Yes does not mean left

Submitted by AWL on 14 October, 2014 - 4:54 Author: Dale Street

Colin Foster is right to argue that the labour movement and working class will be weakened and divided by a mindset which identifies “yes” (to Scottish independence) with “left”, and “no” to independence with “right”. (Solidarity, 339).

The problem is that that mindset is now hardwired into the pro-independence left.

There are a number of overlapping reasons for this, largely rooted in the political culture of much of the far left in Scotland (and, by extension, of much of the far left outside of Scotland). Those reasons, with differing degrees of relevance to different factions within the pro-independence left follow.

Advocating a “yes” vote was, at least in part, the product of a political practice which treats socialist politics simply as an inversion of bourgeois politics. If Cameron, Clegg, Miliband and Farage are all against independence, then, “obviously”, the left must be in favour of it.

A “yes” vote was also an expression of the engrained “negativity” of much of the far left.

“Yes” did not flow out of even a half-thought-through idea of what an independent Scotland would look like, or why independence would allegedly benefit the working class.

It was in large part simply a product of being against the British state. Being against the British state took precedence over any requirement to pose a positive alternative.

The ability of sections of the far left to attribute an ‘”objectively progressive” role to political formations unrepresentative of, or even hostile to, the interests of the working class (e.g. in earlier times, the idea that counter-revolutionary Stalinism could create “workers states”) was another factor.

That the SNP stood for the creation of an independent capitalist state in Scotland was never in dispute. Nor could there be any dispute that its “big” economic idea was a race to the bottom, through cuts in corporation tax.

Yet the fact the SNP stood for the break-up of the British state supposedly made it in some way an “objectively progressive” force which, unbeknown to itself, was advancing the cause of the working class.

Support for a “yes” vote flowed out of confusing opposition to capitalism in its development with opposition to the development of capitalism.

The socialist alternative to capitalism is not to “turn back the clock” to a less advanced form of capitalism, by re-creating the Europe of 1945 (prior to the creation of what is now the EU) or by breaking up national and multi-national states into their pre-capitalist component parts.

Our alternative to capitalism is to “go beyond” capitalism by building upon the advances of the capitalist epoch (“wonders far surpassing” human achievements of earlier epochs, as Marx put it). Such “wonders” include the creation of an integrated world economy and a global working class.

The mindset — although it is now more an article of faith than a mere mindset — that “yes” equals “left” also reflects, embodies, and reinforces a political culture which frowns upon open political debate.

If support for Scottish independence is so obviously the correct position for the left to have adopted, then this conveniently shuts down the space for political debate and renders argument about that position irrelevant and pointless. An article of faith, by definition, stands above rational challenge.

Finally, for the pro-independence left, advocating a “yes”vote seemed to work — in terms of paper sales, attendance at public meetings, and new contacts and members.

If your concept of a socialist organisation amounts to little more than one that sells papers and recruits, then the politics contained in the newspaper and the political basis of recruitment are matters of lesser importance.

What counts is not political clarity but the material “returns” on the political position adopted to meet and maximise potential consumer demand.

Thus, in that sense, the mindset that “yes” to Scottish independence equals “left” is a perfectly logical one: support for a “yes” vote necessarily flowed out of the inadequacies of the “political orthodoxy” of much of the actually existing far left

Colin Foster is also right to say that after the referendum “it’s time to move on to class politics” in Scotland. But there is little or no evidence to suggest that this is likely to happen soon.

One element of the pro-independence left does not really “do” class politics anyway. They might recognise the working class as a sociological category which, like many other sociological categories, gets a pretty rough deal from the “Westminster establishment” and the “Westminster elite”.

But this has nothing on common with the Marxist understanding of the working class as the decisive force for historical change.

Other elements of the pro-independence left do “do” class politics. But they think that support for independence is class politics. So, by carrying on the campaign for independence, they think that they are engaged in class politics.

The SSP, the Socialist Party, and the Sheridan-cult which trades under the name of “Solidarity — Scotland’s Socialist Movement” all think that the demand for Scottish independence is the modern political equivalent of the medieval philosopher’s stone which turned base metal into gold.

Consequently, they are determined to press on with the campaign for Scottish independence.

(In fact, the Socialist Party has already discovered a philosopher’s stone of its own — one that transforms a misogynist demagogue who sacrificed the SSP on the altar of his own ego into a working-class hero who is to be the fulcrum of a new mass workers’ party.)

The sole exception to ongoing campaigning for independence is the SWP, the mostly shamelessly opportunist of the entire spectrum of the pro-independence left.

The SWP has already made a new “turn”. At last Sunday’s pro-independence rally in Glasgow their leaflet made no mention of continued campaigning for independence (or even of support for independence). Instead, what is now needed is “a united left to challenge austerity.”

But bulk of the pro-independence left might vacillate between outright collapse into Scottish nationalism and attempts to graft a bowdlerised form of “class politics” onto an essentially nationalist project. But it is now committed long-term to that project.

This is not to say that the politics of the pro-independence left should be passively accepted and not be subject to challenge.

But the starting point for challenging those politics is to recognise that rather than being some temporary aberration, they are the expression of something more fundamental about the political state of the far left.

In late nineteenth century Russia Plekhanov (the “founding father” of Russian Marxism) explained that the difference between the Populists and the Marxists was that the Marxists wanted a revolution for the working class, whereas the Populists wanted the working class for a revolution.

That is to say: for the Marxists, the working class could realise its interests only through a revolution; the Populists, on the other hand, wanted the working class to be footsoldiers for someone else’s revolution.

In its political regression the pro-independence left is actually worse than the nineteenth-century Russian Populists. Whereas the latter at least wanted some kind of a popular revolution, the pro-independence left wants to make the working class footsoldiers for the Poujadist nationalism of the SNP.

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