the national question: for active involvement in all our class’s struggles

Allan Armstrong replies to Clifford Biddulph’s No nationalist solutions

Clifford Biddulph’s No nationalist solutions (issue no. 15 of The Commune) consists mainly of a reply to my article, The Communist Case for Internationalism from Below.  This was written for the Second Global Commune event held on May 22nd in Edinburgh. I appreciate the time Clifford has taken to contribute to this debate. However, there will probably need to be a number of further articles before readers can fully appreciate the politics underlying our two approaches.

Clifford’s reply only addresses a few of the arguments, which I put forward in this article. Instead, Clifford puts forward his own particular critique of nationalism – the neo-Luxemburgist variant of the cosmopolitan approach, which I have already examined and found wanting. Of course, it is perfectly valid for Clifford to write an article offering his own view and to outline its particular origins. In doing so, however, he hasn’t dealt with my critique of the two main approaches to nationalism and the struggle for national self-determination found on the Left – (con)federal and cosmopolitan.

I hope that my latest contribution helps to clear up many of the misconceptions which appear to be held by many socialists, anarchists and communists, either living in England and who are relatively unaware of the situation in Scotland, Wales and Ireland; or those who consciously or unconsciously defend a British Left strategy.

There are substantial historical sections in Clifford’s reply, covering the stance of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Luxemburg, which I have already addressed in my earlier article. There are points in Clifford’s contribution with which I agree, and points where I have already argued from a different standpoint. In this particular contribution I don’t want to get bogged down in a historical ‘who said what, when and why’. If any reader of The commune is interested in this particular debate, I am happy to e-mail them with the initial drafts of my forthcoming books entitled Internationalism from Below – just contact the editors of The Commune. In the meantime, I will examine Clifford’s other substantial points.

How to bring about communism and bring about an end to nation-states and nationalism

I will start with a point of complete agreement between Clifford and myself. Clifford concludes by stating that, “The ideology of nationalism is historically novel and the majority of people once lived without out.  Nationalism has a historical beginning and as far as communists are concerned it will have an end.”  The first volume of Internationalism from Below makes precisely this case.

However, Clifford then goes on to state that, “The communist objective is to liberate humanity, not liberate nations.” The problem here, though, is how can we liberate humanity without liberating nations; or to be more precise – transcending nations? There is no prospect of capitalism doing away with nation-states, so communists will inherit a world where most people have had officially assigned nationalities, which have deep material roots. The overwhelming majority of people today think and act in alienated national terms, just as the majority of people in the Middle Ages thought in alienated religious terms.

Communists could conduct a constant propaganda campaign against nations and nationalism prior to a ‘big bang’ communist revolution, after which nation-states and nations could just be abolished. In other words, communists could follow a similar course to those atheists who believe that a constant propaganda barrage against religions and their adherents, culminating in the formation of an atheist state declaring all religion illegal, is the task we face today.

In contrast, I would maintain that since religions and nations have real material roots, which will not be displaced by mere propaganda. Whilst it is certainly necessary to conduct theoretical struggle against religious (and nationalist) ideology, I am with Marx in advocating not an atheist but a secular state, which recognises people’s rights to practice religion, but upholds the principle that, as long as states still exist, these should neither promote nor suppress religion.

Some supporters of the commune may say – but we are opposed to all state ‘solutions’. However, would they also argue that we are opposed to struggles for better wages, improved working conditions, or migrant workers rights, because these all represent continued wage slavery ‘solutions’?

I would argue that we should adopt the equivalent of a secular approach to religion when dealing with nations and nation-states. Communists should conduct theoretical struggle against nationalist ideology and, of course, engage in the more practical struggle against nationalists pushing their own particular ‘solutions’ in the course of particular economic, social, cultural and political struggles.

Nevertheless, both today and in any revolutionary transition we should also acknowledge each person’s right to whatever national identity or use of language they choose. However, until there is a universally accepted language for mutual communication, there will be a need for a particular official lingua franca (sometimes more than one) to ensure more effective economic, social and political intercourse. Under present-day capitalist conditions there is be a bias in each nation-state towards the specific features of the majority nation living there. Communists, though, should continually contest the nature of such provision.

In other arenas, communists should be organising to push back specific ethnic national features of existing or would-be ‘nation’-states. This is why I drew a distinction between ‘nationality’ or ethnic states and nation-states with equal rights for all citizens  – of course, something far from being achieved in most states. Such nation-states could form a transition to a more universal, non-national, communist world, once all state boundaries are abolished.

One obvious field of struggle at present, to undermine ethnic national criteria, is support for migrant workers. We could confine ourselves to propaganda for ‘no borders’. However, any effective struggle in support of migrant workers today is going to amount to winning equal rights with worker citizens/subjects in existing states, i.e. ‘no one is illegal’ – a particular state ‘solution’. Within such struggles communists should also argue for the prospect of creating wider unity, not only to improve rights for all, but to bring about a communist world where there are indeed no borders.

Communists should directly involve themselves in the full range of struggles against capitalist and imperial rule

Although capitalism and capitalist imperialism have been dominant over the lives of workers and peoples of this planet for over a century and a half, its rule has never been uncontested.  Capital doesn’t just stride out over the world imposing its own logic unimpeded. Capital is a relationship involving capitalists at one pole and the working class at the other. The maintenance of the capital relationship depends on our subordination as workers – the owners of our living labour – to the controllers of our appropriated dead labour – the capitalists. There are also others involved in non-capitalist production relations who oppose attempts by capital to control their lives.

The conditions for ensuring our exploitation are not confined to the workplace, but also necessitate our oppression by the state. As a result, the contradictions of capitalism are also to be found in the various states of the world today.  Just as the controllers of capital face constant resistance from labour and others (passive and active, individual and collective), which challenges our exploitation in the economic arena; so the various state ruling classes face constant resistance (cultural, social and political; reactionary, traditionalist and democratic), which challenges our oppression in the state arena.

Capital has been unable to create a single world state, just as it has been unable to create a single capitalist corporation. The most that capitalism has attained is a global order politically organised around the existence and recognition of ‘nation’-states. The now economically dominant ‘global’ corporations are all registered in particular states – usually within the imperial metropoles.

Bourgeois ideology doesn’t acknowledge the development of a world dominated by major corporations able to utilise their economic power to subordinate states to their own ends. Instead, we are told that we live in a world of freely competing enterprises, which only need minimal state intervention in the economy to prosper.

Similarly, we are told that the UN presides over a world of nation-states with equal representation in the General Assembly (‘world parliament’). However, many of these so-called ‘nation’-states are barely nations at all, having been created from above by imperial diktat.  In contrast, there are states, which have become major imperial powers, able to subordinate other ‘nation’-states both economically and politically.  The Security Council is where the UN’s key decisions are made. It resembles a cabinet coalition of hostile parties – a bit like the Northern Irish government, hence the need for vetoes.

For those of us, who argue that the working class educates itself and organises most effectively in struggle, it is vital to relate positively to the wide range of partial struggles (i.e. those still recoverable by capital), which arise both from capitalist exploitation and state oppression.

A useful analogy might be the struggle against the Anti-Trade Union laws. You could argue that, even before the Tories introduced these laws in the 1980’s, the British ruling class and bosses still dominated our class, so the existence of Anti-Trade Union laws is not important. In contrast, I would argue that communists should be at the forefront of resistance to such laws, but not in the traditional Broad Leftist way, i.e. hoping the official TUC policy of opposition will lead to a future Labour government scrapping them. Instead, we should involve ourselves in struggles, which go on to actively and publicly defy these Anti-Trade Union laws.

Just as the existing TUC, wedded to social partnership, is completely unable to bring about its official policy of ending the anti-trade union laws, so, for example, the SNP, is unable to satisfy many Scottish people’s wish for self-determination, due to its support for the current global corporate order (which means that the US provides support for the UK) and for the British monarchy (the SNP accepts the UK’s anti-democratic Crown Powers).  In both cases, this provides communists with the opportunity to show the need for independent class organisation and to push for our own solutions.

Clifford, though, seems to think that once it becomes clear, in the minds of communists, that all nationalism and all nation-states are bourgeois, all we need to do is condemn bourgeois nationalism and its leftist variant – ‘socialism in one country’.  In effect, the role of communists is reduced to propaganda.

If communists adopted this stance in the economic arena, we would argue that when workers go on strike for improved wages, we should visit their picket lines and condemn them for not struggling against wage slavery. Alternatively, we can throw ourselves into providing effective solidarity, and help to create independent organisation (i.e. placing struggles under the control of those directly involved), where the debates can be made about the possibility of a real communist future, growing from existing struggles. This is also the approach we need to adopt towards other partial struggles too.

This, of course, involves making a judgement about the emancipatory potential of any particular struggle. The current weakness of the Left means that we face competitors who only offer workers complete dead ends, which further divide and weaken, e.g. fascists (whether traditional or neo), national chauvinists and religious supremacists.

Why the RCN takes up the partial democratic issue of the National Question in Scotland

There is a democratic content to the National Question in Scotland (Ireland and Wales), leading to partial struggles of opposition, precisely because the UK is a constitutional monarchist, unionist and imperial state. The National Question is a real issue in Scotland, and the demand for self-determination is now a longstanding feature of Scottish politics. There is a large constituency within the national movement here that links this to opposition to Trident, NATO, continued imperial wars, privatisation and deregulation. Furthermore, amongst such supporters, it is quite possible to argue for an ‘internationalism from below’ approach, i.e. seeing the struggle, not as culminating in the setting up of another bourgeois state, but as part of the strategy to end the Crown Powers and the wider UK state, and to bring about wider international unity on a working class democratic basis.

When Thatcher and the Tories used Scotland as a testing ground for the poll tax in 1987, we might have said (as the SWP did) that there could be no effective resistance until the whole of the British trade union movement (i.e. TUC) was involved, or we could have built independent organisation and resistance in Scotland first, whilst highlighting the necessity (against the Scottish nationalists) of extending such organisation into England and Wales. Fortunately, the latter was the course taken and it led to the last major victory our class achieved against the Tories and their Labour accomplices.

Yes, as in any partial struggle, it is quite possible that the would-be Scottish ruling class, and its international allies (US, EU and possibly even British corporate capital in the future) could stymie the struggle for Scottish self-determination. We could end up with an SNP-led ‘independent Scotland’ acting as a low-tax haven for global capital, which participates in NATO’s second-tier, non-nuclear, ‘Partnership for Peace’.  It will depend on the balance of class forces and the political course chosen by the Left.

However, the one strategy, which would most likely lead to this decidedly sub-optimum outcome, is just leaving the National Question to the SNP and the Left nationalists. Indeed, such a course of action would be more likely to aid the further entrenchment of the current British ruling class strategy – maintaining the Union through ‘Devolution-all-round’ and propping up British imperialism with the UK state acting as junior partner to the USA, and continued British nuclear armed participation in the front-line of NATO. This is because the British ruling class has far more powerful class and international backing than an aspiring Scottish ruling class.

The significance of the UK state’s anti-democratic Crown Powers

We all have a shared interest in opposing the UK state’s Crown Powers, which the British ruling class (which includes English, Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh members) have at its disposal. Behind Westminster’s parliamentary façade, the British ruling class used these powers to impose virtual military rule over ‘the Six Counties’ from the abolition of Stormont in 1972 until the Good Friday Agreement in 1996 (since then the role of the British Army has been downgraded, but “they haven’t gone away, you know”!) Even new housing plans were subjected to military scrutiny before they could be approved.

Now, of course, you could argue that the UK state (or even capital) dominated Northern Ireland under the old Stormont (1922-72), under Direct Rule (1972-98) and since the Good Friday Agreement. Yet, I would argue that it would represent real retrogression if old Stormont-type rule was restored in the Six Counties (as True Unionist Voice and many Loyalists want) or, if British troops were able to re-establish permanent checkpoints, road blocks and everyday harassment.

This isn’t to argue that all is hunky-dory now – far from it. The UK state now asserts its control over the Six Counties by brokering between two politically-recognised communities – Unionist and Nationalist. This is not without its contradictions, which communists must highlight in order to further working class unity. This won’t be an easy job, but an ‘internationalism from below’ approach – Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales – which demonstrates a shared hostility to the UK and Irish 26 Counties states and their leaders’ current Peace Process/‘Devolution-all-round’ political strategy, will certainly be more useful than the more usual British Left approach – just unite around trade union demands, or leave it to the Irish/Northern Irish to sort out their problems themselves.

When Irish workers and others took action, from the late 1960’s, to oppose national oppression (e.g. police brutality, arbitrary arrests, imprisonment without trial, shoot-to-kill) we could have condemned them for looking for nationalist ‘solutions’. Or, we could have supported their resistance and promoted effective solidarity, whilst demonstrating the benefits of an internationalist approach.  Instead of condemnation, or cheering on the IRA, usually from a safe distance, this would have meant organising, in the rest of the UK, to create the pressure over here to get the troops out. Unfortunately too few on the Left in the UK adopted this latter approach.

Communists need to expose and oppose these Crown Powers, for they will certainly be used against us in the future. If the unionist nature of the UK state makes the visibility of these powers more obvious in Ireland and Scotland, communists need to relate to any struggles arising from this; just as we recognised the leading role of miners amongst the wider working class when fighting the Tories between 1984-5, and didn’t just say, “Wait, hold on, until the whole of our class is ready.”

The difference between nationalism and national struggle, and between bourgeois ‘internationalism’ and working class internationalism

Clifford attributes the following to me  – “Allan Armstrong… believes that nationalism is too important to be left to the nationalists”.  This is very much a case of attacking a straw man, since I have never made such a statement. What it does reveal is Clifford’s inability to distinguish between national democratic struggle and nationalism.

For a long time there were socialists who used to argue that the struggle for women’s rights was a diversion from the real struggle against capitalism. Following from this, both women’s oppression and resistance to women’s oppression were subsumed under the same labels – sexism or bourgeois feminism. I presume that Clifford supports the wider struggle for women’s emancipation, and has supported the more limited struggle for abortion rights. Does this make Clifford a feminist?  Or, would Clifford be just as happy to claim that ‘the communist objective is to liberate humanity not to emancipate women’?

Whilst I have made a critique of Lenin’s approach to national democratic movements elsewhere, he did make a very important contribution to the debate on the National Question, when he wrote that, “The elements of democratic and socialist culture are present, if only in rudimentary form, in every national culture, since in every nation there are toiling and exploited masses, whose conditions give rise to the ideology of democracy and socialism.   But every nation also possesses a bourgeois culture (and most nations a reactionary clerical culture as well) in the form, not merely of ‘elements’ but of the dominant culture.”  Scotland, although part of the unionist British state, has a national culture, as do England, Ireland and Wales. In all these cases this national culture is contested.

Those, living within any particular national culture, who advocate a democratic and socialist approach, also support a very different form of internationalism from those upholding a bourgeois or reactionary approach. For example, the bourgeois nationalists, who now dominate the SNP, still want to maintain their own international connections – they support the continued existence of the current global corporate order (having close contacts with people from Sir Fred ‘the Shred’ Goodwin of the Royal Bank of Scotland to the maverick American tycoon, Donald Trump), with the UK (i.e. they want to return to the pre-parliamentary union dating from before 1707, whilst maintaining the monarchical union dating from 1603!), with the Euro-bosses’ EU (and its neo-liberalism enshrined in the post-Lisbon constitution), and they increasingly accept NATO too. Key sections of the Irish ruling class once had particularly close links to Cold War USA and to the pre-Second Vatican Council Papacy.

The RCN does not advocate a nationalist strategy, i.e. putting the nation  – its principal property owners, future wannabes, or their allies – first. We advocate a class-based strategy of ‘internationalism from below’ to link workers, socialists/communists and others. We also strongly support migrant workers’ struggles, and seek more effective solidarity action with workers and the oppressed throughout a world dominated by capitalist imperialism (or corporate capital).

We are not Scottish nationalists, but Scottish internationalists. We are trying to develop a political path to bring more effective unity of the working class – firstly throughout these islands, and then by joining with others, on a global scale, to bring about a communism based on new forms of workers’ association.

Propagandism or involvement in partial struggles

Although Clifford makes statements such as “political rights cannot rise above the economic structure of society”, it is not obvious from his contribution exactly what follows politically from this. Clifford makes the point that the “general right to self-determination is utopian”. Having invoked Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme to provide backing for this, Clifford goes on to give his support to Luxemburg who also argued for such a view. However, he makes no mention of the fact that Marx didn’t express any opposition to the following policy of the First International – support for “the right of every people to dispose of itself”.  Clearly, on some occasions, Marx was prepared to advocate general rights.

So, how is this apparent contradiction explained? It would be difficult to argue that Marx and Engels were not much concerned about the National Question at the time of the First International, and just let this particular policy go.  They threw themselves wholeheartedly into the debates over Poland and Ireland. They took on the ‘cosmopolitan’ French Proudhinists and the British Leftist, trade unionist, Hales. I think the reason for Marx’s apparent contradiction is that he is dealing with two different levels of politics – the development of theory and practical political intervention.

Capitalism is a crisis-ridden system, so it is important for communists to theoretically demonstrate that no economic or political right – e.g. the right to work, the right to self-determination – can ever be guaranteed under capitalism/imperialism.  This also goes for any likely prospect of increasing our living standards in the future. However, when workers or others assert their ‘right to work’, or their support for ‘the right of national self-determination’, in particular struggles and campaigns, they are expressing their own opposed class understanding of what kind of world should exist, whatever the current power holders say. In other words they don’t necessarily accept capitalist or imperialist logic.

Bourgeois ideology may be dominant under capitalism, but as has already been demonstrated, it is still contested.  This provides communists with an opening to make their case, provided we show some ‘nous’. Just telling those attending a public meeting that they have been conned by the bourgeoisie, by their invocation of a notion of ‘abstract rights’, and that they should be involved in an altogether different struggle, is unlikely to convince them in large numbers. However, it might pick up a few individual members to a sect.

Many nineteenth century communists and social democrats, including self-proclaimed Marxists like Daniel de Leon, resorted to a similar type of argument, to that which Clifford uses to dismiss any struggle for ‘abstract rights’. They supported Ferdinand Lassalle’s ‘Iron Law of Wages’ to show that under capitalism economic or trade union struggles were a waste of time.  Neither Marx nor Engels upheld this particular viewpoint, and James Connolly had to argue against de Leon over this too.

Clifford, though, seems to hold to an ‘Iron Law of Democratic Limitations’ under capitalism, analogous to the ‘Iron Law of Wages’. Can there be only one particular form of bourgeois state wherever capitalist social relations dominate? Does class struggle over the constitution or state practice really make no difference? Is there no possibility of partial democratic reform? Is there no difference between fascist/military and parliamentary states, monarchist and republican states, or imperial and colonised states?

Clifford argues that, “Vietnam was oppressed by American imperialism until 1975, but then four years later became the oppressor of Cambodia.” So what follows from this? Were the people of Vietnam wasting their time fighting against US imperialism? Are the Palestinians wasting their time resisting the Israeli state?

The political point Clifford wants to establish, i.e. that all nationalism works within limits set by capitalism/imperialism is certainly true, but can just as easily be made against trade unionism or syndicalism. However, like nationalism, trade unionism/syndicalism covers a wide range of forms (some positively hostile to even short-term working class interests)  – e.g. fascist corporatism, yellow business unions and social partnerships, as well as free collective bargaining and class struggle unionism.

Now, there are still propagandist socialists and anarchists around today, who would argue that workers are wasting their time getting involved in trade union struggles, because they fail to address the root of the problem – wage slavery. Looking at the contributions to the commune I don’t think most participants would argue in such a way. Indeed, there has been a vibrant discussion about what is the best method by which workers can fight back against their current position brought about by corporate-promoted non-unionism (the bosses’ preferred option) or social partnerships (their alternative method of neutering class struggle when having to legally recognise trade unions).

For a long time, the majority of the Left have argued for a Broad Left approach, i.e. replace the existing trade union leaders by new Left leaderships. I think most The Commune readers can see the decided limitations of this approach. There has been debate between those advocating a more rank and file approach (transforming and democratising unions), anarcho-syndicalism (IWW) and independent trade unionism (Independent Workers Union). There has also been an interesting contribution about extending workplace-based trade unionism to cover working class communities – social unionism (maybe the contemporary form of an earlier ‘One Big Union’ debate).

I think it is vital that communists become involved in such struggles and debates. We must also clearly point to the limitations of all struggles confined to improving wages, social wages and conditions, and make the case for the abolition of wage slavery. How we do this more effectively is one of the important debates going on in the commune. Of course, this is easier when capitalism faces deep crisis and the possibility of improved living standards is visibly receding – as is the case just now.

Nevertheless, so that our advocacy of the communist alternative doesn’t just end up as a mere propaganda exercise, we do need to link such arguments with active involvement in the many partial economic and social struggles, and to the promotion of independent organisations of our class.  We also need to extend this participation to partial political struggles. For communists, the culmination of all these struggles is the replacement of the existing bourgeois state by workers’ councils.

‘The British road to socialism’ or ‘internationalism from below’

Clifford asserts that the RCN’s “internationalism from below” just “floats through history appearing now as the Levellers then as the Chartists then again as United Irishmen, John MacLean or the resistance to the poll tax”. This, though just reveals Clifford’s own lack of understanding and empathy in this regard.

‘Internationalism from below’ didn’t just “float” but took much deeper root, as the English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh nations and the British UK state (and empire) developed, as a consequence of particular class struggles over a long period of history. Furthermore, ‘internationalism from below’ was created in antagonism to other approaches, e.g. the English Levellers’ opposition to Cromwell’s ‘Godly English Republic’; and the republican opposition of the United Irishmen, United Scotsmen, London Corresponding Society and US Democratic-Republicans to the UK constitutional monarchy and British Empire.

This year is the centenary of the publication of Connolly’s Labour in Irish History, a classic presentation of a class-based view of the divisions within a particular nation in the struggle for national self-determination.  Connolly was an Irish internationalist and anti-imperialist, who lived for most of his life in the UK – in Scotland and Ireland.

Now, it is true that a lot of this history is not well known because of the ideological dominance of the ruling class’s British Whig view of history, and its Left variant – the ‘British road to socialism’. Worse still, it is least well understood by socialists/communists in England despite the significant contribution of those from England to ‘internationalism from below’ struggles in the past. I would argue that this lack of understanding has partly arisen due to the activities of those very British socialists, who see it as one of their main task to defend a ‘British road to socialism’ – the former SDF/BSP, the old and new CPGB, SWP, and AWL, for example.

Clifford, who comes from an orthodox Trotskyist past, but is now in the dissident camp, could further develop his critique of orthodox Trotskyism and dissident Communist Partyism (e.g. the Weekly Worker), if he moved beyond his apparent acceptance of a ‘British road to socialism’.

Clifford also states that, “Allan’s republicanism is thus a timeless ideal of class determination”.  Now, this assertion may reflect a lack of familiarity with my practice and writings over a long period – fair enough, at least before the widespread use of the Internet, to which I am very much an unskilled late-comer.

However, from the days of the struggle against the poll tax (I was the chair of the first Anti-Poll Tax Federation – it formed in Lothian) to the widening division in the Irish Republican Movement between constitutional, dissident and socialist republicans (I have also been long involved in Irish solidarity work), I have offered a class analysis of unfolding events there (and their link with events and politics elsewhere in the UK).

The RCN has also published a pamphlet, Republicanism, Socialism and Democracy, outlining our class-based analysis of republicanism. Again, for those readers of The Commune who are interested in these discussions, the RCN will make them available – some can already be found on our website.

However, there is another reason why republicanism isn’t much understood in England. Republicanism is a fairly esoteric feature of English politics. In Ireland, Scotland and Wales, republicanism has deeper roots and forms part of the wider political and public debate.  This situation has arisen because of greater opposition here to the Unionist constitutional monarchy, which has linked the National Question and republicanism. Where republicanism has developed enough strength to become an active factor in politics, it is always class contested. Therefore, it is vitally important to demonstrate clarity over where you stand on the issue. Unravelling the class nature of republicanism has always been central to the RCN’s politics.

In conclusion, I would argue that it is the job of communists to identify those partial struggles – economic, social, cultural and political  – which help us to strengthen the working class and others who are oppressed in the here and now.  At the same time, through promoting independent organisation (including of communists ourselves), we can make real the possibility of the communist alternative, already latent, but constantly suppressed within capitalism.  ‘Internationalism from below’ is a vital component in this endeavour.