The ISG and the "Marxist tradition"

Submitted by AWL on 19 June, 2012 - 12:15

“We believe that the Marxist tradition is essential for anyone who believes we need radical social change and will attempt to develop Marxist theory. We aim to produce a regular theoretical magazine to provide space for the development of Marxist theory. ... For the Marxist tradition!”

This was the ringing declaration issued by the 39 Scotland-based members of the Socialist Workers Party in April of last year when – for reasons yet to be fully explained – they quit their organisation and formed the International Socialist Group (Scotland).

The ISG’s pretensions to uphold the Marxist tradition suffered an immediate loss of credibility. In the following month’s Holyrood elections they backed George Galloway.

(This was not a momentary blip. When Galloway won the Bradford West by-election this year, the ISG was ecstatic. It was “a good thing” that he won, something that should be “celebrated”. He had a “deserved image as a champion of internationalism and anti-imperialism.” His victory “helped propel progressive ideas to the forefront of the mainstream media.”)

Now, a year later, the ISG’s Marxist pretensions look even more threadbare.

Independence for Scotland, the ISG has decided, is the key to opening up the political universe. But their arguments are not only less than coherent. They are also far removed from the realms of Marxism.

Thus, one article on the ISG website (May 2012) informs its readers: “The SNP leadership’s attachment to independence is of the romantic obscure variety.”

This must have come as something of a surprise to those who had read an article posted on the website just three months earlier (February 2012):

“The SNP long ago abandoned Tartan kitsch and twee Kailyard platitudes in favour of a cosmopolitan discourse of professionalism and modernisation. ... Leading figures in the nationalist hierarchy are visceral in their hatred for ‘cultural sub-nationalism’. Their national vision is resolutely business-like.”

(Most readers would have found the latter article surprising as well. According to the article: “In Scottish politics references to ‘false’ national solidarities ... are as likely to derive from lay Labour Party worthies and platitude-spouting trade union leaders like Campbell Christie as from SNP figures.” The writer seems to be unaware that Campbell Christie is dead.)

The ISG also has a problem interpreting opinion polls. As evidence of the (alleged) prevalence of republicanism, an article published on its website earlier this month proclaimed:

“The capital expects a large, perhaps historic, anti-monarchy demonstration on 3rd June. Only 37% support the succession of Charles to the throne.”

But the purpose of the polls which found that “only 37% support the succession of Charles to the throne” was to find out who ‘the British public’ thought should succeed the current monarch. 44% opted for William, as against 37% for Charles.

Certainly not a measure of the level of support for a republic either (unless you think that the 1820s popular agitation in support of Caroline of Brunswick was a disguised form of republicanism.)

And then there is the ISG’s analysis of the British workers’ movement, past and present.

An article on its website (April 2012) sounded the alarm about “the influence of two toxic British diseases – Fabian moralism, and syndicalism .... which says that the only ‘working-class politics’ worth thinking about is rank-and-file factory committees.”

To describe “Fabian moralism” as a “toxic British disease” should not be particularly controversial. But the description of syndicalism as a “toxic British disease” is something else entirely. There was certainly nothing “syndicalist” about the decision of British trade unions to create the Labour Party, save for those who cannot tell the difference between a rank-and-file factory committee and a Constituency Labour Party.

Turning to the contemporary state of the trade union movement in Scotland, the ISG paints a grim (but not entirely unrealistic) picture: “With plummeting membership, little purchase on the political scene and few victories on the industrial scene, the Scottish unions are perhaps the weakest they have been for over a century.”

“We are not about to be rescued by some trade union cavalry appearing on the horizon,” declares another article on the ISG website.

(But there is no explanation of how this squares with the contents of the ISG’s founding statement, in which it promised to engage in “workplace and trade union agitation for a general strike.” Last year a general strike was on the horizon. This year the unions are a virtual basket case. And all in the space of just twelve months!)

The weakness of the unions, according to the ISG, is inseparable from the fact that they are under the pernicious grip of the Labour Party: “The decline of the trade unions and the decline of the Labour Party are linked.”

Articles on the ISG website variously refer to “Labour control over the trade unions”, “the Labour Party’s corrosive influence on trade unions in Scotland” and “the massively disproportionate influence of the Scottish Labour Party in the trade unions.”

But this does not square with reality. To give just two simple examples.

Example one: The Scottish Labour Party leadership wants a two-question referendum, with no mention of devo max. The STUC and the unions, on the other hand, are very much heading in the direction of supporting a three-question referendum, with devo max as the third option.

The driving force in the unions for devo max and a third question is Unite, a Labour Party affiliate. But if the unions were under “Labour control”, then they too would oppose devo max.

Example two: At this year’s Scottish Labour Party conference Unison moved a motion condemning statements by Ed Miliband and Ed Balls supporting a public sector pay freeze and refusing to restore Tory spending cuts. (There are conflicting reports about whether it was passed.)

Again, if “Labour control over the unions” was a reality, then Unison would never have moved such a motion, nor would it have received support for that motion from the other Labour-affiliated unions.

One of the many peculiarities of the political universe inhabited by the ISG is that everything (apart from itself) is either dead or about to expire.

British Labourism is “a terminal cancer.” The USA is “a political basket case.” Britain is in a state of “precipitous decline.” The “old model” of the Labour Party as the political voice of the working class is “dead”. There will be no “second coming” of “industrial unionism (or) traditional social democracy.”

The left in Scotland is in a similar state: “We need to reach new heights not seen on the left since 2003 [when the SSP won six seats in Holyrood]. The collapse of that project flattened the left like a great course of chemotherapy – killing new and old alike, and leaving the scene barren and confused.”

(Political accountability does not appear to figure in the ISG’s “Marxist tradition”. The SSP project collapsed when Sheridan led a futile but utterly destructive split from it. But ISG members, at that time part of the SWP, walked out with him. And when the ISG subsequently walked out of the SWP in 2011, they immediately allied themselves with ... Sheridan’s “Solidarity”!)

In this wasteland of political and state corpses, salvation will come in the form of ... ... Scottish independence!

There is “a lot to hate about Britain.” There can be no compromise with “its (Britain’s) ‘culture’ (which is barren) and its history (which is genocide).” Scottish independence “poses the greatest existential threat to British imperialism since decolonisation.”

“By far the most convincing – and ultimately conclusive – argument for a yes vote,” explained one of the earliest ISG articles on the referendum (July 2011), “is that it will break up the British state. Minor scrutiny will reveal that the history of Britain is written in blood rather than ink.”

With an admirable honesty, the article continued: “On this basis, any excuse (emphasis added) to break the British state should be welcomed by the left.”

Devo max is rejected by the ISG because “the Britishness we will retain (in the event of devo max) will be the ugliest and most decrepit elements of the state: ... unconditional subordination to American foreign policy, including support for Israeli ethnic cleansing.”

Independence will also cut through the Gordian knot of the Labour-union link:

“Independence is the cutting edge for breaking the Labour link in the trade unions. ... The independence referendum represents an opportunity to hasten the demise of Labour control over the trade unions. ... For the first time since it was formed, there is a realistic prospect of breaking the Labour Party’s corrosive influence on the trade unions in Scotland.”

“A vigorous campaign to break the unions from devo max and towards leading the arguments for a yes vote can begin to permanently break the link between Scottish trade unions and the Scottish Labour Party.”

But how any of this can be deemed a “development of Marxist theory” remains a mystery.

Socialists of the Marxist tradition generally favour larger political units, reducing to a minimum the barriers between people embodied in state frontiers, and the unification of the working class over wider areas to fight for common conditions.

The exception to this general principle is where the creation of a larger political unit involves the domination of one (or more) nation(s) by another. But Scotland does not constitute an oppressed nation. And the ISG does not pretend that it is:

“It is a long time since I met anyone foolish enough to believe that the Scots, like the Irish or the Palestinians or the Kurds, are an oppressed people. Left nationalism of this sort is a chimera dreamed up to motivate the Trotskyist sects.”

The level of economic integration between England and Scotland, the level of human integration (15% of people born in Scotland live in England or Wales; nearly 15% of people living in Scotland were born in England), and the existence of a single labour movement (bar two Scotland-only unions) are all arguments against independence.

That Britain is a ‘bad’ state with a ‘bad’ history (genocide!) that still does ‘bad’ things and does not even have a culture is not decisive. Why, after all, would any socialist expect a capitalist state to be anything other than a ‘bad’ state with a ‘bad’ history?

(The ISG also suffers from a very one-sided, non-Marxist, non-dialectical view of history. But that would be a subject for a separate article, insofar as it would be worth writing such an article.)

The European Union does some very ‘bad’ things as well. But the socialist response is for united working-class struggle, not advocating its break-up along national lines (and then going a stage further, by advocating the break-up of its member states into even smaller units).

Nor is there anything Marxist, or even logical, about the argument that independence for Scotland would end the Labour-unions link.

The referendum, taking place almost certainly in 2014, is about the relationship which five million people living in Scotland choose to have with the rest of Britain. They have the right to decide that relationship.

The idea that a decisive argument in favour of independence is that it (supposedly) presents a chance to break union-Labour links is therefore nothing short of nonsense, made even worse by the ISG’s weird conceptualisation of the relationship between the unions and the Labour Party.

Despite the claims of the ISG’s founding statement that it would promote “a fresh and dynamic approach to socialist politics”, the ISG remains firmly with the political tradition of whence it originated, i.e. the SWP.

The ISG advocates independence for Scotland on the basis of the quack ‘anti-imperialism’ (strike a blow against British imperialism by breaking up Britain!) which has become the hallmark of the SWP over the last decade.

And its sectarian approach to the Labour Party is simply a continuation of the SWP’s own long-standing sectarianism.

The ISG also continues the SWP’s practice of raising slogans to ‘catch the mood’ rather than on the basis of any kind of political rationale.

Last year it was calling for a general strike (to ‘catch the mood’ of anti-cuts campaigning). This year, with an eventual referendum now on the political agenda, it sloganises (British history is genocide!) to ‘catch the mood’ of the ‘rebellious’ fringes of the pro-independence campaign.

“If that is Marxism, then I am not a Marxist,” wrote Marx in the course of a political dispute with the leaders of the French Workers Party in the early 1880s. Marxists will have the same comment to make on the ISG’s pretensions to “develop Marxist theory”.

Pretentious? Yes. Marxist? No.


Submitted by AWL on Tue, 19/06/2012 - 13:43

Isn't a big part of the point about the ISG's analysis that trade unionism/the labour movement is basically finished ("no second coming of industrial unionism") that it's an attempt to theorise a thoroughgoing retreat from class?

As I understand it, the ISG now sees nebulous "movements" (e.g. Occupy, Indignados, etc.) as the key agents for social change, rather than organised labour.

It's not just about a misunderstanding of the historical role of syndicalism or whatever (this is a sideshow here; frankly, syndicalism would be an enormous advance on these people's politics), it's about reaching an analysis which actually breaks from Marxism entirely. If you think that labour is no longer the key, primary, privileged, fundamental (pick whichever word you want; I think they all apply) agent of change because of its unique role in capitalism, then you have to conclude that Marx was actually wrong about the labour theory of value, surplus, the wage relation, and pretty much everything else.

It's not just the odd departure from "the Marxist tradition" here and there; they're moving in the diametrically opposite direction.


Daniel Randall

Submitted by kateharris on Tue, 19/06/2012 - 14:01

Firstly I think this is not as rounded as it could be, but I very much appreciate critique. Hopefully comments and responses will build up a bigger picture.

I don't agree with the whole article but it points out some very important things about ISG. They are not being properly challenged by the rest of the Scottish Left - I seem to be one of the few voices up here willing to criticise them publicly. But their politics is dodgy and based on things they don't like, like Britain, rather than things they are for. They also have quite a Leninist approach to anti-imperialism, one that Luxemberg showed to be at best simplistic/banal and at worst destructive.

Britain, as the ISG and some others on the Scottish left would have it, is 'bad' (as the author points out here, so surely is every capitalist state?). Whereas Scotland is 'good' - despite having a shared colonial history with the rest of Britain (since the ruling classes in Scotland were collaborators and imperialists) and the SNP ditching a credible stance on human rights and undermining relations with Norway (a country the Scottish left want to emulate) to increase exports of salmon to China.

Regardless of anyone's opinion on independence, it's time the Scottish left stopped idealising Scotland. Nationalism of any form in my opinion is 'bad', there are no fundamental differences between nations and there is nothing inherently better about Scots than, say, the English or the Welsh. Even those who are pro-independence must acknowledge that Scots are just the same as any other bunch of human beings, but with different socialised and cultural influences which influence the difference in voting patterns - not that Scots are brave warriors against some imaginary evil England.

Submitted by AWL on Wed, 20/06/2012 - 13:02

Hi Kate,

Presumably a big part of the Scottish left not challenging the ISG is that a) a lot of it shares some of the same basic assumptions, eg the SSP and to an extent on independence and of course on many other things the SWP too; b) there are a lot of people around who just don't like to swim against the stream/rock the boat, in Scotland as elsewhere.

I don't think the ISG's line on Scottish nationalism is Leninist. The dispute between Lenin and Luxemburg was not about whether to idealise nationalism - which Lenin certainly didn't do and in fact argued sharply against. It was about whether to advocate the right of independence for oppressed nations in Europe eg Poland (as I understand it Luxemburg didn't disagree with advocating this right for clear cut developing world colonies). I think on this Lenin was right and Luxemburg was wrong - but I don't think this has much to do with the ISG's position, which is semi-Stalinist caricature of Leninism, in the long tradition of Stalinists idealising "good" nationalities and demonising "bad ones" (cf Israel/Palestine, which is much more straightforward than England/Scotland, because it actually is a situation of national oppression, but where such idealisation/demonisation is still wrong).

The point you make about being defined negatively, rather than positively by what you're for, is a crucial one about much of the left in Britain today. It's what allows the siding with various reactionary forces and regimes over the backs of workers, women and other oppressed groups in the name of anti-imperialism. (And I think the lack of clear positive principles is also part of what allows for general manoeuvring, demagogy and political dishonesty in how leftists relate to each other and to the broader movement.)

Sacha Ismail

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