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Cooking the Books: Marx and the SNP

‘The “SNP are Marxists”, says Conservative MP’ was a headline in the Independent (11 May). The MP in question was Owen Paterson, who sits for Shropshire North, a buffoon who even Cameron had to sack from his Cabinet for incompetence.

A minimum definition of a ‘Marxist’ would be someone who agreed with Marx’s theories of economics, history and social change, and also with his aim of a society based on common ownership and democratic control of the means of production. There might, perhaps, be some individual SNP members who share Marx’s materialist approach to society and history. After all, Marx himself acknowledged that the so-called ‘Scottish Historical School’ had foreshadowed to some extent his own ‘materialist conception of history’.  In The German Ideology, he and Engels wrote that, in contrast to German history-writers: ‘The French and English … have nevertheless made the first attempts to give the writing of history a materialistic basis by being the first to write histories of civil society, of commerce and industry’. Since the writers in English they had in mind (Adam Ferguson, William Robertson, John Millar) were all from Scotland calling them ‘English’ was the sort of faux pas that gets Scottish Nationalists hot under the collar.

But no one in the SNP stands for a society of common ownership and democratic control, as Marx did. The SNP’s aim, rather, is the establishment of a separate capitalist state in Scotland. As such it represents the interests of smaller capitalists producing for the home market there, as opposed to the larger capitalists producing for export who want to remain part of the UK.

It is true that in his day Marx did support the separation of Ireland from the UK, though not as an end in itself but as a means to the end of furthering political democracy in the rest of the UK by weakening the power of the landed aristocracy. He didn’t take the same position with regard to Scotland. He was well aware that the Scottish landed aristocracy was just as ruthless as their English counterparts and devoted a section of Capital (at the end of Chapter 27 on ‘The Expropriation of the Agricultural Population from the Land’) to movingly describing the fate of the Gaelic clansmen at the hands of their chiefs, who had transformed themselves into absolute owners of the one-time clan land, clearing them off it as part of the process of ‘the primitive accumulation of capital’.

Not that the SNP itself claims to be socialist. The most it claims is to be ‘social-democratic’ like the Labour Party used to be. As such it proposes to tax the rich in a bid to bring about a less unequal society. It is maybe this that has led Paterson to think they are ‘Marxists’. But Marx did not stand for a redistribution of wealth away from the rich as this would still leave private ownership as the basis of society. He stood for the common ownership of wealth. Which is something quite different.

Nor is there any such thing as a ‘Marxist tax policy’ or a ‘Marxist economic policy’ (whatever some left-wing supporters of Scottish separatism, and not just Paterson, imagine). This would imply that Marx favoured putting forward policies for capitalist governments to pursue; in other words, of advising them how to run capitalism. But Marx was not into that. Insofar as Marx could be said to have had an ‘economic policy’ it was to end the capitalist economy altogether. It’s an aim we share but the SNP does not.