A decade or so ago, the old Militant organisation was recognised as being one of the most unionist organisations on the Left. This has been particularly marked in Northern Ireland. Here their hostility towards Irish republicanism led them to flirtation with the PUP (a loyalist party with close links to the paramilitary UVF) on the grounds it represented an important section of the Protestant working class!

However, the rise of constitutional nationalism in Scotland and Wales forced Militant to another form of political accommodation. In Scotland, where the national challenge has been broadest, the CWI have moved to declaring their support for an independent socialist Scotland. This would appear to have pushed them out of the Left unionist and nearer to the Left nationalist camp – on paper anyhow.

In Wales, where the national challenge has been weaker, the CWI still hold to a Left unionist ‘socialist federation of Britain’ position. Since they hold such contradictory positions in each of the constituent nations of the UK (and partitioned Ireland) they have no consistent overall political strategy for socialists in these islands.

Now that the CWI has criticised the SSP leadership’s support for a Scottish Independence Convention, their own programmatic support for an ‘independent socialist Scotland’ leaves them in a rather uncomfortable position. Alan McCombes, who was once a prominent member of Militant/ CWI, before leaving to help form the ISM, has pointed this out.

Alan takes this shared programmatic point of an ‘independent socialist Scotland’ seriously. He therefore wants the SSP to take, what he sees as, the organisational measures necessary to advance this. Whereas for Philip Stott, an ‘independent socialist Scotland’ represents a paper political position for the CWI. It is only needed to provide a political defence when nationalists are on the ascendant, but otherwise it can be folded and put in the back pocket.

The CWI motion to conference, which calls on the SSP to drop the Scottish Independence Convention strategy, demonstrates their lack of political commitment to their own programmatic position. It isn’t based on any understanding of the anti-democratic unionist and constitutional monarchist nature of the UK state and the need for a consistent democratic challenge. It is only to be dragged out again when the SNP make significant gains.

The SWP certainly shares much of the CWI’s economism, but has in Scotland anyhow, provided the most consistent Left unionist theoretical defence of British unity (9). The SWP advocated a vote for Devolution in Scotland and Wales in the 1997 referenda, because Labour supported it and the Tories opposed it. Devolution remains consistent with the unity of Britain. The SWP see no real need to go any further than this – well, not until the next time the issue of Scottish self-determination comes ‘like a bolt from the blue’! Ironically in Northern Ireland, the SWP can be characterised as belonging to the camp of sentimental republicanism. But if your republicanism is merely sentimental, it can be put aside for immediate practical purposes. New Labour’s local devolutionary settlement, the Good Friday Agreement, can be accepted as the framework for everyday politics. Like the CWI, the SWP has no overall political strategy to unite socialists in these islands. They see no need for a political challenge to the ruling class’s New Unionist strategy designed to maintain their UK state.

However, with characteristic opportunism, the SW Platform sees no need to directly challenge the SSP leadership’s Scottish Independence Convention strategy either. The SW Platform sponsored motions to Conference on the issue are decidedly vague. Logically, they should support the CWI motion, but sectarian point-scoring, rather than principle, tends to dominate relations between these two organisations! Nick Rodgers of Workers Unity makes some interesting points in his paper, which do merit attention. However, the WU Platform appears to be the most disunited and hasn’t got enough of its supporters together to get the signatures for its proposed motion to Conference!

The weaknesses and contradictions in the Anti- Convention camp

A number of concerns have been raised by the ‘Antis’ over the leadership’s reasons for giving support to a Scottish Independence Convention. Concerns expressed have included, amongst others:-

  • 1. It represents a diversion from the class struggle.
  • 2. It over-estimates the significance of the national question as a means to challenge capitalism and imperialism.
  • 3. It depends on a misreading of the levels of current support for independence.
  • 4. It could promote working class disunity.

Both the SW and CWI Platforms have a fallback position though. If a genuine progressive movement for Scottish independence was to appear then it would get their support. What is not made clear is how such a movement would necessarily be progressive if socialists abstain when its initial politics are being determined! Yet there is an explanation for this Left unionist approach with its two possible roads:- optimum British Option A and retreat Scottish Option B. The two main Anti- Platforms believe that the working class is primarily motivated by economic and social concerns. They see little reason for socialists to consistently champion democratic change since, even if successful, we will still be left living in a capitalist state.

They argue it is better to prepare and wait for the ‘big bang’ political challenge – Revolution. To do this, we should concentrate mainly on economic and social movements as our ‘school of struggle’. According to the Left unionist view if socialists organise to promote the dismantling of the UK state, we are creating a diversion from the path of real class struggle, or fostering disunity amongst the ranks of the British working class.

This denial of the anti-capitalist potential of political or democratic struggle sits rather uncomfortably with these Platforms’ usual practice of championing economic and social reforms – higher wages and better welfare measures. Both assume the continuation of the capitalist economy! But these Platforms hold to the view that, when the working class, organised in its trade unions, vigorously pursues struggles for economic and social improvement, then demands for political reform will subside. Therefore any resort to political demands on the state, such as the right to self-determination, reflects socialists’ weakness not our strength.

For example, the CWI statement argues that,

When the working class begins to move and as the class questions become predominant the national question can be pushed back. This can be temporary however as a lull in the class struggle and defeats for the working class can push the national question back onto the agenda.

Clearly, in this view, the national question is not seen to be a class question (10). To be more precise, it is only seen to be such a question for the British ruling class and its Scottish nationalist middle class challengers! Workers are mainly concerned with pay and conditions and shouldn’t bother themselves very much about the nature of the UK state. How comforting such thinking has been to the ruling class, when it has faced real challenges in the past.

The history of economic, social and democratic struggles in the UK

A number of historical examples are often used by Left unionists to illustrate the power of united British trade union organisation. These include the 1926 General Strike, the strike wave of the early 1970s and the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5. Yet this argument is fundamentally flawed. The 1926 General Strike was defeated relatively quickly in 9 days, despite the magnificent working class support shown. Its leaders never contemplated a wider political challenge, viewing it as a purely trade union struggle. This turned out to be its weakness not its strength.

In contrast, the much greater challenge provided by movements for political democracy was highlighted in 1919. That year did indeed see a massive upsurge in economic struggles throughout the UK. Yet these coincided with a national democratic challenge to the UK state itself in Ireland. There was no adequate political organisation at the time to unite these economic and political struggles. Through concession and coercion the economic strike wave was rolled back by the end of 1919. This soon led to major working class set-backs. However, it took another 4 years before the UK state could bloodily contain, but not thoroughly defeat, the Irish democratic movement.

John Maclean drew a significant lesson from the government’s relatively easy defeat of economic struggle. The 40 Hours Strike collapsed after the army’s occupation of Glasgow in 1919. Maclean could see the much greater difficulties the same government faced that year when challenged by a political movement for national democracy in Ireland. The Limerick Strike of 1919 had been part of this wider political movement. Maclean abandoned the economistic British road to socialism (with its tacit acceptance of the UK state) and began to pursue the political break-up of the UK and British Empire strategy first championed by James Connolly. This did not mean abandoning economic and social issues but linking them to political or democratic struggle.

The working class strike wave of the early 1970s also coincided with a rise in democratic movements, most obviously in Ireland, but also in Scotland and Wales (along with the Black and Asian, women’s and gay movements). State repression was extensively utilised in an attempt to crush the struggle in Ireland. The British Tory government thought it had seen off this challenge when it faced down the Hunger Strikers in 1981. Bobby Sand’s winning of the Fermanagh parliamentary seat at Westminster highlighted the resilience of a movement which was prepared to politically challenge the UK state. The Britain-wide trade union strike wave, which started soon after the initial struggle for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland, was contained more easily by the incoming Labour government of 1974. Consequently, strikes in the late 1970s were much more episodic. Trade union leaders had never aspired to anything higher than a Labour government. Wilson and Callaghan went on, unchallenged by these trade union leaders, to preside over an upgrading of military, police and intelligence capacity!

When Thatcher came to power in 1979 she began to implement the Tories’ secret Ridley Plan. This was designed to wreak vengeance on the miners for the defeat they had inflicted on the Tories in 1974. This resulted in the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike. The government resorted to a wide range of repressive powers to break the NUM. Valiantly struggling miners faced the police, army, government agents, anti-union judges and bureaucratically- imposed curtailment of welfare rights.

A militant minority began to see the connection between the deployment of the state’s repressive powers in south Yorkshire and in south Armagh. Yet the Miners’ Strike was led by those who still viewed it primarily as an economic struggle. Once again this was a weakness not a strength. The miners’ power was broken; whilst Tory and Labour governments had to make a series of concessions to the Irish Republican resistance.

The link between British imperialism and the constitutional monarchist nature of the UK state

Now Alan McCombes does argue that Scottish independence:-

“would be a huge advance for democracy and a devastating defeat, not just for the British establishment, but also for American imperialism which sees Britain as its most loyal international ally” (11).

Unfortunately, this argument is presented more as a rhetorical flourish, rather than being seriously thought through to its political consequences. The UK state’s very real repressive forces, wielded under the Crown Powers, never get a mention.

This weakness in Alan’s argument has been recognised by both the SW and CWI Platforms. Thus Neil Davidson, for the SW Platform, points out that,

“If Britain is vital to the imperialist project… then is it not at all possible – in fact, is it not absolutely certain – that the ruling class will fight to retain Scotland, as they did Ireland, even though Ireland was far less important to Britain than Scotland is? Yet I see no sign that we are preparing the Scottish working class for the ultimate necessity of taking on the state, or of defending ourselves against the counter-evolution that would surely follow any attempt to do so” (12).

Alan’s former CWI comrades have also made a similar point. Philip Stott highlights, the ferocious opposition to national independence that will come from the capitalist state at this stage, with the loss of international prestige if British imperialism, weakened although it is, were to lose ‘control’ in its own backyard (13). He points out the completely lightminded way (14) in which Alan appears to deny the serious consequences of his argument.

If Scottish independence represents such a devastating defeat for the British establishment and US imperialism, we certainly need to take into account any likely ruling class response to such a challenge. The greater the challenge from our side, the more the other side will resort to their Crown Powers. No matter how nasty their plans, the ruling class will find some constitutional sanction for them under the existing Crown Powers. We live in a state whose leaders pride themselves on three centuries of constitutional rule. Coups are so un-British and so unnecessary when you have the legal power to dissolve parliament!

Yet Alan’s Left unionist critics share his tendency to misunderstand the real nature of and to underestimate the hidden powers in the UK state. Whilst they recognise the imperialist nature of Blair’s New Labour government (hard to avoid when the UK is currently at war!), they fail to link this with the constitutional monarchist nature of the UK state which buttresses British imperialism. Their demand for ‘regime change’ amounts to a call for a change of government – Gordon Brown (or Charles Kennedy) instead of Tony Blair! There is no call for thoroughgoing democratic change. Yet Blair used a very wide range of the state’s anti-democratic Crown Powers to further the war, including sanction for prior bombing raids and the mobilisation and deployment of troops, long before the parliamentary vote.

Being able to conduct wars or suppress internal challenges without recourse to a democratic vote is very handy for a state which has aspirations to wider power and influence in the world. Its leaders don’t want to feel beholden to any domestic pressure or ‘international law’, as we have seen in the recent war over Iraq. Britannia tries both to ‘rule the waves’ and ‘waive the rules’!

The link between ruling class power and the unionist nature of the UK state

However, since the UK is also a unionist state, this gives the British ruling class additional strength. This doesn’t seem to be acknowledged by the SSP’s Left unionists. The close link between British imperialism and British unionism has been highlighted by the war in Iraq. Examine the line-up of the parliamentary parties (maverick individuals aside) on the vote for war. The more aggressively unionist the parties, the more they were pro-war. It was the Tories and the Ulster Unionists who provided the votes to give Blair and New Labour a ‘democratic’ cover for the war. Neil fails to appreciate the difference between unitary, unionist and independent states and the different forms nationalism takes within them. Neil thinks he is making a particularly anti-Scottish independence point when he highlights the pernicious role played by the ‘Scottish national interest’ during the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5.

“In Scotland NUM area officials signed an agreement allowing enough coal to enter the strip mill at Ravenscraig in Motherwell to keep the furnaces going. The reason given by Area President Mick McGahey was the deal was ‘in the interests of Scotland’s industrial future’… And so the ‘Scottish national interest’ helped play a part in the defeat of the NUM, the destruction of the British mining industry and the perpetuation of Tory rule for another 12 years” (15).

The problem with Neil’s view is that all the NUM and Iron and Steel Trades Confederation officials he mentions were British Labour (or Labour supporting) unionists (some Left, and some, not so Left).

Neil thinks he has made another substantial point when he claims that a national element {was} in fact completely absent in the Tories’ imposition of the poll tax in Scotland in 1987.

“The whole (as it turned out) disaster was brought about by an attempt to placate the class base of Scottish conservatism, not to continue the work of proud Edward’s army (etc) in oppressing the Scots” (16).

However, it was precisely the unionist nature of the UK state which allowed the British ruling class to come to the aid of their local allies. Hence a Tory majority vote at Westminster could be used to impose a poll tax first in Scotland, on behalf of the class base of Scottish conservatism despite the scant electoral support here for the measure.

There was another even clearer case in 1969. The beleaguered Ulster Unionists were able to get assistance from a Labour UK government which sent in British troops to bolster their regime in the face of the challenge from the Civil Rights Movement. Perhaps significantly, the SWP’s forerunners, the IS, chose to see the sending of British troops as the actions of a social democratic government facing down ultra conservatives and giving succour to the local Civil Rights Movement!

IS supported the sending in of British troops. They failed to see the common unionism which united Labour and the Ulster Unionists in defence of the UK state. This was more important than the secondary political divisions between them, particularly when the state’s local machinery was under threat.

It is the very unionist nature of the UK state which allows the ruling class to play off one subordinate nation against another. They can invoke petty nationalisms when necessary. When the British Navy’s Royal Dockyards at Rosyth and Devonport were threatened with closure in 1996, the British Labour Party and trade union officials from Scotland and England invoked their respective nationalities to support their own particular case (as well as suggesting a Dutch auction of pay and conditions to win government support!)

Unionist political power can be used in two ways. It can over-ride (including outvote at Westminster) any particular national opposition to specific measures (e.g. the poll tax Scotland). It can also give succour to any local British unionists facing a domestic ‘spot of bother’, (e.g. the use of British troops – including Scottish and Welsh regiments – in Northern Ireland).

Neil appears to be arguing that acceptance of a British unionist state framework at least offers the working class on this island a defence against nationalist division-mongering. Yet the UK state is a union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, not a British unitary state. So there is plenty of scope for unionists to promote nationalist division. Internationalist working class consciousness, even in a multi-nation state, can never be a mechanical reflection of the state’s existence. Indeed, if you take Neil’s argument to the next logical stage, socialists should be demanding the end of any political recognition of Scotland and Wales’ existence. This would better create a unitary British state and hence a united British working class!

However, the SW Platform is not going to argue for the abolition of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly! Although, this may seem the apparent political logic of Neil’s arguments, it has to be remembered that when it comes down to it, the SW, like the CWI Platform, doesn’t see political issues concerning the democracy of the state as ‘class questions’ but diversions from real economic and social ‘class issues’. Therefore (thankfully) we aren’t likely to see the SWP. turning into British Direct Rulers!

Tailending the liberal unionists and the nationalist populists or taking an independent lead?

The failure of the SWP and CWI approach is highlighted by the positions they adopted when the nature of the UK state was contested, e.g. in the 1979 and 1997 Devolution referenda. Having refused, before these events, to recognise the democracy issue as a ‘class question’, both organisations still found that they were forced to take sides when a ‘non-class question’ presented itself. With the working class removed from their political calculations, the SWP and CWI were faced with the question of which capitalist side to support in the 1979 and 1997 Devolution referenda. The conservative and liberal unionists were given complete license to set the terms of the debate – ‘No’ or ‘Yes’ to Devolution!

Both the SWP and CWI faced difficulties in 1979 deciding which side to take. By 1997, both organisations had become good liberal unionists – giving support to Blair’s Devolutionary proposals. However, they both made verbal qualifications, declaring either ‘revolution’ or ‘socialism’ to be the real solution.

The underlying method of following the political lead given by others is painfully chronicled by Philip Stott. He outlines Militant/CWI’s changes in position. It began with tacit acceptance of administrative devolution for Scotland before 1979; followed by a switch to support for political devolution in that year; then to support for a socialist Scotland as part of a socialist federation of Britain in the mid-1990s; and finishing up (?) with support for an independent socialist Scotland in the late 1990s, when a majority of the youth and a significant section of the working class supported independence (17).

Philip admits that the CWI’s programme has evolved as the moods and consciousness of the working class has developed (18). Who then, by the late 1990s, was advancing the case for Scottish independence? Quite clearly, not the CWI, since their programme tail-ended what they saw as working class consciousness. It was the SNP – a capitalist nationalist party – {who} were left as the only ones advocating political independence. So there was a real danger that if the mood around the national question hardened even further in the direction of independence whole sections could be lost to nationalism (19).

What was the CWI’s answer to this particular development? The time had come to drop Labour’s liberal unionism and to adopt the SNP’s nationalist populism, otherwise the CWI might have found itself without an audience. They deleted socialist federation of Britain from their programme and substituted socialist independence – well for Scotland anyhow! Yet the CWI accepts that it is unlikely that an ‘independent socialist Scotland’ will be one of the ballot options in a future referendum. Therefore, we would support {capitalist} independence and would campaign for a yes vote in an independence referendum (20).

The CWI’s socialist programmatic prefix is left as abstract propaganda. The chance for socialists to politically challenge the SNP, in the here and now, on democratic grounds is not even considered – an ‘independent’ Scotland under the Crown or a democratic republican independent Scotland.

The political and class nature of support for Scottish independence

Neil and Philip both draw our attention to the fluctuating support given to Scottish independence and, in particular, to its recent decline. Neil states that

“Working class support, which reached almost 50% in 1997 fell back to the overall figure of 28% in 1999… In short, support for independence peaked at the time of the 1997 referendum and has, with occasional reversals, declined since then” (21).

Philip makes the same point, but qualifies it by noting that other statistics (in the same analysis which Neil uses) confirm our position that support for independence is highest among the working class, people with a left wing outlook, and younger people (22). However, Philip then retreats once more to his economic class questions. This means that the national question did not feature as a major issue at all during the 2003 elections. In order of importance Philip cites, low pay, privatisation, income equality, with the war on Iraq tagged on at the end (23).

Now the war is undoubtedly a political issue. In the CWI (and SWP’s) case though, there is a tendency in public to downplay political support for anti-imperialism and to emphasise the economic aspect, e.g. the money spent on war which could be used for hospitals and schools instead. However, the key thing about recent high-points in support for Scottish independence is that they coincided with times when the political nature of the UK state in Scotland was being politically contested, e.g. during the Devolution debate. The fact that Devolution is now in place means that the nature of the UK state in Scotland is almost continuously politicised.

Philip quotes the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey of 2001, in which 68% thought the parliament should have more powers (24). In other words, the current Devolution deal is not the last word on the issue – far from it. There are unionist forces which have tried to diminish the influence of the Scottish Parliament.

Their first proposal was to reduce the number of MSPs in line with the drop in Scottish MPs at Westminster. This was probably abandoned because of the careerist ambitions of Scottish New Labour members! More recently we have had Labour unionist Westminster MP, George Foulkes, wanting to tamper with the proportional representation system for elections to the Scottish Parliament. Lib-Dem unionist, David Steel, wants an upper chamber in the Scottish Parliament. Unionist desires for more centralised control will continue to clash with popular demands for more democratic control, producing political conflict.

We can not pretend that the nature of the UK state is not a class issue. What we need to decide is, which democratic option best suits the interests of our class. This then gives us a policy which can meet each political contingency as it arises. However, if we go further, and begin to politically organise a movement which can be brought to bear in any particular situation which arises, the SSP could take the political lead. Being the foremost champions of democracy, as well as of economic and social reforms, would greatly add to our influence.

Since the SW and CWI Platforms claim to come from the Leninist tradition, it is perhaps worthwhile examining Lenin’s last stated views on Norway’s secession from the Swedish state in 1905. The relationship between Norway and the Swedish state certainly had a lot in common with the current relationship between Scotland and the UK state. Furthermore, Sweden’s neutrality in the First World War showed that it was a much more passive player in the world imperial system than the UK state, either then or today. So basically, for those of a Leninist persuasion, his preferred political solution for Norway should apply to Scotland – but more so!

In December 1916 Lenin wrote that, Until 1905 autonomous Norway, as part of Sweden, enjoyed the widest autonomy, but she was not Sweden’s equal. Only by her free secession was her equality in practice proved… Secession did not ‘mitigate’ this {Swedish state} privilege (the essence of reformism lies in mitigating an evil not in destroying it) but eliminated it altogether (25). Today those reformist measures of mitigation he refers to would include Devolution and Federalism under the Crown. Both leave the essentially imperialist and unionist nature of the UK state untouched.

Changes in ruling class strategy to maintain the UK state.

One common feature underlying Alan, Philip and Neil’s contributions is they only invoke the wider British framework when discussing either trade union struggles or the anti-war movement. They don’t see a common British ruling class political strategy to defend the UK state itself, nor do they see the need to oppose this. The British ruling class has changed its strategy to maintain their unionist state. Old unionism favoured British Direct Rule; New Unionism prefers Devolution-all-round for Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and, more tentatively, for the English regions.

Until the mid-1990s the ruling class’s chosen strategy was Direct Rule through Westminster. By the end of the 1970s it was the Tories who had become the principal advocates of such Direct Rule. This followed their abolition of the devolved Northern Ireland Stormont in 1972. Direct Rule was given added impetus by the defeat of Labour’s liberal devolutionary proposals for Scotland and Wales in 1979. When the Tories were returned that year, Thatcher wanted a UK plc to weather the storms in an increasingly unruly world. Direct rule became very much the order of the day throughout the UK.

However, the continuing Republican challenge in Northern Ireland, in the aftermath of the Hunger Strikes, forced a ruling class rethink. The Tories’ first attempt to marginalise the Republicans, the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, faltered. Therefore Major moved on to the Downing Street Agreement in 1992 with its proposals for a devolutionary deal there.

New Labour, under Blair, generalised this approach, pushing Devolution for Scotland and Wales too, to counter national democratic movements and sentiment. Indeed, the momentum gained by majority votes for Devolution in Scotland and Wales in 1997, gave further impetus to Devolution in Northern Ireland in the Good Friday Agreement in the next year. In this manner Devolution-all-round has emerged as ruling class’s New Unionist strategy to maintain the UK state (26).

The democratic fragility of Devolution-all-round is very apparent. Opinion polls continue to show that people in Scotland don’t believe the Scottish Parliament has enough powers. This was highlighted when Blair’s tame Scottish Labour unionists, led by Jack McConnell, argued against the right of the Scottish Parliament to take any decision regarding British imperial participation in the war in Iraq. Even in Wales, where the non-legislative Welsh Assembly won only the narrowest referendum majority in 1997, there is growing resentment at the lack of any real powers.

In Northern Ireland Blair resorts to frequent suspension of Stormont Executive when it threatens to vote ‘the wrong way’. British troops, observation posts, RIR and RUC/PSNI fortified bases all remain in place. Their main concentration remains in nationalist areas. Yet their forces don’t seem to be around when loyalists are killing and maiming, whether it be sectarian attacks on nationalists or racist attacks on ethnic minorities! Interestingly, Philip, given his CWI/Militant Left unionist background, does see a connection between politics in Scotland and Ireland. The separation of Scotland could also have a major destabilising effect in Northern Ireland as the Protestant community could see it as the slippery slope to Northern Ireland being cast adrift from Britain.

Clearly Philip only sees here a negative connection between Scotland and Ireland. This is linked to the CWI’s long-standing denial of there being any fundamental democratic issue at stake in Ireland. They view the recent prolonged struggle in ‘the Six Counties’ as merely a battle of ‘warring tribes’. To counter what they see as a clash of feuding nationalisms they try to cling to the municipal socialist, ‘gas and water’, approach of the old Independent Labour Party in Belfast and the Northern Ireland Labour Party with their concentration on narrow economic and social demands.

The CWI-affiliated Socialist Party in Northern Ireland hopes that, by ignoring political demands, it can unite the working class on ‘bread and butter’ issues. The fact that a significant proportion of the working class, and not just the Republican Movement, has borne the brunt of UK state-backed repression in Northern Ireland, has to be seriously downplayed.

The Socialist Party dare not publicly campaign against the battery of repressive institutions, from her majesty’s regiments, the RIR, the PSNI, the state-backed death squads to the Unionist state supporting judiciary (who, in the person of Lord Hutton could be relied on to produce a suitably pro-government whitewash job for Blair!) To take such a stance would lead to the accusation of ‘taking sides’ and of ‘giving succour to the Republicans’. This failure to challenge severe anti-democratic measures is highlighted in the CWI Platform’s motion on Ireland to the SSP Conference.

Therefore the possibility that a growing national democratic movement in Scotland (with its considerably greater immediate potential to unite Protestant and Catholic here) could seriously weaken unionist and loyalist forces throughout the UK is not considered in the CWI’s analysis. They still accept the UK framework as the basis for their normal day-to-day class politics. They see economic and social concerns as being the essence of the class question. Any undue political disruption would upset this. Therefore they view the proposal for a Scottish Independence Convention as a threat, not a possible initial focus for a wider democratic challenge to the UK state and its repressive powers.

Opposing Left unionist attempts to ignore British unionism and to promote bureaucratic sectarianism

Ulster Unionists, New Labour and other unionists can call upon extensive help when they need it. They can use the whole UK-wide state machinery and draw on the political support of the British unionist parties.

Left unionists believe that they have the British TUC, the British Labour Party, or their own Britain-wide ‘revolutionary’ Parties (with semi-autonomous, effectively partitioned, adjuncts in the ‘26’ and the ‘6 Counties’ of Ireland) to counter ruling class power. However, far from forming the basis for an effective challenge, all of these Left unionist (or unionist accepting) organisations practice their own ‘bureaucratic internationalism’. They mimic many of the anti-democratic practices of the UK state and bring them into the socialist and working class movement in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

Mike Gonzalez’ (SW Platform) contribution highlights Left unionist lack of respect for democracy. He argues that the controversy over the Scottish Independence Convention is a welcome development from the point of view of those of us who are interested in moving the SSP forward through political debate and discussion rather than bureaucratic and administrative squabbles. Because this is an issue of political principle (27). And, as we have already seen, the SW Platform is so principled, it is not stating its real political objections in its Conference motions on the issue!

What Mike writes off as bureaucratic and administrative squabbles  are genuine debates in the SSP over some of the SWP’s sectarian and bureaucratic practices. The SWP’s promotion of its own front organisations, such as the ANL and Globalise Resistance, without any democratic structures or leadership accountability, has caused considerable concern. The inept intervention of the ANL over the racist attacks in Sighthill in Glasgow is one example. Furthermore, the ANL doesn’t even recognise the nature of British fascism (with its racist and loyalist components), preferring to go along with the British populist equation of fascism with German Nazism.

Therefore, despite Mike’s dismissal, the issue of democracy and accountability, is a point of political principle. The SSA and SSP have been more democratic than any version of the Socialist Alliance, or the newly setup Respect, in England (and Wales?). Their initial sponsoring organisations, first the Socialist Party and then the Socialist Workers Party, are well-known for their sectarian and bureaucratic practices. Furthermore, the emergence of political ‘prima donnas’, with little respect for genuine democracy, was a feature of the Britain-wide, Socialist Labour Party under Arthur Scargill; whilst George Galloway, ‘leader’ of Respect, is certainly ‘democracy-and-equality lite’!

Galloway also displays some of the worst British chauvinist traits. At a Respect meeting in Cardiff, Galloway was asked to state why the new organisation had nothing to say about Wales. In replying he made no concession to the right of Welsh self-determination and stated that supporters of independence should be excluded (28). Galloway also wrote a Sunday Mail article, in response to a proposed Scottish Executive Bill on the Gaelic language. In it he decried a language understood by less than two percent of Scots… {which} is ‘rammed down the throats’ of the rest. Our language is English and we should thank our lucky stars for that (29). Not so ‘Gorgeous George’ in the valleys and the glens then!

Most socialists are aware of the fact that it is only the pre-existing political strength of the SSP which prevents Galloway extending the Respect alliance to Scotland. It is quite likely that there are some Left unionists who are disappointed that Galloway is not standing for election here. Yet such moves would only create socialist disunity – a continuing feature of Left unionist bureaucratically imposed ‘internationalism’.

Opposing Left nationalist attempts to promote ‘socialist separatism’ and disunity

However, if the CWI and SWP have a Left unionist blind spot for Labour’s New Unionism, what explains Alan McCombes and the ISM’s failure to see this also? The ISM, who have formed the overwhelming majority of the SSA and SSP leaderships, are in the process of making a painful break from the earlier Militant Left unionist tradition. In doing so they have become aware of the need for more inclusive democracy. This has been sharpened by their growing awareness of the significance of the wider democratic struggle for self-determination in Scotland. The SSP has greatly benefited from this.

Yet there is a danger of the ISM flipping from Left unionism to Left nationalism. One indicator of this, is the constant wariness of the SSP leadership in approaching socialists for joint activity in England, Ireland and, to a lesser extent, Wales. Certainly consecutive British political leaderships have failed to build an inclusive democratic socialist organisation. Therefore the much poorer political performance of their front organisations has provided the SSP leadership with an excuse for their detached attitude towards socialists ’south of the border’.

Some want to go even further. The main Left nationalist Platform in the SSP, the SRSM, wants to put the issue of ‘Scottish independence’ beyond debate by proposing an entrenched constitutional amendment at Conference. Such moves could only lead to some socialists being driven out the SSP. Far from opening up the prospect of more united action with socialists in England, Wales and Ireland, it would lead to disunity in Scotland. Therefore, just as we have seen in the case of Left unionist, George Galloway, a Left nationalist approach can also promote disunity.

All SSP Platforms give their support to the right of Scottish self-determination. It is quite legitimate that the form this takes should be debated. Attempts to suppress the debate are sectarian and it is to be hoped that Alan and the rest of the annual conference will oppose them.

However, the SRSM also has ‘Republican’ in its title and constitution. But so far, they have made no statement proposing that this should form the political basis of a Scottish Independence Convention. Is the word ‘Scottish’ the only significant one in the SRSM’s name? Is the SRSM, like the SNP Left, merely sentimentally republican? Does that old Jacobitism provide a present day cover for going along with ‘Independence under the Crown’?!

Throughout this article it has been demonstrated that there can be no meaningful political independence for Scotland, unless the UK’s Crown Powers are broken. This means breaking the Union of the Crowns as well as the Union of Parliaments. Detaching Holyrood from Westminster still leaves the British ruling class (including its Scottish component) with plenty of powers to intervene within Scotland. Furthermore, any disgruntled Scottish/British forces will still have powerful external allies. Our strategy has to be international to counter this.

Promoting a strategy of republican internationalism from below

When we examine the socialist forces within these islands we see a very ‘mixed bag’. In Scotland, the majority of socialists are involved in the Scottish Socialist Party. This is the most successful initiative, which is both inclusive and openly socialist. In England and Wales, we find division between the Left populist Respect alliance and the sectarian Socialist and Socialist Labour Parties. We also have the Left nationalist/populist Wales Forward alliance trying to come to some sort of electoral arrangement with Respect.

In Ireland the divisions are even deeper – partly a reflection of UK promoted (and Irish government accepted) partition. The Socialist and Socialist Worker Parties both practice partitionist politics with attempts to build populist alliances in the North. Socialists within Sinn Fein are being more and more marginalised as the leadership becomes both more constitutional nationalist and more ‘responsible’ (i.e. accepting corporate business pressure).

The Irish Republican Socialist Party is trying to develop a wholly political and anti-sectarian response to the new situation created by the Good Friday Agreement but remains hamstrung by its own past bloody internal conflicts. Socialist Democracy promotes an anti-partitionist politics as well as challenging state/employer/trade union partnerships. However, it remains too small to take the lead in achieving broader socialist unity throughout Ireland.

The British and Irish governments plan more joint initiatives than socialists in Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland. To counter this the SSP has to unite with socialists and other democratic republicans in England, Wales and Ireland. Our answer to their New Unionist strategy of Devolution-all-round and the institutionalised sectarianism of the Good Friday Agreement should be our own strategy of socialist republican ‘internationalism from below’.

The British and Irish governments have their own Council of the Isles, with representatives from England, Ireland (North and ‘South’), Scotland, and Wales. We need our to unite own forces throughout these islands. A regularly meeting Socialist Council of the Isles would be a good start! Even if we just look at the situation in England, the best that our SSP leadership can come up with, in relation to the new Respect alliance, is a mutual non-aggression pact! In the unlikely event of Respect gaining some quick electoral credibility, there is no chance of such a top-down, populist alliance holding together under pressure. A similar, quickly formed populist Alliance was created in New Zealand. It won over 20% of the vote and several MPs. They promptly gave their support to a Labour government and then lost all their seats in the subsequent General Election! Ken Livingstone has shown that building a credible organisation outside the Labour Party is a good way to persuade Tony to let him back inside again. George Galloway will have noted this.

However, there are many socialists in England and Wales, who are not at all enamoured with the sectarian and bureaucratic antics of the leaders of the Socialist Alliance or Respect. They are impressed by what the SSP has achieved. They should be part of our audience. We shouldn’t be afraid to challenge the Respect leadership’s narrow electoralism within the confines of the UK state (or, at least those parts, which won’t bring them electoral embarrassment!)

We need to form a republican Socialist Alliance covering Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland. There should be a Joint Platform which recognises the full autonomy of socialist organisation in Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland. The immediate political aim should be the abolition of the Crown Powers, the breaking of the Union and the ending of Partition in Ireland.

Of course, political demands must be linked to economic and social struggles. Our push for full democracy and sovereignty in the nation against the sovereignty of the bureaucrats in ‘their Crown in Parliament’ needs to be matched by support for sovereignty of trade union members in their workplaces against the sovereignty of the bureaucrats in the union HQ’s. New Labour’s support for a New Unionist political settlement for the UK has gone hand-in-hand with their new (trade) union policy of promoting economic ‘modernisation’. These linked strategies are designed to benefit the interests of the global corporations. The employer/trade union partnerships, which are undermining so many workers’ pay and conditions, are fully backed by both the British and Irish governments.

Political struggle isn’t a diversion from the central issues of how to fight PFI, support the nursery nurses, abolish the council tax or mobilise against the occupation of Iraq(30). If we pursue any of these issues seriously we need to set our sights higher than a change of government. Political struggle amounts to much more than contesting elections. We need to contest the ruling class’s political power, by exposing their antidemocratic ‘hidden state’ and, through widening genuine democracy, undermine their Crown Powers. If the SSP sees the Scottish Independence Convention proposals as part of this wider strategy, we can gain the real respect of socialists throughout these islands.

Allan Armstrong


  • (1) Frontline, no. 11.
  • (2) Gregor Gall, Socialism, the national question and the Independence Convention in Scotland.
  • (3) Alan McCombes, After May 1st: Which way forward towards independence and socialism?
  • (4) Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes, Imagine – A Socialist Vision for the 21st century, p. 188, Rebel inc., Edinburgh, 2000.
  • (5) Alan McCombes, op. cit.
  • (6) Andrew Murray Scott and Iain Macleay, Tartan Terrorism and the Anglo-American State, p.22, Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh, 1990.
  • (7) Andrew Murray Scott and Iain Macleay, op. cit.p.22.
  • (8) The Herald, 1.11.03
  • (9) As well as Neil Davidson’s article see Discovering the Scottish Revolution,1692-1746, Pluto Publishers, 2003, See review article,
    Allan Armstrong, Beyond Broadswords and Bayonets, in Emancipation & Liberation, no. 5/6.
  • (10) Philip Stott, Scotland and the National Question
  • (11) Alan McCombes, op. Cit.
  • (12) Neil Davidson, Is Independence a road to Socialism in Scotland?.
  • (13) Philip Stott, op. cit.
  • (14) Philip Stott, op. cit.
  • (15) Neil Davidson, op. cit.
  • (16) Neil Davidson, op. cit.
  • (17) Philip Stott, op. cit.
  • (18) Philip Stott, op. cit.
  • (19) Philip Stott, op. cit.
  • (20) Philip Stott, op. cit.
  • (21) Neil Davidson, op. cit.
  • (22) Philip Stott, op. cit.
  • (23) Philip Stott, op. cit.
  • (24) Philip Stott, op. cit.
  • (25) V. Lenin, The Discussion on Self Determination Summed Up, in Questions of National Policy and Proletarian Internationalism, p.148, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1970.
  • (26) Mike Gonzalez, The debate that will not go away.
  • (27) The Downing Street Declaration – New Unionism and the Communities of Resistance, a Republican Worker pamphlet, Glasgow, 1994.
  • (28) Interview with Leanne Wood, Plaid Cymru AM, in Seren, issue 12, p. 6.
  • (29) Wilson McLeod, Securing the Future of Gaelic, in Scottish Left Review, issue 20, p.12.
  • (30) Neil Davidson, op. cit.

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Mar 24 2002

Red Republicans or just Red Reformers?

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 01RCN @ 7:52 pm

As Elizabeth Windsor’s Golden Jubilee approaches, Mary Ward argues why all democrats should be republicans

If, like me, you view the events of the coming Jubilee with a mixture of revulsion and anger, then you may well be assuming that the republican left has gone to sleep or all been deported such has been the lack of activity from our side. The palace spin-doctors have done what they always do and couched the event in such reasonable and philanthropic terms that only mad extremists could possibly have room for complaint.

The Labour Party left (what remains of it) has been warned to be at best mildly supportive at worst silent. The media looks forward to a photo bonanza while we in the SSP can look forward to a conference battle on whether or not we, as an anti monarchy party, should just close our eyes and hope the Jubilee goes away or whether we actually organise democratic events in opposition to the parasitic rule of the unelected monarch and her family.

Continue reading “Red Republicans or just Red Reformers?”

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