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Neither ‘Yes’ nor ‘No’ but World Socialism

In March the Scottish nationalist website Bella Caledonia interviewed ‘veteran left-winger’ Tariq Ali after he called for a ‘Yes’ vote in this month’s referendum in Scotland. We disagree.

‘Scottish Labour politicians claim they speak for internationalism, and often accuse independence supporters of parochialism and petty nationalism. As an internationalist living in London, why are you supporting independence?’

This was first question put to Tariq Ali. It is true that the supporters of Scottish formal ‘independence’ (any meaningful economic independence is impossible in today’s interdependent world) are promoting ‘petty nationalism’ but, as Tariq Ali rightly replied, the Scottish Labour politicians opposed to it are not internationalists. They are British nationalists. But then he played on the ambiguity of the word ‘internationalist’ to argue that to be one didn’t mean you had to be anti-nationalist and so there was nothing incoherent about him supporting Scottish nationalism. This is indeed one meaning of the word – an internationalist as an inter-nationalist who stands for friendly relations between ‘nations’. In other words, someone who accepts the sense and legitimacy of nations, nationalism and the nation-state. It is because of this that we prefer to call ourselves ‘world’ rather than ‘international’ socialists. In our view, the nation-state is a capitalist political form and the nationalism they cultivate divides the world working class. Bella Caledonia took up this in one of their other questions:

‘A lot of socialists would deny that there is something particularly toxic about the British state, and would say that all capitalist states are bad.’

We are not sure whether a lot of people say that all capitalist states are bad, but that’s essentially our position. Tariq Ali conceded thaton one level, it can be said that the capitalist economy of these states is more or less the same’ but went on to argue that different states have different peculiarities. The British state, he said, needed ‘modernisation’ by which he meant that the monarchy and the House of Lords needed to be abolished. In fact the main reason why he supports Scottish independence seems to be because he feels that a breakaway by Scotland will help achieve this (the interview is headed ‘Dismantling the British State’). This is similar to the reason Marx gave in the 1860s and 70s for supporting Irish independence but that was 150 years ago and since then the British state has been ‘modernised’, ie the political power that the landed aristocracy wielded in Marx’s day has been broken and the state is now completely controlled by the capitalist class via universal suffrage. In any event, though socialists are interested in there being political democracy, we are not interested in making any capitalist state more efficient and fit for purpose. Tariq Ali finished his answer to this question with the jibe (and non-sequitur): ‘of course, you can argue that since capitalism is now dominant everywhere, then one shouldn’t do anything. But that would be a retreat into total passivity and fatalism.’ A more logical conclusion from accepting that capitalism is now dominant everywhere would be to work for its abolition everywhere, but that’s not Tariq Ali’s view. He wants to retreat into the futility of trying to reform capitalism everywhere, as he made clear in answer to this other question.

‘What’s your views on the Nordic model and other varieties of capitalism? Can Scotland draw on these ideas?’

To which Tariq Ali replied:

‘Well, we’re talking about a period in which the capitalist system has triumphed, and the ideas of socialism have suffered a huge defeat globally. So we’re living in a very strange transition period, which may well last until the end of the century. One shouldn’t exclude that. So one has to operate with what exists, and see how capital in its worst aspects can be regulated, how a state can be regulated that works for the benefit of working people.’

Tariq Ali used to be a ‘revolutionary’ Trotskyist, but he’s now an open reformist. Ironically, just like the Labour Party which he rightly has no time for, he argues that the only choice today is between different varieties of capitalism. Yes, a capitalism which spent more on better education, health, housing and other services would be nice – if you could get it. But you can’t, at least not permanently. The post-war Attlee Labour government, which he praises and urges an independent Scottish government to follow, did introduce some reforms which coincided with the general capitalist interest for an educated, healthy and productive (of profit) workforce. But capitalism cannot be ‘regulated’ to work ‘for the benefit of working people’. The priority under capitalism is profit and profit-making and all governments have to accept and abide by this, as the record of all governments including Labour has shown. Some of them set out to improve things for working people but all of them ended up having to give priority to profits even when this meant making things worse for working people by, for instance, holding down wages, worsening services and cutting benefits.

Bella Caledonia did not pose a specific question about what would happen to the standard of living of workers if Scotland broke away, but Tariq Ali himself did in answer to another question:

‘I remember when Tony Blair came on his last tour of Scotland, and he said, If you vote for independence, every family will lose £5,000 a year. Who dreamed up that figure?’

While it is true, as Tariq Ali went on to point out, that this is an arbitrary figure and meant to scare people into voting ‘No’, it is an argument that the ‘Yes’ campaign has to face and cannot simply dismiss out of hand. People could become worse off. This is what happened in Ireland when and after it got ‘independence’. Tariq Ali’s reply was that there’s no reason living standards should decline ‘if the economy is properly handled.’ This amounts to saying that at least people wouldn’t be worse off (of course claims that people would be better off are just the usual empty politicians’ promise). That may well be true but in that case what’s all the fuss about? If it’s not going to make any difference to living standards either way why bother taking sides in the referendum? Who needs to care about the result (apart from the Scottish nationalist politicians who would like to be able to strut on the international stage)? Some (such as these same politicians) will reply that that it’s not a sordid, material question but about ‘freedom’ and ‘dignity’. To which we reply: that’s just divisive, nationalist rhetoric. It does not deflect us, and should not deflect other workers in Scotland, from talking up the position ‘Neither Yes Nor No But World Socialism’ and writing this across their ballot paper.