Scottish nationalism: weakening the working-class movement
Two years ago, our party conducted some thorough Marxist research into the question of Scottish nationalism. We took a scientific look at the question of Scottish independence in order to find out whether there is any truth to the assertion made by nationalists that Scotland is an oppressed nation in need of liberating from the English imperialist yoke.
This question is of vital importance for communists in Britain today. If we are serious about organising for the revolutionary overthrow of British imperialism, we are going to need the maximum possible unity of the working class in order to achieve that. Everything that divides workers weakens our movement and undermines our chances of success in the class struggle – sexism, racism, ageism, ableism, regionalism … and nationalism.
What is nationalism?
Nationalism is a bourgeois ideology, since nations in the modern sense only appeared in the capitalist era. This can be confusing to understand, since there were feudal kingdoms and loose associations with the same names and similar languages in many parts of the world, but it is important to recognise that these were not nations in the modern sense. Some of these feudal communities went on to develop into modern nations. Others disappeared or were subsumed.
The true nation only appeared on the scene historically with the development of capitalism, as the expansion of commodity production and markets broke down the barriers between previously self-sufficient and isolated feudal fiefdoms and united them in the interests of trade and commerce – bringing a single infrastructure and language, a single set of laws, taxes and customs, and the massive expansion of the capitalist division of labour that made the average individual much more dependent on many others (spread across the entire national territory) for the necessaries of life.
The Marxist definition of a nation is quite precise: “A nation is a historically-evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a community of culture.” If a group of people lacks even one of these characteristics, they cannot be considered to be a nation. (JV Stalin)
That is why Marxists refute the idea of a ‘jewish nation’ or a ‘muslim nation’, for example. Because a shared religion among people spread across the globe does not make for a nation. There are jewish Americans, jewish Iranians and jewish Germans, and the jews in each of these cases share a language, territory, culture and economic life with their fellow Americans, Iranians and Germans. Likewise, there is no such thing as a ‘black nation’. Black Americans, black Congolese and black French people may share a colour of skin, but their language, territory, economic life and culture are those of America, Congo and France respectively.
Like everything else in human history, nations are a transitional phenomenon, and their lifespan is actually destined to be rather short in the overall scheme of things. Nation states are the form that capitalist class rule took in western Europe, while in the East, where capitalism arrived on the scene somewhat later, multinational states are the norm. Along with classes and the state itself, nations will gradually disappear after capitalism has been replaced everywhere with socialism.
Nationalism is therefore an ideology that has developed out of capitalist production relations, and which reinforces capitalist society. It encourages workers to identify their interests with that of their ‘country’, which means identifying more with their own exploiters than with the exploited peoples of other countries. That is why Marx famously wrote that workers have no country, and why the communists adopt the red flag of the workers rather than identifying with national symbols.
Nationalism and national-liberation
That being the case, one might wonder why we should ever give our support to a national movement. Paradoxically, in the era of imperialism, nationalism in the countries that are oppressed and superexploited by the imperialist powers can very often play a progressive role. It can encourage the oppressed to unite against their oppressors and rise up against them, since the national bourgeoisie is also suppressed by imperialist rule and stopped from developing. In these cases, the workers and the independent-minded national bourgeoisie (as opposed to comprador sections of the bourgeoisie who facilitate imperialist exploitation and oppression) have a shared goal and can become temporary allies, despite their class antagonisms as exploiters and exploited.
When Stalin wrote his famous work on the national question in 1913, his conclusions were endorsed by Lenin and by the international communist movement. He showed that in the interests of the maximum unity of the working class, the rights of oppressed nations to self-determination – ie, to be free to organise their lives and economies without interference from imperialist powers – must be respected and fought for. He showed that the struggle of the oppressed peoples for national liberation is a part and parcel of the proletariat’s struggle against imperialism.
He explained that only by recognising and fighting for the rights of the oppressed could workers in the imperialist countries free themselves from the superiority complex that kept them siding with their own exploiters and looking down on the superexploited masses – and that this attitude kept workers in the imperialist countries tied to their own ruling classes and separated from the exploited of the world, who ought to be their biggest ally in the struggle for revolution. This division was and is a major barrier to the development of a real revolutionary movement in the imperialist countries.
On the other hand, Stalin showed that only by having complete freedom to finally determine their own destiny would workers of the oppressed countries ever let go of their own national prejudices and come to see their common interests with workers from the oppressing countries.
National oppression is therefore a bar to the unity of workers and peasants all over the world against their common oppressors, and is thus an impediment to socialist revolution. That is why Marxists support the national-liberation struggles of the oppressed peoples, and why we demand their complete freedom of self-determination. We are supporting these national-liberation struggles because of their democratic and anti-imperialist content, not because we are in favour of encouraging nationalism.
We in the CPGB-ML take these lessons from history very seriously. Of all the people who call themselves communist in Britain, we are the only ones who really take our duties towards the oppressed of the world to heart. Ours is the only party that constantly seeks to show British workers the connection between the superexploitation of workers and peasants abroad and the strength of our ruling-class enemies at home.
Unlike the Trotskyists, we do not try to tell workers in the oppressed countries how they should conduct the struggle against imperialism. We recognise their rights unconditionally and give them and their chosen leaders unstinting support, no matter how they are demonised in the imperialist media. Alone among the British ‘left’ parties we opposed the wars against Libya and Syria from the very beginning – and supported the anti-imperialist leaders of those countries against imperialist vilification.
Unlike the revisionists of the CPB, we do everything in our power to expose the imperialist nature of the Labour party and break the working class’s illusions in social democracy. We do all we can, small as we are, to promote unity with the oppressed masses of the world and to break the connection between the working-class movement and the imperialist stooges who currently control it.
Unlike every other party and supposed ‘solidarity’ movement, we try to show workers in Britain what our rulers on no account wish them to understand: that we have the collective power to stop British imperialism from functioning – whether it is waging illegal wars abroad or making draconian attacks on the working class at home – and should organise ourselves to use it.
No cooperation with British war crimes. No cooperation with capitalist austerity. Workers have the power to stop the wars and stop the cuts. These are our core messages to workers in Britain.
But the same seriousness we apply to our support for the oppressed peoples abroad applies to our waging of all other aspects of the class struggle. This is not a game or a passing popularity contest, but a deadly serious endeavour. We have no hope of winning in the long run if we refuse to take a scientific approach to all important questions; if we pander to popular prejudice and are scared to tell workers unwelcome truths.
The lessons from science and from history are clear. We support the independence movements of the oppressed nations because that weakens imperialism and enables workers to unite on the basis of equality. We do not support anything that divides the working class for no good reason. The coming struggles will be hard enough; we have no business making them even harder by allowing ourselves to be corralled into smaller and smaller groups.
Building for revolution in an imperialist country
Alongside the conclusions discussed above, Stalin also showed very clearly that to demand ‘self-determination’ for every group of workers that has fallen into nationalism is a backward and not a progressive step. He was adamant that unless a group really can be scientifically determined to be a nation in the modern, capitalist sense of the term – and can be shown to be being oppressed and superexploited by imperialism – there is no basis and no justification for dividing the working class.
At all times and in all cases, the paramount consideration for revolutionary Marxists must be the achievement of the maximum strength and unity of the working class. If the development of the capitalist state has already brought together various disparate groups of workers from pre-existing groups or feudal societies and welded them into a single nation (albeit with some differences in their historical backgrounds and local customs), it is not the job of the communists to go re-dividing those peoples along lines that were long ago obliterated in all meaningful ways. That is merely to help the capitalists in their aim of dividing in order to rule.
At the time when Stalin wrote his pamphlet on the national question, the working and oppressed masses in the Russian empire, just like workers today in Britain, were suffering from deep demoralisation. The 1905 revolution had been defeated, and this defeat had led many to believe that the revolution would never happen. After all, at that point, before the success of the 1917 October revolution, Marxism still seemed to many to be an untested theory. As the revolutionary tide receded, nationalism rose to take the place of internationalism and revolution.
In this situation, bourgeois ideology was in the ascendant. Marxism seemed to have been disproved, and many groups sprang up claiming that the solution for their particular group of workers was ‘national self-determination’. Essentially, they said, “Forget about the revolution, forget about socialism, forget about solidarity … if we can get language rights and ‘cultural autonomy’ for our little group, we don’t need to care what happens to anyone else.”
And before they knew it, workers who had been standing together in struggle one day were acting as strike-breakers against their fellows the next, because they had started to identify themselves as being from different ‘national’ groups. Alongside this, they were voting for ‘representation’ in parliaments and other talking shops not on class lines but on ethnic ones, supporting all kinds of anti-working-class scoundrels on the basis of a shared ‘national identity’.
Scottish nationalism serves imperialism
That is why, before coming to a conclusion on the question of Scottish self-determination, we conducted research into the question of Scottish nationhood. And the conclusion we came to was clear: there is no such thing, in the scientific sense, as the ‘Scottish nation’. There may briefly have been an ‘English nation’, which developed out of the feudal kingdoms of England, but that too is long gone. In its place there long ago developed the British nation – into which both English and Scottish rulers and workers alike were amalgamated. This has been an established fact for some 250 years.
There is no evidence to back up the claim that the Scots are being kept down as a nation and denied their right to self-determination in the United Kingdom.
The Irish, on the other hand, have clearly been oppressed for centuries – their people starved, their language and culture suppressed, their resources looted – with the native rulers expropriated and feeling the jackboot as well as the native workers and peasants. Hence the constant resurgence of armed struggle by the Irish people over the years. And hence the fact that the core tenets of the Irish peace process are all about redressing the basic inequality of treatment between the settler-colonial and native populations (protestants and catholics; unionists and nationalists).
There is an interesting point that no Scottish nationalist ever seems to have an answer to. If Scotland is a colony of ‘English imperialism’, how on earth has it managed to win its chance for ‘freedom’ without any kind of struggle?
Where in the world did a colonising power ever give up its hold on power and ability to loot superprofits voluntarily? Where in the world did an oppressed and colonised people ever win their freedom without mobilising a fierce struggle by the masses, usually including the use of arms?
We have seen centuries of armed and political mass struggle by the oppressed and superexploited masses of Ireland, but no such struggle has ever been remotely on the cards in Scotland. If the people of Scotland have really been oppressed and exploited by ‘English’ overlords for so long, we have to ask ourselves: why has such a struggle not materialised?
And then we have to ask ourselves something else: what kind of freedom fighters ever included in their list of demands that they should be ‘allowed’ to keep the key elements of their oppression intact after liberation?
And yet, these are precisely the ‘demands’ of the Scottish nationalist leaders. They wish to keep the British Queen as their head of state, keep the British pound as their currency (“The pound … is as much Scotland’s pound as the rest of the UK’s,” says Alex Salmond), keep the British army regiments currently based in Scotland (and soaked in the blood of the oppressed of the world) as their army, and keep their membership not only of the imperialist EU but even of the nuclear warmongering Nato alliance. Indeed, Alex Salmond has made it clear that the SNP’s commitment to a ‘nuclear-free’ Scotland is of secondary importance to a retained membership of nuclear-armed Nato!
Meanwhile, the Queen, the army and British financial control are precisely the bastions of British imperialist domination that centuries of Irish struggle have been aimed at removing from Irish soil!
It seems from this that what is on offer is not ‘national liberation’ or ‘independence’, but the division of the working class into hostile camps, alongside the continued unity of the exploiters. Business as usual for British imperialism, in fact.
What difference would it really make to workers in Scotland if Britain’s Trident missiles were shoved over the border to Berwick or Bowness? Would they be less likely to suffer the effects of nuclear fallout from such a move? Would a Nato-aligned Scotland be any less culpable for the use of nuclear weapons by the Nato alliance?
Those who imagine that they are ridding themselves of a large section of exploiters in voting for independence should consider carefully: Alex Salmond will not be the last representative of the British ruling class in ‘independent’ Scotland; only the most visible one. Just as in the case of ‘Westminster rule’, the real decisions will continue to be made by the British billionaire class behind the scenes.
The SNP leadership may seem to represent a less seasoned brand of exploiters, but, make no mistake, they and their replacements will simply be what all other British politicians are and have been for centuries – the public face of a very old, very experienced and very cunning ruling class.
All Alex Salmond’s statements about Nato, the Queen, the pound, the army and so on, are simply his job-interview promises to that class. In effect, he is telling his bosses: “Don’t worry, I understand what is required of me and will do the job you need me to do.” And just as in the case of Cameron, Blair and co, voting out Salmond would simply bring another Salmond clone into his place.
So what would the ‘independence’ that is on offer (as opposed to the imaginary castles-in-the-sky of various ‘left-nationalist’ illusion-mongers) really mean for workers in Scotland?
The reality, far from being the socialist paradise that is painted by the ‘left-wing’ supporters of nationalism in Scotland, will simply be a race to the bottom, as the governments in the two territories compete to ‘attract investment’ and to prove their subservience to monopoly capital by lowering wages, lowering corporation tax, removing workers’ rights, removing environmental protections and so on. The break-up of the union carries the prospect of an even faster erosion of the rights of the working class, helping our rulers to lower workers’ pay and rights more quickly than if they had to continue with a full-frontal attack on the entire British workforce in one go.
After all, breaking up the NHS into regional groups and attacking them with different levels of ferocity has been of great assistance in the work of reprivatising Britain’s health service. Workers in Scotland have been lulled into a false sense of security that if they keep voting nationalist the cuts will never come to them, while the workers in England have been left to stand alone against the worst of the attacks so far.
Of course, experience of such things teaches us that the ruling class is expert at picking us off bit by bit in order to achieve its aims. There is every reason to suppose that NHS privatisation will come to Scotland – and will be even harder to resist by workers in Scotland who have seen them happening elsewhere and will have been told that there is no alternative, and who will receive no back-up from their compatriots over the border in England.
The prospect of a destructive race to the bottom is perfectly illustrated by Alex Salmond’s proposal to cut corporation tax in an independent Scotland. Salmond has stated that: “Corporation tax rates remain an important tool for securing competitive advantage and for offsetting competitive advantages enjoyed by other parts of the UK, notably London.”
Even bourgeois critics of this policy have pointed out that “Alex Salmond wants to turn the nations of the UK into competitors, with the risks to jobs and conditions that would involve.”
This is a law of economics under capitalism, and especially in times of crisis, when unemployment is climbing ever higher and workers are desperate for whatever they can get. Whichever side of the separation border has better protections for workers, higher taxes and so on, will be bound to be seen as less ‘attractive’ to ‘investors’ (capitalists), since anything that benefits workers cannot help but impact levels of profitability.
So investment will flock to the more ‘flexible’ side of the border, and the cry will go up on the other side … we, too, need to be more ‘flexible’ and ‘attractive’. Down will come the wages, the corporation taxes and other ‘barriers’ to profit-taking. Back will come the exploiters to reap the rewards … until the workers on the other side of the border can be forced to accept even worse pay and conditions in the interests of ‘job creation’ and ‘competitiveness’.
In effect, the implementation of the border will help to speed up the process of ‘persuading’ British workers to accept the same kind of pay and conditions as are standard in the oppressed countries – and to lessen their collective resistance. Such a future has appeal to the ruling class, but it is hardly the manifesto of a liberation struggle! Meanwhile, the Scottish nationalists are working hard to prove to the capitalists that this is a game they are more than willing to play their part in.
‘Progressive’ nationalism: a mirage
All the ‘progressive’ arguments in favour of Scottish independence ignore these facts, basing themselves in shallow, short-sighted and sentimental arguments that mistake wishes for truths and dreams for reality.
Here are just a few of the more widespread examples of wishful thinking by the independence supporters of Britain’s ‘left’:
1. The Tories will be decimated in Scotland, and this will be good for workers, who will finally get local powers instead of being ruled from Westminster.
This argument replaces the realities of class struggle with the illusions of bourgeois politicking. Anyone who knows anything about capitalism and the bourgeois state can tell you that there is no essential difference between any capitalist party in Britain today.
What good does it do to the workers of Scotland if they simply replace the Conservatives, Labour and LibDems with the SNP? They all serve capitalist imperialism. They are all parties of war and austerity. Recent history is enough to show us that any number of Labour or SNP landslides will still bring war, genocide and looting abroad, and privatisation, crisis and austerity at home, because these are built into the system that all the British bourgeois parties serve.
We are told that people in Scotland didn’t vote for the Tories and it’s a travesty of democracy that they should have to be ruled by them.
But workers didn’t vote overwhelmingly for the Tories in plenty of other parts of Britain. Most of the poorest workers didn’t vote at all. The first-past-the-post system and the constant changing of electoral boundaries (gerrymandering) mean that by upping their vote from 32.4 to 36.1 percent of votes cast (ie, a less than 4 percent rise), the Tories in 2010 were able to increase their number of seats in parliament from 210 to 307 (a 46 percent rise). Meanwhile, the LibDems, on whom so many well-meaning liberals placed their hopes in 2010, raised their votes from 22 to 23 percent but actually lost five seats.
Likewise, we are told that most Scottish people don’t support the policies being implemented by the Tory-led coalition, and this proves they are being ‘undemocratically’ and unfairly treated.
Once again, though, this actually applies to workers all over Britain, who overwhelmingly reject the wars and austerity of both the current ConDem and the previous Labour government. Should we therefore be arguing for the republic of Yorkshire or the republic of Merseyside? These regions, too, have large populations of disenfranchised workers, who never voted Tory, feel disconnected from London and have seen their industry and services decimated.
Even the hatred for ‘London’ is misplaced and confused. London may be where the City bankers are based, along with the Westminster quislings, but it is also home to some of Britain’s poorest people. And Londoners don’t generally vote Tory or UKIP either. Should they be given their own republic to free them from this democratic deficit?
Neither the separation of Scotland from Britain, nor a change in the voting system will fix these problems for workers. The capitalist parties will do what the capitalist ruling class requires them to do, no matter how people vote or how many of them take to the street to express their ‘peaceful opposition’.
If the Iraq war taught us nothing else, it surely taught us that. A landslide Labour electoral victory and two million marchers on the streets had absolutely no impact on the dominant section of the British imperialist ruling class’s will or ability to wage a genocidal war that the people of Britain – and even a section of the bourgeoisie – were absolutely opposed to. That is the truth about our much-vaunted ‘democratic’ system.
Progressive people should be using those facts to expose the institution of British bourgeois democracy entirely and to build a movement for its revolutionary overthrow, not as a justification for dividing the working class and propagating the (totally false) illusion of a ‘fairer deal’ for just a few of them. The truth is that the struggle for a better deal for workers will actually be much harder to wage in a smaller country with an even further weakened working-class movement, where workers have been turned away from class struggle and persuaded to pin their hopes on nationalist illusions.
Meanwhile, as far as local powers go, this is also a demand of workers everywhere, and fully supported by communists. We want ‘devo-max’ for every part of Britain, not just for Scotland or Wales. Indeed, local councils with elected representatives, which are actually empowered with tax-raising and decision-making powers, are one of the many concessions granted to workers – along with council housing, a health service, free education etc – that have been under attack in the years since the overproduction crisis took hold in the late 1970s.
The lesson of this is that we cannot trust the capitalist system to be run in the interest of workers. Everything we win in the course of class struggle can be taken away again if we let down our guard. The only way to keep hold of the gains we make is to get rid of the capitalist system and establish socialism. A lack of local powers is not an argument for nationalism; it is an argument for socialism.
2. The SNP is anti-war and will take Scotland out of Nato. No more imperialist wars for Scottish workers to fight in.
Replacing the Tories with the SNP will not change the requirements of the imperialist ruling class by one iota, and the SNP has shown that it understands this and is ready to serve that class just as faithfully as Labour, the Tories or the LibDems.
That is why, the closer it gets to the possibility of an ‘independent’ Scotland, the more of the SNP’s progressive-seeming policies (which were only ever there as window-dressing to attract voters) are being ditched. The promise to keep Scotland in Nato, along with reassurances about the importance of ‘Scotland’s’ British army regiments, are a sure sign that the warmongering requirements of the ruling class remain a key factor in who can and cannot get elected – and what they will have the power to do (or not) – north of the border should ‘independence’ come to pass.
Those who spread the illusion that Scottish nationalism is somehow ‘anti-imperialist’, and that an independent Scotland will see the Scottish ruling class opting out of imperialist wars altogether, are lying to themselves and to the workers. There might be disagreement between members of the ruling class over this or that war, but the overall policy of warmongering is not going to change, since that is at the root of the wealth of the British ruling class – both north and south of the border.
The French ruling class did not take troops into Iraq. Does that mean they stopped being imperialists and warmongers? One has only to look at the crimes committed by French imperialist troops in recent times in Libya, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire and more by the ‘socialist’ government of Hollande to see that disagreement over one particular war doesn’t mean an end to imperialist war in general.
3. The SNP has a more progressive manifesto for education and health care in Scotland. Independence will allow them to carry these out.
It is true that the SNP, like Plaid Cymru and even the LibDems (until they were so deservedly exposed by joining the coalition government in 2010) have or had stated policies that were considerably to the left of the last Labour government on most social issues – hence their relative rise in popularity at a time when the working classes have been so thoroughly disillusioned with Labour and demoralised by the failure of the trade-union and social-democratic movements to represent them or struggle for their rights.
Both the Welsh and the Scottish national assemblies have been allowed some power to reject privatisation and cuts in these vital services. What is not clear is that this is a situation that would continue after ‘independence’.
On the contrary, there is every reason to believe that allowing the nationalists some financial scope to appear progressive on these fronts has objectively paid dividends for the ruling class. It has broken the unity of the fight to save services (since Welsh and Scottish voters think they are not affected) and given a massive boost to nationalist sentiments (thus keeping workers away from revolutionary ideology at a time of crisis, just when they need it most).
But the post-independence race to the bottom would be very likely to see these small gains eradicated. And, indeed, such petty gains are small beer indeed compared to the goal of a socialist Britain. Are we really prepared to sell ourselves and settle for so very little?
Not jobs, pensions, housing, health care and education with security, equality, freedom, dignity and the end of class exploitation and rule, but a slightly-less-buggered-up health service and slightly-less-shitty education policies? Frankly, we deserve a little better than to sell our birthright for such a mess of pottage!
4. British imperialism will be weakened by the departure of Scotland from the UK, and that will be good for workers at home and abroad.
There is no evidence that this is anything more than wishful thinking on the part of those who assert it. As indicated above, the Scottish nationalists, as represented currently by the SNP, have expressed their intention of setting up a ‘state’ that keeps all the important pillars of British rule intact – the army, the monetary union, membership of the EU and Nato, the Queen (spokesperson and figurehead of a united British ruling class).
Moreover, BBC propaganda has been extremely sympathetic to Scottish nationalism. It long ago changed the status of Wales and Scotland from ‘regions’ to ‘nations’ in its coverage, and it has given an open platform to nationalists from every walk of life to make their case most forcefully and without interruption. Given how infamous the BBC is for vilifying and misrepresenting every real opponent of British imperial interests – from Palestinian and Irish freedom fighters to the leaders of socialist and anti-imperialist states like Fidel Castro or Robert Mugabe – this is strange indeed.
Taking the BBC as a barometer of class sentiment, this readiness to disseminate nationalist ideology is hardly the behaviour of a class that feels its interests to be threatened. On the contrary, the coverage has all the elements of a massive sideshow – a huge and fraudulent sleight of hand that is being perpetrated on the workers of Britain, with the same mock debates, fake ‘choices’ and personality politics that characterise all our electoral charades.
And now the latest rumour is that Rupert Murdoch is getting ready to back the ‘Yes’ campaign. A more hard-headed and warmongering member of the imperialist ruling class would be difficult to find. He may talk about his Scottish forefathers, but he calculates with his blood-soaked wallet.
5. To campaign for a ‘No’ vote in the referendum is to side with the BNP, the unionists and the Orange Order, and therefore it must be against the interests of the working class.
This argument is as unscientific as all the rest, and has its roots in an emotive, tribal approach to class politics. While such instincts often serve progressive workers very well, they are not infallible and are all-too open to manipulation when not firmly rooted in a scientific analysis – just as a hatred of racism can turn into a hatred of all white people and a belief in black nationalism if the roots of racism are not properly understood.
Identifying ‘unionists’ as the enemy based on an allegiance to and sympathy with Irish republicans means ignoring the very real differences in the class positions of unionists in Glasgow and unionists in Belfast. The unionists in Belfast are a settler-colonial population who were for centuries granted significant material privileges in return for acting as local tools of the British imperialist ruling class – in much the same way as Israeli workers are rewarded for keeping the Palestinian people down.
Just as they did for the Israelis or South African whites, the material conditions of the Irish unionists produced a culture of racist supremacy and violence, which, alongside the well-deserved hatred of the native-Irish masses, pushed them to identify themselves with their own exploiters to such a degree that nothing short of destroying the sectarian northern-Irish statelet could open their eyes to their idiocy – by first removing the material basis for their supremacist ideology.
The tribal aspect of this ‘protestant-catholic’ or ‘unionist-republican’ rivalry has been transplanted wholesale to cities in Britain that have a sizeable Irish-immigrant population, and has been a very useful tool for the British ruling class in keeping workers divided. Glasgow, in particular has suffered from this, and seen it entrenched via the football terraces.
But, while the Irish have suffered the fate of every immigrant population into Britain in their time as cheap labour and easy scapegoats, the differentiation between these groups of workers, however real in the past, has its basis today more in perceived than in real differences, as the Irish have been assimilated and fresh waves of immigrants have arrived in Britain’s cities. Today, newly-arrived workers from eastern Europe or Africa are far more obvious scapegoats for working-class ire in Scotland as elsewhere, but the tribal identities of protestant vs catholic are kept alive in Glasgow in particular via the football rivalry of Rangers vs Celtic, just as the England vs Scotland divide is kept alive in the field of international football.
Meanwhile, our party has to take a position based on a clear understanding of the question, and not out of a fear regarding whom we might seem to be associated with.
There is emotive rubbish being talked by charlatans on both sides of the referendum campaign in Scotland, and working-class people are taking up the cudgels on both sides too – for a whole variety of real or perceived reasons. Our job as communists is to try to provide some clarity and some rational, class basis for taking a position. And our position must always be based on what is going to be in the long-term interests of the revolutionary movement.
Because UKIP are opposed to Nato’s war in the Ukraine, should we suddenly abandon a correct analysis and join the side of Nato? Of course not. We must demonstrate clearly the difference between taking up a position based on Little-England racism and one that is based in proletarian internationalism – and then do everything in our power to show workers why it is in their interests to accept our analysis and join the struggle for revolution.
The unionists want British workers to identify with the class interests and the national symbols of our oppressors. They want to divert the anger of workers down a blind alley and dissipate their energies into pointless activity. We communists, on the other hand, want to show workers that their interests lie in the maximum unity of all British workers against all British oppressors. We want them to identify their interests with the oppressed everywhere, to discard the blood-stained Cross of St Andrew along with the blood-stained Union Jack (the Butcher’s Apron, as the Irish so aptly refer to it), and to build a movement for overthrowing imperialism and building socialism.
But we will not do that without understanding clearly who are our friends and who are our enemies. The fact that good, well-meaning and generally progressive people have been misled must not prevent us from “seeking truth from facts”, as Mao so profoundly expressed it.
Nationalism vs communism
The fact that many progressive Scots wish to see British imperialism weakened, and hope that by voting for independence they will achieve this aim, does not prove that that is what will actually happen.
What we are witnessing in Scotland today has its echoes all over Britain. The outward appearance may be more progressive, since many left-wing workers support the call for independence, but it is essentially a mirror of the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment among impoverished and misguided English workers, arising from the same demoralisation and the same frustrations.
All over Britain, revisionism and the disappearance of a real, class-conscious communist movement left the most militant workers bereft of leadership and guidance. The Labour party, in which they had been encouraged to put their hopes, has proved itself irrevocably to be a tool of imperialism. It is clearly not in the interests of workers to continue voting for it or supporting it.
So as war and crisis bite ever deeper, workers have been asking themselves what the solution is. And into the gap left by the communists has crept nationalism. In England, this takes the form of anti-immigrant sentiment. That immigration is a ‘problem’ is a ‘truth’ so universally acknowledged that it is very hard to persuade workers that they have been duped on this issue.
In Scotland and Wales, a more progressive-seeming brand of nationalism has been offered up as the ‘answer’ to the problems of capitalism. But its effect is the same – it gives workers a scapegoat for the ills of capitalist society. “Don’t blame capitalism, blame the immigrants!” say the BNP and EDL to angry and disillusioned workers in England. And the media agrees. “Don’t blame capitalism, blame the English!” say the SNP and Plaid Cymru to the angry and disillusioned workers in Scotland and Wales. And the media agrees.
That people are in the mood to fall for this misdirection is a sign that they understand that something is wrong and that something must be done. They have understood that this society is not serving them, and given up hopes of a worker-friendly Labour government. So far, so good. But without a clear analysis and leadership, it can be very hard to understand where all the various ‘solutions’ on offer will really lead.
Back when Britain had a strong communist movement, nationalism among class-conscious workers was almost non-existent. This explains why there is such a generational divide amongst working-class voters in Scotland today – older people are far, far less likely to vote ‘Yes’ in the referendum, because they belong to a generation amongst whom it was generally understood that class allegiances were paramount.
No argument has yet been put forward to convince us that Scotland’s rulers will cease to be imperialists after a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum. Therefore all that nationalism does in such a context is to teach workers in Scotland to identify their interests with those of imperialism. This is an outcome devoutly to be unwished!
As communists, our job is to propagate a scientific understanding in order to help workers discard harmful popular prejudices. If we don’t do that, then there’s really not much point to our existence, since it is only through discarding the prejudices that keep us shackled to imperialist ideas that we will be able to build a movement capable of smashing imperialism and building socialism.
When we in the CPGB-ML argue against a ‘Yes’ vote at the coming referendum, we do so not because we wish to endorse the rule of the Westminster spivs or because we consider ‘rule from London’ a good thing, but because we wish workers to understand that it is not ‘the English’ who are their enemies, but the British ruling class. And because we wish to create a movement that is as strong and unified as possible that will have a fighting chance of overthrowing this wily class of bloodthirsty exploiters.
Say no to bourgeois nationalism, which ties workers to imperialism and turns us into tools of our own oppression. Say yes to working-class unity, yes to revolution, and yes to a socialist future for all British workers!