Britain: Open Letter to SSP Comrades

The Annual Conference of the SSP (Scottish Socialist Party) meets this weekend to discuss a draft manifesto for the European elections and debate other issues against the background of the recent events in Spain. Despite the successes over the past period there is a growing unrest in the party over the reformist and nationalist drift of the leadershp. The road of nationalism and reformism offers no way forward for the working class in Scotland or elsewhere. The struggle for socialism is international or it is nothing. We must learn the lessons of the past so that we may prepare for the future

The Annual Conference of the Scottish Socialist Party meets this weekend to discuss a draft manifesto for the European elections and debate other issues against the background of the recent events in Spain.

“The Scottish Socialist Party is Scotland’s newest, fastest growing and most radical political party”, states the draft manifesto. “Just six years old, the SSP now has six MSPs in the Scottish Parliament and a network of scores of branches in every corner of Scotland, from Stromness to Stranraer, from Selkirk to Stornoway.”

Yet despite these real successes, within the ranks of the party there is a growing concern – if not alarm – at the political direction in which the SSP leadership is currently moving. A layer of comrades, who joined the party believing it would become a bold socialist alternative to Blairism, are deeply worried by its sharp turn towards nationalist and reformist politics.

Previously, many of the leaders of the SSP proudly called themselves Marxists. The bulk of them had come from the old Militant Tendency. Tommy Sheridan was well known as the leader of the anti-Poll Tax campaign in Scotland, and was imprisoned for his beliefs. The launch of the SSP north of the border was supposed to herald the building of a mass Marxist-led opposition to New Labour.

This perspective was reinforced by the success of the SSP in the elections to the Scottish Parliament. As time went on the party was gaining in support and publicity. The party also began to make an impact on the local elections, which, on the basis of PR would herald substantial gains. With the New Labour leaders continuing to move further to the right the growth and success of the SSP would surely continue.

However, the pronouncements and actions of the SSP leadership soon gave cause for alarm. There was a distinct shift towards reformist policies and a deliberate attempt to water down the programme to gain more electoral support. Favourable comparisons for instance were made between an ‘independent’ Scotland and ‘independent’ Denmark and Norway, in much the same way as the right wing reformists in the past looked to the social democratic model of Sweden and Germany.

This shift towards opportunism placed the SSP leaders on a slippery slope. Their “out of date” Marxist past was abandoned in favour of pragmatism. For them, the “real” world demanded “real” solutions, more suitable to winning votes at elections. The policies of the party, which became increasingly made on the hoof by selected individuals, became a mixture of reformism and nationalism.

The leaders of the SSP have embraced Scottish nationalism and, along with the SNP, now advocate Scottish independence as a step forward. “An independent Scotland would mark an important democratic advance”, states Alan McCombes, the SSP’s National Policy and Publicity Co-ordinator. “The break-up of the United Kingdom might not mean instant socialism, but would mean a decisive shift in the balance of ideological and class forces.” This nationalist view, dressed up in radical language, is an attempt to appeal to the left nationalists within the SNP, such as Lloyd Quinan, a former MSP for the Scottish Nationalist Party and actor, who has been welcomed with open arms into the SSP.

This new recruit, who now has high hopes of being selected as a SSP candidate in the European elections, was given a full page within the party’s paper ‘Scottish Socialist Voice’ (20/2/04) to expound his nationalist views. The preamble to the interview graphically revealed the SSP leaders’ hopes and aspirations: “Lloyd Quinan’s departure from a party whose radical wing is in the advanced stages of disintegration is likely to be the first of many such defections.”

However, instead of winning nationalists to genuine socialism, the SSP leaders have themselves been won over to left nationalism. Revealingly, Lloyd Quinan spells out the difference as he sees it between the SSP and SNP: “They (the SNP) feel they need the Scottish business community behind them. It’s misguided. The business community is a transnational community that doesn’t care about Scottish sovereignty.” The SSP, by contrast, “takes a broader approach. It is visionary, idealistic. It’s about winning hearts and minds, not pandering to people’s wallets.”

Quinan says he held back from joining the SSP because “I was sceptical of its commitment to independence.” This is clearly no longer the case. The article continued: “He believes there is no British route to socialism and that independence is a necessary transitional stage. A point he felt was lost on the traditional British left.”

“The UK can’t sustain its nuclear arsenal without US subsidy. Which, for the sake of world peace, makes it absolutely necessary to break up the UK at the earliest possible opportunity”, says Lloyd.

The article concludes: “Lloyd believes we should now be ‘seeking cooperation across Europe for nationalist movements on the same journey as us. Those seeking restoration of sovereignty.

‘The more United Nations members there are, the better. There should be a confederacy, not of banking states, but based upon mutual respect for each other’s cultural diversity.

‘This debate has being going on in Europe for a long time. We’ve not been a party to it, which points up the crippling insularity of the British left.

‘Nationalism is a revolutionary, internationalist idea.’”

It is absolutely clear to Quinan which “journey” the SSP is embarked on: the road of nationalism. He feels very much at home in the SSP, whose leadership have now whole-heartedly embraced the call for capitalist independence. Nowhere in the ‘Voice’ was there a word of criticism of this article. The only conclusion one can draw from this silence is that the editors are in full agreement with this openly pro-nationalist line.

This disastrous evolution of the SSP leadership is no accident. It is rooted in an abandonment of Marxism and the class approach to questions. The ex-SML leaders have been seeking a shortcut to success for more than a decade by adapting to nationalism. As has been shown by this experience, once you abandon the class approach above all in relation to the national question you can end up in the swamp of opportunism and petty bourgeois nationalism.

Our opposition to the SNP is not only about their tail-ending of business, which is inevitable in this epoch, but the fact that the SNP is a petty bourgeois nationalist party that falsely parades Scottish independence as a solution to our problems and seeks to divide the working class on nationalist lines. Despite claims to the opposite, Scottish independence would open the way to splitting the British trade unions on national lines. In this way nationalism acts as a reactionary barrier to class unity and the struggle for socialism.

Quinan’s illusions in the dis-United Nations are typical of a layer who are incapable of seeing things in class terms. The UN is not some worldly body standing above society, but made up of the political representatives of capitalist powers, big and small. It is “a thieves’ kitchen”, to quote Lenin, like the League of Nations before the war. The invasion and occupation of Iraq demonstrates that as soon as the UN gets in the way of the main imperialist powers, it is simply cast aside. It is an irrelevance as a body for world peace, as on a capitalist basis, it is utopian to think there can be “mutual respect” between capitalist nations, anymore than there is respect between gangsters. Similarly “world peace” will not be enhanced one iota by Scottish independence, but only by eradicating the root cause of war and national antagonisms - international capitalism.

The idea that Scottish nationalism is somehow a “revolutionary, internationalist idea” is false from beginning to end. Narrow petit bourgeois nationalism is the very antithesis of socialist internationalism. Unfortunately, there are those in the leadership of the SSP that are busy promoting this reactionary idea. To the idea of “internationalist nationalism” we must counterpoise the maximum unity of the working class of Europe, struggling not just for political autonomy but also for social and economic emancipation through a Socialist United States of Europe. Again, while opposing a “British road to socialism”, Quinan the ‘internationalist’, counterpoises a “Scottish road” through Scottish independence.

In reality, there is no separate Scottish, Welsh or English road to socialism. The struggle of the Scottish working class for emancipation is inseparable from the struggle of the rest of the British working class, and the working class internationally for that matter. It is one worldwide struggle, arising from the global character of capitalism. The interests of the working class nationally and internationally are ultimately the same. While being extremely sensitive to national aspirations, genuine Marxism will continue to fight for socialist internationalism abroad and class unity at home.

Unfortunately, the chauvinist views of Quinan are given credence by the SSP leaders. Tommy Sheridan, National Convenor, and Alan McCombes have expounded their “Scottish road to socialism” in a book called ‘Imagine’. While the book provides valuable ammunition to attack capitalism, its arguments and conclusions are based upon a mixture of left reformism and Scottish nationalism. Echoing the nationalists, they argue:

“New Labour and the Tories repeatedly insist that an independent Scotland would be uneconomic, that it would have a deficit of billions. But an independent Scotland that owned and controlled the revenues flooding in from North Sea oil would have a surplus of anything between £10 billion to £15 billion a year, depending upon fluctuations in world oil prices. It would allow for the greatest expansion of public services that this country has ever seen.” (p.97)

In Norway, Malaysia, Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, South Korea, and across the Middle East, oil is publicly owned, they state. “In a country like Mexico, the publicly owned oil company Pemex generates up to 40% of all government revenues.”

However, the public ownership of the oil industry, while a step forward, does not solve the problems of the working class in Scotland or elsewhere, as can be seen from the list of countries above. In Mexico, for example, despite a state owned oil industry, 40,000 children live on the streets. Even the Norwegian government is engaged in a programme of savage cuts. The problem lies not with the state ownership of oil, but with the ills of the capitalist system as a whole.

Sheridan and McCombes go on to argue, “devolution has accelerated the momentum towards the break-up of the UK. The SNP is in a stronger position than ever before in its 66-year history.” Astonishingly, they welcome this with open arms, effectively ending up as political attorneys for Scottish nationalism: “For those fighting back against capitalism, the disintegration of the United Kingdom should be a cause for celebration rather than for mourning.” (p.122-3)

Amazingly, they revert to nationalist demagogy in an attempt to boost their arguments for independence:

“One of the most powerful arguments in favour of Scottish independence is precisely that it would remove a central cause of anti-English prejudice… could eventually pave the way for the demise of anglophobia.”

“An independent Scotland would be forced to take responsibility for its own actions and could begin to forge a co-operative relationship with England on a free and equal basis rather than a subordinate relationship based upon coercion and resentment. Socialists should be prepared to support such a step, even on a non-socialist basis as promoted by the SNP… It is not England that oppresses Scotland and stifles its political development; it is the British state…” (p.183-4)

Again, “The secession of Scotland from the Union would be a shattering defeat for British capitalism, as potent in its historic symbolism as the break-up of the Soviet Union.” (p.124)

Leaving aside the fact that the break-up of the USSR led to a series of bloody wars of ethnic cleansing and strife, and has proved a nightmare for the peoples of the former Soviet Union, the break-up of Britain would not defeat British capitalism. The British bourgeois would rule Scotland, as they do now, through their capital and finance. An independent Scotland would be completely dependent on British capital and decisions in London, Bonn, New York and Tokyo. As James Connolly explained, “even if you hoisted the tricolour above Dublin Castle, the English bourgeois will rule us through their capital.” Such a development would, however, also serve to sow divisions and disunity within the working class and the Labour movement. The continuing capitalist crisis in Scotland and south of the border would exacerbate the problems of the ruling classes, who would constantly attempt to pit worker against worker. In any case, the British ruling class will not stand idly by while the SSP introduced socialism through Holyrood.

These SSP leaders believe that “…the British state is not a step towards a socialist world. It is essentially a reactionary and conservative institution, which acts as a gigantic brake on social and political progress…”

Clearly the authors have taken this argument from Marx, but have placed it on its head. Marx long ago explained that under capitalism the nation state (as well as private property) acts as a gigantic fetter on the development of the productive forces. This point was rammed home by Lenin and Trotsky, who explained the First World War and the deep crisis of the inter-war period were rooted in this contradiction. Capitalism was only able to partially overcome this contradiction through the development of world trade (‘globalisation’). However this has now reached its limits.

Incidentally, the creation of the Common Market was not simply a political counterweight to American imperialism, but reflected an attempt to overcome this contradiction: the revolt of the productive forces within the constraints of the separate national economies of Europe. That is why the Marxists have counterpoised to the capitalist EU the idea of a Socialist United States of Europe, as a step towards a world Socialist Federation.

The SSP manifesto neither mentions nor offers any alternative to this impasse created by capitalism and the nation state. It blandly states that, “A future Scottish Socialist government would act completely independently of the Bank of England and the European Central Bank, of Westminster and Strasbourg, of Whitehall and Brussels”, but fails to explain how this tiny island of socialism would survive in this ocean of capitalism.

Apparently, rather than issuing a revolutionary internationalist appeal for workers to follow suit, a Scottish Socialist government “would work with progressive forces across Europe, including trade unions, the European Social Forum and left parties, to develop a common political framework for a social Europe. This would be based on criteria that aimed to level up the quality of life rather than reduce standards down to the lowest common denominator.” (our emphasis)

“As a first step in that direction, we would propose a congress of peoples of Europe, to be elected by ballot, country by country. This congress would then have the task of drawing up a draft constitution, which would then be voted upon country by country…” states the Draft Manifesto for the European Elections.

As a start it is completely false to believe that a socialist revolution can develop simply within the confines of Scotland. The movement to overthrow capitalism in Scotland cannot be separated from the same processes that would inevitably unfold in England and Wales. It would be a process affecting the British working class as a whole. Revolutionary developments in Glasgow and Edinburgh would inevitably be mirrored by the same developments in Newcastle, Liverpool, Manchester and Cardiff. The working class has developed on an all-British level, reflected in the historical development of the British trade unions and Labour Party. Therefore the struggle will inevitably unfold on an all-British scale, whether we wish to recognise it or not. To believe otherwise is to look at developments in a completely narrow and artificial fashion.

The draft envisages a Scottish Socialist government in complete isolation and makes no reference whatsoever to the British working class, as if it did not exist. Instead, there will be an appeal to “the peoples of Europe” to elect a congress over the heads of their governments to…. draw up a new draft constitution. But what is the purpose of such a new constitution? Presumably if the European workers were strong enough to call such a congress, they would be strong enough to overthrow their European governments and establish a Socialist United States of Europe.

The central problem with the SSP is that it is based upon a nationalist perspective. Despite all the lip service to internationalism, the whole approach of the SSP leaders is bogged down in narrow nationalism. This is at a time when the world has never before been so integrated, when the world market has never had such a crushing preponderance. We are in the epoch of world politics, world economy, and world diplomacy. We have also entered an epoch of world crisis and world revolution, as can be graphically illustrated by events on all continents. That must be the starting point for all those looking to change society.

“In our epoch, which is the epoch of imperialism, i.e., of world economy and world politics under the hegemony of finance capital, not a single communist party can establish its programme by proceeding solely or mainly from conditions and tendencies of developments in its own country”, wrote Leon Trotsky in 1928. “In the present epoch, to a much larger extent than in the past, the national orientation of the proletariat must and can flow only from a world orientation and not vice versa. Herein lies the basic and primary difference between communist internationalism and all varieties of national socialism.”

The success of the British revolution, for that is what it would be, given the historic unity of the working class, could not be sustained within these shores. The coming to power of the British working class is only the beginning of the question. In order to survive, the socialist revolution will have to be extended internationally. This will mean a revolutionary appeal to the workers of Europe to come to our aid and follow our example. Not the creation of some lame “social Europe” (whatever that means), or a commonwealth of independent states, which can serve only to Balkanise Europe, but a Socialist United States of Europe, with democratic planning in the hands of the European working class as the only way forward.

All the great teachers of Marxism explained that the task of the socialist revolution was not only the elimination of private ownership but also the nation state. It is not only the British state that is a reactionary “gigantic brake” on society, but the very existence of the nation state itself. The idea of a future Scottish Socialist government, acting in splendid isolation, is a utopian idea.

“Scotland is a fabulously wealthy country… The material foundations already exist in Scotland for a thriving, blossoming socialist democracy, which would be an inspiration to the working class, the young, the poor and the dispossessed the world over”, state Sheridan and McCombes.

“We have land, water, fish, timber, oil, gas and electricity in abundance. We have a moderate climate, where floods, droughts, and hurricanes are almost unknown. The winds that howl in from the Atlantic have phenomenal potential to provide a new source of permanent energy which does not pollute the planet… We have a clean environment and tens of thousands of miles of coastline that can be utilised for trade, fishing and tourism. We have a highly skilled workforce and an educated population.” (p.189)

Despite this impressive list of natural resources, the material basis for “a thriving, blossoming socialist democracy” certainly does not reside in the confines of Scotland. Even a socialist state in the United States, on the basis of the most advanced capitalism, could not immediately provide everyone with all their needs, and would therefore be compelled to spur everyone to produce as much as possible.

Such resources only exist on a world scale, and have been brought about by capitalism. This is the historical justification of capitalism, to develop the productive forces on a world scale, through the world division of labour, which would prepare the material basis for the abolition of classes. Even within the Soviet Union, which covered one-sixth of the world’s surface and was teeming with natural resources, there did not exist the material basis for a socialist society. ‘Socialism in one country’ was the argument of the Stalinists in order to justify their abandonment of world revolution. The collapse of the USSR proved that this false idea was impossible. The thought is even more laughable within the borders of Scotland when the capitalist world economy holds such a crushing preponderance for all countries.

The reference made in the book to John MacLean, the great Scottish Marxist, and his call a few years before his death for a Scottish Workers’ Republic, is predictable. (p.181) Unfortunately, those nationalists who praise him today base themselves on MacLean’s mistakes and weaknesses and not on his strengths. MacLean was a brilliant Marxist propagandist and defender of the Bolshevik Revolution. He worked energetically for the British socialist revolution as part of the world revolution. Unfortunately, towards the end of his life he made the mistake of not joining the British Communist Party. He grew despondent at the lagging behind of the English workers and adopted the erroneous slogan of a Scottish Workers’ Republic, a position rejected by the Communist movement at the time. Events were also to prove him wrong with the magnificent General Strike of 1926.

Today it has become fashionable to resurrect MacLean’s mistake in the form of an independent Socialist Scotland – while his strong side, his stress on Marxist education, propaganda and theory, has been completely ignored.

The authors of the book have a very mechanical view of the class struggle. They continually stress how different Scotland is from England and are blinded to the fact that the working class in Scotland, England and Wales is fundamentally the same. We face the same enemies. We have common united class organisations in the form of the trade unions and Labour Party. Given this situation, the class struggle tends to unfold on an all-British level. The recent strikes of civil servants and firefighters took a national, or all-British form, and did not develop on separate Welsh, Scottish and English lines. Such a development would be madness from the point of view of the interests of the class struggle. Historically, what we have is a British working class and a British labour movement, composed of English, Scottish and Welsh. This unity of the working class on an all-British level has evolved over more than 200 years. It is not a weakness, but a colossal strength, a historic conquest, which will serve us well in the unfolding struggles of the future.

“The working men have no country”, stated the ‘Communist Manifesto’. “We cannot take from them what they have not got. Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is, so far, itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word.”

While we are fundamentally opposed to Scottish nationalism, which seeks to divide the working class, we are sensitive to the national aspirations of the Scottish (and Welsh) people. We are in favour of genuine automony for both Scotland and Wales. We stand for the right of national self-determination, even to the point of separation. It is a democratic right. But we are not evangels of separation or the creation of small nations. In the modern world there is no room for genuinely ‘independent’ small nations, which are in reality dependent on the big capitalist powers and super-powers. The answer is not nationalism, but internationalism. Not divisions, but the maximum unity of working people.

We appeal to comrades of the SSP to examine where the party is going. The road of nationalism and reformism offers no way forward for the working class in Scotland or elsewhere. The struggle for socialism is international or it is nothing. We must learn the lessons of the past so that we may prepare for the future.

Issued by the In Defence of Marxism website