a reply to joe thorne’s ‘the republican communist network’s ‘internationalism from below’ and the case of scotland: a critical view’

The Republican Communist Network (Scotland) have written a collective response to an earlier article by Joe Thorne.


The RCN would like to thank Joe for his contribution to the ongoing debate amongst the commune membership on the ‘National Question’. This has followed from the paper, The communist case for ‘internationalism from below’, which Allan Armstrong presented to the second Global Commune event in Edinburgh on May 22nd, 2010. In one of the two workshops held on this topic, Joe and others raised a number of specific questions about the RCN’s attitude to Scottish independence. Joe followed this up by writing, The RCN’s ‘internationalism from below’ and the case of Scotland: a critical view.

Joe’s questions have been thought provoking, hence the considerable delay in our collective reply. We have used Joe’s questions at two of our RCN meetings to further develop our own thinking.  In expressing his criticisms, Joe has also provided us with some of his own underlying theoretical assumptions. This is very helpful when trying to appraise the relative merits of differing approaches. Joe’s method contrasts with much of what passes for debate on the Left – purely negative criticisms (without any openly declared theoretical underpinnings), heresy hunting, name calling, or demands for denunciations (of nationalism, feminism, or whatever).

Joes’s thinking seems to be drawn mainly from Anarchist and dissident Marxist (i.e. non-orthodox Leninist or Trotskyist) approaches. Many of the commune members come from one of these two backgrounds, as indeed do some RCN members. Therefore, in the process of answering Joe’s specific questions, we will also critically examine elements of these two theoretical approaches when dealing with the ‘National Question’.

We will break-up our answer into three sections:-

A) Explaining some of the contradictions of present day corporate imperialism

B) Understanding the ‘National Question’

C) The ‘Scottish Question’ in its UK state and British imperial framework


1. Facing up to the Jeremiahs on the Left

Some of Joe’s questioning of the RCN’s thinking on the ‘National Question’ flows from his particular understanding of the limitations imposed on nation states and national movements by capitalism since the Second World War. {Since the 1970’s, this capitalism has morphed into its latest corporate imperialist form – henceforth just called Imperialism}. Joe argues that, “Imperialism has changed vastly since World War II, and is not now weaker as a global phenomenon than it was then – despite the global unfolding of national independence.”

Joe further elaborates when he argues that all attempts by newly independent states or national movements to assert their particular nation’s independence have merely resulted in them being reabsorbed into their original imperialist bloc on new terms {e.g. neo-colonialism}, or having to turn to another imperialist bloc for support {e.g. the Soviet Union before 1989-91}.

Joe does think that, if Scotland became an independent state, the loss to the UK state of 5 million citizens, 5% of its GDP, Europe’s sixth largest financial sector, a considerable proportion of Britain’s military {particularly nuclear} bases and North Sea Oil, that this “would weaken the UK state’s ability to project imperial power, at least in the short term.”

Joe then goes on to argue that, “However, there are several reasons to think that such a weakening would be relatively minor, partial and – most importantly – would not lead to an overall weakening of imperialism as such, or even the particular imperialist bloc of which Britain is part”. His reasons include the ability of the UK state to make alternative military arrangements, the economic constraints imposed on EU member states by its neo-liberal policies, and the lack of any other likely imperial blocs to provide alternative support. We could also add – and the extreme hostility that attempts to find such backing would face from the ruling class within a diminished British imperialism, as well as from US, and EU (or German/French) imperialisms.

The RCN would agree with Joe that an independent Scottish state, of whatever political hue, would face considerable economic and political restraints. However, Joe should be wary that he doesn’t follow the Jeremiahs of the British Labour Party and the British Left. They usually argue that there is no possibility for future working class advance in Scotland outside the political framework of the British unionist state[1]. Such arguments are similar to those coming from trade union bureaucrats and Right-wingers, whenever workers are considering taking industrial action. They like to raise all sorts of obstacles due to the ‘objective conditions’, e.g. the unfavourable international economic climate, the currently strong position of the bosses, the lack of wider support, etc., etc..

We’re sure that Joe would oppose the Jeremiahs of the trade union world. The RCN also opposes their counterparts in the political world. Of course, communists must make a specific analysis of the capitalist structures and institutions we are confronting, and examine the balance of class forces in both the economic and political spheres, as well as recognising their connection under capitalism (see section A.5).

Appreciating the balance of class forces, though, is somewhat different from meekly accepting the existence of ‘objective conditions’, with the outcomes of any class struggles pre-determined by Imperialism. Such an approach doesn’t allow for this ‘fixed objectivity’ to be broken through independent working class action.

2. Independent organisation for our class does not depend on reacting to the capitalists’ chosen state forms

Thus, despite the huge problems currently facing ‘the 26 Counties’ Irish economy, there is no significant political voice there, especially amongst the working class, saying, “To hell with political independence, let us rejoin the UK”! Irish workers would rather deal with their own ruling class than be returned to the tender mercies of the British ruling class. Irish workers’ current weakness stems from ‘their’ leaders confining themselves to pressuring the Irish ruling class, and very half-heartedly at that.

The Irish ruling class, however, has powerful allies amongst the ruling classes and political leaders of the UK, EU and USA, which strengthen its position immensely, in relation to the Irish working class. In this sense, the restraints imposed by a wider Imperialism are very real. However, they can be loosened through independent class action.  Irish workers’ current leaders, though, make no efforts to forge international links and promote common actions with workers in the EU – the Greeks or French for example. The trade union bureaucrats prefer to settle for the security and privileges they enjoy through acting as a personnel management service for the employers and for successive Irish governments under ‘social partnerships’.

Norway provides a different example, sometimes invoked in Scotland, especially after the problems now facing our previously much vaunted, neighbouring, Irish ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy. Norway’s national economy has been able to operate outside the institutions of the EU, and hasn’t been so badly affected as others during the current recession. This is partly due to policy decisions taken earlier, by its then non neo-liberal political leaders. The position of workers and their trade unions in Norway is certainly no worse than those in the UK, nor most of the EU.

Whatever the constraints placed upon independent states (and these can be extremely restrictive), political independence provides those in control of the state with a voice and some representation in the wider political arena, in an analogous manner that an organisationally independent trade union does for workers in ‘their’ company or particular sector of state employment.

Workers can face bleak economic prospects in their workplaces, such as the immediate threat of closure and loss of employment. However, this isn’t an argument against having independent organisation and representation. The issue therefore is, whose voice is to be heard:- 1) in the workplace – the trade union bureaucrats or the workers’ representatives; 2)  in the political arena – the banksters and the bosses, or popular and workers’ representatives?

The RCN isn’t advocating either Ireland’s or Norway’s chosen economic affiliations for a possible future ‘independent Scotland’. We are merely pointing out that being part of the UK economy isn’t the only possible option. Whether Scotland remains inside the UK, and/or the EU, presents our class with different situations to deal with.

Neither of these particular economic scenarios automatically offers workers a more secure economic future; nor, of course, does Scotland’s continued incorporation in the UK.  Only our own actions can do that, and there is no convincing evidence that we could not maintain our capacity to fight back in the first two scenarios – political independence inside or outside the EU. This would depend on the strategies adopted, and, in particular, the practical international alliances, which we sought to develop.

If, for example, the leaders of a politically independent Scotland (still dominated by capitalist social relations) opted to remain in the EU, this would mean that the working class in Scotland would need to seek greater unity with other European workers to combat the effects of the EU’s neo-liberal policies; just, as workers in Scotland have tried to link up with those elsewhere in the UK to combat the effects of the British employers’ and UK governments’ (New Labour and Con-Dem) even more vicious neo-liberal policies – however inadequately at present. Many of these inadequacies stem from the influence of the British TUC and the British Labour Party, and from the sectarianism of the British Left.

In 2009, the Scottish Socialist Party formed part of the European Anti-Capitalist Alliance (EACA) challenge in the Euro-elections. A section of the British Left opted instead for the British chauvinist (and indeed only thinly disguised racist, ‘No to social dumping’) No2EU campaign. None of the British Left opted for participation in the EACA’s electoral challenge.

If the British Left believes that only the full political integration of the EU can create the basis for a united socialist/communist and wider working class organisation, then it is arguing that the working class must wait until others create the political framework within which we can act in the future. The RCN wants to challenge such political tail-ending. This just leaves our class reacting to the political initiatives put forward by sections of the British ruling class, or other would-be ruling classes, e.g. amongst the backers of the SNP.

Communists in all EU member states need to encourage European-wide links and organisation on the basis of ‘internationalism from below’. This is the same principle that the RCN has been advocating and helping to organise within the UK and ‘26 Counties’ states – England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (‘North’ and ‘South’). It applies whatever the degree of political integration of the state (e.g. the UK), or wider state-in-making (e.g. the EU), already brought about by the ruling classes concerned. We need to take the initiative, not passively react to the political impact of the capitalist class’s chosen state forms.

3. See yon awfie Imperialism – y’ just cannae beat it!

So far, we have only been dealing with the some possible economic scenarios provided by, or hinted at, by Joe. However, the RCN is not in the business of trying to create an economically independent Scottish state, either under capitalism or socialism – the lower phase of communism. We want to create a new global communist order.

However, in the current non-revolutionary situation we face, the RCN thinks that it is possible to increase the political weight of the working class, both in these islands, and to a lesser extent in Europe and the wider world, by weakening the existing UK state and the US/British imperial alliance. This alliance still constitutes the politically and militarily dominant force at a global level.  From our perspective, though, any successful immediate political challenge would only be preparatory to more decisive ones, once some of the current deadweight is lifted from our backs.

Now Joe and others on the Left have criticised the notion of merely advocating the weakening of the existing state, instead of campaigning to overthrow it. Back in the late 1970’s, faced with the forthcoming Scottish and Welsh devolution referenda, sections of the Left in Scotland shouted, “No to Devolution – Yes to Revolution”. Unfortunately, there were no workers’ councils in place ready to make this leap. So what we got instead was ‘No to Devolution – Yes to Thatcher’! Here we had a case of rhetorical Socialist Propagandism aiding our class enemy.

Yet, many on the Left have been able to take a more considered view of strategy and tactics in capitalism’s economic sphere (for the theory behind capitalism’s division into political and economic spheres see section A.5). Here, the Left has pursued a variety of approaches to weaken management attempts to control us in the workplace. It is not usual to hear the Left shouting during a strike for better wages, ‘No to a Pay Increase – Yes to the Abolition of Wage Slavery’!

So let us further develop Joe’s arguments and compare the impact of national democratic demands made in the political sphere, to workplace demands made in the economic sphere.  Since the Second World War, which Joe goes back to, many of the significant wage increases and major improvements in conditions have been confined to particular sectors of employment.  Employers have often been able to get round any setbacks they have faced by moving their production to less militant areas with green-field sites or to overseas. As in the case of those national democratic demands criticised by Joe, all those economic demands have also left capitalism/Imperialism intact.  And where they have been won, they are also being increasingly undermined in the current global Capitalist Offensive.

Furthermore, the very demands often ‘spontaneously’ raised by workers in struggle, e.g. better wages, seem to assume the continuation of wage slavery – the very essence of industrial (and so-called post-industrial) capitalism; just as the demands for ‘national independence’ appear to assume the continuation of the wider world system, i.e. Imperialism.

Many Trotskyists would go further than Joe.  They hold a particular disdain for all immediate democratic demands (i.e. those which do not transcend capitalism in the here and now). Trotskyists, though, usually do support a raft of immediate economic demands, which they term ‘transitional’, to avoid the charge of being supporters of a ‘minimum programme’.

Therefore, if we transpose Joe’s and many Trotskyists’ arguments about the inevitable limitations imposed by Imperialism upon demands made in the political sphere back to the economic sphere, this would lead us to some very pessimistic conclusions. For, ‘despite the global unfolding of major workers’ struggles’ since the Second World War, “Imperialism is not now a weaker global phenomenon than it was then.”  See yon awfie Imperialism – y’ just cannae beat it!

4. Learning from Socialist propaganda or from immediate struggles

There is, of course a Socialist Propagandist (e.g. SPGB) ‘answer’ to all this. We shouldn’t be fighting for immediate demands (i.e. ‘palliatives’) at all, but confine ourselves to propaganda for the abolition of ‘money’, ‘the wages system’ or ‘the state’. This is the ‘Big Bang’ theory of revolution, which amounts to a contemporary secular version of an older religious approach – pietism punctuated by occasional messianistic political ‘revivals’.

In contrast, the RCN, Joe and most members of the commune would probably agree that workers learn best in the hard school of class struggle.  Revolutionary situations don’t arise every day, so most of these struggles are around immediate demands. A rising crescendo of struggle definitely widens the possibilities, but also puts a much greater responsibility upon communists, whose voices will be increasingly listened to in such situations. What we say would then become a material factor in the struggle. This is when clarity of thought becomes most important. The balance of class forces on particular occasions may still lead to setbacks, but provided it’s not communists who have ‘let the side down’, our class is likely to return, before too long, to independent class action, when the balance of class forces is more propitious.

Now interestingly, Joe does appear to support the use of some immediate democratic demands, e.g. the Additional Member System (AMS) of voting, citizen-initiated referenda and recall votes for elected representatives. Yet, the AMS currently practised in the GLC, Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, and German Federal elections have patently not undermined capitalism, nor have they opened up the road to direct democracy.  Similarly, the main beneficiaries, recently, of citizen-initiated referenda in California and Switzerland have been on the Right.

Should Joe’s demand for ‘recall of elected representatives’ be achieved, it doesn’t take much imagination to see that the Right, with its powerful corporate media support, could not only live with this; but, as in the case of citizen-initiated referenda, add such a measure to its armoury too – especially when dealing with elected Left, dissident or even just unpopular liberal representatives. Yes, we might well chuckle at the thought of that political fraudster, Barack Obama, being recalled from the Presidency in the USA – but would we still be smiling if he was replaced by Sarah Palin?!

Presumably, though, Joe believes that his own immediate democratic demands could be utilised in a different way, perhaps connected to others, which are more clearly linked to workers’ immediate interests. In which case, he is approaching the method the RCN also uses when we raise immediate democratic demands.

5. The significance of the separation of economic and political spheres under capitalism

To achieve a better theoretical understanding of the possibilities for our class and for a communist future, we need to go beyond Joe’s own eclectic approach, which draws on elements of both Anarchist and Marxist thinking (both dissident and orthodox).  If Joe wants to provide support for a wider range of struggles, including some around immediate democratic demands, it is necessary to develop a theory of present day Imperialism, which shows up its contradictions and hence the possibilities for effective resistance more clearly. Fortunately, Oleg Resin has pointed to such a theory, no escape from theory: cuts and the state debate, in the commune, issue 17.

As a first step to achieving greater clarity, Oleg explains that, “Only the development of capital as a social relationship… brings about the separation of the political sphere from the economic…This makes the capitalist form of class exploitation different from the previous ones… A feudal lord… disposed of both… ‘economic’ and ‘legal’ power”.

It is this understanding of capitalism, with its distinct ‘economic’ and ‘political’ spheres, through which exploitation and oppression are enforced, which also informs the RCN’s thinking.  The contradictions, which arise from capitalist exploitation and oppression, produce class struggles in both the economic and the political spheres of capitalism, which Oleg has identified. Workers experience exploitation in the workplace, and oppression both in our workplaces and outside in our communities. Furthermore, others face oppression too – women, gay men and lesbians, certain nations, ethnic groups and religious minorities. All of these groups are class-divided, with a considerable proportion belonging to the working class.

Exploitation and oppression are rarely meekly accepted. There is nearly always resistance, either passive or active. Sometimes resistance takes ineffective or counter-productive forms – escapism, sectionalism, or various forms of chauvinism directed against others. It is the job of communists to push for resistance, which takes effective forms through class struggle, practical solidarity – including internationally, and most importantly, through the creation of independent class organisation.

When resistance to exploitation is targeted at capitalists, it usually takes the form of industrial struggles around immediate economic demands – e.g. better wages, improved conditions, defence of jobs, etc.. When resistance to oppression is targeted at the state, it takes the form of political struggles around immediate democratic demands – e.g. the ending of anti-union laws, for abortion on demand, equal rights for women, gay men and lesbians, removal of occupying troops, etc.

Once you acknowledge that the division of capitalism into economic and political spheres produces both exploitation and oppression, which each give rise to resistance, then it is much easier to appreciate the significance of political struggles around immediate democratic, including national democratic, demands. The failure to recognise this, and to adequately account for it theoretically, contributes to the contradictions in Joe’s own thinking, and the abstention over, or denigration of, immediate democratic demands by Anarchists, and many Marxists, including those Socialist Propagandists.

Anarchists think that  ‘the state’ is the real enemy, whilst many Marxists, think that the political form of the state is of secondary or marginal concern, since it performs an entirely functional and economy-derivative role under capitalism.  This leads to a denial or a downplaying of the significance of those immediate democratic struggles, which arise from the contradictions of a particular state’s existence (including in our case, the UK), and which can produce real resistance.

Instead, for communists to be really effective, we should fight capitalism in both its spheres of existence – economic and political. The negation of our exploitation and oppression is brought about through our emancipation and liberation. The capitalist division between the economic and political is addressed first by independent class organisation, which attempts to link the struggles in both of these spheres. In a revolutionary situation, new forms of human association can transcend the economic and political division bequeathed by capitalism altogether, with the setting-up of communes, which abolish our condition both as wage-slaves (or alienated labour) and oppressed subjects of the state2.

6. The fight against the cuts is important, but leaves us firing only on one (economic) cylinder

At the moment, nearly all the Left, the commune members included, have thrown themselves into the battle against the cuts. Therefore, there is a realistic assumption here that workers have made real gains in the past, which the capitalist class (or, for most of the Left, the nasty Tories and their Lib-Dem stooges) want to take away.

Most workers know that, whatever the welfare state’s limitations, access to free health care, education, social security, carers, etc. (and for workers and peasants in the ‘Developing World’ – subsidised basic food items, such as bread and rice, before the imposition of Structural Adjustment Programmes), represent/ed something worth defending. We can remember that these things weren’t just handed down from on high. They had to be fought for. Many actions throughout the world, from strikes and occupations to riots, have demonstrated this.

Therefore, if we just confined ourselves to pointing out the undoubted limitations of the welfare state, we would end up joining the ranks of those already mentioned Socialist Propagandists, who bewail the possibility of ever making any advances based on struggles around immediate demands. Once again – ‘See thon awfie Imperialism, y’ just cannae beat it’ – or, at least, not until the workers finally ‘see the light’ and join or vote for their party or group.

Now, communists should certainly point out that the post-war welfare state was and is demonstrably inadequate to meet workers’ needs (whilst it only ever minimally extended to workers and peasants in the colonial or neo-colonial states). Furthermore, the welfare state has remained under the capitalist class’s bureaucratic domination.  Finding better ways of making these connections and criticisms effectively, in the process of supporting the immediate struggles of our class to defend social provision, is one of the reasons why the RCN has been working with the commune. The rest of the Left just falls back on neo-Keynesianism, and consequently ends up tail-ending those Labour and trade union bureaucrats who pursue this strategy. Thus, the traditional Left’s strategy cannot lead to independent class organisation, but only to the buttressing of existing bureaucratic institutions and the promotion of various Left careerists. Any temporary gains can be recuperated and later reversed.

Our class’s greater understanding of the restrictions imposed upon our lives, under both the earlier welfare capitalism and today’s austerity capitalism, comes primarily through our experiences and from our struggles, even though these may initially have been limited in scope. Our class has certainly made its mark on capitalist society since the Second World War.  We have registered real gains, whatever their limitations. We made these through various forms of class struggle, sometimes of major proportions. And our gains have been made in both the economic and political spheres.

The very fact that the leaders of this current crisis-ridden capitalist system have to undermine and overturn these gains – e.g. attack wages, conditions, pensions, educational and health provision, introduce new racist citizenship criteria, scapegoat migrant workers, impose ‘equal pay’ by lowering men’s wages, reduce most education to training, open the door to state-backed creationist and other anti-scientific ideologies (and these are just some UK examples) – highlights some of the gains we stand to lose, if we don’t mount defensive struggles around immediate demands.

Once again, Oleg makes an important point in his article that helps us to understand theoretically what is at stake here. He argues that {as in the case of capitalist social relations in the economy} “the state is a form of social relations too.” So, looking first at the post-war gains we have made in capitalism’s economic sphere, let us then extend this appreciation to the political sphere too.

A worker, in say Liverpool or Glasgow in the 1970’s, could easily recognise the difference between working in a well-organised union workplace (not only in terms of wages and conditions, but also when it came to contesting management directives, i.e. weakening their control), compared to their parents’ days in the workplace (or just as likely, out of it), in the pre-war Depression.

However, post-war workers’ struggles have registered gains at the state level too – leading, for example, to a significant increase in our social wage. Women workers, whose oppression was specifically structured by the state, went further and pushed beyond claims for equality in particular workplaces by raising the immediate democratic demand for equal rights in the early 1970’s (again never fully realised and now often going into reverse).

Nationalist workers in Northern Ireland had to confront their local Orange statelet when demanding equal access to jobs and housing in the late 1960’s.  Therefore, they linked their socio-economic struggles with immediate democratic demands – civil rights (again never fully realised). Few would deny that women and Nationalist workers face less overt discrimination now, either by the state, or by men or Unionists (however much privately some many yearn for ‘the good old days’), than they did say in the 1960’s. Gains have been made, although these are again under attack.

Returning once more to the economic sphere, most commune members would undoubtedly recognise the significance of the different workplace regimes, which workers have experienced throughout the post-war world, and the different possibilities they offer for class struggle. Workers have laboured under conditions of illegality (where unions are politically banned); in non-union workplaces (where managements prevent union organisation); in workplaces with state or company unions; in workplaces where the representatives of formally independent unions work hand-in-glove with the management (now institutionalised under ‘social partnership’); and in workplaces with independent unions under workers’ control.

Now, Socialist Propagandists could claim that all these workplace regimes merely represent different forms of continued capitalist exploitation. Therefore, there is no point trying to weaken management’s authority. Instead we need propaganda for full-blown socialism. Many on the wider Left, and certainly not just the RCN, would argue, though, that it is through struggles, which weaken management’s ability to control us, that we can develop our own independent class organisation. This is the way to bring us closer today to asserting full workers’ control under the first phase of communism in the future.

So, now let us move again from capitalism’s economic sphere back to its political sphere. Here workers have lived in state regimes with personal, one-party or military dictatorships, absolute or constitutional monarchies, imperial states, multi-party and social republics, and various hybrids of these forms. Under each of these state regimes, workers have experienced a different range of legal freedoms. Each of these regimes has provoked political struggles to try to make further democratic gains to enhance our class’s ability to organise.

Once again, Socialist Propagandists could claim that all these political regimes merely represent different forms of capitalist oppression. Therefore, there is no point trying to weaken the state’s authority. Instead, we need propaganda for full-blown socialism. However, Joe’s eclectic support for some immediate democratic demands seems to show that he partially accepts the RCN’s argument that we need to support political struggles around those demands that can weaken the state’s ability to control us.

As Oleg has shown, the political sphere or the state {like the economic sphere} is “the fossil of previous class struggles”.  This theory recognises that, “The welfare state  {or any other capitalist state form for that matter} is seen not as a meta-structure imposing external constraints… but as a flexible result of constant class struggle.” Following from such an understanding, we can better appreciate the different managerial and state regimes we confront and those gains which still need defending, and those immediate demands that can help to weaken their control over our lives and increase our scope for independent class organisation.

It is only in a revolutionary situation, that our class is presented with the opportunity to finally eliminate exploitation and oppression. Therefore, under present conditions, a weakening of managerial or state control provides evidence of successful immediate struggle.  Of course, such gains can still be recuperated. The important question is, whether struggles just allow new layers of Leftist careerists to buttress a shaky capitalist system, or whether they give rise to independent class organisation, genuinely under workers’ control, which can lead to further advances for our class.


1. Addressing the issue of ‘imaginary communities’ in both the political and economic spheres

However, Joe also has a second string to his bow. Having given tentative support to some immediate democratic demands, e.g. AMS, Joe has to provide other reasons for not extending his support to immediate national democratic demands. Thus, Joe states that, “Communists ought not to reify ‘national independence and hence do not reify the nation as such… The question here is not ‘is Scotland a nation? – it is – but ought communists necessarily to privilege the nation as a political unit? I argue not at all.”

The RCN doesn’t reify or privilege nations, national movements, or the ‘nation’-state. We do accept, however, that under capitalism they represent socio-cultural and/or political realities. This is but the first step to developing practical, as opposed to purely denunciatory Socialist Propagandist attempts to oppose nationalism.

The RCN doesn’t reify national independence either, but uses our very specific analysis of socio-political relations under the UK state and US/British imperialism to make a proper assessment of the class forces found behind existing political arrangements, examining their contradictions, and the scope for developing an independent working class course of action.

The UK state and British imperialism have a special position in the current global order. Once the dominant imperial power in its own right, the UK now plays second fiddle to US imperialism. The British ruling class still maintains its bloated imperial bureaucratic state machinery, with its costly military and security services and its extravagant imperial monarchy, its anti-democratic Crown Powers, limited parliamentary sovereignty and unelected House of Lords, its denial of self-determination to the UK’s national constituent bodies, its traditional class-biased senior personnel in the judiciary, diplomatic and civil and diplomatic services, and its pompous state ceremonial occasions. In other words, the UK and British imperialism plays an analogous support role to the USA today, which the Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire did to the Romanov Russian Empire, for much of the nineteenth century.

This means that we have to dig a little deeper than just condemning all national democratic movements that arise to contest this situation.  We have to examine the class content of any nationalism, or the national ‘imaginings’, which confront this US/British imperial set-up. We recognise that nationalism, no matter how revolutionary, only represents a partial negation of an aspect of capitalism, just like feminism or syndicalism. However, communists still need to engage positively with those involved in such resistance.  Through working with those contesting their immediate exploitation, oppression and alienation, we can also learn and deepen our own understanding.

Joe accepts the RCN’s definition of nationalism, although he slightly misrepresents it, possibly because he doesn’t fully appreciate the difference between a nation and a nationality/ethnic group (more on this in section B.2). So, we will offer a fuller provisional definition of nationalism to make this distinction. Where a ‘nation’-state has already been set up, then nationalism promotes the interests of its ruling class and those supporting the existing state. In the case of stateless nations and ethnic groups, nationalism is used to promote the interests of those who wish to enhance their political power, often by seeking the setting up of a new ‘nation’-state.

Joe also usefully adds that, “A nation… is understood as an ‘imagined community’ which despite being imagined, i.e. there is no overall unity of interest, for communists, between the conflicting social classes represented in the nation – is nonetheless real because it constitutes a politically powerful aspect of the subjective landscape. Nations are imagined but real…”  So, Joe is arguing, in effect, that these ‘imaginings’ form the basis for a nationalism, which makes its presence felt primarily in the political sphere. For Joe, any nationalism is designed to subsume all classes under the hegemony of, either a ruling class, or a would-be ruling class.

Once again, a comparison with capitalism’s economic sphere is useful. A strong case could be made for saying that class consciousness here is ‘imagined’ too, whilst still being based on real socio-economic relations. Furthermore, the ways the working class is, or has been ‘imagined’ – e.g. as industrial workers (sometimes even more narrowly in the craftism of skilled workers), as heterosexual male workers, or as national workers (ranging from British Labourism to the German National Socialist Workers Party) – places real barriers to the development of an alternative imagination, i.e. an international working class or genuine communist consciousness. Clearly communists need to contest those other forms of working class imagination, whilst also developing other ‘imaginings’, which can lead to a clearer class awareness of our need to transcend capitalism altogether.

Nevertheless, communists need to be able to relate to those workers, including both skilled and male, as well as those belonging to the same nationality as the ruling class within imperialist countries. Yes, and we need to be able to relate to Labour-voting workers too3. Indeed, there were Trotskyists, in the Second World War, who produced material for German Nazi soldiers, arguing that they were ‘workers in uniform’.

Now, the extent to which communists might try to relate to such a range of workers should be the subject of debate. Different approaches would be required in each case, and these would involve challenging sectionalism, chauvinism, racism and sectarianism. In Scotland, there are also considerable numbers of workers who have Scottish national ‘imaginings’ (just as there are others with British national ‘imaginings’). Communists need to relate to such workers too, and devise effective means to win them over to an internationalist perspective.  This means teasing out and developing particular ‘imaginings’ arising from particular experiences under capitalism, showing how they relate to others on a class basis, and how their international ‘sum’ could offer us a future with greater scope for human emancipation and liberation, than more limited part (e.g. nationalist) ‘imaginings’.

Joe, of course, is quite right in maintaining that existing or would-be national ruling classes try to win wider acceptance for their particular ‘imaginings’ of the nation. However, this doesn’t go without challenge. Once again, taking examples in the economic sphere, we can get a better understanding of such attempts, and the challenges they face, in the political sphere.

Let us look first at some ‘imagined communities’ in the economic sphere, i.e. particular companies or industries. Attempts by Japanese employers to get workers to identify with ‘their’ companies – by means of lifetime contracts, team-working and company-organised socialising outside of work – are well known. They are less common today, now that Japanese employers are cutting costs. US bosses have also tried to use similar methods to achieve the same end – e.g. team building, as well as non-union employee representation on company bodies at a workplace level. These have been less successful due to most US bosses’ addiction to maximum ‘labour flexibility’. The Left would have no problem condemning these particular employer-induced ‘imaginings’, designed to encourage workers to believe they share in ‘their’ companies’ interests.

However, workers can be found giving a positive ‘imagining’ to ‘their’ particular industry – and not only in workers’ songs associated with particular jobs and industries. The NUM’s 1991 ‘Save Our Pits’ campaign was designed to unite everybody, regardless of class – ‘from bishops to brickies’ – around the defence of a particular industry. Some on the Left condemned this campaign. Others tried to become involved to push it in a different direction.  The 1984-5 Miners’ Strike was also mobilised around the defence of mining communities – ‘Coal not Dole’. Despite the apparently sectionalist nature of this demand (as opposed to say, ‘Bring Down the Thatcher Government’), virtually all of the Left threw themselves into this epic struggle (yes, even the SWP, after initially being wrong-footed by their doom and gloom ‘Downturn’ analysis.)

Clearly, how workers ‘imagine’ themselves will have some bearing on how they act, but the process of struggle also changes meanings and understandings. This suggests that communists have to raise their voices as communists to further widen those existing ‘imaginings’. But, if you just start out by condemning people’s limited ‘imaginings’, because they don’t reflect ‘true’ class or socialist consciousness, you are unlikely to open up those contradictions, allowing for further movement, first in thought, then through effective action.

So, let us return to Joe’s ‘imagined nations’. These too are class contested. Different classes ‘imagine’ the nation differently. Whilst there are certainly criticisms to be made of Lenin’s approach to national democratic movements, he did make one important contribution. 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.”

However, we should never just see ‘nation’-states or national movements in isolation. Even self-proclaimed nationalists have international links and allies. For example, those bourgeois nationalists, who now dominate the SNP, still want to maintain their own international connections. They support the continued existence of a 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 (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-liberal economics enshrined in the post-Lisbon constitution); and they increasingly accept NATO too (none more so, than their current Westminster defence spokesperson, Angus Robertson).  And, as has already been pointed out, the Irish ruling class draws on a range of international allies to support its current anti-working class offensive.

This is why the RCN advocates a class-based strategy of ‘internationalism from below’ to link workers, socialists/communists and others across borders. Our strategy is not based upon unity being a reflection of the existing state’s organisational forms, nor their replication in Labour and Socialist organisations. We 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 the more effective unity of the working class – firstly throughout these islands, and then by joining with others, in Europe, and on a global scale, to bring about a communism based on new forms of workers’ association.

2. Territorial nation-states – a capital-constricted move towards a universal world order; territorial nationalities – a reactionary step backwards

Joe goes on to make an additional point, which acknowledges the republican nature of the RCN’s immediate democratic demands.  “The republican demand is surely ‘autonomy for all those who want it’, not autonomy for each nation.” His point appears to be close to that of the Anarchist, Bakunin – “I demand only one thing: that to each people, to each large or small tribe or race should be accorded the right to act according to its wishes”.

Now, do we really support territorial autonomy or independence for all who want it – Protestants in Northern Ireland or Jews/Hebrews4 in Israel, for example? For some, autonomy or independence goes along with ethnic or ethno-religious supremacy and discrimination and worse against minorities.

We can now begin to appreciate the need to make a distinction between a nationality (i.e. particular ethnic group) and a nation, which Joe previously glossed over. Many, perhaps including Joe, use the term ‘nationality’ almost interchangeably with that of a quite different phenomenon, ‘nation’5. To avoid confusion we will now use the term ‘ethnic group’ instead of ‘nationality’ to distinguish it from the term ‘nation’.

An ethnic group shares common cultural features, especially language, but does not necessarily live in a common territory, and indeed often lives amongst other ethnic groups. Some ethnic groups practise or have practised a migratory, nomadic, or semi-nomadic way of life, travelling considerable distances looking for better opportunities, or trying to overcome resource depletion and hostile encroachment by others.  Whilst these nomadic ethnic groups may have vivid ‘imagined’ connections with particular places of cultural significance to them, this does not lead them to create ‘imagined communities’ with clearly defined territories and state borders.

Nations, though, are the product of particular class struggles. They have developed through the historical mixing and merging of more than one ethnic group.  Nations do have a more definite link with particular territories than ethnic groups. Therefore, this does, as Joe points out, lead to nations becoming ‘imagined {territorial} communities’. But, as Lenin also pointed out, all such nations are class divided too, so these national ‘imaginings’ are also contested.

The capacity to integrate different ethnic groups, in a specific bounded territory, is an important feature of a nation.  Whilst many ethnic groups have also assimilated others, this is not their defining feature. The extent of the integration of ethnic groups into a particular nation is very important when it comes to making any political assessment.  Many ‘nation’-states, in the process of their historical development, have gone through phases where their ruling classes rejected the assimilation or integration of certain ethnic groups, or of people belonging to particular religions.  Some officially recognised ‘nation’-states never evolved beyond being ethnic states, e.g. apartheid South Africa and Israel.

The UK does not coincide with any ‘British nation’ but constitutes a multi-nation imperial state run by the British ruling class, reinforced by its anti-democratic Crown Powers. The UK’s unwritten constitution only concedes the minimum democratic accountability, of the institutions and leading personnel of its state, to the political representatives of its constituent nations (and part nation) that it can get away with in the circumstances of the time.

Non-nation states, whether ethnic, e.g. Israel, or multi-nation imperial, e.g. the UK (see section B.3), confront us with additional barriers to achieving working class unity. Of course, even those nation-states, which constitutionally provide equal political rights to all their citizens, regardless of their ethnic or religious backgrounds, often have residual anti-national democratic features. Under the current conditions of capitalist crisis, the number of nation states placing greater barriers upon inward migration and the naturalisation of migrant residents is also rapidly increasing in number.

So, when it comes to a political assessment of particular ‘nation’-states, the failure of states to provide certain ethnic groups or particular religions with the means to integrate (e.g. naturalisation procedures), and to enjoy equality under the law, is an indication of a ‘democratic deficit’. This provides opportunities for the state to resort to divide-and-rule tactics or to promote ethnic repression, and for racist/chauvinist organisations to mobilise, intimidate and coerce minorities.  And just as communists would soon recognise and then organise against management imposed attempts to divide workers in the workplace on ethnic grounds, so communists should contest such ‘democratic deficits’ that allow the state and the employers to divide workers on an even wider basis.

Fortunately, ‘democratic deficits’ also lead to resistance and political struggles for equality, either within (assimilation, integration, greater autonomy) or outside (political independence) of their current states.  As communists, we have to relate to these immediate democratic struggles and make an assessment of the differing possibilities for enhancing class unity and for successful independent class organisation. That is why we need to be clear about the difference between nation-states, multi-nation imperial states and ethnic states (or ethnocracies).

It is from such an appreciation that the RCN supports national democratic demands, whilst also supporting other immediate democratic, economic, social and cultural demands, many of which already find open or tacit support amongst the commune members, even if they might use different terminology to describe them.

3. Anarchism and the difference between national independence and regional autonomy

Joe also appears not to appreciate the political significance of the difference between nation-states and other territorial forms of organisation. He seems to think that nations and regional, or other local forms of organisation, are politically equivalent. Joe concedes the fact that Scotland is a nation, but he would be happier if any national ‘imaginings’, resulting from this fact, could be downgraded to a more regional or local focus. “Republicanism as such need not see Scotland as more (or less) deserving of autonomy than Fife or North Yorkshire.”

There is a strong hint of an Anarchist approach here. Anarchists are particularly wary of nation-states (states being a uniformly ‘bad thing’), and feel more at home with more local forms of territorial organisation. Such an approach is also designed to avoid an openly declared ‘state solution’, in favour of autonomous and non-state communal forms of organisation.

Now, in The Communist Case for ‘Internationalism from Below’, it was made clear that the RCN places itself firmly amongst those communists who advocate a new worldwide order, with planning at a global level, and with forms of accountability extending to this level too. We do not envisage a communist world with a multitude of economically independent states or communes, all involved in economic exchange or diplomatic relations with each other.

At the sub-global level, we would anticipate that national territorial frameworks would form the likely starting point in a communist transition to a world without borders.  This is because we are likely to inherit a world made up of already existing ‘nation’-states, and we also have national movements contesting the existing territorial order. Under Imperialism, the world’s ‘nation’-states are presently structured in a hierarchical manner. This will leave behind a legacy of unmet national democratic aspirations (as well as that other legacy, of undemocratic chauvinist and racist supremacism, which still needs to be challenged). Therefore, the first phase of communism would require some transitional national territorial arrangements, until new forms of communal association enable all national borders to be transcended.

Ever since capitalist socio-economic relations came to be dominant in the world, there has been an accelerated merger of peoples from different ethnic groups within ‘nation’-states. This has been a far from smooth process, with many aborted cases, e.g. ethnic states and multi-nation imperial states, leaving people as second-class status or worse within particular states.  Furthermore, this process of merger has become ‘frozen’ within ‘nation’-state boundaries.

As we create a new communist society, this process would become ‘unfrozen’. There would likely be increased movement of people as full freedom of movement was established. Thus, we could anticipate that any future transitional semi-state/s would begin to shed its/their specific national characteristics, in an analogous manner to the ending of specific religious characteristics in the transition to secular states. And, as in the case of religious identities in secular states, any remaining national identities would become a personal matter.

However, what territorial form would the vitally important base communes take, first in the new international order, and then in a fully integrated global order? This is more difficult to anticipate. However, it is very unlikely that the base communes’ territorial extent would coincide with those inherited bureaucratically determined regions, e.g. North Yorkshire and Fife, which Joe gives as examples.

North Yorkshire was only formed in 1974, from parts of other regions, including North, West and East Riding, whilst Middlesbrough and other areas south of the Tees, were separated from the North Riding at the same time to form Cleveland, and the City of York was only separated as recently as 1996.

Joe’s other example – Fife – drawn from Scotland, has also undergone territorial changes over time. A British Labour government formed the new Fife Region from the existing County in 1975 (when some local pressure did stop it being absorbed into a larger proposed Forth Region). This new Region was divided into three Districts – Dunfermline, Kirkcaldy and North East Fife (centred on Cupar). A British Tory government abolished these Districts and created a purely unitary Fife local authority in 1994. So, even in the case of Fife, which, unlike many other current local authority councils in Scotland, has existed, in some form, for a long period of history, it is not clear, what the appropriate territorial focus for Joe’s suggested autonomy should be.

Joe’s suggested autonomous areas are not linked to any visible democratic movements to achieve their territorial autonomy, which he could use as a real counterpoint to existing national democratic movements.  They merely constitute certain ‘hypotheticals’, which have the effect of avoiding a proper analysis of existing national democratic movements, and the wider possibilities they bring.

4. Orthodox Marxists and the confusion between national oppression and national repression

Joe asks – is Scotland an oppressed nation? He argues that ”the Scottish do not experience national oppression in an equivalent way to Palestinians in Palestine or Tamils in Tamil Eelam.”  Here the RCN agrees with Joe.  However, by invoking cases like Palestine and Tamil Eelam, Joe is falling back on that wider orthodox Marxist tradition (often still drawn on by dissident Marxism), which fails to make a clear distinction between national oppression and national repression.

Therefore, it probably helps to get to the theoretical roots of this failure to distinguish adequately between national repression (a bad thing for orthodox Marxists) and national oppression (something orthodox Marxists tend to adopt an abstentionist or wait-and-see approach to).

Orthodox Marxism has maintained that the global spread of capitalism tends to undermine the ‘objective basis’ for national consciousness. As a result, wherever national consciousness still exists, this must be the product of a territory’s colonial status imposed by imperialist regimes, or of a particularly backward regime’s resort to repressive measures against subordinate nations and ethnic groups, e.g. Tsarist Russia in Lenin’s day.

In the latter case, orthodox Marxists have maintained that, once the backward regime is overthrown, any lingering national consciousness will soon evaporate, and workers will be happy enough, with all the new opportunities, that the issue of political independence will become redundant. Instead, any residual national consciousness will find its resolution in either federal or autonomous forms of territorial organisation (clearly there is some overlap here with Anarchism, and with Joe’s own earlier understanding of autonomy), to be sorted out after ‘the Revolution’ is secured.

In the meantime, whilst the ‘old regimes’ still exist, orthodox Marxists of a Leninist stripe, offer their support to ‘the right of national self-determination’, in the hope of winning across nationally oppressed workers (and peasants); but ‘come the Revolution’, they then join those other orthodox Marxists (e.g. the Luxemburgists) in believing that workers will abandon any demand for national independence. In this new situation, Leninists believe there would no longer be any demand for ‘the right of national self-determination’ to be exercised. Indeed, many orthodox Marxists believe we need not wait that long, since any new wave of class struggle could also render this demand largely irrelevant.

However, some orthodox Marxists have realised that, with the global triumph of Imperialism, the ‘objective basis’ for national oppression under capitalism has not evaporated. Indeed, it has gone on to show itself in stronger terms, even within states where people, like Luxemburg and Lenin (before 1916 in his case), thought the ‘National Question’ was demonstrably a thing of the past, e.g. Western Europe.

Therefore, orthodox Marxists have had to augment Lenin’s earlier analysis and suggest further political policies, in the face of the fact that national oppression and repression have not been confined to particularly backward political regimes, or to overseas colonies. For example, even many orthodox British Marxists have had to recognise the repressive role of the parliamentary democratic UK in its own backyard – first in Ireland, and then in ‘the Six Counties’.

Therefore, Lenin’s earlier belief that ‘the right of national self-determination’ was enough to counter, what they considered to be the inevitably bourgeois or petty bourgeois leaders of national movements, has had to be fleshed out a little.  Some ‘objective’ criteria have to be drawn up to decide when the people of a particular nation have ‘earned’ enough points on a ‘scale of repression’ to win the support of orthodox Marxists to be permitted to exercise their ‘right of national self determination’. This is the point that Joe seems to have arrived at with the distinction he makes between the situation in Scotland and Palestine or Tamil Eelam.  He sees no need for communists to address the situation of national oppression we find in Scotland. We only need to become involved when national repression occurs.

The RCN argues that national repression means the police, military or state-approved death squad suppression of national democratic rights (as in Palestine and Tamil Eelam), whilst national oppression means the constitutional denial of national democratic rights (as in Scotland). The approach communists should take to address these two cases is different; just as our approach would be in workplaces where unions are illegal and attempts to organise are met by goon squads; and those workplaces where there are company unions, or organisationally independent unions that work in partnership with the management.

Furthermore, where there is an underlying ‘National Question’, a changing political situation can rapidly lead from national oppression to national repression. If this occurs, then any Left ‘Johnny-come-latelys’ are unlikely to command much support. We can see this over the British Left’s relationship to the ‘Irish Question’.  For the overwhelming majority, this question only arose when the British Army began to militarily repress the Civil Rights Movement from 1969-71.

Many leaders of the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) (often influenced by British Left organisations) had also believed that the ‘Irish Question’ could be neatly sidestepped by a concentration on economic and social demands, coupled either to reform of the existing Stormont regime or, in some cases, the belief that a post-1968 global revolution would soon make any need for political reforms redundant.

The only political group that had a handle on the hidden ‘mailed fist’ aspect of the wider UK state, were the Irish Republicans. The CRM certainly knew all about the repressive role of their local Orange statelet, with its RUC and B-Specials, the Orange Order and the loyalist paramilitaries of the UVF; but how this all related to a wider British ruling class strategy, and its likely resort to repressive methods, to maintain its rule over the whole of these islands, was not well understood. For most CRM leaders and supporters, the shock over the British Army’s role in Derry on ‘Bloody Sunday’, in January 1972, was genuine.

Yet, nowhere in the UK, since the Second World War, has the Left had such an influence, through its involvement in a mass movement, as it did during the Civil Rights struggle. Bernadette Devlin/McAliskey won the Mid-Ulster parliamentary seat at Westminster in 1969. This didn’t stop her continuing to fight on the barricades in ‘Free Derry’ though. However, after Bloody Sunday, the CRM went into decline, and its most thoughtful activists, including Bernadette, had to take much greater cognisance of the ‘Irish Question’. They had to come to terms with the fact that the Republicans were correct in respect of their understanding of the preparedness of the British state to resort to very violent methods.

Until 1969, as far as most orthodox British Marxists were concerned, there had been no visible external UK state imposed national repression in Ireland or Scotland for more than a generation. That nasty Orange statelet, when its existence was considered at all, was seen as a merely local problem, with little bearing on how the Left should conduct its struggles at the ‘more important’ British level.  It was as long ago as 1921-3, that the British ruling class, directly using its UK state machine, had promoted the Partition of Ireland, the Irish Civil War, and backed the Unionist pogroms in the ‘Six Counties’. Their success in this counter-offensive appeared to eliminate the ‘Irish Question’ as an active factor in British politics for 50 years.  The negative manner in which this was achieved, should have alerted Marxists, to an underlying unresolved democratic issue.

The defeat for the national democratic movement in Ireland also followed the final demise of the 1916-21 International Revolutionary Wave, after the crushing of Kronstadt and the introduction of the New Economic Policy in the USSR.  The new international situation greatly assisted the would-be Irish ruling class in consolidating its position. The British state execution of the socialist republican, James Connolly, in 1916, had also been an early blow to Irish internationalism.

Meantime in Scotland, those ILP ‘Red Clydesiders’, who were returned to Westminster in 1922, quickly abandoned their previous support for Scottish self-determination.  They fully entered the ranks of British Labour, with its focus on seeking reforms through the British state.  The premature death of the communist and Scottish Workers Republican, John Maclean, in 1923, also made it difficult for other communists to maintain his ‘internationalism from below’, ‘break up of the British Union and Empire’ strategy as a conscious revolutionary aspiration, when the international workers’ movement was in wholesale retreat.  Once again, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see why the ‘Scottish Question’ also seemed to disappear for a further forty odd years.

The RCN argues though, that there have always been deep-seated contradictions in the formation of the UK as a specifically unionist and imperial state. Contradictions can be found today arising from the British ruling class’s current favoured strategy for maintaining their rule over these islands. ‘The ‘National Question’ hasn’t gone away, you know!’ Therefore, unfulfilled national democratic aspirations will open up these contradictions further, particularly in the context of growing capitalist crisis.

We cannot anticipate, in advance, whether class struggles arising from such contradictions will lead to a revolutionary situation. However, Joe insists that he would only give his support if such a situation can be conclusively predicted. This is not the attitude he adopts towards our class’s immediate economic demands. To what extent class struggles around immediate democratic demands open up further fissures in the capitalists’ control of the UK state can only be shown in practice.  However, those fissures are not imagined, but real.

You can not take the ‘National Question’ in isolation. In the late 1960’s, the demands of the CRM in Northern Ireland, for socio-economic reforms and civil rights within the existing UK state, brought the link with the ‘Irish Question’ to the fore.  The British Left (and most of their Irish allies in the CRM) did not understand this clearly. The British ruling class, along with their Ulster Unionist and ‘26 counties’ Irish allies, certainly did. They took ‘appropriate measures’.

The Irish Republicans could also see the ‘Irish Question’ staring them in the face. However, they tried to prevent the now obvious political fissures from linking up effectively with the socio-economic fissures emerging in both ‘Six Counties’ and ‘26 Counties’ Ireland at the time (being helped, from the other end of this political/economist divide, by most of the leaders of the CRM).

Joe argues, quite correctly, that the UK state will also resort to its Crown Powers to deal with future major working class struggles around economic and social issues. Unfortunately, as in the case of most leaders and supporters of the CRM, the immediate response is more likely to be one of shock, because workers haven’t been prepared for such an eventuality. Communists raising such issues, in the here and now, don’t have much of an immediate audience, particularly amongst those who accept a British, or more accurately a UK political framework, as a fixed reality. Those British Labourists, Marxists (both dissident and orthodox), and Anarchists further accentuate this problem, when they dismiss the raising of immediate political demands, preferring to concentrate on ‘bread and butter’ or ‘real class’ issues.

However, there is already a wider willingness to question the nature and role of the British state amongst those supporting national democratic demands. For over a quarter of a century this became most apparent in ‘the Six Counties’ of the UK. At present though, the British and Irish ruling classes have won over the (tempting to say official!) Irish Republican Movement to its plans, and the leaders of Sinn Fein will be able to ‘live off’ their past revolutionary nationalist credentials for some time yet.

Scotland in 2010 isn’t the ‘Six Counties’ in 1969, in terms of an overt fight back at present. Nevertheless, communists can learn from the mistakes of the British Left, including its orthodox and dissident Marxist components, and from the CRM, and begin to seriously analyse the political contradictions the UK state faces, and the prospects for our class’s advance.

And just as the old Northern Nationalists in Stormont, in 1969, wedded to the Catholic middle class and Church hierarchy, proved not to be an insurmountable barrier to socialists then; so, neither should the thoroughly constitutional nationalist SNP, wedded to corporate capital and in ever closer alliance with advocates of social reaction, prove to be an insurmountable barrier to communists tomorrow. The one thing, which communists do have today, is time to analyse, learn lessons and think ahead!


1. Joe takes two steps forward – then two steps back again!

To his credit, though, Joe states that his “mind’s not made up” over political independence for Scotland. He could “see independence as a demand {he} could support. In outline, this would be in the context of a strong, independent working class movement, for whom independence was a broad and deep demand…”

Now, whilst Joe allows for this possibility, there is a glaring contradiction in his approach. How on earth could a working class movement be formed in Scotland, “for whom independence was a broad and deep demand”, if communists, socialists or revolutionary democrats had not been raising this already, in the context of the immediate struggles of our class? If communists merely adopted a wait-and-see, or abstentionist attitude, then attempts to relate to Scottish workers’ national ‘imaginings’ would only be addressed by Scottish nationalists, either in the SNP, or in the Left nationalist wings of the SSP and Solidarity.

Yet, Joe is prepared, in certain circumstances, to go even further in his support for independence. He thinks “that if the people {i.e. a numerical majority and not just his strong, independent working class movement’} in Scotland want independence they should have it, and any attempts – whether violent or bureaucratic – to stop them should be opposed.” Then Joe hastily steps back again. “Such circumstances may arise, but they are far from guaranteed to do so. In fact {he} confesses, {he} thinks them unlikely.” Here, once again, we are probably seeing the influence on Joe of that orthodox Marxism, which still influences dissident Marxism.

Most orthodox British Marxists claim that the working class in Scotland already forms part of a wider ‘British working class’, following from capitalism’s long period of historical development since the 1707 Act of Union. Therefore, is this ‘British working class’ unity not an objective fact, which must be recognised? And surely in a period of heightened class struggle, such British unity is likely to trump any ‘separatist’ demand for political independence on a Scottish territorial basis.

However, such a state of affairs is not an objective fact but a politically contested reality. Yes, the inherited British unionist and imperial state framework, which we currently live under, has very influential supporters amongst the working class of these islands, including in Scotland. When, you examine these sources of support more carefully though  – the British Labour Party, the British TUC and the British Left – you soon see the problems associated with them. There are countless bonds, from thick ropes to the finest of threads, which tie these bodies, either into direct support for the British state and its imperial policies, or to Leftist trade union and political careerists who, in promising some reforms, also hope to personally benefit from Britain’s prior ‘great achievements’.

The RCN, though, does not equate the unity of the working class in these islands, with maintaining the unity of a British state, or those British Labour and Socialist organisations, which replicate some of its features. In contrast, we see the continuation of the UK state, and much of the British Left, as a barrier to achieving such unity.  We look to independent class organisation, built on the basis of ‘internationalism from below’, to achieve such unity.

The failure of British institutions to bring about class unity can be seen most clearly in Ireland, where the UK state, with the help of the ‘26 Counties’ Irish state, actively promotes continued political and socio-economic division on ethnic (or religio-ethnic) lines.

However, even within the three nations  – England, Scotland and Wales – making up most of the UK’s territorial extent, the unionist form of state still allows the British ruling class to play one nation off against another. Furthermore, both British trade union leaders and Labour politicians are quite prepared to go along with this. When British Navy submarine facilities were threatened with closure in 1994, either at Rosyth in Scotland, or Devonport in England, ‘their’ respective trade union and Labour representatives played different national cards in their competition to be ‘saved’ by the British state. The unionist form of the UK state is specifically designed to unite the British ruling class, and to disunite the peoples and working class of the various nations in its make-up, whenever they offer a challenge.

This process of promoting disunity has been further refined for ethnic minorities under the Scarman Report, produced after the 1981 Brixton Riots. The UK state provides official recognition to approved representatives of certain ethnic communities, and encourages them to bid for state (national and local) support and resources on an ethnic basis in competition with others. As A. Sivanandan has shown, this was specifically designed to break down earlier, multi-ethnic, economic and political struggles (e.g. for equal pay and against fascists), which were based on a developing, ‘internationalism from below’ basis, as the RCN would term it.

The majority of RCN members have come from various British Left backgrounds. Those of us so involved also once believed that there was an alternative ‘British road’, which could contest that of the British ruling class, and also that of its reformist practitioners, e.g. the old CPGB’s ‘British road to socialism’. We spent a long time defending the ‘British unity’ of our class, seeing this politically expressed, no matter how inadequately, through the existence of a British TUC, British Labour Party and/or by various British Left organisations.

Bitter experience has shown us that being members of British organisations, far from inoculating you against petty nationalism (i.e. Scottish, Welsh, etc), just makes its supporters blind to their own British ‘great nation’ chauvinism. Furthermore, many of the bureaucratic and divide-and-rule tactics so prevalent on the British Left seem to mirror the practices of the UK state. It is the British Left’s failure to comprehend the real nature of the UK state and British nationalism, which has allowed such practices to seep into their organisations and, in many cases, become hard-wired into their make-up.

Now, Joe is considerably younger than those RCN members, who have been through the British Left. He has no such illusions in any of these particular British organisations. However, Joe’s apparent dismissal of the need to understand the specific form of the UK state and its internal contradictions (after all its just another nasty capitalist state), leads him, at best, to miss the opportunities provided by immediate national democratic struggles.

But, in a different political situation, Joe’s apparent dismissal could lead him to declaring, ‘Political Independence – No; Revolution – Yes’. Only we could end up instead with ‘Political independence – No; A gung-ho British Imperial State – Yes’!  But, the good news is, Joe’s “mind’s not made up.”  We hope to change it.

2. Is Scotland an oppressed nation today?

Earlier we dealt with the wider issue of the difference between national repression and national oppression, which Joe failed to distinguish between. This blind spot enables him to go on to state that, “I will not consider that the lack of independence in itself constitutes national oppression consisting of the denial of democratic rights.”

This is even more confusing, since Joe’s dismissal of “the lack of independence constituting national oppression” doesn’t address the particular version of national oppression we face in Scotland. National oppression currently lies, not in Scotland’s lack of political independence, but in the absence of any official mechanism for Scottish political self-determination to be expressed, despite the fact that the existence of constituent nations is officially conceded, and national democratic movements have made their strong presence felt within the UK since the late 1960’s.

Today, the Tories enjoy very limited electoral support in Scotland. There is a majority here wanting to defend social provision, to oppose Trident bases and current US/British imperial wars. There are contradictions in this situation, which could allow us to weaken the British ruling class and its UK state, and to strengthen the position of our class.  But, to lessen the possibility of any later Imperial recuperation, which Joe sees as inevitable, we also need to use the opportunity to develop independent class organisation.

Orthodox Marxism, when addressing the ‘National Question’, likes to demonstrate a direct link from a particular political practice to an underlying economic cause.  Therefore, national oppression/repression must immediately reveal itself as a mechanism to ensure national exploitation – a transfer of resources and profits to the nationally dominant state. This is perhaps the thinking behind Joe’s question in his particular workshop group at the 2nd Global Commune event, when he asked RCN members in what ways Scotland is oppressed?

Whilst Joe is probably unaware of it, his question is the subject of a recurring and ill-tempered debate between Scottish nationalists and the British Left over the extent to which England exploits Scotland.  Depending on which side is involved – Scottish nationalist or British Left –  the answers range from, “A lot”, due to the political stranglehold which a conservative English majority at Westminster holds over Scotland; to “None at all”, because the British ruling class has Scottish members, and there are poor wages and living conditions on Merseyside, Tyneside, etc., and even in London.

However, some more sophisticated British Marxists also like to embarrass Scottish nationalists, by adding, well there might be have been some real national oppression in the past, directed at Gaelic-speaking Highlanders, but its strongest practitioners were Lowland Scots!

The problem with this debate is that it fails to get to grips with the real nature of the British ruling class, its British unionist state and the kinds of British nationalism it promotes.  There is indeed an integrated British ruling class, which draws its membership from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (and from the ‘Anglo-Irish’ Ascendancy in the past).  They have long formed a partnership for wider imperial purposes.

However, this British ruling class has never been able to create a unitary British nation. It has opted instead for a unionist form of state to maintain its control over the four nations on these islands. This constitutional monarchist and imperialist state also provides the British ruling class with a whole host of anti-democratic Crown Powers, beyond even any formal parliamentary scrutiny.  The UK state has always provided some political recognition to Scotland and Ireland/Northern Ireland, and has even permitted the phoenix-like resurrection of a distinct Wales, which had originally been politically fully integrated into England in the 1530’s.

The pre-existing Scottish and ‘Anglo-Irish’ ruling classes maintained  ‘national’ parliaments, under the monarchical forms of union found in Scotland between 1603-1705, and in Ireland between 1541-1801. After the abolition of the Scottish Parliament in 1707, and of the Irish Parliament 1801, these ruling classes, whilst uniting with others in the UK, still ensured that they had some nationally devolved forms of power sanctioned by Westminster (e.g. over the Church, the legal and education systems in Scotland, and over the Church and local forces of coercion in Ireland), to control members of the ‘lower orders’ in their particular countries.

The rise of the bourgeoisie in the nineteenth century led many to think that an integrated British nation might indeed be formed.  However, as the franchise was further extended throughout the state, there was increased opposition amongst the ‘lower orders’ to being fully absorbed into the ‘British nation’ of their class antagonists. Their integration was so clearly meant to be on ‘master and servant’ terms. This was most apparent in Ireland. However, even in Wales, the extension of the franchise led to increased national demands, contributing to the protracted ‘reappearance’ of specifically Welsh territorial forms of organisation to deal with this, under the auspices of the UK state.

Hybrid unionist and imperialist forms of British nationalism – English-British, Welsh-British, Scottish-British and Irish- or Ulster-British – have been actively promoted to try and extend support for ‘Britishness’ beyond the ruling class. These tend to promote class deference, be historically nostalgic, and celebrate their supporters’ great martial and imperial achievements. More liberal and radical versions of British nationalism (and its various hybrid forms) can also be found. Those British Marxists, who support these, whenever they are forced to acknowledge the UK state’s brutal imperial history, tend to say, “Yes, but this was all historically necessary, as it prepared the ground for Labour or for Socialists to claim their historical desserts.” Indeed, the creation of the UK has somehow been considered progressive, despite the defeat of popular forces such as the Levellers in the 1640’s , and the ‘internationalism from below’ alliance of the United Irishmen, United Scotsmen and the London Corresponding Society in the 1790’s; the first by Cromwell’s Greater England imperialists, the second by a British imperial ruling class.

However, the prime impetus for the creation of this British unionist state – the UK – came about, not as part of a popular national democratic movement from below, but as part of a top-down joint ruling class imperial offensive.  This is why the British pole of these hybrid national identities has been most widely supported during the British Empire’s heyday, and most strongly promoted by the ruling class during times of imperial crisis – e.g. 1789-1815 Revolutionary Wave and the First and Second World Wars.  As a result, those British Marxist ‘historical inevitabilists’ have imbibed far more than their claimed ‘British objectivity’, rising above any petty nationalist concerns. They have ‘mainlined’ many of the ‘great nation’ chauvinist and anti-democratic practices associated with  ‘Britishness’.

Recent national democratic political pressures have led the British ruling class to change its preferred form of unionist control from administrative devolution under Westminster direct rule, to political devolution still under Westminster, in order to best maintain their rule. Yet, the key repressive institutions of the UK state remain beyond the accountability even of Westminster.  They are protected under the Crown Powers.  These important recent changes in the forms of British ruling class control have hardly registered with the British Left.

3. How the British ruling class is able to use the UK state for divide-and-rule purposes.

The British ruling class has not only promoted its own forms of British nationalism to try to win class unity around its desired objectives. It has utilised the unionist form of the UK state, with its officially recognised Scottish, Welsh and Irish/Northern Irish components, to resort to divide and rule tactics, playing workers off against each other.

Earlier we mentioned one such case of tactics under the Union, when the Tory government proposed the closure of Rosyth or Devonport naval shipyards in 1993. Today, we are likely to see far more examples of this divide-and-rule strategy, as the Con-Dem coalition’s planned cuts, drawn up in Westminster, impact upon Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the regions of England.  The government will try to place itself in the position of ‘honest broker’, mediating between the claims emanating from the different nations and regions for support or resources, whilst also promoting national division behind the scenes, with the encouragement of sections of the media.

In Northern Ireland (and to a certain extent in Wales, where a South/North, English/Welsh-speaking divide has been actively promoted by the state and sections of the media) these divide and rule tactics can even be used on an ethnic basis within a single constituent unit of the UK.  The effect of the Downing Street, St. Andrews and Hillsborough Agreements has been to change British ruling class policy in Northern Ireland from their earlier unquestioning support for the Ulster Unionists, to acting now as ‘honest broker’ between two constitutionally recognised groups represented in the reformed Stormont – the Ulster Unionists and the Irish Nationalists.

Prior to devolution, one indicator of the UK state’s democratic deficit was the inability to get certain widely supported reforms in Scotland passed through Westminster (e.g. Highland land reform). This was because of the larger number of more conservative political representatives from England (some of whom were Scots, e.g. that early Thatcherite, Teddy Taylor, and that one-time prominent Tory ‘Wet’, the former Earl, now Marquis, Michael Ancram6) in the House of Commons and, of course, the parliamentary veto of the reactionary House of Lords.

However, this ruling class ability to build an all-UK conservative voting majority, to be wielded against reforms emanating from Scotland (or Wales), can also be directed to bolster conservatism in England. Thus, in 2003, Tony Blair had to resort to Scottish Labour votes to force through plans for foundation hospitals in England. New Labour, is openly committed to pro-business neo-liberal policies as, of course, is Ed Miliband, despite his completely unconvincing attempt to pose as post-New Labour.

Furthermore, there is another way in which the British ruling class can use its unionist state to support its local national members. For 50 years, the Ulster Unionists were able to maintain their control over the Irish Nationalist population in ‘the Six Counties’, by drawing on the RUC, B-Specials and Loyalists in the Orange Order when necessary. In 1969, though, these forces buckled, particularly in Derry, under the onslaught of Civil Rights protestors. The then Labour government obligingly provided British regiments from England and Scotland to support the Ulster Unionist regime at Stormont. They have remained there to this day.

In 1919, in Glasgow, at the highpoint of the 40 Hours Strike challenge to mainly Scottish employers, 10,000 troops armed with machine guns, tanks and a howitzer, were brought up from England, because it was thought that Scottish regiments might prove unreliable in the heady political climate of the day. In 1910, Churchill ordered the use of London’s Metropolitan Police and the Lancashire Fusiliers to help the largely Welsh coal owners suppress striking and rioting coal miners in Tonypandy.

Joe mentions two examples, offered by different RCN members, of how the Scottish people have appeared to be oppressed or discriminated against under the Union.  The first mentioned example – the closure of heavy industry in Scotland under Thatcher – did not come about as policy of national oppression. Heavy industry was closed down throughout the UK, with many areas in England suffering badly too (as was shown tragically in Boys from the Blackstuff, and poignantly but comically in The Full Monty).

Scotland was even more dependent on traditional heavy industry than England as a whole. However, it suffered, not because it was being discriminated against on national grounds, but because it formed part of the wider British unionist and imperialist state. This had led to Scotland’s development following a particular socio-economic path. Another consequence of this was Scotland’s (particularly the Highlands’) disproportionately large contribution to the British army.  This was also the case with Ireland in the nineteenth century.

Furthermore, those Scottish members of the British ruling class have proved to be particularly brutal.  Under their local rule, Glasgow – the ‘Second City of the Empire’ – produced generations of workers whose physical size and life expectancy deteriorated, compared to people from the Highlands and Ireland, from whence many had migrated.  Glasgow’s workers experienced some of the worst housing conditions in the UK.  Scottish Tories and Liberal Unionists, with the help of the Orange Order, often subjected their employees to vicious attempts to divide them along sectarian lines at work.

Yet, those Scottish (Union Jock) members of the British ruling class still felt quite at home celebrating, dressed up in their mock Highland costumes, whether at St. Andrew’s Day Balls or sanitised Burns Suppers, or as members of exclusive overseas Caledonian Societies, formed for Scottish businessmen, diplomats, senior army officers and their wives, all in the service of British imperialism.

4. An alternative explanation to Joe’s for Tory actions in Scotland under Thatcher

Joe might well find himself in agreement with this. However, he then goes on to criticise the other example RCN members gave, this time to show specific national oppression – the testing of the poll tax first in Scotland.  Joe counters this with the claim that the “early introduction of the poll tax in Scotland was less an intentional attack on the Scottish working class because they were Scottish, but rather an accidental product of differentiated – but not necessarily discriminatory – UK law”.

This is a bit like claiming that the miners weren’t the victims of a Tory class offensive, but merely the unfortunate collateral damage of an economically driven policy to shift Britain’s dependence from a particular outdated and government subsidised traditional primary industry to the wider opportunities offered by the new post-industrial service sector.

To understand the introduction of the poll tax in Scotland, we need to recognise the Tories’ wider political project at the time.  The Tories came to power in 1979, directly as a result of the successful motion of ‘no confidence’ brought by Thatcher, following the defeat of Labour’s Scottish and Welsh devolution referenda, and of Labour’s resort to buttressing its slender majority by bringing in the Ulster Unionists. (The Ulster Unionists particularly liked Labour’s Northern Ireland Minister, Roy ‘Stone’ Mason.)  The ‘National Question’ was therefore at the very centre of the Tory thinking. It was a question they were determined not to answer, but to eliminate. As Thatcher was later to boldly say, “Northern Ireland is as British as Finchley”!

The Tories were acutely aware that, since the economic crisis of the mid-70’s, they were now living in an increasingly competitive capitalist world. Thatcher was the leader of their new neo-liberal wing, determined to oust, first the Tories’ old patrician guard (soon to be called the ‘Wets’), who were still prepared to support some of the UK’s inherited Butskellite policies. She needed to do this before she could break the organised official Labour movement, represented by the British Labour Party and TUC, preparatory to dismantling the post-war welfare state.

However, unlike much of the British Left, the Tory Right understood the link between the British unionist form of the state and the economy.  So Thatcher also wanted to launch a full frontal assault on those who threatened to weaken a UK state machine, with liberal experiments like Devolution. She believed that authoritarian centralisation was required. What was needed was to batten down the hatches of UK Ltd., to maintain as much of its affiliated British Imperial Co. as could be managed, and to renew the imperial partnership with USA, especially after the neo-liberal President Reagan came to office the following year.

Thatcher had developed early links with the UK secret services, no doubt promising to supplement Labour’s own criminalisation offensive in ‘the Six Counties’ with further extra-legal security measures to be sanctioned under the Crown Powers. Thatcher’s initial reaction was to give wholehearted support to the Ulster Unionists, who shared her belief that repression was the best policy for dealing with national democratic opposition.

In Scotland though, the Tories were still very much dominated by their patrician wing. Indeed, it had not been too long since the Scottish-British Harold Macmillan and Alex Douglas-Hume were the Tory government leaders for the whole of the UK. The continued strong influence of the ‘Wets’ in Scotland meant that the Thatcherite offensive needed new forces to buttress her Rightist offensive. A number of bodies helped in this.

They included the ‘Blue Guards’ of the Federation of Young Conservatives (FYC) in Scotland. In addition to making visits to the Contras in Nicaragua and UNITA in Angola, and wearing ‘Hang Mandela’ t-shirts, they tried to re-establish the Tories’ earlier links with the Orange Order. They took an active interest in the Loyalists’ activities in ‘the Six Counties’ and tried to offer their support. The wider ‘National Question’ in the UK, and the need to break any national democratic challenges arising from these, were at the centre of the FYC’s attention.

Another Tory Rightist body, albeit coming from a different angle, was the neo-liberal Adam Smith Institute (ASI), whose leading members came from St. Andrews University. St Andrews University contained Scotland’s own answer to the ‘Chicago School’ of ‘free marketeers’ in the USA.  Two of its members, Madsen Pirie and Douglas Mason, were the original formulators of the poll tax.  The ASI then campaigned for the Tories to implement this tax, first in Scotland. Joe is correct in saying the campaign was taken to “single, elderly people living in large family houses… {who were} heavily hostile to the rates”, but it was also extended to the members of the well-heeled Tory middle class in the affluent suburbs.

However, there was still no way this limited electoral base could be used to impose a poll tax upon Scotland. So, Scotland became a classic case of how a privileged class minority in one particular nation was able to get support from its wider allies within the British unionist state to promote its interests.

A key figure in the Thatcherite offensive was Michael Forsyth, former St. Andrews university student. Elected to Westminster from Stirling in 1983 (after serving on the notorious Tory controlled Westminster City Council), he helped to coordinate the new Tory Right.  He linked up with the ASI, whilst also making use of the ‘Blue Guards’ of the FYC, to intimidate the ‘Wets’ amongst the older patrician Tories.

The Tories in Scotland were riding high after the defeat of the miners. If the miners could be defeated, then how about rubbing Scottish Labour and the STUC’s noses in the dirt, and highlighting their total impotence?  Thatcher even came up to Edinburgh, the year the poll tax was launched in Scotland, in 1988 to deliver her notorious ‘Sermon on the Mound’.  Here she denied that there was such a thing as society. This attack was delivered in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, which represented the Scottish Labour and Liberal supporting middle classes at prayer.  It was clearly targeted at particular Scottish national sensibilities, and was designed to demonstrate wider British Tory support for their local supporters. The UK state was at hand.

Now, if it had been left to Scottish Labour and the STUC to deal with the poll tax, it would likely still be in place today. Fortunately, the Tories had never considered the possibility there might be independent opposition outside of the traditional official bodies ‘representing’ the working class. Jim Sillars’, the populist SNP candidate, won a spectacular electoral victory in Govan over Labour, in 1988.  The minority Tories had been seen to be abusing their power in Scotland.

However, the organisers of the anti-poll tax campaign didn’t let the SNP turn the campaign into a Scotland-only, or an anti-English campaign, but used the one year’s advance experience to learn lessons and to spread the campaign into England and Wales on an ‘internationalism from below’ basis.

5. The British ruling class is forced to change its strategy for defending the Union.   The Left makes a unity initiative in Scotland, which inspires Socialists in England, Wales and Ireland.

Now, the ‘lady who was not for turning’ had already been forced into a U-turn over Tory policy in ‘the Six Counties’. In the face of the Irish Republican offensive, after the election victories following the Hunger Strike in 1981, the Tories had to link-up with those very liberals that Thatcher despised. Under the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, the ultra-conservative Ulster Unionists were told to accommodate the very constitutional nationalist SDLP, and horror of horrors, to seek assistance from the ‘26 counties’ Irish government (whose leader Garrett Fitzgerald, Thatcher had humiliated the year before by her “Out, out, out” rejection of his very mild ‘New Irish Forum’ proposals).

Thatcher’s change of course marked the first step taken, by the majority of the British ruling class, towards the adoption of a new liberal unionist policy to maintain the UK.  This policy, by attempting to bring on board the existing moderate leaderships of national democratic movements, and making some concessions, was designed to restore effective British ruling class control over these islands.

However, such was the strength of the Republican resistance in ‘the Six Counties’, that the constitutional nationalist SDLP’s support proved inadequate for ruling class purposes.  One consequence of Tory government’s lack of sure-footedness was that no poll tax was ever introduced into ‘the Six Counties’ – filling any vacancies for bailiffs might have proved a bit of a problem!  Thatcher had already been made painfully aware that there was a ‘National Question’, and that Northern Ireland was not as British as Finchley.  Indeed, in October 1984, Brighton nearly became as Irish as Belfast!

Eventually, after Thatcher’s demise, the Tories were forced to come to a new accommodation with the Republican Movement through the Downing Street Declaration of 1993. Stormont, abolished in 1972, was to be reinstated, but now in a power-sharing form previously rejected by the majority of Ulster Unionists.  The Peace (more accurately the pacification) Process was inaugurated, with the full support of ‘the 26 counties’ Irish and US governments.

In Scotland, however, although support for greater national democratic rights increased, largely as a result of the resistance to the poll tax, the Tories still thought they could hold their conservative unionist, Westminster Direct Rule line here. Nevertheless, even they were forced to recognise they still faced a ‘Scottish Question’ After the defeat of the poll tax, a now somewhat chastened Michael Forsyth became the new Tory Scottish Secretary. The activities of the Tories’ ‘Blue Guards’ were brought to an end – a bit like Mao’s Red Guards had been in China.

Forsyth hoped that a little bit of concessionary cultural nationalism would be enough to see off the new national democratic challenge, especially since the Labour Party in Scotland could be depended on to curtail any popular movement from below. As it turned out, though, Forsyth’s rather comic restoration of the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey to Scotland in 1996 didn’t do the trick. The Tories were completely wiped out in Scotland, in the 1997 General Election. Forsyth went on to join the Tory patricians as Baron Dunleath in the House of Lords. Liberal constitutional unionism, confined only to Northern Ireland (i.e. devolution in one part of a country, and in one part of the UK state), was not going to be enough.

But Forsyth was right in thinking that New Labour could be relied on to try and ‘hold the British fort’. Thatcher also knew this and subsequently declared that the creation of ‘New Labour’ was one of the Tories’ biggest successes. The Adam Smith Institute gave Gordon Brown, the incoming New Labour Chancellor, “nine points out of ten” after he abolished government controls over the Bank of England.  Butskellism gave way to Blatcherism.

By now, the majority of the British ruling class also realised that New Labour’s preferred policy of ‘Devolution-all-round’ – Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – was the best mechanism for containing the wider national democratic challenge, and restoring their political power over these islands. New Labour, a firm supporter of US/UK imperialism, deregulation and privatisation, offered corporate capital the best political framework for maximising its profits throughout these islands.

Now, how did all this impact on the Left in Scotland, which was so prominently placed in the anti-poll tax campaign? In 1997, a poll in the Labour supporting, pro-unionist Daily Record, the biggest selling Scottish based paper, with an overwhelmingly working class readership, showed 56% support for an independent Scottish republic.

Joe has pointed to the normally less-than-majority support for Scotland’s independence amongst the working class here. In the current political climate of retreat and despondency, this is certainly the case. However, such support rises when the class appears to gain more confidence. Joe makes passing reference to the case of Ukraine, where he thinks there may have been a case for supporting political independence at the time of the ‘Russian’ Revolution.  Majority working class support for political independence in Ukraine only came about due to the experience gained in the International Revolutionary Wave of 1916-21.  Prior to 1917, such support was at a much lower level, even compared to Scotland today.

As a result of their experience in the anti-poll tax campaign, Militant (CWI), the then most influential Left organisation in Scotland, shifted from being the most unionist organisation amongst British Marxists7 (crassly so in regard to Northern Ireland) to a limited questioning of this legacy. They made paper moves towards support for much greater Scottish self-determination. However, in the process, a major section of its Scottish membership broke from the traditional sectarianism of the British Left, and initiated the setting-up of the open, multi-platform Scottish Socialist Alliance (SSA). They also helped to lead a successful campaign against Scottish water privatisation in 1994, as well as the providing the support for the successful workers’ occupation at the Glaciers factory in Glasgow in 1996.  Soon, they had to break with their parent organisation, the CWI, which still remained addicted to the British Left’s sectarianism.

Once again, following from the experience of the anti-poll tax campaign initiated in Scotland, the setting up of the SSA, then later the SSP, can not be seen in isolation. An ‘internationalism from below’ policy was actively pursued, which contributed to the formation of the Socialist Alliance, the Welsh Socialist Alliance and the Irish Socialist Network. And exactly who initially sabotaged these other initiatives? Yes, the sectarian British Left of course – first Militant and then the SWP, along with their co-thinkers in Ireland (which both, in practice, accept Irish Partitionist politics).

In the end, though, it was ‘our very own’ Scottish Left nationalist, celebrity seeker, Tommy Sheridan8 who sabotaged the SSP; but even in this, he has been massively encouraged by the CWI and SWP, in an unprincipled  ‘marriage-of-convenience’ for their own sectarian ends.  And just to ensure that British Left unionists continue their attempted wrecking role, George Galloway (with the support of Respect) has decided to become a Holyrood carpet-bagger, offering himself as an alternative celebrity candidate to Tommy, whilst hoping to be readmitted to the Labour Party, a la Ken Livingstone.

However, over this period, an overt socialist republican tendency has also emerged in Scotland. This has tried to reconnect with the lost ‘internationalism from below’ traditions of the revolutionary social democratic James Connolly and the communist John Maclean. This is the tradition that we in the Republican Communist Network place ourselves in.

6. Looking to the future

The approach the RCN takes to the ‘National Question’ in Scotland should now be clearer. We don’t separate this issue from, but link it to, other working class issues and events elsewhere in these islands and beyond. We actively seek out communists and others to join forces in an ‘internationalism from below’ alliance.  Furthermore, we see this principle not only as a matter for communists and the wider working class in these islands. We have presented the global significance of such an approach in The Communist Case for ‘Internationalism from Below’.  This meant challenging theories, which are held by many dissident and orthodox Marxists, and by some Anarchists, which continue to hold sway on the Left over the issue of the ‘National Question’.

The RCN has spent a lot of time examining the nature of the UK state, and the contradictions its rulers face, particularly in the face of working class upsurge. One member of the commune in England, M, also seems to utilise analytic methods, when he examines the changing management strategies in the workplace and particular sectors of employment, the contradictions they open up, and the opportunities for the workers concerned to take the initiative and develop independent class organisation. We have extended such analysis from the economic to the political sphere.

We have examined the various class ‘imaginings’ associated with the ‘Scottish Question’. We have looked to how a distinctive working class internationalist ‘imagining’ can be developed and rooted in our class’s struggle against the British ruling class, wannabe members of a Scottish ruling class, the British unionist parties, the SNP, and their British Left unionist and Scottish Left nationalist outriders.

The SNP has raised the prospect of an ‘independence (still under British Crown) referendum’, and organised under Westminster rules. The SNP’s acceptance, that the running of such a referendum could be conducted through the UK state, hardly meets stringent democratic criteria.  Therefore, it would be a tactical question about whether to participate in any referendum in such circumstances9.

In the lead up to the 1979 Scottish devolution referendum, sections of the British ruling class had already started to use the UK’s  ‘hidden state’ to promote threatening naval and army exercises, and agent provocateur activity, ostensibly to cow any ‘nationalist threat’ in Scotland.  However, they were also demonstrating that, despite Scottish Devolution being official government policy, they were openly contemptuous of such ‘democratic niceties’.  Their beloved UK state was too precious to them to allow any ‘unnecessary’ liberal political experimentation.  An earlier Liberal government found itself facing a similar, if even more serious, dilemma in the face of the 1914 Curragh Mutiny by sections of the British Army in Ireland. This mutiny was mounted to prevent the implementation of an earlier devolution proposal – the Third Irish Home Rule Bill.

In 1979, because of the political timidity of the Labour government and the impeccably constitutional nationalist nature of the SNP, the UK state’s normally domestically concealed ‘mailed fist’ only had to reveal its ‘pinkie’. The political split amongst an ever weakening Labour government (helped to a small degree by sections of the British Left), a Labour Right winger’s parliamentary amendment, a Tory ‘promise’ of another referendum, and the Queen’s Christmas speech, proved sufficient to torpedo the Scottish Devolution Bill.

Today, unlike 1979, there is no significant British ruling class division over how to maintain its rule over the peoples on these islands. The ‘Peace Process’ and ‘Devolution-all-round’ enjoy the British ruling class’s (and their US and EU allies) overwhelming support. The main dissent comes, not from the very weak liberal unionist supporters of British federalism, but from the ultra-conservative Cadogan Group, with its strong Northern Ireland connections.

Should there ever be an SNP-initiated Scottish independence referendum, the British ruling class would be quite prepared to reveal far more than its ‘pinkie’. The Crown Powers are firmly in place to provide constitutional sanction to the sort of measures they would use. Furthermore, last year, Nick Griffin used the Glasgow North East by-election, to indicate that the BNP could be called upon to help quash any moves to achieve political independence during a referendum campaign10. He is hoping, no doubt, to receive an official ‘nod-and-a-wink’ and to link up with local Scottish Loyalists, just as successive UK governments and the Ulster Unionists have looked to the Ulster Loyalists for a bit of extra muscle on the streets when required.

One thing is very clear though. Just as Right wing pressure split the Labour government and Labour Party support for Devolution in 1979, so Right wing pressure today is in the process of splitting the SNP over any ‘independence referendum’. Following other constitutional nationalist parties, such as Catalan Convergence, the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and Parti Quebecois (and in the case of Sinn Fein, and probably soon, Herri Batasuna, revolutionary nationalist parties too), the dominant sections of the SNP leadership have increasingly accepted ‘Devolution-max’, i.e. winning enough new political powers in the devolved institutions of the wider UK state, to enable local business interests to have greater clout within the existing global corporate order.

Prominent SNP leaders, such as Michael Russell, have already openly come out and argued for a renegotiated Union. Those businessmen who have been giving behind-the-scenes advice to the SNP – e.g. Brian Souter (homophobic co-owner of Stagecoach) and Sir Tom Farmer (Con-Dem cuts praising owner of Kwikfit) – have been pushing the SNP leadership to dump its commitment to an independence referendum, and were probably also instrumental, behind-the-scenes, in getting SNP Finance Minster, John Swinney, to abandon the Holyrood tax raising powers voted for in the 2007 Devolution referendum. In the unlikely event of the SNP commanding the necessary parliamentary majority to put forward an independence referendum bill in Holyrood, after next April’s election, they would be in a weaker position than the divided 1974-9 Labour government ever was over the constitutional issue back then.

The RCN thinks that there is little likelihood of there being an SNP initiated ‘independence referendum’. Even if one did come about, there is no way that the present extremely timid constitutional nationalist leadership could stand up against the likely British ruling class onslaught.  It certainly wouldn’t be prepared to look to any wider unconstitutional action for backing. This would quickly scare off its current business backers.

If such an official campaign ever got launched, various national ‘imaginings’ would be aired. There could be the ‘imagining’ of the wannabe Scottish ruling class, hoping for a greater political say for Scottish business within the existing global corporate order; direct representation at the tables of the bosses’ EU and the imperialists’ UN; and a downgrading of Scotland’s presence in the nuclear frontline of NATO to membership of its lower tier ‘Partnership for Peace’. Their key economic policy would likely be the promotion of Scotland as a low tax haven for corporate capital.

This ‘imagining’ would not be very attractive for the majority of people in Scotland, and may well be downplayed in public, or supplemented by policies to bolster sections of Scotland’s middle class – those owning small businesses and those in managerial jobs in the state sector. Some social democratic-style  ‘promises’ could also be expected to woo over sections of the working class (just as the SNP did in the 2007 Holyrood election, before being ‘blown out the water’ by the ‘Credit Crunch’).

Any big business leaders still supporting an ‘independence referendum’ (and there are unlikely to be many, with ‘Devolution-max as their favoured policy at present), would declare that ‘national cross-class unity’ was needed to win a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum. They would strongly oppose any independent economic, social or political initiatives coming from the working class.

Furthermore, they would likely get tacit backing from Left nationalists, who would argue, ‘independence first’, other demands later. In other words, they would curtail any wider class ‘imaginings’ and play right into the hands of the most conservative Scottish nationalist elements. The latter, at least, have the class sense to realise that ‘possession is nine tenths of the law’, and that if they can maintain their unquestioned economic power until any new ‘political independence’ was achieved, they would find themselves in a considerably strengthened political position as a result.

Perhaps, its worth remembering that one of the first things the new Irish ruling class did, in the 1920’s, after it had consolidated its power, with the help of the UK state, was to dismantle much of the earlier inherited Liberal welfare reforms and promote Catholic charities instead. And, you can be sure that, in the very unlikely event of political independence being achieved by the SNP, a new Scottish ruling class would also be able to draw support from the British, US and Euro ruling classes, to crack down on any working class opposition. Furthermore, under any SNP administered ‘independence-lite’ Scottish regime, those Crown Powers would still be in place.

The most advanced ‘imaginings’ in Scotland are presently to be found in the cultural sphere, which so much of the British Left ignores or downplays. Cultural renaissance is often associated with frustrations arising out of major setbacks stemming from earlier political challenges, e.g. the Irish Literary Revival after the defeat of the Second Home Rule Bill in 1893.

The beginnings of a second phase of a Scottish Cultural Renaissance11 occurred after the defeat of the 1979 Devolution referendum. This new phase has been marked by a stronger pull to the Left12, in the form of the Left populism of the authors Irving Welsh and actress Elaine C. Smith, through the Left radicalism of the author, Ian Banks, the author and artist, Alasdair Gray, the poet Jackie Kay, the poet and playwright, Liz Lochead, to the more openly Scottish internationalism of the author, James Kelman, the poet, Tom Leonard, and the actor, Tam Dean Burn. The latter three have added to Scottish internationalist traditions already established by the follow deceased artists – poet and folklorist, Hamish Henderson, the Gaelic poet, Sorley Maclean and the Glasgow poet, Edwin Morgan.

These form a far from comprehensive list, and indeed their political characterisation is perhaps overly glib, since cultural activity often shows greater political ambiguity than such labels suggest.  Nevertheless, there is little doubt that these and other artists have made a substantial contribution to a wider Scottish ‘imaginings’, both national and international. These ‘imaginings’ are sometimes linked to ideas of what constitutes a better, non-alienated life, than that imposed under capitalism/Imperialism today.

Most of these artists could be expected to give their support to the wider opposition in Scotland against cuts in social provision, continuing imperial wars, Trident nuclear submarine bases, membership of NATO, and to British government backed Israeli state attempts to crush the Palestinians. These artists’ support is increasingly tied up to demands for greater Scottish self-determination and republicanism (social and socialist).

There are, of course, also supporters to be found in England and Wales, around most of these economic, social and political issues.  However, the British Left has become more compromised and fragmented in Scotland. There have been recent indications that even some of its prominent members realise this. The Scottish SWP theoretician, Neil Davidson, once their leading Left unionist advocate, seems to have had a ‘Damascus road’ conversion.  He has persuaded the SWP to advocate a ‘Yes’ vote in any possible future SNP initiated ‘independence referendum’.  Typically though, the SWP makes no attempt to develop independent working class organisation around the issue.  As a result, like so much of the Left, it just ends up tail-ending the political ‘solutions’ offered by others.

Now, there is another possible British Left response to the situation in Scotland.  Since the above-mentioned issues do have their supporters in England and Wales, let us prepare instead for a wider British-wide fight back. Of course, to the degree there is such a fight back, including by trade unions mainly organised on an all-Britain or all-UK basis (but sometimes on an all-islands or a national basis), this will be critically supported by communists and socialists in Scotland, independence supporters included.

The problem arises, when there are sections of our class who move ahead. This could happen in Scotland, on a local trade union basis, but is far more likely to take place when socio-economic aspirations become focussed on a wider political issue, which brings struggles into sharper conflict with the UK state.

In the first scenario, there is nothing specifically Scottish about the job of communists. We would try to extend workers’ solidarity action, as quickly as possible across the border, just as the Left in Scotland did, the other way round, in response to the Liverpool Dockers’ Strike from 1995-813.

In the second scenario, a British Left response could be to say, “Hold on a minute, don’t get involved in premature action before the rest of the British working class is ready”, or “We will support your immediate economic but not your political demands”.

The RCN would argue that communists throughout the UK (and beyond, where possible) should welcome any more overt political challenge here to the UK state, and supplement practical attempts to win supportive action, with a welcoming of the increased questioning of the UK state. This should be coupled with practical attempts to counter any specific divide-and-rule or coercive measures directed against those involved.

There is a communist tradition, which applies when there is an immediate mismatch between the political possibilities in two countries. During the ‘Russian’ Revolution, communists elsewhere tried to build up support for their own later revolutionary challenges, by building ‘Hands Off’ movements to prevent ‘their’ states providing support to reactionary forces. In any situation where the political situation in Scotland had developed in advance of England, then a communist response there, should also be (UK state) ‘Hands off Scotland’ coupled, of course, to our own class’s very ‘hands on’ support through ‘internationalism from below’.

A key feature, though, of a specific communist campaign for the exercise of Scottish self-determination, would be to link our immediate national democratic demands with those immediate economic and social demands, which are arising out of ongoing class struggle.  To be effective, and to counter current ruling class and wannabe ruling class resort to their ‘international’ allies, such a campaign would, of necessity, have to be mounted on an ‘internationalism from below’ basis. There are no advance guarantees that we would be successful, or that the British ruling class could not recuperate their situation. Countering this will need a successful building of independent class organisations and the class confidence to say –  “Wur no feart, t’gither we can beat thon awfie Imperialism’!



Once again we would like to thank Joe for his contribution to the debate. Due to the machinations of the traditional British Marxists, first the CPGB and some RDG members in the once wider RCN, which they sabotaged, and more recently, those SWP and CWI members, who along with the Scottish Left nationalist, Tommy Sheridan, collaborated to sabotage the SSP, the RCN has been organised solely in Scotland for some time.

We have been instrumental in beginning to develop a tentative new socialist republican ‘internationalism from below’ alliance in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England, around immediate demands. Yet, we are very aware that, without a fuller global communist perspective, based on wider independent international working class organisation, such a movement would eventually be marginalised and recuperated.

This is why we have taken up the opportunity offered by the commune to develop such a global perspective. Our first contributions to the commune were about developing a vision of a communist future, which could be located in the contradictions and possibilities emanating from a crisis-ridden capitalism today. The two day schools, which we have organised in Edinburgh, have been Global Commune events. In these, we have tried to show our commitment to open, democratic and comradely debate and behaviour.

We see our contribution, The communist case for ‘internationalism from below’, as part of this wider project.  However, in the process, we have been forced to re-engage by members of the commune with the ‘National Question’ in the Scotland. Joe’s questions have led us to deepen our previous understanding, which has only been challenged in the post-split SSP from a Left nationalist perspective. Whilst we hope that we have demonstrated that there are some unacknowledged and inadequately theorised Left unionist aspects in Joe’s thinking, he has prompted us to theorise our own position in a more adequate manner.  So the first fruits of the RCN/the commune ‘internationalism from below’ alliance have certainly been beneficial for us.

Republican Communist Network, 2.12.10

[1] In the case of the British Labour Party this, of course, is just another way of             saying that they can not conceive of             another political set-up which would give             them so many privileges, financial rewards and other opportunities to line their             pockets, as they enjoy under the UK state. But they daren’t say that publicly.             Baron (George) Foulkes is a             particularly odious example of this type.

2 Another major feature of capitalism is its ability to mystify the source of its             power through various forms of fetishism, particularly commodity fetishism,             and through our alienation. In this topsy-turvy world of capitalism, our             condition as wage slaves becomes ‘free labour’; whilst our condition as             oppressed subjects becomes ‘free citizenship’.  Nevertheless people still             question these conditions. They become involved in cultural resistance to             their alienation. This resistance contributes to artistic ‘imaginings’ of             possible future non-alienated worlds, including a genuine communism.

3 Which, of course, is not the same as either joining the Labour Party, or offering             support to such obvious ‘Left’ careerists as Dianne Abbott.

4 We think that Moshe Machover makes a very useful distinction between Jews             living throughout the world as citizens or subjects of many states (where they             form religious or ethnic minorities), and the Zionist attempt to create a new             exclusive Hebrew ethnic group in Israel, which makes revanchist claims             upon Jews elsewhere in the world, whether or not they wish to adopt such an             identity.

5             In the English language the word ‘nationality’ is used in a three-fold sense,             which adds further to the confusion, i.e. as conferring membership of a             particular state, e.g. British; of a particular (multi-ethnic) nation, e.g. Scottish;             or of a particular ethnic group, e.g. Scots.

6 Ancram was the first Catholic Tory to be elected in Scotland, something only             possible when the Scottish Tories broke their official links with both the             Ulster Unionists and the Orange Order.

7 OK, this award should go to the very British unionist and social imperialist             AWL,             but this organisation has never enjoyed that much influence on the             Left.

8 It is significant that Sheridan came originally from the very unionist, British             Left CWI.  However, in transforming himself into Scottish Left nationalist             (and thus still retaining his Left nationalist political core), he was only             following in a tradition seen elsewhere, when unionist politics are questioned             or under threat, e.g. prominent former USSR politician, Eduard Shevardnadze             in Georgia, and Stipe Mesic, former member of the League of Communists of             Yugoslavia in             Croatia.

9 The two main groupings, which went on to form the RCN, both argued for an             active abstentionist position in the 1997 Scottish referendum. We saw New             Labour’s Devolution proposals as a liberal unionist device means to enable the             British ruling class to             assert its control over these islands more effectively.             Of course, we did not support a  ‘No’ vote, the favoured option of the now             discredited Tories (backed by the Orange Order).

Back in 1979, only one of our current members was politically involved. He            supported Scottish devolution in Labour’s referendum, because the growing             ruling class opposition to this particular measure was the political             counterpart to their neo-liberal economic offensive against the working class,             then headed by Thatcher and the Conservative Party.

10 Indeed, along with Michael Forsyth of the Tory Party, and Wendy Alexander             of the Scottish Labour Party, Griffin wants a referendum in order to see off the             ‘National Question’ once and for all, in a similar manner to the Ulster             Unionists’ use of the Northern Ireland Border Poll in 1973. Their confidence             reflects the fact that, in any referendum campaign, they would accept UK state             anti-democratic measures sanctioned under the Crown Powers.

11 The first phase of the Scottish Cultural Renaissance developed after the defeat             of the 1916-21 International Revolutionary Wave, as did the Harlem             Renaissance amongst African Americans in the USA.

12 The dominant figure in the first phase was undoubtedly Hugh MacDiarmid.             He was originally an ILP member. He then flirted with fascism, before his             Scottish nationalism adopted a Stalinist colouration. He shared this background             of political ambiguity with other notable artists of the time, e.g. T.S. Elliot             (England and USA), William Yeats (Ireland) and Saunders Lewis (Wales).

13 We provide this example, because the Liverpool Dockers were involved in             independent strike action, and won international support, including from the             continent. At a support meeting organised in Edinburgh, one of the platform             speakers said there had been far more enthusiastic support from SNP trade             unionists in Dundee than from the British Labour Party in some areas of             England.

4 thoughts on “a reply to joe thorne’s ‘the republican communist network’s ‘internationalism from below’ and the case of scotland: a critical view’

  1. The RCN argues correctly that as communists we do not base ourselves or accept a given capitalist state form. So the working class in scotland can advance outside the structures of the British state. But any advance in communism from below would be outside the state anyway. What the RCN has in mind is not an exiting bourgeois state so much as an existing Bourgeois nation: scotland.They seem to take this as a starting point or basis for working class advance. We then have the parodox that scottish nationalism can be internationalism, from below the UK state So to speak.

    The RCN is confident that scotland/scottish workers would have the capacity to fight back outside the EU/UK demonstarting their point that national territorial states would be a starting point to the transition to a world without borders.Their strategy might not be based on being a reflection of the states organisational forms ,but it does seem to be a reflection of a positive engement with scottish nationalism.The national form of the struggle is assumed at the outset.What about the possibility of european working class unity across borders?

    According to the RCN the lack of a constitutional mechanism in the state for scottish self determination is in itself national oppression of scotland. But does this democratic deficit constitute national oppression? if a separate scottish bourgeoisie wanted constitutional independence than this class would be oppressed. But constitutional communists seems to be an oxymoron. Unless there is a perspective of democratising the British capitalist state to undermine it. Is the lack of an independence mechanism any more oppressive than the capitalist state on workers? look at Ireland with political idependence and the austerity measures imposed by international capital.Not does a lame attempt to play with the words repression and oppression help. My dictionary has oppression as cruel, tyrannical inflicting distress, and unjust. Repression is coersive/putting down by force.

    To justify its positive engagement with scottish nationalism the RCN draws a false analogy between nationalism and the class organised in trade unions. The working class has an objective material existence.A class in itself. Surely the working class and its struggle cannot be equated with a bourgeois ideology like nationalism.The RCN view in this statement is that outside a revolutionary situation the separation of economic and politics is a social fact which is reflected in our politics. So we have minimum or immediate demands in the economic sphere or trade unionism and immediate or reformist demands in the political sphere,national democratic demands such as support/positive engagement for scottish independence or nationalism. But the whole point of communism from below is to organise outside the bourgeois channels of trade unionism and parliamentary nationalist politics. unlike the trade unions and the swp sp our politics are not nationalist and economic- for a fairer Britain. Any efective strikes against the cuts will run into the anti union laws and the state that enforces them. Any angry demonstrations will clash with the states police. Any organised community resistance will be against cuts in state benefits. Any unemployed movement will be against the state and its support for capitalist interests. There is no chinese wall betweeen economics and politics. if we have a maximum minimum programme and see communist propaganda in a negative light as abstract propagandism ridiculing it as -we are against pay rises -we want the abolition of the wages system -then we are back to social democracy.

    Although marx of course thought trade unions should have the slogan end wage slavery on their banners.

    The RCN statement also continues their claim that then Poll Tax is somehow a republican or nationalist issue. But the poll tax was not simply imposed on scotland but was rolled out to england as well. The statement claims that support for scottish independence increased during the poll tax fight. Well it probably did, but the fact the the government in London imposed the policy does not make it an issue of national oppression. Presumably communist could have fought the poll tax in scotland on a class or communist basis without acccepting or positively engaging with nationalist prejudices. The statement actually draws attention to the upper class scottish imput into london governments poll tax policy.

    The RCN official statement has been many months in preperation. I have only been able to express some concerns at some aspects of the statement. i am hoping to write something on John Maclean at some point the cuts campaign permitting.

    Now LENIN Famously


  2. One of the things about attempting to debate with Barry is that he doesn’t engage with the arguments being made. The starting point of the debate was a paper put forward by Allan Armstrong of the RCN to the 2nd Global Commune event in Edinburgh. This can be found at:-


    Barry’s reply to this was carried in the June issue of the commune, see:-

    Allan noted in his reply to this that Barry hadn’t “dealt with {his} critique of the two main approaches to nationalism and the struggle for national self-determination found on the Left”. This is what the paper was all about – see:-


    Barry was also asked for specific points of clarification about his attitude, for example, to women’s issues and feminism – but no answers were ever given to these.

    Barry adopts a similar approach in dealing with the RCN’s reply to Joe Thorne. The criticisms that Barry raises have already been answered in the RCN’s original reply to Joe (see above). There is little point going over them again. Readers can check these out, and if they have further specific questions not already answered, we will certainly deal with these.

    However, it may be useful to look at one example of Barry’s own method in his posted comments above. Joe Thorne originally raised a question for the RCN that, perhaps the “early introduction of the poll tax in Scotland was less an intentional attack on the Scottish working class because they were Scottish, but rather an accidental product of differentiated – but not necessarily discriminatory – UK law”. The RCN wrote a whole section the paper above providing an alternative view – see:-

    4. An alternative explanation to Joe’s for Tory actions in Scotland under Thatcher

    Despite this, Barry goes on to say that, “the RCN statement also continues their claim that then Poll Tax is somehow a republican or nationalist issue”. We have already specifically stated that we don’t view the poll tax as a “nationalist issue”, but as a national (and yes, as a republican or democratic) issue.

    We don’t view lower pay rates for women through feminist spectacles, although undoubtedly this would be a women’s issue. Similarly, we recognise the national aspect behind the Tories’ testing out of the poll tax in Scotland first. In contrast to the nationalists we have pointed to the ‘internationalism from below’ approach adopted by the Anti-Poll Tax Campaign in Scotland. This successfully overcame the British unionists’ attempt pursue their divisive nationalism.

    Barry just fails to deal with the evidence provided and the arguments made, which show the Tories’ attempted introduction of the poll tax to be a national issue, and not just in Scotland but the ‘Six Counties’ too. In ignoring all this, Barry’s ‘clincher’ argument appears to be that, “the poll tax was not simply imposed on scotland but was rolled out to england as well”.

    So, let us suppose Sheffield City Council announces that Barry is going to face a 5% pay cut on January 1st, 2011. We think that Barry might be a little concerned and feel he was being victimised. However, Sheffield City Council then goes on to announce that its other employees will also face a 5% pay cut, but beginning on January 1st, 2012. So, Barry can now breathe a sigh of relief – “Oh, that’s OK then!” Then Sheffield City Council issues another statement. “The proposed pay cut for staff members, beginning on January 1st, 2012, will not apply in the case of a certain Shay O’Hara.” When asked why, the Council spokespersons become evasive. However, it is widely known that Shay has turned to violence in the past in his dealings with management when provoked.

    Barry does go on to say he is going to write something on John Maclean. It is possible we may be in agreement with him. If not, readers of ‘the commune’ can be assured that we will not resort to erecting ‘straw men’, which we can blow away with great self-satisfaction, but address the actual arguments that Barry provides in making his case.


  3. The pattern is clear. staight forward questions are raised on the poll tax and other RCN themes. There is no response for months on end and then we receive thousands and thansands of words many times the orginal questions and still no straightforward answers. I have given direct references to RCN literature going back over a decade. This time I have not given a comprhensive reply just raised a a few questions since Tom can more than speak for himself.

    This time there has been a prompt reply. But look at the level of the response. If I get a pay cut first and then others get it thats OK! This comment echoes the mocking of communist propaganda in the RCN statement: we are against pay rises we want the abolition of the wages system.

    Anyway I hope to write some kind of historical assessment of John Macleans call for scottish workers republic because the RCN use of the phrase internationalism from below seems to be a nationalism that dare not speak its name.


  4. Whoa – let’s stop for a moment. Barry has taken offence at my attempted humorous analogy between the situation over the implementation or non-implementation of poll tax in the UK and a very unlikely scenario in his workplace. I hope that nobody else who read this reply, thought that I was suggesting that it was OK for anybody, Barry especially, to be subjected to a 5% pay cut. I thought that my example of ‘Shay O’Hara’ would highlight my humorous intent. So, can I reassure Barry that I was not trying to mock him in any way.

    Perhaps, if readers go back to my reply to his ‘No nationalist solutions’ (see links above) they will appreciate that I take debate seriously and try to deal with people’s real arguments.

    Barry also manages to take umbrage over the RCN’s apparently slow responses (“months on end”) and to the fact that provide comprehensive replies (“thousands and thousands of words”).

    The original piece I wrote for the 2nd Global Commune, ‘The Communist Case for ‘Internationalism from Below’, was published on 22.5.10. Barry promptly replied with his ‘No nationalist solutions’ on 17.6.10. I was out of the country for a month, but provided my reply to him, ‘Abstract propaganda or active involvement in all the struggles of our class’, on 18.8.10. Given the intervening holiday, I personally don’t find such a time gap unacceptable.

    Now, of course, the RCN has taken considerably longer to reply to Joe’s questions. Joe provided these in writing on 30.6.10. We explained to Joe that, in the short term, my reply to Barry would help to make the RCN stance on the ‘National Question’ clearer, but that we thought his questions were really useful in helping us to deepen our own understanding. Therefore, we would debate these questions collectively at our next aggregate. We did this, and I was asked to provide a draft reply for the following aggregate, which was further debated and amended. I hope that Joe (and it was Joe, not Barry to whom we were now replying) appreciates that the time taken and the length of our reply reflects the seriousness of our intent. I would also hope that most readers would think that the tenor of our reply was fraternal.

    Barry also seems to have misunderstood the RCN’s comments on ‘the abolition of wage slavery’. I highlighted our own attitude to wage slavery, in the piece, ‘Why we need a new emancipatory communism’ (see relevant section as addendum below), which I wrote for First Global Commune event in Edinburgh. I completely agree with Barry that communists must do far more in the way of propaganda to make clear our opposition to wage slavery. At the last commune aggregate in London, which both Barry and I attended, Barry was somewhat despairing of young Sheffield anarchists’ apparent contempt for political education. Quite a lot of us smiled in shared recognition of the limits of the worship of spontaneity. One way, in the past, by which communists got their ideas across to large numbers was through the provision of education classes, or even attempts to organise schools. John Maclean’s actual classes and attempted Labour College are perhaps the best known examples in the UK.

    The point the RCN is trying to make, is that joint work around immediate demands, e.g. a strike over wages, does not necessitate common agreement over the ending of wage slavery. Agitational leaflets do not deal with this. Communists should, of course, make clear, either through our own public statements, propaganda leaflets and pamphlets, and educational classes to which workers are invited, that we do oppose wage slavery, and try to explain the connection between immediate struggles and the need to organise for a new communist world.

    When I read the Sheffield commune members’ leaflet opposing the cuts, which I think Barry agrees with, it appears to me to recognise such a distinction. It places its emphasis on breaking down divisions, especially between employees and service users, and the need for independent action not under bureaucratic control. It is a good agitational leaflet. However, it doesn’t mention any opposition to wage slavery, although the services it is defending constitute a worker’s social wage. Clearly, for Sheffield commune members, communist propaganda takes another form. The RCN is genuinely interested in how this bridge is crossed, and very willing to learn from others’ experiences in this regard.

    Barry finishes of with a flourish that “the RCN’s “use of the phrase internationalism from below seems to be a nationalism that dare not speak its name.” If you fail to make a distinction between addressing the ‘National Question’ and being a nationalist (or say, between addressing women’s oppression’ and being a feminist’) this is indeed how anyone seriously addressing such issues is going to appear. However, our reply would be that Barry’s approach seems to be, not so much a Left British nationalism “that dare not speak its name”, so much as a Left British nationalism that is quite unable to recognise its own existence.

    However, we are reassured that Barry thinks that John Maclean’s contribution to communism is significant enough that he wishes to address this. This will provide a further opportunity to clarify any differences of approach.

    For those who are interested in a much fuller outline of Internationalism from Below’ at the global level, the following two papers can be obtained by e-mailing:-



    Reclaiming a hidden communist tradition to challenge
    the nation-state and capitalist empire

    Volume 1

    The historical development of nation-states and nationalism
    up to 1848

    Volume 2

    The world of nation-states and nationalism between the
    Communist League and the early Second International

    Addendum from ‘Why we need a new emancipatory communism’

    2. Marx and the abolition of wage slavery versus ‘Revolutionary’ social democracy and the continuation of the wages system

    Re-examining Marx’s understanding of a fully developed communist society, we can see that it is based on a human emancipatory vision:-

    1. “From each according to their ability; to each according to their needs.”
    2. “Where the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

    If we then look at the key transformation which Marx felt was necessary to bring about communism, we will find that it is the ending of wage slavery. In Marx’s major critique of capitalist political economy, Capital, he railed against those on the Left who confined their demand to, “A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work”. He also opposed the slogan, “We demand the full product of our labour”. Marx wanted communists to inscribe on their banner, “The abolition of the wages system”. Yet very few of today’s socialists try to highlight the domination of wage slavery under capitalism. The battles for the emancipation of chattel slaves and women are seen as great past and present human struggles. But the continued extension of wage slavery throughout the world (often alongside other more brutal forms of bondage such as enforced child labour) hardly concerns the Left. Yet, even many on the Right instinctively rebel against the condition of wage slavery, hoping to be independent owners or at least join capitalism’s ‘house slaves’ as managers.

    Allan Armstrong, 7.12.10


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