The national question and the struggle for socialism in Britain – A statement by the Glasgow Communist Movement


First Published: The Marxist, No. 12, Autumn 1969
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
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’In the final analysis, national struggle is a matter of class struggle.’ – Mao Tse-Tung.[1]

ABOUT TWO YEARS ago a group in Edinburgh, originally a constituent part of the ’Committee to Defeat Revisionism for Communist Unity’ declared the formation of the ’Workers Party of Scotland (M-L)’. Following this, the CDRCU, in statement[2] deplored this move and accused the Edinburgh group of acting arbitrarily before fully debating the national question within the parent organisation.

The WPS, after thus being formed unilaterally, issued a statement[3] on party building in Britain in which it proposed the following as one of the criteria for unity with other organisations:

’that they recognise the principle of a Federal Communist Party of Wales, Ireland, Scotland and England and conciliators (at the moment those who hold the chauvinist view on the National Question) as the immediate enemy.’

The same document also declares that the national question has become the ’touchstone’separating ’true revolutionaries’in Britain from the ’sham pretenders’. In our turn, we shall employ Marxism-Leninism as the touchstone to examine the national question as presented by the WPS.

Place of nations in history

A nation is a historically constituted stable community of people who possess in common four major attributes, namely language, economic life, territory and culture. This set of characteristics, which provides the basis on which nations are formed, also distinguishes one nation from the other.

The world’s first nations arose in the epoch of rising capitalism. Nations cannot be formed under feudalism as disunity in almost all spheres of life is the characteristic of this period.

The above theories of historical materialism about the origins and development of nations were formulated by Stalin in his celebrated work, ’Marxism and the National Question’(1913). In it regarding the formation of nations in Western Europe he wrote:

’The process of elimination of feudalism and development of capitalism is at the same time a process of the constitution of people into nations. Such, for instance, was the case in Western Europe. The British, French, Germans, Italians and others were formed nations at the time of the victorious advance of capitalism and its triumph over feudal disunity.’[4]

Nations have their beginnings and their end. They rise and develop in the period of the democratic revolution, and as the whole of humanity approaches a communist society all nations will begin to fade away.

Nations in Britain to-day and the question of their self-determination

As early as the days of the ’Communist Manifesto’Marx observed that national differences and antagonisms between the peoples were vanishing more and more. Over the long period from post-feudalism to present-day declining capitalism the different nations in the British Isles have been forced to live together and have intercourse within the same socio-economic system. As a result of this, they have largely lost the characteristics which identified them as distinct nations in the past. Thus in Britain today the separate existence of the English, Scottish or Welsh nations is more subjective than objective.

Such is the concrete historical condition in which the nations in Britain find themselves to-day. It is only in this historical context that Marxist-Leninists can examine the question of self-determination of these nations.

Lenin’s observed (1916) three types of countries in relation to the self-determination of nations:

1. The advanced capitalist countries of Western Europe and the USA. In these countries the bourgeois, progressive, national movements came to an end long ago.
2. Eastern Europe, Austria, the Balkans and particularly Russia. Here it was the twentieth century that particularly developed the bourgeois-democratic national movement and intensified the national struggle.
3. The semi-colonial countries like China, Persia, Turkey and all the colonies. In these countries the bourgeois democratic movements have either hardly begun or are far from having been completed.[5]

The basis of the above classification, i.e. the stage of the democratic revolution, is the basis upon which to examine the national question in a given country at a particular time.

Britain is the world’s oldest capitalist country. The bourgeois democratic revolution, as Lenin pointed out, was completed here ages ago and thus the democratic development of nations in Britain has long since ceased. Bourgeois democracy in this country is now in process of rapid decay and a corporate state is developing instead. All that can be achieved through bourgeois democracy has been achieved in Britain. So to proceed towards socialism there is no intermediate stage of People’s Democracy’or ’National Democracy’for Britain – here all problems of revolution are those of direct transition to socialism.

This of course does not mean that there is no problem in Britain in connection with the national question.

Regional economy and culture

Since any system based on the profit motive cannot but have heterogeneous economic development, capitalism has not uniformly developed all over Britain. Though it is still debatable whether these irregularities in economic development also reflect ’discriminations’against certain regions, i.e. Scotland and Wales, the table opposite presented by Professor Keith[6] of the University of Wellington (New Zealand) should not be ignored.

England Scotland Wales
Percent Unemployed (March 1967) 2.3 4.0 4.0
Percent workforce receiving industrial injury benefits (1965-1966) 0.3 0.5 0.9
Expenditure on roads per mile (1964-1965) 1,667 1,145 1,089
Motorways planned (miles per million population) 15.1 11.5 8.9
Expenditure on railways electrification (1965-1966) 197 m. 15 m. nil
Percent of households with telephones (1966) 25.6 23 15
Expenditure on defence industry (percent UK total, 1965-1966) 74 6 3

A planned economy which takes into account regional requirements is the safeguard against the type of irregularities shown there, but this is only possible in a socialist economy. As an interim measure, the establishment of regional administrative bodies should be demanded.

As well as regional economic development another important question for the socialist movement is the protection of regional cultures. This is not a matter of principle, but an intermediate development towards an international socialist culture.

In the early stages of capitalism the proletariat and the bourgeoisie had, more or less, a common culture, which can be called a ’national culture’. With large-scale industrialisation the class-struggle became more and more acute and this ’national culture’ began to ’melt away’giving rise to ’class-cultures’. Today, the dominant culture in Britain is that of the British bourgeoisie (and also of US imperialism). It is the task of the socialists in Britain to develop and consolidate the proletarian culture.

The chauvinist attack on the Scottish and Welsh cultures is part of the development of capitalism in Britain. Capitalism, in the world arena, has brought different nations closer together culturally and economically, but in the process one nation has been subordinated to the other. However, there is no point in retreating from internationalist motivations; what is needed is to replace bourgeois internationalism with proletarian internationalism. To develop a proletarian culture, nationally and internationally, further development of regional cultures is a necessary step.

The above points out some of the problems involved in the solution of the national question in Britain. These problems are the sources of petty-bourgeois nationalism of various kinds represented by the Scottish Nationalist Party, the Welsh Nationalist Party and the WPS. The question involved should not be one of separatism, but of proper resolution of the contradictions amongst the people which arise from national differences, on the basis of mutual respect and recognition of the right to self-determination.

Separatism cannot be the Marxist-Leninist standpoint of the national question. Lenin[7] pointed out:

’This demand’(for self-determination) ’is by no means identical with the demand for secession, for partition, for the formation of small states. It is merely the logical expression of the struggle against national oppression in every form. The more closely the democratic system of states approximates to complete freedom of secession, the rarer and weaker will the striving for secession be in practice; for the advantages of large states, both from the point of view of economic progress and from the point of view of the interests of the masses, are beyond doubt, and these advantages increase with the growth of capitalism. The recognition of self-determination is not the same as making federation a principle.’

Lenin developed his thesis from Marx’s famous dictum on Ireland: federation if possible, secession if inevitable. So, it follows that one should not confuse the rights of nations with the duties of Marxists. Every nation has the right to secede but this does not mean that it should exercise its right under all circumstances, for separation is not always advantageous. It is the duty of all Marxists not to encourage separatism if it is not beneficial to the proletariat and if it goes against the course of revolution.

The theory of national separatism has led the WPS to demand segregation in party structure. This is nothing new in the history of the working-class movement. The once united Austrian party began to break up after the 1899 party congress, which adopted national autonomy as part of its programme. By 1913, there existed six national parties in Austria, and the Czech party had nothing to do with the German party! In Russia, ’The Bund’demanded ’the reorganisation of Russian Social-Democracy on a federal basis’(1902). To this demand Stalin replied:

’We know where the demarcation of workers according to nationalities leads to. The disintegration of a united workers’party, the splitting of trade unions according to nationalities, aggravation of national friction, national strike breaking, complete demoralisation within the ranks of social-democracy – such are the results of organisational federalism. This is eloquently borne out by the history of Social Democracy in Austria and the activities of the Bund in Russia.’

’The only cure for this is organisation on the basis of internationalism.

’To unite locally the workers of all nationalities of Russia into single, integral collective bodies, to unite these collective bodies into a single party – such is the task.

’It goes without saying that a party structure of this kind does not preclude, but on the contrary presumes, wide autonomy for the regions within the single integral party.’[8]

The objections to a federal party structure are thus fundamental. In a given state, formation of parties according to nationalities leads to the destruction of class-solidarity of workers in the face of their common enemy.

The WPS makes federation a principle, but while calling for a ’Socialist Republic of Scotland’it does not advocate at the same time, socialist republics for England and Wales! It is willing to see a ’Provisional Sovereign Government of Scotland’before 1970. And to carry out this great revolutionary task it looks to no other force but the SNP! ’Scottish Vanguard,’[9] journal of the WPS, writes:

’a great National Convention...for the purpose of constituting a provisional sovereign government of Scotland. ..would certainly inspire enormous support and redound to the credit of the SNP.’

Even the ultra-revisionist CPGB has not gone so far in tailing behind the Labour Party.

Class-struggle and revolution

The most important problem, however, is to relate the national question to the question of class-struggle and revolution. In an extensive article entitled ’National Question and Class-struggle’[10], Liu Chun lo has clearly shown how the solution of the national question is dependent on the completion of the revolution. He firmly states that those who think that the national question can be solved without carrying out class struggle within the national minorities are in fact unwilling to solve the question and opposed to its solution. Thus the national question is not an independent question but is intimately connected and subordinate to the question of socialist revolution.

The prime question in any revolution is the recognition of enemy and friend and the identification of the nature of the existing state machinery. For the strategy of the revolution can only be based on objective reality and not on one’s own subjective emotions, but the WPS wishes to do the opposite:

’The Scottish Nation is a grossly underprivileged part of the imperialist state, known as ’Great Britain’whose dominant power and authority is the English capitalist establishment.’

The above Marxist gem is from the Manifesto of the WPS! The reference to ’English Imperialism’ in earlier publications has now been replaced by, “British” Imperialism’ – making the concept mystical by using quotation marks!

But this is not all. Its Secretary, in answering the question as to why the WPS supports the movement for Scottish independence, says:

’once having achieved independence it will be for the Scottish working class to overthrow the national bourgeoisie and ruling class and establish Worker’s Power.’[11]

So we have a national bourgeoisie in Scotland! And our task is to win ’a thorough victory in the national democratic revolution and win the socialist revolution.’[12] A national democratic revolution in one of the homelands of monopoly capital! Even considering the socio-economic set up of Scotland in isolation, none can suggest, without being ridiculous, that Scotland is a semi-feudal country.

The reality is that the enemy of the Scottish working class is British monopoly capital, allied with US imperialism, and not English imperialism, which does not exist. The friends of the Scottish workers are the English and the Welsh working class, who are oppressed in common with them and live under the same political system. It will be suicidal for the Scottish and the Welsh workers to fight the British state machinery in isolation.

Hence it follows that it is the task of the Scottish and the Welsh workers to unite with their English counterparts in a revolutionary organisation based on democratic centralism. A federated organisation is not the type which is capable of carrying out the objective task – to overthrow the rule of the British bourgeoisie by smashing the British state. It is only through this that the Scottish and the Welsh workers can acquire the right to self-determination. Monopolists have no interest in self-determination other than encouraging diversion from real issues. The petty-bourgeoisie does not and cannot lead a socialist revolution. So the right to self-determination cannot be acquired through any struggle other than that for socialism. It is only under socialism that the acquired right can be exercised, if necessary.

The standpoint of the Marxist-Leninists on the national question has been correctly laid down in our policy document[13] which says:

’The Movement recognises that the working people of the whole of the British Isles are oppressed in common by British Imperialism.

’It also recognises that the degree of exploitation is different in England, Scotland and Wales. These places also have cultural differences and aspirations for independent development. Therefore the Movement, while standing for immediate separate administrative bodies for each of these places and proclaiming their right to secede, will not advocate separate working class organisations for these places at present. For, national aspirations for independence can only be satisfied after the replacement of the present system by a socialist one through unified struggle against the common enemy constituting a single class.

’The struggles for liberation in Russia and China, where the problems of nationality were more acute than is the case in Britain, were led successfully by one united party acting on behalf of all nationalities within the then existing state structure. Representing as they did all nationalities, these parties recognised the right of any nationality to independence. Likewise the struggle against the British capitalist state must be waged by a single party, which recognises the right of nations to secede.’

In the days when monopoly capital is waging renewed attacks against the workers in a vain attempt to survive another acute crisis, any struggle which is not a part of class-struggle is a dangerous distraction from real issues and, therefore, has to be vigorously opposed. The struggle against the ’Workers Party of Scotland’cannot be avoided without damaging the Marxist-Leninist movement in Scotland and indeed in the whole of Britain.

REFERENCES

[1] Statement supporting the Afro-Americans in their just struggle against racial discrimination by US imperialism. August 8, 1963.

[2] The Committee To Defeat Revisionism for Communist Unity and the Workers Party of Scotland, Vanguard, October 6, 1967, p 2.

[3] Declaration of the Workers Party of Scotland on the subject of Party building.

[4] Collected works, vol 3, p 313-14, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow 1953.

[5] ’The Socialist revolution and the right of nations to self-determination’(Theses), Jan.-Feb. 1916. Included in ’Lenin on the national and colonial questions (three articles)’, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1953.

[6]Monthly Review, vol. 19, No 10, March 1968, p 40-41.

[7]As 5, p 5-6.

[8] As 4, p 377-78.

[9] Vol. 2, No 1., p 2.

[10] Peking, 1966.

[11] Scottish Vanguard, Vol 2 No 8/9, p 17.

[12] As II, p 18.

[13] Where We Stand – Glasgow Communist Movement, July, 1969.