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Spartacist Confusionists & the Scottish Referendum

SL & IG flounder on Scotland and Quebec

In September’s referendum on Scottish independence, a clear majority of voters (55 percent) chose to remain within the “United Kingdom.” While upholding the right of all nations (e.g., Scotland) to self-determination, Leninists actively advocate separation only when national antagonisms pose a significant obstacle to joint working-class struggle. As there is little evidence that this is the case today, we advised a “No” vote (see “Scotland’s Independence Referendum: Austerity, nationalism and class collaboration”.

The Spartacist League/Britain (SL/B, section of the International Communist League [ICL]) took a different view, refusing to opt for either a “Yes” or “No” vote, a policy they initially described as one of “indifference.” This characterization was subsequently “corrected” with the nonsensical claim that they were in fact “not indifferent to the outcome” despite not supporting either side, ostensibly on the grounds of an inability to gauge the “depth of national antagonisms” in view of their assertion that “the evidence is contradictory” (Workers Hammer, Autumn 2014).

Over the years, the Spartacist tendency has published a series of rather peculiar statements on Scotland, most of which are attributable to the fondness of James Robertson, the group’s founder/leader, for all things Scottish. (Robertson fancies himself a descendant of Robert the Bruce, the 14th century Scottish king.) The Autumn 2006 edition of Workers Hammer reprised some of these strange positions:

“the Scottish proletariat [has …] historically openly identified with the Soviet Union and Communism. During the 1980s Cold War we appealed to such sentiments by raising evocative slogans such as ‘Turn Holy Loch into a Soviet U-boat pen!’ and ‘For a Scottish workers republic as part of the USSR!’ &hellipl ”

A decade earlier, Robertson’s Canadian acolytes published a piece by Oliver Stephens that included a paean to Scottish nationalism ranking among the most cringe-worthy passages ever produced by these political degenerates:

“So the concept of a nation, as we know it in the latter 20th century, is historically a recent development. This of course has not prevented various nationalists from inventing a glorious ‘history’ for their own particular nation. Most of this is nonsense, but the Scots may be an exception to the rule. In 1320 the Scottish lords petitioned the Pope – in writing, quite a novelty at the time! – for succor against the predations of the English king. In their ‘Declaration of Arbroath’ they noted that:
“‘ … we find that among other famous nations our own, the Scots, has been graced with widespread renown. They journeyed from Greater Scythia by way of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Pillars of Hercules, and dwelt for a long course of time in Spain among the most savage tribes, but nowhere could they be subdued by any race, however barbarous. Thence they came, twelve hundred years after the people of Israel crossed the Red Sea, to their home in the west where they still live today.… In their kingdom there have reigned one hundred and thirteen kings of their own royal stock, the line unbroken by a single foreigner.’”
Spartacist Canada, March 1996

During a public debate on Quebec in 1999 (see Marxism and the Quebec National Question), we suggested that this Scottish exceptionalist drivel originated in the cultish internal structure of the Spartacist tendency.

In its statement on the recent referendum (“For a Scottish Workers Republic in a Socialist Federation of the British Isles”), Jan Norden’s Internationalist Group (IG – an organization whose founders were ejected from the ICL in 1996) aptly characterized the SL’s “no line, but ‘not indifferent’” posture as confusionist. The IG advocated a “Yes” vote while, at the same time, distancing themselves from the Robertsonians’ “long history of idle flirtation with Scottish nationalism without consummation” and “the kitsch ‘Braveheart’ mythology shared by both left and right nationalists.”

The IG demagogically asserted that by supporting a “No” vote, the IBT was “lining up with Cameron, Tony Blair and the Orange Order.” This sort of guilt-by-association argument rarely advances any discussion – in politics, widely divergent formations frequently end up taking the same position on particular questions. When France’s far-right Front National criticizes NATO attacks in the Middle East, are leftists who oppose imperialist intervention “lining up” with them? Of course not.

Our September statement on the referendum was unambiguous:

“Marxists recognise that the Scots constitute a nation. As such, they have the democratic right to self-determination – that is, the right to separate from Britain and form an independent state (or the right to remain in Britain if they so choose). Whatever a majority of voters decide in the referendum, it is the duty of socialists to defend that right. English revolutionaries have a particular responsibility to oppose anti-Scottish chauvinism and efforts by London to bully or curtail the rights of the Scots.”

Lenin compared the right of nations to self-determination to the right to divorce – to uphold the right to separate is not to demand its exercise at a given moment. Whether or not Marxists advocate independence at a particular juncture is a tactical question as to how best to advance the class struggle.

When it was founded, three and a half decades ago, the SL/B’s position on Scotland was identical to our own today – support “for theright of self-determination, but call[ing] on the Scottish people to exercise that right by choosing to stay in the same state as the other peoples of Britain” (Spartacist Britain, No.1, April 1978). At that time, as today, there was little evidence of national hostilities presenting a major obstacle to joint class struggle between Scottish and English workers. As there has been no qualitative change in the situation, the IG has considerable difficulty explaining why a position that was correct in 1978 reflects “chauvinist, social-democratic/Labourite economism” today.

Starting from the premise that Scottish independence is necessary, the IG works backwards to try to rationalize its decision. Yet their arguments, which necessarily have to downplay the central issue of the actual relations between workers across national lines, are far from compelling. While claiming that “a critical ‘yes’ vote” is necessary “to get the national question off the agenda” and thus “focus Scottish workers’ struggle against the Scottish bosses,” the IG cites no concrete instances of national antagonisms between Scottish and English (or Welsh) workers preventing class struggle.

The IG does make an effort to find a proletarian axis for their advocacy of Scottish independence:

“such trade-union struggles as there are, are becoming increasingly disconnected. A UK-wide strike of teachers this year did not include Scotland; teachers there are not in the National Union of Teachers but rather the Educational Institute of Scotland (a rather right-wing union) and faced with a quite different educational system.”

But in fact many English teachers are also not in the NUT – they are members of NASUWT, which organizes across Britain (including Scotland). There has certainly been a decline in struggle in recent decades, but this is chiefly attributable to the slavish adherence of the trade-union bureaucracy to bourgeois legality.

The most significant setback suffered by Scottish workers in recent years was, as the IG acknowledges, caused by the sabotage of pro-capitalist trade-union leaders:

“Last October, refinery workers at Grangemouth suffered a decisive defeat when they were blackmailed by threat of closure of the plant into accepting an agreement (brokered by Salmond) cutting jobs, pensions and pay, although a previous strike in February had defeated an attack on pensions. The walkout was sparked by the Labour Party, and they were stabbed in the back by [the] trade-union bureaucracy of Unite.”

While a majority of Scottish workers are probably inclined toward independence, the class is seriously divided on the question, which is why most unions refused to take a position on the referendum, as the IG statement noted.

With little evidence to back claims of bitter national antagonism, the IG falls back on an entirely different line of argument:

“An opportunity is posed to accelerate the break-up of imperialist Britain – it should be seized.… It would strike a blow against decrepit British imperialism (it’s been a long time since Britannia ruled the waves), and while the SNP has dropped its opposition to NATO, Scottish independence could still cause problems for that imperialist alliance.”

This argument could have been made in virtually any multinational imperialist country for the last century, and yet it was never advanced by any organization that we (or the IG) would regard as standing in the Leninist-Trotskyist tradition. Revolutionaries do not determine their position on national questions on the basis of such mechanical, objectivist calculations, but rather by the necessity to promote working-class solidarity across national lines.

The IG statement also acknowledges that “Scottish independence would result in the creation of another minor imperialist power – hardly a goal for working people.” Indeed. So how does this fit with the whole logic of seizing the “opportunity” to “cause problems” for NATO?

In a polemical aside, the IG suggests that the SL/B’s recent “correction” regarding its indifference was “continuing its recent pattern of abrupt turnabouts.” In fact, as Norden et al well know, this pattern is not so recent. [1] In any case, the ICL’s 2014 shift to neutrality on Scottish independence is less dramatic than its complete reversal on Quebec in 1995, when it adopted a position of unconditional support for immediate separation.

The IG polemicists observe that, contrary to the ICL, the IBT “repeats its policy of voting against Quebec independence in the 1995 referendum there. The IBT is at least consistent in its chauvinist, social-democratic/Labourite economism.” The IG is also consistent on Scotland and Quebec, but consistently wrong.

For the Quebecois, according to the IG, the turning point came “in 1972 [when] a Quebec general strike provoked not the slightest echo from the rest of Canadian labor. From that point on, revolutionary Marxists should have called for Quebec independence.” The IG claims that “In Quebec the left is dominated by nationalism and class confrontation will not likely come to the fore until separation from Canada.” In fact, most Quebecois far leftists (as opposed to the labor bureaucracy and some of the ostensibly Trotskyist left) are not particularly nationalist. This was obvious in the epic 2012 student struggle to resist government austerity measures in which hundreds of thousands of youth, backed by a broad spectrum of working people, successfully beat back the provincial Liberal government’s attempts to drastically hike tuition fees (see “Quebec Students Fight Back”). There was no nationalist element to these mobilizations and few overt expressions of separatist sentiment among the young militants.

In an 8 June 2012 letter to the IG (“Learn to Think”), we pointed out that this experience, which the IG itself described as “one of the most bitter social struggles in Canada for decades,” refuted the notion that without independence significant social struggle is impossible.

In their coverage of this mass struggle, both the IG and the ICL ignored the impact that the Quebec events were having in English Canada. The Globe and Mail (2 June 2012) reported that “scattered protests have begun to appear in other [English] Canadian cities, leading many to suggest that … the rest of Canada may yet be in for and [sic] awakening of its own.” Even more significant was the fact that English Canadian trade-union locals began sending financial assistance to the students, a development that alarmed Quebec’s labor bureaucrats, who appealed to their Anglo equivalents to try to cut off further support. This betrayal was documented in an exchange of letters that was widely reported on the left (and reproduced in “Quebec Students Fight Back”). The amazing display of proletarian solidarity across the national divide powerfully vindicated the original Spartacist analysis, which Robertson/Norden erroneously reversed in 1995.

It has been a long time since the leaders of the ICL and IG have been able to approach the national question as Marxists. They still mouth the formulas about it being a tactical question and the consequent necessity to assess “the depth of national antagonisms between the working people of the different nations” in order to determine policy from one moment to the next. But, at least in Scotland and Quebec, they are incapable of either seriously grappling with the concrete realities or addressing the political imperatives that flow from them.


 1   In fact there were many “abrupt turnabouts” prior to the purge of Norden and his comrades (see Whatever Happened to the Spartacist League). In 1982 the SL leadership abandoned a longstanding policy and instructed its members to march under the flag of the Salvadoran popular front. The following year the SL developed a sudden concern for the welfare of the U.S. Marines when they encountered resistance to their intervention in Lebanon’s civil war. In 1984 the SL’s reversal of its traditional view that there is not a “dime’s worth of difference” between the twin parties of U.S. imperialism prefigured a groveling offer to defend the Democrats’ convention against an imaginary Ku Klux Klan/Reaganite attack. In 1991 the SL refused to choose between the Stalinist remnants of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and Boris Yeltsin’s counterrevolutionary rabble. Two years later, when the Yeltsinites fell out, the SL initially took a correct position of backing neither side, only to subsequently reverse this without explanation.

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