How should socialists approach demands for national self-determination? Replying to the Communist Party of Britain, an influential presence behind the Morning Star newspaper, an article recently published by the Socialist Party Scotland takes up the defence of a Marxist approach to the national question, including issues raised by the demand for a second independence referendum in Scotland.
Young people and workers looking towards socialist and Marxist ideas sometimes ask us, what are the differences between Socialist Party Scotland and others on the left? This is an important question. Moreover, one that every person seeking out ideas to rid the world of the horrors of capitalism should be asking.
After all, how is it possible to judge what the most effective organisation to join actually is? Is that organisation capable of seriously taking on the task of building a viable working-class Marxist force to help lead a mass movement for socialist change? Only by studying the record, programme and role that organisation has played in leading struggles of the working class can an answer be found. Indeed the wrong political programme can, and indeed has, led to the defeat of many revolutionary opportunities in the past.
To assist in this clarification, Socialist Party Scotland, the Scottish section of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), has regularly written material that contrasts our position with that of others on the left, including the revolutionary left.
This method of contrasts has been utilised many times in the past by scientific socialists going all the way back to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels themselves, and including Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg. In critiquing the political ideas of others we do so to try and clarify for the reader what is the most effective programme that workers and young people should utilise in the struggle against capitalist oppression today.
In this article we outline the record of the Communist Party of Britain (CPB) and its youth wing, the Young Communist League (YCL), on the national question.
Running through the written material of the CPB and YCL are many references to ‘class unity’ and the need for ‘internationalism’ and ‘revolution’. This seemingly Marxist phraseology is however cosmetic in character. In reality, this is often used as a cover for an extremely abstract position on the national question and to justify the CPB/YCL’s opposition to the current democratic demands of the majority of young people and the working class in Scotland who currently support independence.
Alongside their use of revolutionary language sits a reformist political programme in general, which is in no sense revolutionary. In particular, as we explain in this article, the documented positions of the CPB and YCL advocate for a ‘solution’ to the national question within the framework of capitalism: an incredible position for so-called followers of Marx and Lenin to hold.
It is true that the bourgeois could, under certain conditions, be forced to concede a form of capitalist independence if faced with a mass movement. However, both in Scotland and internationally, formal national state independence on a capitalist basis would not resolve any of the economic, social and political crisis facing the working class and the masses. Only the struggle for socialism can deliver that outcome.
The 2014 independence referendum
In contrast to Socialist Party Scotland, the CPB and YCL campaigned for a No vote in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. In a statement produced in March 2014, the Scottish Committee of the CPB said: “Communists do not believe independence on the terms proposed is in the interests of working people today any more than it was in the 1970s”. They went on to explain: “A No vote in the referendum has to be made the springboard for remobilising the working class movement at British level to demand real constitutional change. The fight for radical federalism, as outlined in Red Paper, must begin now”. (17 March 2014)
Immediately following the September 2014 referendum result, they seemed to belatedly recognise the class nature of the Yes vote. While welcoming the ‘progressive’ outcome of the No majority, they also said: “However, there was very strong support for a Yes vote in the areas of the greatest poverty and unemployment. In Glasgow, Dundee, North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire, areas of traditional Labour support, Yes was in the majority”. (19 September 2014)
They put this development down to the loss the labour movement (in reality the Scottish Labour Party) had suffered of its traditional working class base and not a shift in working-class opinion over the national question. The impact of British capitalism’s decline and decades of Thatcherite policies provoked class anger and a major shift in consciousness, combined with the Labour Party’s refusal to struggle, driving support among the working class in particular towards independence. The creation of the Scottish parliament (and the Welsh and the revamped Northern Ireland assemblies) under the Blairite Labour government in the late 1990s was a concession by the ruling class in the face of a burgeoning national question and the fears the Union was under threat.
For decades, Socialist Party Scotland and our predecessors, Militant and Scottish Militant Labour, had fully recognised the growing support for independence in Scotland among the working class and young people. To argue, as the CPB and YCL did, that nothing had fundamentally changed from the 1970s, was bizarre. What had entirely changed was the outlook of big sections of the working class who had moved to a pro-independence position because of their experience of capitalism: mass unemployment, de-industrialisation, the poll tax and a race to the bottom in wages and conditions as well as the shift to the right by the Labour leaders since the 1980s.
The hatred of the Tories led in the 1997 general election to the complete wipe-out of Tory MPs from Scotland. In reality, a combination of economic and political factors over decades produced the redevelopment of a powerful national consciousness in Scotland that had always existed, albeit in the background, since the creation of the union with England in 1707, something Lenin noted in his book, State and Revolution.
That the Scottish National Party (SNP) leadership were, and are, wholly supportive of capitalism is correct. Marxists can give not an iota of support to pro-capitalist nationalism and its political representatives. But that is only one side of a Marxist policy on the national question. Another side is to take account of the outlook and consciousness of the working class and its most combative sections and how that changes and evolves.
As we wrote in a statement in 2003: “The strengthening of support for national independence was, for sections of the working class, a searching for a way out of the nightmare that capitalism represented – a system that was hacking away at the past gains of the workers’ movement. This fact, combined with the lack of a lead from the leadership of the traditional organisations that represented working class people left a big political vacuum. As Trotsky commented in relation to national consciousness, the growth in support for Scottish independence was the ‘outer shell of an immature Bolshevism’. A searching for a solution to poverty, unemployment and insecurity”. (3 August 2003)
This approach was a closed book for the CPB and YCL, who it seems have no understanding of Lenin’s policy on the national question. After all, there would have not been a successful Russian revolution in October 1917 had the Bolsheviks not adopted the position of the right to nations to self-determination up to and including the right to separation. While this did not mean advocating independence in every case, it did mean taking a very sensitive approach to the changing moods and national consciousness of the masses.
Record of Bolshevism
Take the example of Ukraine. After the Russian revolution and in the midst of the civil war in which imperialist forces and those ‘Whites’ inside Russia and Ukraine seeking a return to capitalism tried to overthrow the Bolsheviks, Lenin and Trotsky defended the right of Ukraine to independence. They recognised that only by making clear that there would be no hint or element of compulsion in the new Soviet federation could the workers and poor peasants of the Ukraine be won to the revolution.
Lenin laid out the following in 1919: “The independence of the Ukraine has been recognised both by the All-Russia Central Executive Committee of the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic (RSFSR) and by the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks). It is therefore self-evident and generally recognised that only the Ukrainian workers and peasants themselves can and will decide at their All-Ukraine Congress of Soviets whether the Ukraine shall amalgamate with Russia, or whether she shall remain a separate and independent republic, and, in the latter case, what federal ties shall be established between that republic and Russia”.
By the way, it was these decisions by the Bolsheviks over the recognition of the right of self-determination for Ukraine that Putin attacked in his 2021 document, On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians, and then publicly exploded in anger over in 2022. In Putin’s televised speech just before recognising the republics of Donetsk and Luhansk and the start of the invasion in February, he argued that after the 1917 socialist revolution, the Bolsheviks “main goal was to stay in power at all costs, absolutely at all costs. They did everything for this purpose”, including satisfying “any demands and wishes of the nationalists within the country… Soviet Ukraine is the result of the Bolsheviks’ policy and can be rightfully called ‘Vladimir Lenin’s Ukraine’. He was its creator and architect”.
What a contrast to Lenin’s position when in the same letter from December 1919 to Ukrainian workers and peasants, he wrote: “We want a voluntary union of nations – a union which precludes any coercion of one nation by another – a union founded on complete confidence, on a clear recognition of brotherly unity, on absolutely voluntary consent. Such a union cannot be effected at one stroke; we have to work towards it with the greatest patience and circumspection, so as not to spoil matters and not to arouse distrust, and so that the distrust inherited from centuries of landowner and capitalist oppression, centuries of private property and the enmity caused by its divisions and re-divisions may have a chance to wear off”.
Great sensitivity towards nationalities was required by the Bolsheviks when drawing up a federal structure for the new Soviet Union. Lenin and Trotsky strongly criticised the 1922 draft constitution for the young workers’ state prepared by Joseph Stalin which asserted that the Caucasian republics must adhere to Soviet Russia as ‘autonomous’ regions not as republics with equal status to the Russian Federation. This revealed a disregard for genuine equality of rights for all the nationalities, including the right to separate, which Lenin insisted must be the basis upon which the Soviet Union should be constructed.
And it was not just Lenin but Trotsky who also fought for this sensitivity. After the rise of Stalinism and the national and bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union, Trotsky, in 1939, advocated independence for Ukraine. “Naturally, an independent workers’ and peasants’ Ukraine might subsequently join the Soviet Federation; but voluntarily, on conditions which it itself considers acceptable, which in turn presupposes a revolutionary regeneration of the USSR. The genuine emancipation of the Ukrainian people is inconceivable without a revolution or a series of revolutions in the West which must lead in the end to the creation of the Soviet United States of Europe. An independent Ukraine could and undoubtedly will join this federation as an equal member”. (The Ukrainian Question, April 1939)
These examples underline the real Marxist method towards the national question that imbued the thinking of Lenin and Trotsky. Something the CPB and YCL seem incapable of emulating when applying a policy on the national question today.
Lenin fought after his return to Russia in April 1917 for the complete class independence of the Bolsheviks, including against some leading Bolshevik party members. He insisted on no coalitions with pro-capitalist parties and refused to join the provisional government of Kerensky (the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries did join the government). In his outstanding work The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It, Lenin insisted that the Bolsheviks fight to win a majority among the working class to the slogan of ‘All Power to the Soviets’ – in other words for the socialist revolution. This was of course the polar opposite line from the Mensheviks who had fully embraced the two stages theory, opposed the October Bolshevik insurrection, and insisted on a lengthy stage of capitalist development and coalitions with bourgeois parties before a workers’ revolution was possible.
The reformist, stages policy of the Mensheviks was fully embraced by Stalin and the Communist International by the 1930s. Rejecting the previous ‘united front’ of workers’ organisations acting together on specific issues, the ‘popular front’ policy of Stalinism – advocating coalitions between the Communists, the social democracy and left parties with bourgeois forces that worked within capitalism – led to serious revolutionary defeats for the working class. It is often still a policy used today by the Communist Parties and those influenced by the reformist ideology of stages. It has nothing in common with Lenin’s insistence of the complete independence of the working class and its parties from capitalist forces.
While the CPB and YCL critiques of the SNP’s pro-market policies are generally correct, why did that mean support for a No vote had to be adopted? In essence, they believed that it was justified in supporting a No vote in 2014 because the SNP leadership were proposing a neoliberal model for independence, including membership of NATO and the European Union (EU) and with the Bank of England controlling interest rates. But the ‘Better Together’ No campaign also supported NATO, the EU, and neoliberal capitalism. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of the capitalist establishment fought tooth and nail to prevent the break-up of the UK. That included the then Tory, Labour and Lib Dem leaders, US president Obama, the premier of China, the Queen, and the leaders of EU states. Project Fear was unleashed by big business because of the understanding that Scottish independence would decisively weaken the interests of British capitalism.
Reflecting the panic in official bourgeois circles as the referendum approached and support for Yes was surging, political commentator Martin Kettle wrote on 7 September 2014 in The Guardian newspaper: “This weekend the unthinkable has elbowed its way into the driving seat of British politics. No other issue now matters in British politics. These may not be the ten days that will shake the world as John Reed called the Russian revolution. But they will be ten days that could change all our lives, shaking the British state and its people to their very foundations”.
Even if the CPB/YCL did not understand the class interests at stake, the bourgeois certainly did, as did the working class. As Socialist Party Scotland commented in the run-up to the 2014 referendum: “The opportunity to vote Yes is being taken up by big sections of the working class as a weapon to hit back at the hated Westminster political elite, those responsible for benefit cuts, wage freezes and savage public sector cuts. It has become a mass revolt by the victims of austerity against their class enemy. In the absence, temporarily, of mass action organised by the trade unions against the cuts – advocated by the Socialist Party as a vital strategy in turning the tide against austerity – the referendum has taken on a proxy form of class struggle, reflecting the huge anger and desire for economic and social change”. (8 September, 2014)
How clear is this position when compared to the pessimistic and dogmatic line advanced by not just the CPB and YCL, who could see no progressive class dimension to support for Scottish independence, but even some claiming to be Trotskyists. The International Marxist Tendency (IMT) also came out in favour of a No vote in 2014. On the very day of the referendum, on September 18 2014, the IMT statement railed: “An independent Scotland would be a step backward for the historic unity of the working class in Scotland as well as the rest of the UK… Scottish nationalism lacks any progressive element and, as has been said, poses the reactionary aim of undermining the unity of the British working class”.
This did not prevent the IMT, worshipping at the altar of the accomplished fact, from the following month embarking on a screeching U-turn in a desperate attempt to cover up their mistake. In October 2014 they miraculously claimed: “The Yes vote was not an expression of crude nationalism but a massive rejection of ‘austerity Britain’ and all those who represented it. It has served to draw in hundreds of thousands of workers from the housing schemes into political activity for the first time. The turnout was the largest of any election in British history. Such developments have important revolutionary repercussions and represent a new stage in the class struggle in Scotland and throughout the British Isles. It can be compared to the awakening of a sleeping giant”. Laughably, all of this was done without a single word being uttered about their incorrect previous position.
Attitudes to Indyref2
In contrast to the dishonest IMT, the CPB and YCL have largely stuck to their 2014 line of argument. In an article written for the Morning Star newspaper in July 2022, the general secretary of the YCL, Johnnie Hunter, came out against a second referendum: “The risk for working people in Scotland now is that the rising class struggle is put on hold, while the country succumbs to another dust-up between right-wing unionists and nationalists… At this time of rising industrial militancy, a return to politically disabling polarisation should not be our priority”.
Hunter goes on to argue that were there to be a referendum it should include an option for a federal solution as well as a Yes or No to independence. The whole line of argument of the CPB/YCL is fundamentally that the break-up of the UK would inevitably divide the working class and it must therefore be opposed. At no time do they ever seek to understand the reasons why so many workers and young people support independence, including many who are increasingly hostile to the SNP and their right-wing, pro-capitalist policies.
The dangers of divisions opening up among the working class within Scotland and throughout Britain is a very real one. Indeed the Tory party itself has evolved to a large extent into a party of English nationalism. The SNP leadership are also incapable of answering the fears of workers who rightly question how capitalist independence would deliver on jobs, wages and the economy. Both sides use divisive identity politics that can only serve to deepen divisions among the working class on the national question and other issues.
The antidote to this is not to oppose indyref2 and the desires for independence with abstract calls for workers’ unity, as the CPB/YCL do. It is to fight for the workers’ movement and a new mass party to take the lead in the struggle for self-determination. And to conduct this struggle alongside one for wage rises, public ownership and end to the rule of the profiteers. Working class unity and internationalism is summed up precisely in the demand for an independent socialist Scotland as part of a voluntary confederation of socialist states.
No capitalist solution
As mentioned earlier, the CPB and YCL approach is the opposite of Lenin’s method and indeed Trotsky’s as well. One of the hallmarks of Bolshevism was complete opposition to abstract propaganda when approaching the national question. It is true that in the 1970s Militant – the forerunner of the Socialist Party – opposed the demand of independence for Scotland. At that time support for independence among the working class in Scotland was less than 10%. Only a small minority of workers saw it as an issue to fight on. We always advocated the right to self-determination, including the right to secede for Scotland. However, at that time we put forward the slogan of a socialist Britain with autonomy for Scotland in the form of a parliament or an assembly with real powers.
Nevertheless, we continually evaluated our programme based on the real experience of the working class in Scotland and its changing outlook. By 1998 we had updated our demands to include support for an independent socialist Scotland as part of a voluntary socialist federation with England, Wales and Ireland. As the CWI international secretariat member Peter Taaffe explained in his article Nationalism, Scotland and the Marxist Approach in 1992: “What is absolutely decisive in deciding our position, is not our wishes but concrete historical circumstances and above all the experience of the masses, their desires, etc”.
Even in the 1970s we saw the opposite approach from the then Communist Party of Great Britain (prior to its splits after the collapse of Stalinism) who argued for, as the CPB does today, a federal solution to the national question within the framework of capitalism. A fundamental dividing line between the CPB and Socialist Party Scotland is our understanding that there is no capitalist solution to the national question. Only a struggle for socialism can complete the democratic tasks that the bourgeois are incapable of carrying out, including on the national question.
The struggle in Catalonia
The horrendous errors of the ‘communists’ on the national question were exposed yet again as the events in Catalonia erupted in 2017, leading to the ‘illegal’ independence referendum and the brutal repression by the Spanish state. Dismissing demands for independence as only a movement of the Catalan elite, the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) and the PCE-led United Left (UI) opposed the mass movement for a Catalan republic, completely dismissing the widespread support for it among the Catalan working class enraged by a decade of austerity.
As the CWI’s Tony Saunois wrote in marking the second anniversary in 2019: “The struggle saw a mass movement of millions with powerful revolutionary elements. Mass protests of workers and the middle class, strikes, the building of local community committees of struggle (Committees for the Defence of the Republic), and splits within the state apparatus all took place. On the Catalan national day – Diada – on 10 September 2017, an estimated 1.8 million took to the streets in Barcelona in support of independence. Thousands were injured as the Spanish state machine deployed brutally repressive forces, shut down the internet and seized ballot boxes when the referendum was going ahead”.
What was the position of the Communist party to these events? The PCE claimed it was a movement that threatened the interests of the working class and that communists could not support it. The Morning Star newspaper, in October 2017, quoted the IU federal co-ordinator, Alberto Garzon, bemoaning “the disappearance on the political agenda of the social question in a battle of flags”. He went on: “In the IU we don’t defend independence, but a republican and federal model of the state”. The Morning Star newspaper’s sub-heading to an article on the marches to defend ‘Spanish Unity’, encouraged by the ruling class’s Spanish state nationalism, proclaimed: “Over 300,000 take to the streets against ‘attack on history’.” The ‘attack on history’ being the declaration of the independent republic by the Catalan government in October 2017, which was illegal under article 155 of the 1978 post-Franco constitution.
This is a million miles removed from the position of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. In practice, the leadership of ‘communism’ in Spain were defending not working class unity but the unity of the capitalist Spanish state in opposition to the mass movement in Catalonia. It was perfectly possible, as the CWI did during these events, to remorselessly criticise the bourgeois nationalism of the Catalonian European Democratic Party (PdeCAT) and the Catalan ruling elite while siding with the democratic demands of millions of workers and young people in Catalonia. As we said: “A struggle for a socialist Catalonia could have united the working class of Catalonia and appealed to the working class throughout the rest of the Spanish state to join together in a fight against the reactionary People’s Party government. It could also appeal to all workers of the Spanish state, of Portugal and throughout Europe to join together to form a voluntary, democratic socialist confederation”.
Our method, as explained above, flows from the theory of the permanent revolution. In essence, that with the development of imperialism, the tasks of the bourgeois revolution, the overthrow of feudalism, land reform, introduction of parliamentary democratic rights, the creation of nation states, etc were either never completed – in the case of the neocolonial world – or were only temporarily resolved – in the case of the advanced capitalist countries.
Certainly this is true of the national question. The tendency towards assimilation and the creation of modern nation states evident in the nineteenth century, turned into its opposite in the later part of the twentieth century and early this century. Witness the eruption of demands in support for independence in Scotland, Catalonia and the ongoing national question in Belgium among many others. These centrifugal tendencies are being driven by the crisis of capitalism and its inability to deliver the demands of the working class and the poor.
It is precisely the incapacity of the bourgeois to overcome its inherent crises that has driven many working-class people seeking a way out towards Scottish independence. The task of Marxists is to give that desire for an escape route from class oppression a socialist expression. Campaigning for a No vote in an independence referendum, as the CPB and YCL did in 2014, and opposing an indyref2 today, can only cut yourself off from some of those most open to socialist ideas.
To make matters worse, however, the CPB and YCL demands on the national question never go beyond the limits of capitalism. They argue in their absurdly named British Road to Socialism programme for the following form of what they call “progressive federalism”: “A British federal parliament, elected by STV in multi-member constituencies, to have jurisdiction over foreign affairs, defence, macro-economic policy and national insurance, the power to raise taxes on wealth and income, and the responsibility to redistribute income among the nations and regions on the basis of social need. National parliaments in Scotland, Wales and England together with English regional assemblies should be elected on the same basis, with powers to raise revenue and specifically to advance democratic control through public ownership, state investment and public procurement. A federal upper chamber elected by the national parliaments and regional assemblies”.
The CPB argue that this progressive federalism will “shift the balance of power in favour of the majority and enable working people and their allies to exercise increasing control over the allocation of resources at federal, national and regional level”. But how will this be done without a struggle to take the wealth and power from the capitalist class and plan the economy on a socialist basis? None of this is answered. They simply call on the labour movement to fight for “progressive federalism” and, while mentioning public ownership, leave open the continuation of capitalism in the foreseeable future.
Their proposals are nothing other than a rearranging of the constitutional architecture of the British capitalist state. It is a minimal reformist demand and completely utopian as any kind of a solution. In fact the CPB programme would fall miles short of even a devolved Scottish parliament with full powers, as they propose a British federal parliament that would retain significant economic, taxation and defence powers at a UK level.
Nowhere in their programme on the national question do they put forward the demand for socialism. Or the need for the working class to take over the economy through nationalisation and democratic workers’ control and management. Completely absent are any calls for the building of a new party of the working class based on the trade unions to fight for self-determination, democratic rights and socialism. In other words, it is a policy more akin to Menshevism and the stages theory (the dominant policy of the Communist Parties from the mid-1930s onwards that contributed to the defeat of many revolutionary opportunities) than it is to Lenin and the Bolsheviks. In this case, first they argue for a more democratic capitalist state in Britain – progressive federalism – then we can discuss the fight for socialism!
Contrast that with Socialist Party Scotland whose programme for the 2014 independence referendum was unequivocal in linking the fight for a Yes majority to the struggle for socialism. Today our key demands include:
* No trust in the SNP leaders to lead the fight for indyref2. Build mass working-class struggle for self-determination and the right to a second independence referendum.
* For an independent socialist Scotland and a voluntary, democratic socialist confederation with England, Wales and Ireland as part of the struggle for socialism internationally.
* End the capitalist crisis. Renationalise all the privatised utilities under workers’ control. Bring into public ownership the banks, the profiteering energy companies and the major monopolies that dominate the economy under workers’ control and management.
* Unite the strikes for pay rises that fully match inflation and the rising cost of living. For a £15 an hour minimum wages with no age exemptions.
* Fight for a socialist plan of production to replace capitalism and the profiteering billionaires that are destroying the lives of the working class globally.
* Build a new mass working-class party led by the trade unions to fight for self-determination and for socialist change.
In 2014, we were able to expose the SNP’s support for capitalism and pose clearly the need to link the struggle for independence to the struggle for socialist change. Similarly today, with the Tories and Keir Starmer’s Labour opposing indyref2, the demand for the trade unions and the wider working class to build a mass campaign for democratic rights is essential. This is something the SNP leaders will not do, relying instead on the courts and electoral public opinion. There is no contradiction between fighting for coordinated strike action over pay and the cost of living and linking that to the struggle for self-determination.
In fact the CPB and YCL line, which in effect is opposed to indyref2 as a diversion, leaves them incapable of putting forward a programme for mass struggle that would confront the ruling class’s endemic opposition to the right to decide in Scotland. Were such a position to be adopted by the workers’ movement in Scotland, it would leave the trade unions incapable of putting themselves at the head of the movement to win the right to indyref2. Moreover, the CPB/YCL policy would only strengthen bourgeois nationalism and the SNP leadership who could pose, falsely, as the only reliable fighters for democratic rights.
For all of the reasons cited above, the political line take by the CPB and YCL on the national question in Scotland is the opposite of that championed by Marxism historically. It is a caricature of a Bolshevik policy, corrupted by a reformist and stages conception and, above all, is completely inadequate for the task of reaching out to the working class and young people moving into opposition to capitalism today.