The paradox of Nationalism as Internationalism from below

Barry Biddulph replies to Bob Goupillot and Allan Armstrong on communists and Scotland’s referendum.

Maclean – For a Scottish Workers’ Republic

Bob Goupillot and Allan Armstrong of the Republican Communist Network (RCN), want to create a new global order. Yet their starting point for a communist transition is a national territorial framework in general, as they acknowledge, and Scotland in particular. They argue that they are not nationalists, but internationalists, with a strategy of internationalism from below, in which small nation nationalism can be transformed into internationalism. This is a  paradox. What is their tactical and strategic standpoint?

Bob and Allan locate themselves not directly in capitalist crisis and class antagonism, but indirectly and strategically on the fault lines of anti-imperialism. To prepare for revolution directly would be simply propaganda for the comrades, so the RCN look for political weaknesses to undermine the British state. So an independent (capitalist) Scottish state  would break up the British state and weaken the USA since Britain is its main political ally. This tactical stance is based on an analogy with the political support of Marx and Engels for various national movements against reactionary Russia in the mid-Nineteenth century. Another influence is John Maclean’s politics of breaking up Britain and its empire shortly after the first world war. This shows the RCN that nationalism can be progressive, even proletarian, without having any illusions that it can overthrow capitalism, but in any case, they have a conviction in the right of Scotland as a nation to self-determination.

Firstly, for the RCN to tactically stand on the ground of anti-imperialism begs the question of what do they really stand for? Anti-imperialism is not sufficient in itself for communists. What does the RCN support? In Allan’s view, outlined recently in a response to Eric Chester, to restrict oneself to communist principles would be abstract propagandism. That’s Allan’s maximum programme. In the here and now, the RCN seek real leverage in high politics. Any kind of Scottish state would be a step forward, even independence lite with the Scottish state sharing the monarchy, currency, and a banking sector.  Why would it be a real step forward for them? Because it would be anti-unionist and weaken the labour party, Lib Dems and the BNP. This is a lesser evil argument. But there is a conviction that independence for Scotland would be a gain for the working class, in its own right, and begin to democratise the capitalist state in Scotland. While Scottish independence is considered strong, the working class is considered to be weak, so Allan considers the only realistic battle can be on the terrain of SNP constitutionalism. This does reveal the narrow focus on democratising the state in the RCN’S practical politics.

However, in the context of the great recession, why would class struggle be refracted through constitutionalism? Most of the RCN theorising appears to have elaborated prior to the crisis or do not make the crisis central to their politics. An independent Scottish state would not be independent of global capitalism. Its independence would be nominal, especially if there are a shared currency and banking sector. If Scotland applied for membership of the EU, again the state would have to toe the Neo-Liberal line. Scottish nationalists can no longer point to an arc of prosperous small nations such as Iceland and Ireland. The powerlessness of the Greek government for its finances shows the hollowness of national independence. What will be the effects on the working class in Scotland of a small capitalist state fighting for its economic survival? It will be a race to the bottom for working class living standards as corporation tax is cut. In any case, there is no abstract right to self-determination and Scotland has not been an oppressed nation.

Argument from analogy is a weak form of theorising, but the analogy comparing American and British imperialism with the empires of the Habsburgs and the Romanovs and the tactics of Marx and Engels does not stand up. The lesson of the 1848 springtime of peoples was that, the bourgeois were not revolutionary, and the future was not a National Democratic Revolution led by bourgeois modernisers. Marx was in favour of German unity, but that unity was imposed by counter-revolution from above, by Bismark, under the hegemony of Prussia. Marx tactically focused on the threat of semi-feudal Russia to capitalist development and the embryo of a workers movement in Europe, not states that embody the most advanced forms of capitalism. This focus missed the growing antagonism between German and British capitalist imperialism which resulted in a world war. Marx’s tactics on national movements are debatable. They rapidly became dated and were used out of a specific context  by the leaders of German Social Democracy to justify Germany’s so-called civilising mission in the first world war. There was no argument by Marx for a general right to self-determination, even for Poland. And Marx and Engels generally supported large units not small breakaways. Again, some of the arguments of Engels particularly on non-historic nations were to say the least – dubious.

The analogy with John Maclean’s break-up of Britain is no better. John Maclean stood for the Scottish Workers Republic and nothing less. Any strategy of phases or a constitutional road to a classless society would have been anathema to him. While the future leaders of the CPGB focused on the practical politics of trade unionism or calling for peace, John Maclean was the only significant workers leader preparing for international revolution during the First World War. This cannot be dismissed as abstract propagandism. Rather than look for changes in the state, or focus on a narrow view of what might be possible, John Maclean looked to street meetings and economic classes to prepare for a Petrograd in Scotland. But Maclean was marginalised by Theodore Rothstein during the formation of the CPGB. In any case, even though Willie Gallagher, Harry Pollitt and Rothstein proclaimed themselves revolutionary, Maclean knew from personal experience their tactics and strategy were far from revolutionary. Even if he joined he would have been expelled for his independence of mind, like Sylvia Pankhurst. So in his view, Scotland must lead itself in the context of an economic war between Britain and the USA. Scottish workers were considered to be in advance of their English comrades,  so Scotland could follow the example of Ireland and fight to break away from Britain and help bring down the Empire.

Lenin also thought that the break down of empires by nationalism and nationalists would clear the way to socialism and communism. Historically his critics have been proved correct. Attempting to link the national struggle with the workers’ cause resulted in historical defeats for workers movements. Even so, Maclean did not theoretically link nationalism with the workers’ cause, unlike James Connolly, who did conflate labour’s cause with nationalism. Connolly considered the origin and rise of private property in Ireland were caused by an English invasion of Ireland, contrary to Marx and more importantly modern research.  Maclean did seem to uncritically absorb aspects of Scottish identity. There were scattered comments such as:  “don’t let Scottish lads fight for john Bull”; “We are justified in utilising our Scottish sentiments”; “the primitive communism of the clans must be re-established on a modern basis”. And so on. But the clans were more primitive feudalism. Although national sentiments in Scotland were growing in Maclean’s time, Scottish workers joined their English and Welsh comrades in the British trade union movement and the Labour Party, which CPGB helped to establish at a local level. Maclean tried but failed to break this reformist mould.

Today, Scottish nationalism is on the rise again, with the decline of British imperialism and capitalism and the dismantling of the “welfare state”. Although polls suggest that support for Scottish independence is still minority politics. And the failure to win Glasgow in the recent local elections shows the high tide of nationalism might be ebbing. To criticise the SNP for not arousing the workers for Scottish independence, as the RCN do, or vote for Scottish independence even on a capitalist basis, seems to be more than engaging with nationalism. Voting for independence or critical support for an SNP referendum can only serve to help tie the working class to nationalism and the future of a capitalist state. Alex Salmond in alliance with Rupert Murdoch. It would weaken the working class, not capitalism. Scottish identity was formed at the same time as Britishness. Scottish upper-class people were at the heart of the British Empire as troops and politicians and at the top of the British parliament in London. To say Scotland is oppressed because there is not a constitutional right to secede from the British state, as Allan does is a constitutional view of revolution.

4 thoughts on “The paradox of Nationalism as Internationalism from below

  1. Lenin was wrong on the national question because he wrongly thought revolution would come from the anti-imperialist countries.
    Today it’s even more obvious that it’s not nationalism that needs supporting but workers demands for taking control over their lives, as expressed by many in Tahir Square.
    Rule from Edinburgh is no better than rule from Westminster or Brussels; it’s all capitalist rule.
    How about communes in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, etc sending delegates to a Scottish commune?


  2. I agree with the Glasgow Anarchist writer, that the left in Scotland such as the SSP and the RCN are,as he puts it, pushing for a state solution. The SSP, as he writes, are old Labour in a Scottish context. The position of the RCN is more complicated and I have attempted to criticise the detail of their politics.But at the bedrock level,the political schema,underlying their position on Scottish independence, is the old politics of international social Democracy( Kautsky ) of a process of socialism through democratising the capitalist state. Lenin held Kautsky’s position on the state prior to 1917 and his Schema of the democratic revolution has been an influence on some comrades on the Republican left. On the parodox of Nationalism as internationalism from below. Again this is difficult to unravel and probably serves to mystify support for Scottish independence. Why is scottish independence a given or assumed starting point for internationalism from below? A state solution as a transitional phase is top down. Having travelled down the Top down high road how do you get to the low road? German social Democracy had this problem with the rise and triumph of fascism. Decades of workers being trained in high politics, parliamentary politics was poor preparation for street and factory politics. Finally,a point about my own article. I don’t think it is clear enough on the analogy with Marx and nationalism. Marx looked to nationalism before developed capitalism and a workers movement were in place in many parts of Europe. Why look to nationalism when you are in an advances capitalist world with a numerically strong working class and class antagonisms sharpened by cuts and Economic Crisis?


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