As a Marxist, it continually disappoints me that the British labour movement has never developed a consistent ideology that demands solidarity and activism at home whilst exporting trade unionism and a politicised working class abroad. Even with respect to Northern Ireland, the attitude of the British labour movement is hardly well thought out. Figures I respect often have extremely dubious positions on this question.
The left in general have a pretty poor reputation for supporting leaders of movements for “national liberation” who end up butchering the population they supposedly wanted to liberate and otherwise getting involved with dubious figures. Galloway saluting the “courage” and “indefatigability” of Saddam Hussein. Dennis Kucinich and his version of the “peace in our time” speech. Tony Benn praising George Galloway as “one of the finest democrats” despite Galloway’s opposition to the existence of the state of Israel at all.
The search for a consistent and principled position led me to the writings of the famous Marxists on the subject, among whom Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg are considered the foremost on the national question. In studying these, I always particularly identified with the position of Lenin. That position was this; a worker’s movement should always support the right to national self-determination, but that is not the same thing as saying that a worker’s movement should support that right in all circumstances and with all nations.
From living in a society where the national question was at stake, it seemed to me that any attempt to resolve the national issue prior to the establishment of socialism was unfeasible. If one expects normal people to reach out and overthrow a system where the interests of capital predominate, normal people must be united to that end. That is not to say that in all circumstances, complete consensus is necessary, but a fault-line running through the middle of the working class poses organisational and political quandaries that would ultimately see a party attempting to pose an either-or solution based only amongst half of the working class.
Protestant and Catholic workers, though they had common interests and occasionally came together to express those common interests, were and are divided by the national question. Since each religion forms roughly half of the population, this is just such a fault line as I have described above. Protestants wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom and Catholics wanted a United Irish Republic. The churches, the media, the Northern Irish government and the political parties all sought to remind people of the grievances they or their “side” had suffered and to postulate a preferred national affiliation as the solution.
Two movements developed within Northern Ireland at the outset of the 1969-1998 conflict which claimed the mantle of a worker’s movement but within each of them, an incorrect formulation on the national question (and, no doubt, various other problems) impeded their development. One of these was the Socialist Worker’s Party, though that was not their name at the time. The other was the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), affiliate of the Second International and the party in Northern Ireland with links to Labour in the UK.
Each of these organizations adopted the position that a united Ireland was necessary. The SWP went so far as to endorse the violent, terroristic methods of the IRA. In order to justify this, using a system of Marxist analysis, it would have been necessary to prove that by doing so, they were furthering the self-determination of the proletariat. As I have explained, and has been amply demonstrated by the continuing division of Northern Irish electoral politics between Republican/Catholic and Unionist/Protestant organizations, there was and is no way they could do that.
Some political scientists protest that this segregation into religious-based political groupings exposes the notion of Marxist class as a fallacy. No doubt that is something I shall return to deal with in later articles. For the moment, the question must be, “Why are these musings relevant to the modern day?”
National and international labour movements are facing problems directly connected to the national question. In the UK, at the moment, the idea of the Labour Party as the party of the working class is facing unceasing attack on the part of the Scottish Nationalist Party (not that the leadership of the Labour Party is doing much to discourage this view). The SNP want Scottish independence from the UK. A prime question which the labour movement should be asking itself is, should we support that demand or oppose it?
There can be no doubt that Scotland qualifies as a nation within the UK, much like Northern Ireland, England or Wales. Within England there are probably areas which further divide, such as Cornwall or Kent, each with their own language and distinct cultures. That does not mean a worker’s movement is obligated to support immediate independence, whatever the view of the majority of the Scottish people. We must support the right to such independence but in my view, at the moment, we should not support its implementation on the grounds of inexpedience.
Scottish independence would not serve to influence working class consciousness at all. The SNP is not a workers’ party, particularly with the occasional social-chauvinism it displays towards England , nor can it claim the (admittedly frayed) mantle of Labour as the party with the affiliation of working class organizations and that organic connection to the organized proletariat. Thus independence must be subordinate to the battle to awaken the working classes of Britain to their current predicaments and to the best method for solving those predicaments. Political organization, economic organization and, ultimately, the conquest of power directly for the organizations of the working class.
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In any case Scotland and its position within the UK is but the tip of the iceberg and relatively unimportant at that. It is in cases such as the Philippines that the national question must once more be examined. Islamic terrorism has, in many places across the world, cloaked itself as a struggle for independence, which develops as the result of uneven capitalist expansion. Groups such as Abu Sayyaf and many others in the Australasian archipelago fight for an Islamic super-state in the region.
Islamic terrorism and its spread is a direct threat to the people of Western Europe – and is additionally a threat to workers’ movements in every country with a sizable population of Muslims. In Britain, given the development of the RESPECT coalition into a party of socially conservative Muslim Clerics, this is a worrying development that could see the most exploited workers separated from the workers’ movement. If we, as a movement, are serious about combating it, we should be prepared to intervene with funds and resources across the world.
By fighting to establish an Islamic superstate, we can clearly understand that the form of “independence” for those parts of different nations included would really be the freedom of reactionary clerics to run the country. Thus, the demands of international labour must be that self-determination be subordinate to the organization of the working class. The Philippines in particular is a country which has a large population (some 85 million people) among which poverty is rife.
The unionisation and politicisation of these people is imperative. In countries like Iraq, the Philippines, Indonesia and so on, where Islamic fundamentalism is emergent in confluence with growing discontent along national, ethnic or religious lines, the solution is not invasion nor a support for every movement that fights for independence. Often these movements are politically and socially reactionary. The response required is both humanitarian, to end poverty, and political, to end the causes of poverty – which amounts to ending capitalist exploitation.
It is doubly imperative if we consider that it is to the Philippines to which much light industry, formerly based in Europe, has fled. If we want to stop outsourcing and protect the interests of British or French or German or American workers, then it is in our interest to help Filipino workers protect themselves. Only a labour movement has the capacity to carry out these tasks and that is what our new Internationalism must attempt.