Philip Stott from Socialist Party Scotland introduced the session on the national question during the December meeting in Belgium of the International Executive Committee of the CWI. Philip highlighted that the national question was a key feature in the political crisis of capitalism internationally, now coming to the fore in many advanced capitalist countries as well as the neo colonial world.
Philip described how the 1.6 million YES vote for Scottish independence in the referendum in September reflected a mass politicisation and mobilisation of the most radical section of workers and youth in a revolt against austerity. He explained how the CWI in Scotland had played a critical role in bringing socialist ideas into the referendum campaign alongside well known socialist Tommy Sheridan. Over 33,000 people attended meetings on the socialist case for independence and through our intervention into the mass mobilisations for a YES vote in the days leading up to the referendum. A class polarisation took place during the referendum with the majority of big business, the banks, the main political parties and even international leaders like Obama and the Pope organising a campaign of fear in support of a no vote, with threats of economic collapse. Despite the outcome of a no vote, the majorities for yes in working class urban areas show that the desire amongst many workers and youth to fundamentally change their conditions and a hope that a vote for independence might achieve this, overcame ‘project fear’.
This politicisation was far to the left of the SNP and the official YES campaign leaders. In the hours and days after the referendum, tens of thousands rushed to politically organise, joining parties. Socialist Party Scotland immediately raised the call for the creation of a new workers party with socialist policies involving figures like Tommy Sheridan. If this had been taken up, thousands would have immediately joined. Unfortunately Tommy called instead for a vote for the SNP who as "losers" of the referendum were now becoming the "winners" with tens of thousands joining the party.
After the referendum the capitalist class in Britain has had to concede further powers over income tax to Scotland and there is now a clamour across the UK, from Wales and Northern Ireland , as well as large cities and regions in England for more economic powers. The question of another referendum, particularly if the SNP continue to make gains electorally could even be on the agenda in the next couple of years.
Britain, once a major empire covering most of the globe now faces an unravelling. It is not alone, as the national question has re-emerged after a period in countries like Spain where November’s "consultation" organised by pro-independence forces in Catalonia also led to mass mobilisations.
Philip outlined the approach of Marxists when looking at the national question in terms of not viewing the national question as a static process where slogans and demands, once formulated, are automatically suited to complex conflicts forever. When drawing up a programme that takes into account the democratic struggle for rights and the need for maximum unity of workers, Marxists must take into account shifts and changing perceptions in the consciousness of the working class and also the concrete reality of the situation,. This approach has meant the CWI, internationally, has adapted its programme on the national question in various states to respond to political developments and changes in consciousness.
Support for independence in the Scottish referendum of 1979 was confined to a small minority; however a majority supported the idea of Scotland having autonomous powers and a parliament, demands which the CWI supported at the time, without calling for independence. By the late 1990’s, around the time of the creation of the Scottish Parliament it became clear a larger section of the most radicalised workers and young people would become frustrated with the limitations of the parliament and look towards demands for independence. Therefore, taking into account this shift, the CWI raised the demand for an independent socialist Scotland as part of a voluntary socialist confederation of Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland as a step towards a socialist Europe.
Marxists opposed the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 as this was on the basis of the violent forced removal of Palestinians from their homes and land. In the immediate period afterwards, the demand for a united socialist Palestine, with full rights for all minorities, was more viable but nearly seventy years later, against the backdrop of an unending brutal conflict, an Israeli national consciousness has long since developed alongside the Palestinian aspiration for their own state. The CWI’s forces in Israel/ Palestine, taking this concrete reality into account, raise the need to fight for a socialist Palestine and a socialist Israel as part of a wider voluntary socialist confederation of the region.
Consciousness of working class
Another example of this flexible approach, at all times taking into account the consciousness of the whole of the working class, can be seen in relation to Northern Ireland. The slogan of a united socialist Ireland became a barrier to reaching many Protestant workers, who have fears about being forced into a Catholic-dominated and, at various times, economically poorer southern state. While calling for a socialist Ireland and fighting for workers’ unity, it is necessary, in discussion and as a part of our more detailed programme, to raise the right of minority rights, and even autonomy for the Protestant population, should they desire it, within a socialist Ireland, in order to win the ear of Protestant workers today, as well as Catholic workers who faced decades of discrimination and repression in the North.
Philip concluded by highlighting the difference between bourgeois nationalism, a desire for an aspiring elite to gain more power and wealth by exploiting and often dividing the working class and poor, and the nationalism of the oppressed, which as the Russian revolutionary Trotsky described can represent an “immature outer shell of Bolshevism” a desire in many parts of the world to escape austerity, war and to change society.
The discussion on the national question at the IEC meeting was extremely wide ranging and rich, with contributions from Belgium, Cyprus, Scotland, Turkey, Hong Kong, Russia, Israel Palestine, Sri Lanka, Chile, Spain, Poland and Ireland.
Ebb and flow of class struggle
A theme of the discussion was that the national question can ebb and flow and a factor in this is the class struggle. In Belgium, right wing Flemish nationalist parties are attempting to force through austerity, often by trying to divide Flemish and Walloon workers, but are being ferociously opposed by a mass general strike which has been solid across the country and by mass demonstrations where Flemish and Walloon workers have marched together.
The national question is a constant feature of the class struggle in Spain. With one quarter of Spain’s GDP, the breakaway of Catalonia would be a disaster for Spanish capitalism, so even a legal referendum has not been permitted by the central Spanish state. But the "consultation" in November and the Catalan elections over the previous year also reflect the class tensions within the independence movement.
As in the 1930’s, the development of revolutionary processes in Spain will be tied up with the national question, so it is critical socialist formulate the correct programme.
As well as Scotland and Catalonia, where mass political radicalisation has been reflected through the national question, the CWI has forces intervening in difficult conflicts that can be a constant complication in the development of class struggle.
Comrades from Israel/Palestine and Northern Ireland gave examples of how disputes over territory, for example the Temple Mount in Jerusalem or the ‘right to march’ in Northern Ireland can inflame tensions and divide workers and youth. It is the role of socialists to put forward a programme which balances the protection of democratic rights of all to worship, assemble etc., with the rights of the working class, as a whole, not to be dragged into violent conflict.
It is also the role of socialists to challenge reactionary, chauvinistic ideas and attitudes in the working class. CWI comrades from Sri Lanka are the only force in that country that defend the rights of the Tamils and other minority populations against Sinhala chauvinism whipped up by the Rajapakse regime, while calling for workers’ unity against the reactionary politicians and the bosses.
Niall Mulholland from the International Secretariat summed up the discussion by highlighting that the example of the Russian Revolution, where the Bolshevik’s approach to the national question was a key factor in them leading the working class to power and overthrowing an empire which was a "prison house of nationalities". It is impossible to build a successful socialist international without having a correct approach on the national question.
In Niall’s sum up and during the excellent discussion, the catastrophic mistakes of other left organisations in relation to the national question were highlighted. The CWI stands for full rights for the oppressed and national minorities and for working class methods of struggle that unite the class. Some ultra-left groups, for example, previously gave uncritical support to the IRA’s individual terror campaign, which only led to deeper sectarian divisions and actually put back the goal of ending imperialism’s partition. As in all struggles, the working class, including the oppressed nationalities, needs its own independent forces, including political parties and trade unions, to fight for its interests.
In ongoing conflicts such as Syria and in parts of the Ukraine, the need for cross-community, defence forces, to defend working class areas and to also play a role in building mass struggles in the interests of the working class and the poor, is posed.
The CWI has a unique approach and an unrivalled record on the national question. This is in contrast to organisations like the IMT, which recently opportunistically changed their position in Scotland. Despite calling and campaigning for a ‘No’ vote during the September referendum, the IMT joined the pro-independence Scottish Socialist Party in the aftermath of the vote.
Only by honestly and openly discussing the national question on the basis of Marxist ideas and historical experience, while taking into account changing circumstances and working class consciousness etc., can workers and young people be offered a programme for fundamental change.