Workers of the world unite! This fundamental principle of the proletariat is an anathema to the ruling class. It expresses the possibility of a future united humanity free of national divisions, hatreds and classes. All that the capitalist class has to offer is the prospect of dragging a divided humanity into ever more destructive wars and worsening national hatreds. This choice between communism and barbarism is the only real choice the proletariat has.
The idea of a united humanity is a distant prospect but the proletarian revolution is the only means to attain it. It is thus vital that the ruling class do all it can to stop the development of the proletariat’s sense of its own strength, not only at the national level but above all as an international class. Nationalism is one of the ruling class’s main weapons against the working class’s ability to offer humanity a future.
The development of the nation state was one of the great accomplishments of the emerging capitalist system. By overcoming the old feudal system, with its divisions into numerous fiefs and principalities, capitalism laid the foundations for the emergence of the unified national capital, and for a formidable development of the productive forces. However the rise of the nation state also meant the eventual emergence of imperialism as each national unit had to compete for its place in the consolidating world market. It was this process that ultimately led to the slaughter house of World War One. Confronted with the horror of the war the most advanced battalions of the proletariat posed the proletarian alternative: the revolutionary overthrow of capital and its warring national states. The revolutions in Russia, Germany and Hungary, along with revolutionary movements across the planet between 1917 and 1923 were defeated but they did hold out the prospect of the possibility of a global communist society.
It’s in this context that revolutionaries address the question of the nation state and nationalism. The nation state is the implacable enemy of the working class and of humanity, be that state a superpower such as the US or the most ludicrous product of imperialist tensions such as South Sudan. Support for the national state is support for class exploitation, imperialism and the basest hatreds.
The mystification of Scottish independence
The support of the national state is the core of the whole campaign around the referendum on Scottish independence, to be held in September. Workers and the general population in Scotland are being asked to choose which gang of capitalist exploiters they prefer. They are being called on to identify the prospect of some form of improvement in their lives as being dependent upon which national state they prefer. Fundamentally they are being told to abandon any sense of being an exploited class and to line up behind their exploiters.
This campaign is not only aimed at trying to crush any sense of class identity in Scotland but throughout Britain. The constant media coverage of the campaign has only one aim: to get workers to side with national state. We are encouraged to think about and discuss whether an independent Scotland should share the Pound, be a member of the European Union, maintain the monarchy… The hypocritical sight of David Cameron lecturing “the people of Scotland” about the dangers of not being able to be members of the EU if they vote for independence, at the same time as the Tory party is calling for a referendum on withdrawing from the EU, is lost on no one but that is the whole point: we are meant to become engrossed in the arguments about independence because this is predicated on the idea that the national state is the most important question facing the working class.
There can be no underestimating the destructive impact of this nationalist campaign against the working class at this time. The proletariat is on the back foot. Faced with the massive attacks on living and working conditions impelled by the economic crisis, the working class has found it extremely difficult to resist the onslaught. In a situation marked by low levels of struggles, by an erosion of the proletariat’s sense of class identity and of its self-confidence, the nationalist campaign around independence can only add to the disarray. Ideas about an independent Scotland being able to offer the prospect of less attacks than under the “government in Whitehall” can have a real impact. Meanwhile in the rest of the UK the idea of the break- up of the country increases fears of even worse attacks on workers. The desire to find a sense of security by lining up behind this or that state is very powerful.
This is being manipulated very cleverly by the ruling class. The Scottish National Party portrays itself as the only real alternative to the feared Tories. The SNP government in Scotland has held back on attacking the proletariat too openly in order to feed the idea that it is not as bad as the Tories. In the rest of the country all of the main political parties have “united” to defend the Union and to issue stern warnings to the population of Scotland about the dangers of independence. In Scotland if workers don’t want independence the only alternative is seen as supporting the Union.
The campaign is also whipping up deep passions. The SNP is playing on reactionary dreams about Scotland’s great past, its historical rivalry with the English. In the rest of Britain the campaign is taking place in the context of the mounting nationalist campaigns about the “sacrifices” of the First World War. Thus no matter the outcome of the referendum it will have led to a deepening of the nationalist poison in the proletariat, creating divisions at the very time when the working class needs to be developing its unity.
Real tendencies towards the break-up of the nation state
In a previous article on the question of the referendum we underlined that the ruling class, while believing that there would not be a vote for independence, was faced with an increasing difficulty in completely controlling the campaign. The British bourgeoisie in general is against Scottish independence. The formation of the Union in the early 18th Century was a very important moment in the growth of the national state and the development of capitalism in a unified country. It also meant that the ruling class was not faced with having any rivals physically neighbouring it. The solidity of its national structure has been vital for the development of British imperialism and is a basis of its renowned political intelligence. For this to be put in danger generates real fear in the ruling class.
So why agree to the referendum? The context of the referendum was the great service that devolution has done for the ruling class in its struggle against the proletariat. The Labour government used devolution very intelligently to take advantage of the weaknesses in the proletariat in order to reinforce national divisions. The proletariat in Scotland and Wales have played a central role in the history of the working class. The massive industrial concentration along the Clyde in the 19th and early 20th century saw the raise of a powerful battalion of the class, the famous Red Clydeside, while the huge concentration of mines in South Wales meant that the miners there were at the forefront of the most important struggles of the class. In the miners’ strike in the 80s miners in Scotland and Wales played an important role. The ruling class thus has every interest in crushing this memory and replacing it with nationalism. Hence devolution has been a pre-emptive strike against the development of proletarian solidarity.
The referendum is aimed at driving home this nationalist onslaught against the potential future struggles of the proletariat. However with the deepening of the economic crisis the fraction of the ruling class around the SNP have started to really believe that independence may be the best means for them to exploit the working class and build their own imperialist state. This desire is shared by important factions of other regional/national bourgeoisies, for example among the Catalan ruling class in Spain or the Flemish bourgeoisie in Belgium.
However, there are also important fractions of the “Scottish” ruing class that do not want independence; and internationally there is a real fear amongst the ruling classes in Europe that Scottish independence would encourage secessionist movements against their national states. Hence the great reluctance of the EU to say that an independent Scotland would automatically be able to join.
These contradictory dynamics are also seen in the SNP’s gyrations over its plans for an independent Scotland. A few years ago it was the idea of Scotland as one of the Celtic Tigers, but the Tigers ended up looking distinctly moth eaten; then it was to be Scotland as part of the Euro but then there was the Euro crisis; now the idea is Scotland as a new Norway and its huge sovereign investment fund, but unfortunately oil revenues are falling. Every time the SNP puts forwards a plan for a shining future its goes up in smoke. These contractions are also expressed by the somewhat bizarre idea of an independent Scotland keeping the monarchy and the Pound, and having a monetary union with what is left of the Union. In short: independence, but with the enemy ruling class providing the financial backing! The instability of the prospects offered for justifying independence demonstrates how irrational the idea is in capitalist terms.
The sheer irrationality of the idea that there really could be an independent Scotland does not stop this issue being a difficulty for the ruling class. The growing demands for independence in Catalonia, the Flemish parts of Belgium, the North of Italy and so on are taking on a dynamic of their own and obliging the national bourgeoisies to devote energy to dealing with these centrifugal forces. Until now the British bourgeoisie has managed to keep such tendencies in tight control; the outcome of the referendum has looked like a foregone conclusion with a large majority against independence. Nevertheless the centrifugal tendencies will not go away because a fraction of the bourgeoisie in Scotland will see its future prospects as being fulfilled by independence; and if the proletariat is unable to develop its own struggles such nationalist illusions will gain increasing ground within its ranks.
The proletariat is faced with incredibly difficult conditions for developing its struggles and its consciousness, but one thing is certain: submitting to the nationalist lies of Scottish independence or defence of the Union will only increase and worsen these difficulties. The rejection of all nationalism is fundamental to the proletariat’s ability to impose its alternative of a united and free humanity.