A Critique of Critique

By Dale Street


Oh dear.

The magazine “Critique” – formerly a “Journal of Soviet Studies and Socialist Theory” with a specific focus on Stalinism, but now just a general “Journal of Socialist Theory” – has decided to back independence for Scotland!

“Critique” has always prided itself on having a better grasp of Marxism, a deeper understanding of the nature of the transitional epoch, a clearer analysis of the decline of the law of value, and a more profound insight into the application of the Marxist method and political economy than the rest of the left.

But now, having boldly decided to confront a real issue in the real world, the mighty theoretical endeavours of the “Critique” Kathedersozialisten have brought forth an article which would be an embarrassment to the most theoretically-lumpen member of the Radical Independence Campaign.

“Scotland is in principle no different from other parts of the world subjugated by British imperialism,” discovers the bemused reader from the opening paragraph of the article in question. (1)

Apart, one might say, from the fact that Scotland was an integral part of the British-imperialist metropolitan centre which subjugated other parts of the world. Historically, Scotland has been an agent of imperialist oppression, not a victim of it.

In fact, what made British imperialism “British” was the Treaty of Union of 1707.

The same paragraph deals with that Treaty in a single sentence: “The English bourgeoisie at the beginning of the eighteenth century virtually forced the Scottish bourgeoisie to join with England by threatening economic and other sanctions.”

And the impact of the collapse of the Darien Venture, which demonstrated Scotland’s inability to establish a colonial empire of its own? Or the long history of pro-unionist thinking in Scotland which preceded the Treaty of 1707? (See, for example: Colin Kidd’s “Union and Unionisms”.)

(On a brighter note, at least the reader is spared any suggestion that Scotland was bought and sold for British gold by a parcel of rogues – even if such an argument would certainly not jar with the overall politics of the article.)

After some brief but inchoate ruminations about “John McLean” (presumably a reference to: John Maclean) the article trots out the “Scotland today, the rest of the world tomorrow” line:

“If indeed the break-up of the UK would lead to the break-up of a number of countries, and so the power of the ruling class in those countries, and possibly, therefore, a weakening of the ruling class in general, one might consider it an additional reason to support the independence of Scotland.”

Yes indeed!

All those quaint nation-states created in the nineteenth century which were so admired by Marx and Engels as integral to the development of capitalism and the creation of a unified working class – what a good idea it would be to restore them to their preceding pristine state of feudal particularism, and thereby “break up” the power of their ruling classes!

And the same logic should surely apply to the existence of the European Union as well. Which means: UKIP has got the right line on Europe (break it up), but the wrong line only on Britain (don’t break it up).

Unfortunately, it gets worse. Far worse:

“The SNP has tried to argue for independence on social-democratic grounds. They have made higher education, medical prescriptions and care for the elderly free. The Labour Party opposes these concessions.”

Not quite.

Labour, not the SNP, introduced free care for the elderly and scrapped tuition fees. Labour also voted in support of free prescriptions.

(In 2012 Scottish Labour Party leader Johann Lamont certainly floated the idea of re-introducing charges, although that has (so far) remained a dead letter. And any attempt to adopt them as party policy would certainly generate major ructions in the Party.)

Equally surprising is the article’s failure to challenge the SNP’s social-democratic pretensions.

The SNP has opposed Labour calls for an energy prices freeze, a 50p higher income tax rate, and rent controls. It has also opposed Labour calls for an enquiry into police actions during the miners’ strike, and the inclusion of payment of a living wage and a ban on blacklisting as a condition of securing public contracts.

The one specific policy commitment given by the SNP in the event of independence for Scotland is that corporation tax will be lower in Scotland than in England. This is certainly not social-democratic. But it does not even merit a passing mention in the article.

There then follows a lengthy piece of text covering the experiences of French social-democracy in power, the world division of labour, Scandinavian post-war politics, the chimera of market socialism, the falling price of oil, the experiences of post-colonial countries, Quebec, and the failures of nationalist governments.

Despite virtually ruling out the possibility of a post-independence Scottish government engaging in the necessary “large-scale investment in and through the public sector”, the article reaches the preliminary conclusion:

“(An independent) Scotland might manage to manoeuvre its way through the next twenty years or so without too much trouble, or at least with less trouble than if it was part of the UK.”

This conclusion is surprising in three respects.

Firstly, it has emerged from nowhere: nothing which precedes it provides a basis for such a conclusion. In fact, much of the preceding argument and analysis appears to be heading for the opposite conclusion.

Secondly, what we have here is a socialist magazine which consistently emphasizes that capitalism has reached a dead end and that society is now in the epoch of transition to socialism ‘bigging up’ the prospects for an independent capitalist Scotland – and then presenting this as part of the ‘socialist’ case for a ‘yes’ vote on 18th September.

Thirdly, it is not even consistent with a position stated later in the same article: “The political economy of the present context dictates that bourgeois solutions [such as an independent Scotland????] at a time of historic capitalist decline, when that decline is reinforced by a depression, are unlikely to work.”

The article concludes with a foray into the “socialist history of the question of independence”. This is, after all, an article published in the pages of “Critique”.

Lenin receives a passing mention, but it is Rosa Luxemburg (who would never have even dreamt of supporting independence for Scotland) who is the hero of the hour.

Although “Luxemburg was right, in the abstract, when she said that independence was impossible under capitalism and irrelevant under socialism”, this did not prevent her from “supporting national independence in Turkey, in the Ottoman Empire, particularly for the Armenians.”

As the article explains, this was because:

“Where, as in Turkey, there is no working class movement, there can be no question but that independence will help to right an historic wrong. … Both on the grounds of civil rights, as it were, and to correct a historic wrong, independence is a reasonable solution, as a first draft, as it were.”

Yes, that’s right.

The position of Scots in the UK in the twenty-first century is being likened to that of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire of the early twentieth century – who were victims of genocide in Luxemburg’s own lifetime.

The argument that independence is justified (or at least is “a reasonable solution, as a first draft, as it were” – whatever that might mean) where there is no working class movement is used to back up a call for independence where there is a working class movement. (Ever heard of “Red Clydeside”?)

And where a “historic wrong” was allegedly committed 307 years ago, the answer is turn to back the clock of time a full three centuries in order to “correct” that wrong.

(But why, indeed, go back only as far as 1707? The Union of the Crowns of 1603 strikes me as being a pretty dodgy affair as well.)

Finally, for any readers who have not yet lost the will to live and who have struggled on to this point in the article, the crucial question is now posed: “How should one vote?”

The article explains: “The demand has to be for national autonomy within a united socialist framework. Clearly, this is not on offer.” Since a socialist solution is not offer, and even though “”abstention may have the strongest case”, the article recommends, however tentatively, a nationalist non-solution:

“It is a fact that the British bourgeoisie is strongly opposed, and indeed that the global bourgeoisie is worried by it. On that basis there may be a marginal reason to vote ‘yes’, without any illusions, and [with] many regrets.”

It is indeed a cause for regret if any socialist votes ‘yes’ on 18th September. But not half as much a cause for regret as ploughing one’s way through an article that seems to have been written by someone who personally thinks its arguments are singularly unconvincing – and is quite right to hold that opinion – but puts them forward nonetheless.

One final added element of piquancy about the article is the curious contrast which it forms with comments on the Russian annexation of Crimea contained in the preceding issue of “Critique”.

“Abstractly considered, the annexation of territory of another country has to be opposed,” explains “Critique”. But as far as the annexation of Crimea is concerned: “Looked at from the point of view of the left, or the working class, it is not something over which to fight.”

Perhaps “Critique” would benefit from having more Crimean Tartars and less spokespersons for Scottish nationalism on its editorial board?


1) http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03017605.2014.949046#_i8



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