Issue 227 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1999 Copyright Socialist Review


Degrees of separation

Alan McCombes's contribution to the debate between the Scottish Socialist Party and the SWP at last November's Socialism in Scotland(reprinted in January SR) highlights the weaknesses of the SSP's argument both in relation to the question of Scottish independence and also the kind of party that socialists need to build.
Alan's argument for supporting independence is firstly that Scotland is an oppressed nation and secondly that the most left wing workers support independence. Socialists should therefore put themselves at the head of what is essentially a progressive movement. Neither argument holds water.
Alan appears to accept that the oppression of Scotland is not comparable to the oppression of Ireland or East Timor but argues that there are 'degrees of exploitation and oppression'. In one sense, this is absolutely correct--all workers are oppressed under capitalism, including English workers, as the recent Acheson Report into health inequalities demonstrated.
In terms of national oppression, however, it is completely misleading--the fact that by the end of the 19th century, Glasgow was the 'Second City' of the British empire shows the extent to which the Scottish bourgeoisie was an active and willing partner in the exploitation of the world. Nor is the situation fundamentally different today. A study in the late 1980s showed that the healthiest city to live in Britain was Edinburgh--unless of course you live in Pilton or Craigmillar. It's class, not nation, that is the basis of the oppression of Scottish workers.
It's certainly true that since the last general election disillusionment with New Labour has led large numbers of Scottish workers to look increasingly in a nationalist direction. In that situation, however, without in any way defending the British state, the job of socialists is not to pander to that nationalist trend but instead to argue that independence would not solve the problems of job losses and a crumbling health service and that only a united fightback with workers south of the border can do that.
Alan's strategy of 'stamping a socialist coloration on the national movement' was more accurately described by Lenin as 'painting nationalism red'--in other words, creating illusions that nationalism can solve the problems which workers face.
Important though these arguments are, however, in some ways the real debate at Socialism in Scotland was over the kind of party that socialists need to build. The SSP's strategy of seeking to build 'a mass party of revolutionaries and non-revolutionaries' in practice will mean a party whose main orientation is on winning elections, with workers' struggles seen as secondary and a playing down of support for unpopular or divisive issues.
While, to his credit, Alan in previous election campaigns has adopted a principled pro-choice position in respect of abortion and has expressed opposition to religious segregation in education, neither of these points appear in the SSP's programme, despite their significance in Scottish politics.
Despite these differences, as Alan says in his contribution, there is a huge amount of common ground between the SSP and the SWP. It's sad, then, that the SSP's insistence that the SWP must join their organisation for there to be a united socialist platform means that Scottish voters will be denied the opportunity to vote for a much wider socialist platform than is currently on offer.
Iain Ferguson

Battle for ratings

Once again the evening news was chock full of reports regarding the west's latest war. Nothing like a good war on the TV screen to boost ratings! Why watch a gory movie when you can see genocide in real life with no blood or icky parts, just flashing bombs and happy patriots? Even the name had media savvy: Desert Fox. A furry, cute, sly little animal taking on a mean old dictator. Perfect for Disneyesque children's fables and mass merchandising!
In the glorious colonial tradition, our great western leaders proceeded to 'protect' the masses from a favourite scapegoat, Iraq, by bombing it off the map ... but there is an unexpected twist this time!
Supposedly allies of the common Joe, the British Labour Party joined in this disgusting display of ethnocentric bully tactics. The longer Tony Blair is in power, the more 'New Labour' is beginning to resemble the notorious Thatcher Tories. Has the political left really no viable alternatives to Desert Fox or is Blair just trying to get on the Clinton family Xmas card list?
Labour was elected by a population who were fed up with unemployment, cutbacks and the ravages of right wing economic policies. This population has seen little improvement with Blair's mix of US Democrat and centreright liberalism. What happened to old Labour, friend of workers and the poor, fighting for women's rights, trade unionism and socialism?
Nothing happened to it, as it never really was. The limitations of western capitalist democracy are in its roots. No matter what party holds power in any region, the controlling international players are banks, petroleum companies, agricultural conglomerates, media barons and all other types of multinational economic powers. Federal politicians, meanwhile, sit back, spout populist slogans and try not to step on any corporate toes.
The only reason any social services exist at all is because people fought for them, usually against the will of the government. From the Stonewall rebellion to the workers striking for parental leave here in Canada, these struggles are what build democracy, not a bunch of back benchers toeing a party line until pension day.
Britain's involvement in Iraq has shown the true face of Labour. It is just another political party in a country limited democratically by a global economic system that benefits the wealthy while leaving millions without basic means. It's time for people around the world to work to build a new system where human need comes before profit and human life comes before CNN ratings.
Weez Graybiel

The time is right

Lindsey German's article on Iraq (January SR) makes some pertinent points about the latest US/UK bombing campaign in Iraq. However, I think it's important that socialists don't get dragged down the road of the right wing moralists and 'wag the dog' conspiracy theorists in attributing the timing of the bombing to Bill Clinton's impeachment worries.
Clinton has been in crisis over this for well over a year now, and he could have struck at any time during the year if that were his motive. The scandals of Watergate showed what happens to residents who get above themselves and start using their positions for personal benefit--they get lynched by the real powers.
A far more likely reason for the timing is that they knew full well that the UN would not support these highly illegal actions. The UN Security Council Resolution 1154 of 2 March 1998 makes it very clear that any action taken must be approved first by the Security Council.
Now we have seen the admissions of US officials that there were in fact 'spies' planted by US intelligence in Unscom, relaying information to Washington. if that is the case, then the US were clearly planning to bomb all along, regardless of the Butler Report's conclusions--or the state of Clinton's 'affairs'.
To judge the aims of the bombing, we need only look at the effects. Disregarding the estimated 200 dead, who probably figure very little in the calculations of the warmongers, it is clear that not only has Hussein's evil regime been strengthened by angry nationalism whipped up by the bombing, but Unscom will never be allowed back into Iraq. This means the end of any chance for an end to sanctions which have already killed a million Iraqis. As US commentator Phyllis Bennis has noted, ending sanctions would threaten the Saudi Arabian oil economy, in which the US has a 25 percent stake, because oil prices would drop.
It isn't too hard to see, then, why America--with lieutenant Britain in tow--will never allow sanctions to be released until a western puppet has been placed in Iraq--a dictator who will do as he's told. If we want to oppose such cruel and terrifying actions, we have to get the arguments right.
R Seymour

Turning anger into action

I am a Unison member and work for Sandwell council in the West Midlands. I wanted to write about our experiences of raising the Action Programme, which John Rees argued for in January SR, to defend jobs and services in the council.
There was a reluctance to raise it at our union branch committee meeting initially, because demands such as 'ending privatisation' and 'wealth redistribution to the poor' were seen as 'pie in the sky', particularly in this economic climate with closures, layoffs, apparent rampant privatisation and the absence of any general fightback against the onslaught of New Labour.
The argument was that we would be demanding things that could not be delivered. The Action Programme was 'abstract', a good idea but what did it mean in reality--shouldn't we be concentrating on the small but more significant disputes, such as the council's plans to get rid of car parking for its employees?
However, some of us argued that that is precisely the point of the Action Programme. In this economic climate, the demands for trade union rights, increasing welfare spending and creating jobs become almost immediately political because the system cannot deliver. This opens up the debate about where New Labour is going, what are Labour's priorities and how we defend ourselves and the services that are being closed or privatised.
Consequently we raised the Action Programme and it was passed unanimously, which meant that we were then able to write a letter from our union branch to other organisations asking them to sponsor the programme. This has resulted in a number of other trade union groups, including Sandwell Trades Council, sponsoring the Action Programme and donating money. We now hope to be able to get an advert in the local press.
These demands are not alien or abstract to the vast majority of ordinary working class people, but make perfect sense. We need to ensure they become central to the working class movement as a whole so when struggles do break out socialists will have a much better chance of influencing them and directing them to win.
Sharon Campion

The language instinct

I enjoyed reading Paul Foot's article on the demise of Peter Mandelson (January SR). But hang on, what's this? The 'Prince of Wales and his mistress'. I thought that socialists had no use for words like 'mistress'.
It really doesn't matter to which individual the word is referring as, apart from the fact that the word suggests a tacit recognition of the legitimacy of the institution of marriage, it also implies inescapably that any woman in a (non-marital) sexual relationship with a man is 'his mistress' with all the suggestions of being a lesser person and an 'item of property' that the word conveys. Hardly compatible with the real social, economic and political equality of women!
Let's consign words like this to the dustbin along with the many other various slurs and terms of abuse which socialists have rightly rejected as having no part in their language.
Carol Ives

Putting the record straight

It is generally agreed that a book review should offer a summary of the main arguments or survey, and then a commentary on its contents. Sam Ashman (January SR) reviews two books. The first I have not read, but the second, Arms for Spain by Gerald Howson, is presented in a distorted fashion.
Howson's book is the most thorough analysis of the workings of the Non-Intervention Agreement of 1936 whereby the Spanish Republican government was denied the purchase of arms on the open market.
Howson has trawled the archives of Britain, France and the United States as well as Russia and Spain. He establishes that Non-Intervention played a more important part in the defeat of the Republic than has been normally accepted and, above all, he provides additional information on the British government, led first by Baldwin and then by Chamberlain.
It would be difficult for the ordinary reader to guess these matters from Ashman's review, for they are not mentioned. Howson has a lot of detail on the part played by the Soviet Union, and it is this that Ashman writes about. The Soviet Union sent arms to Spain, but not in the quantity sometimes assumed, and behaved disgracefully in the matter of the exchange rate, set against the Spanish gold reserves which Moscow was holding.
We obviously need the whole story, but it happened to be the British government which was the driving force in the maintenance of the agreement.
What Ashman does not appreciate is that she has temporarily joined the great bulk of contemporary historians who are so busy applying whitewash to the record of the ruling groups in Britain throughout the 20th century.
John Saville

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