As a nation, Scotland projects a particular image of itself out into the world. It’s an image that tells of a nation steeped in history, of a ‘proud people’ who are intimately con…
A hot topic on the local political scene over the last couple of years has been the issues surrounding The Beacon theatre. The Beacon, if you remember, went cap in hand to the council asking for money to pay their debts. We were told that if this money was not forthcoming then the theatre would be forced to close. At a time of savage and unnecessary cuts to local jobs and services, driven by the Tories in London and enthusiastically supported by their friends in New Labour, it is no surprise that the idea of handing the theatre a no strings attached bailout raised some anger locally. The result of all the political “to-ing and fro-ing” was that Inverclyde Council via a consensus between the New Labour and SNP councillors found the money to save the theatre from closure, although rumours still abound regarding the financial viability of The Beacon and that more public money will be needed again in the not to distant future to again stave off closure.
At the Scottish Socialist Party we didn’t want to see the theatre close either, the arts are a valuable part of our society and Inverclyde is a better place for having The Beacon. But the No Bailout Campaign highlighted some aspects that still need closer scrutiny. I’ve heard people say this was a “one aspect issue”, we either bail out the beacon or we don’t. That is at best a very naive thing to say, at worst deliberately dishonest. There are lots of things going on here, and if we are to have a healthy local democracy we have to be able to talk about these, and the No Bailout Campaign certainly did an excellent job at getting people talking.
Some questions they raised which still haven’t been answered are how did the beacon even end up in this position?, and how were the management unaware of the contractual clauses and obligations in the construction of the theatre that led them to be in this financial situation?
The Inverclyde branch of the Scottish Socialist Party also raised the question of who should own the Beacon. In a booklet that I recently wrote for the SSP, I argued that the correct set up for our economy is a mix of public and privately owned industries. I made a point of going through everything that belongs in the public domain, or in other words things that should be owned by the people. Among the likes of industries of national importance I argued that the Arts belong in the public sector. Art is for the people.
Lets just think about the sums of money coming out of the public purse and going into The Beacon, the normal operating budget over and above this bailout. And yet we have no democratic control or accountability for how that money is spent or how the theatre is operated. I know that the SNP have argued for a councillor to sit on the board of The Beacon. At the SSP we would go further than this and argue that the theatre should be brought into what would be commonly thought of as public democratic ownership. It currently has a weird privately owned but not for profit status, although crucially profitable parts of the enterprise such as the bar and restaurant are privately run for profit by a local businessman. So essentially The Beacon is financially viable as a whole, but in its current arrangement the profitable parts can not be used to cover the non-profitable parts, instead the theatre requires a bailout from public funds to keep it afloat. We believe that the theatre should not just be funded by the public purse, but operated by a democratically accountable body and that crucially this should include all parts of the enterprise – not just the loss making elements. We suggested a reformed Inverclyde Leisure as a possible option for managing The Beacon as a democratically owned institution but there are various ways this could be achieved.
We also want to see greater levels of democratic input into such bodies, art is for the people. ALL of the people, not just the financially better off. Local Inverclyde artists and groups should be able to use the facility, instead of being priced out of the equation as they currently are. Inverclyde, and Scotland in general, has no shortage of talented writers and performers. We need to be better at providing them with a platform to develop and present their skills.
In the grand scheme of things we are happy The Beacon has been saved for now, but we object to just giving public cash away for nothing. Of course saving The Beacon fits into the bigger picture of what the SSP stands for. Unlike New Labour and the SNP, we don’t only want to save the 60 or so jobs at The Beacon, we want to save every local job that is under threat. We don’t just want to save this one local service, we want to save every local service. Among the slogans we use, this one sums our position up perfectly – NOT ONE WORKER TO LOSE THEIR JOB, NOT ONE SERVICE TO BE LOST.
So lets not fall for the politicians trick of trying to make us decide which services are more important than others. Lets unite, stand together and say NO CUTS IN INVERCLYDE! Some of you might have heard last years big debate between our regional organiser for the West of Scotland Richie Venton, and Inverclyde Council leader Cllr Stephen McCabe. Cllr McCabe called this debate between himself and Richie a score draw. In my opinion you would have to be extremely generous to Cllr McCabe to award him a draw, but I would probably say that anyway. If you haven’t managed to listen to it yet we have it archived on YouTube among other places. Clicky here for a listen.
The debate was of course centred around the proposed cuts to local jobs and services. We have demanded that there are no jobs or services lost, a “no cuts budget” in other words. Cllr McCabe was defending his role in inflicting these cuts on the people of Inverclyde.
Its not difficult to spot the obvious glaring flaw in McCabe’s logic. Lets recap exactly what his reply to Richie was. He said, “The problem with your tactics is that the money will run out”. Or in other words, if we implement a no cuts budget and run at a deficit, the money will eventually run out, our grant will still be cut and we’ll have to make the cuts further down the road anyway. That seems like a fair assessment of what he said. But think about it. The worst case scenario, if the council were to set a “no cuts” budget, is that we would have to make the cuts at a later date. So what is Cllr McCabe and the council’s alternative? To simply roll over and not even put up a fight! To just implement these cuts with no effort what-so-ever put in to resist them.
Cllr McCabe, as predicted, has insisted that he is opposed to these cuts. So, of course have other New Labour councillors and politicians. Not to mention the SNP who also claim to be anti-austerity. But with all these anti-austerity voices supposedly on the scene, should there not be visible a mass movement of resistance to this ideological Tory attack on our jobs and services? There should be a deafening roar of opposition. But from New Labour and the SNP we are hearing barely a whisper. In fact, the only party truly representing the majority in their opposition to these cuts is the Scottish Socialist Party.
New Labour’s true position on these cuts was revealed when their MP’s, including the then local MP Ian McKenzie, voted for an other £30 billion of cuts. If New Labour are really oppossed to these cuts, as Cllr McCabe claims, then why are their MP’s voting for more cuts? Why did Cllr McCabe not condemn New Labour MPs for their complicity in voting for more cuts? There is a valuable lesson here, don’t judge politicians by what they say – judge them by what they do. What New Labour did was vote to support the Tory austerity agenda and inflict savage cuts on our jobs and services.They try to defend themselves by claiming they were voting to balance the budget. Well, scrapping Trident rather than our jobs and services would balance the budget, but guess what? New Labour also voted to spend £100 billion renewing Trident.
Their excuse for not doing as we ask, for not setting a “no cuts budget” is particularly weak. As I’ve already said, the worst that can happen is that the cuts will happen anyway. But that is worst case scenario. The alternative is that we win, force Westminster to reallocate funds from elsewhere (there is a lot of money elsewhere that doesn’t need to be elsewhere) and we don’t have to endure any cuts. Or maybe the immediate outcome would be somewhere between these two positions, and less severe cuts would be made. By simply rolling over and not doing anything, we are certain to suffer these cuts. Fight back, mobilise and set a “no cuts budget” and there is a chance we don’t suffer any cuts. So which option do you find most acceptable? Cllr McCabe and New Labour’s choice to just meekly accept these cuts, or the SSP’s call for resistance and the chance to avoid the cuts altogether?
Nikita Krushchev, who led the Soviet Union from 1953 until he was deposed by Leonid Brezhnev in 1964, is perhaps the least celebrated of the Soviet leaders. Certainly, many of his policies are viewed as erratic and were often ineffective. Regardless, he is generally looked upon favourably for his denouncing of Stalin and ushering in of a less repressive era in the USSR. Ironically, it was this “success” of his that would lead to his downfall, when hardliners in the Kremlin supported Breshnev and brought the Krushchev era to an end. Krushchev recognised as much when the day following his removal from the Kremlin he commented to a friend and colleague:
“I’m old and tired. Let them cope by themselves. I’ve done the main thing. Could anyone have dreamed of telling Stalin that he didn’t suit us anymore and suggesting he retire? Not even a wet spot would have remained where we had been standing. Now everything is different. The fear is gone, and we can talk as equals. That’s my contribution. I won’t put up a fight.”
What Krushchev knew was that his own reforms had sown the seeds of his own downfall. But rather than hastily try to undo his reforms he instead took pride in them. Breshnev had been able to overthrow him because Brezhnev had been able to talk to others about a change of leadership. No-one would have been brave enough or stupid enough to have spoke about a change of leadership during the Stalin era. Krushchev’s defeat was also his victory.
One would hope that in our supposed “enlightened” and more “progressive” Western democracies that Krushchev’s Lesson would be a rather unquestioned element of democracy, whereby those who seek to champion and further spread democracy into more and more areas of our lives would be comfortable with the fact that the same democratic expansions could lead to them being removed from their positions. How many leaders of left wing parties, for example, have claimed that theirs is the most democratic party in their country – only to go on and suspend their party’s constitution when they fear they won’t get their own way? Or in Scotland, where we see RISE claim that everything they do is democratic, yet they put people in key full time paid positions without even so much as a vote or an explanation of how they are to be held accountable.
Thankfully we’re now entering a post-RISE political landscape in Scotland, although no doubt they will refuse to disappear completely and will revert back to some sort of middle class student group much like the ISG was. They do warrant further mention here however as they are a fairly unambiguous example of those who have failed to learn a “Krushchev lesson”. As I mentioned, their leaders continually preach about democracy while refusing to implement anything that could lead to their leadership positions being challenged. Their failure to learn a “Krushchev lesson” is also apparent in their attitudes towards non mainstream media.
During the Scottish referendum campaign it was blindingly obvious to everyone that the Scottish mainstream media was massively biased in favour of the NO campaign. This resulted in a massive growth in popularity for “alternative media” in Scotland during this period as those who supported independence, and even just those who only wanted more reliable information, turned to alternative sources. One such source which rose to prominence (or notoriety) during this period was Wings Over Scotland. Wings popularity seems to be based on the fact that they hold the Unionist media and parties to account. They scrutinise them heavily, and the result is a website which is a treasure trove of evidence regarding the Unionist media’s lies and spin.
During the independence campaign, and pre-RISE, many of the current RISErs enthusiastically supported Wings, regularly sharing posts from the site across all social media platforms. Many gave up their spare time to deliver copies of the Wee Blue Book to potential YES voters. How things have changed now though! No longer are RISE fans of Wings, instead regularly throwing insults that way from their social media accounts. Any insult will suffice, although they seem to like the labels of homophobe and misogynist in particular.
The thing is: what attracted them to Wings and what led them to promote alternative media in the first place is the exact same thing that now leads them to denounce Wings and alternative media with such an intense hatred. They promoted alternative media because they were attracted to the platform it provided to write about and scrutinise the unionists, something which the mainstream media was completely failing to do. What they failed to grasp was that the same platforms could also be used to write about and scrutinise RISE. Once they realised this they turned against these platforms with a vengeance.
They have failed to see alternative media writing about and scrutinising their election campaign as a victory in the growth of alternative media, one which they played a part in. Remember RISE are an insignificance in Scottish politics. They only gained 0.47% of the popular vote. They polled below Tommy Sheridan’s party and even below the Scottish Christian Party – Proclaiming Christ’s Lordship (clicky for analysis of their performance). They are barely mentioned in the mainstream media at all, with almost the only exception to this being Cat Boyd’s column in the small circulation The National. But rather than view the fact that they are getting any coverage at all as a success, or their success in as much as they helped promote alternative media, they are now doing their damnedest to discredit this alternative. Even this site, which putting it generously is “modest” compared to Wings, hasn’t escaped their vitriol with numerous slanders being launched across the internet. In an ironic way the greatest success of the RISErs also ensured their total defeat in the recent election, a defeat that they won’t recover from. Rather than display the peace of mind that Krushchev demonstrated, RISE seem intent on doing as much harm as possible to any source that criticizes them. They’ve totally failed to learn a Krushchev Lesson.
I don’t want to use this piece to rehash old arguments about the Scottish media’s bias in favour of the NO campaign during Scotland’s independence referendum. Those arguments have been done to death elsewhere. I do want to share some thoughts on the subject however.
While browsing some of our old radio broadcasts I came across a piece where we were discussing the Smith Commission. In particular we noted how Inverclyde Council Leader Cllr McCabe was in the local press declaring his delight at the Smith Commission, and claiming that we now have one of the most powerful devolved parliaments in the world. Cllr McCabe is of course rather famous in Inverclyde for his almost daily displays of political illiteracy. I think what he was displaying here is that he has no idea how many devolved parliaments there are in the world, and was effectively showing off about Scotland being more powerful than Greenland or Madeira. Not much of a boast! In fact, many of the American states actually enjoy significantly more powers than Scotland. You don’t have to be a supporter of full independence to agree that this is not good enough for Scotland and that we deserve better. But New Labour, totally consumed by their sectarian hatred of the SNP, were campaigning for less simply because the nationalists were campaigning for more. YES and NO voters together need to reject this tribal approach to politics. Scotland deserves more powers, not because the SNP says so but because that is what is in Scotland’s best interests. Cllr McCabe and the rest of New Labour need to put their deep rooted loathing of anything that reminds them of the SNP behind them and recognise this simple fact. Otherwise the people will vote to relieve ourselves of New Labour. Judging by Cllr McCabe’s obnoxious and insulting comments almost every day in the local paper, it appears he is actually enjoying New Labour’s decline and approaching political irrelevance.
Although, to get back on topic, one thing I have consistently argued for and would have liked to see included in the report is for BBC Scotland to be devolved to Holyrood. It takes a massive degree of generosity to describe the referendum campaign as “democratic”, given that the state broadcaster was totally anti-independence from the start and made no attempt to avoid bias, instead repeating lie after lie after lie to defeat the YES side and demonise any of us who thought that we could govern ourselves. A democracy can only function when we have a genuinely free press. What we have instead is a press that pushes the agenda of one side.
Many journalists and reporters have responded to this claim from the YES side by saying that they are not coerced into saying anything. We have a fair and free press, they say, because they are not told what to say by their bosses or have their words edited. This is colouring between the lines however.
They only get to say what they say because the bosses already agree with them. That’s how they got to where they are; that’s how they got their job. How many supporters of independence host politics shows on the BBC?, or report on their flagship news programs? None, because if you support independence you don’t get these jobs. These channels are wall to wall unionists because that’s what the bosses want broadcast. They don’t have to tell them what to say or edit their words because they have deliberately hired only people that already agree with them. The effect is a controlled and compliant media. A media that pushes only one agenda. And that is extremely undemocratic. To devolve responsibility for BBC Scotland to Holyrood would allow us to tackle this in built bias. In America they used to have a fairness law which ruled that the media had to give equal coverage to each side of an issue. It worked well, but was repealed at the insistence of the large media companies. We could have something similar in Scotland, but only if responsibility for the media in Scotland lies at Holyrood.
Of course what I propose would be the good kind of control, democratic control. There is another kind of control that we must resist, and that is censorship. The tactics of the BBC in only employing Unionists is a type of censorship, censorship by the back door. But there is a more direct form of censorship whereby the government actively shuts down and silences opposition opinions. On the show local SSP member John spoke at length about the ways the government, via their puppets in the main stream media, use fear to push their agenda.
One way they are doing that just now is using threats of impending financial doom to push their austerity agenda. We must resist austerity. Austerity has been a lie from the start, there is simply no need for it. The first round of austerity saw the bedroom tax. They said they needed to impose the bedroom tax to save the country money, yet the very same week the bedroom tax came into effect they gave the millionaires a tax cut that cost the country three times what the bedroom tax was supposed to save. Why did people accept it then? They accepted it because they were scared by stories of the country going bankrupt.
Now let me make this clear, this is a very wealthy country, which is richer now than it ever has been. So where is the money?, why are we being told we have to cut our public jobs and services? The money is being hoarded by a few rich people who are getting richer and richer, leaving us with less and less. We need a radical redistribution of wealth. Not the impotent policies offered by the politicians, but real change. To take the wealth of this country away from that handful of selfish people and share it out via public spending.
That is the essence of the street campaigning being conducted in Inverclyde by local Scottish Socialist Party activists. We know that austerity is a lie, an ideological attack on the working classes so that rich people can get a wee bit richer. We’re taking that message to every street in Inverclyde. We’re telling people they don’t need to accept the austerity driven cuts being inflicted on them by Cllr McCabe. Get involved, help us spread this message of resistance.
I was totally unsurprised to learn that Inverclyde Council’s corrupt leader Stephen McCabe had used the same dodgy PFI company to build Inverclyde’s schools that built the now infamous Edinburgh ones.
Remember, it was his incompetent leadership that got Inverclyde residents saddled with a massive debt to pay for these schools (clicky). A debt many times larger than if we’d simply borrowed the money straight from a bank and built the schools ourselves. So not only do we (Inverclyde public) not actually own our schools, we will still have to pay for them for a long time to come at vastly inflated cost, and we’re having austerity forced on us via Stephen McCabe’s insidious council spending cuts in order to find the money to pay for his disastrous school building projects.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, the schools might actually be unsafe for our kids to be in!
It’s hard to think of anyone who has caused more damage to Inverclyde than Stephen McCabe.
The guy is a total liability.
Unfortunately there is an element within the Scottish left that aims to shut down debate, rather than engage openly and honestly. They do this by labelling the opposing voice as some sort of “ism”; racism or misogynism for example. It’s the classic ad hominem fallacy, playing the man rather than the ball so to speak. It’s a good indication that they have no response to the arguments they are faced with, and so resort to trying to discredit their opponent personally. It’s a wrongheaded approach for many reasons, not least because there are in fact very good arguments that can be employed against racists and misogynists. These arguments of course only work if your opponent genuinely is a racist or misogynist. And herein lies the rub: these labels are too often used wrongly and inappropriately.
Another label that has found its way into the Scottish left’s lexicon recently, and is also too often used to shut down debate, is the term “stale pale male”*. This essentially means “old white man”. It’s a favourite of middle class student types at the moment, and prominent RISE activists in particular seem to enjoy employing it against their (perceived) opponents. As an SSP member, I am writing this as a comradely appeal that the use of this label be kicked out of useage immediately. Not least because it is a highly offensive term. It suggests that the opinions of a certain group of people are not worth listening to, simply because of their arbitrary natural characteristics.
Now I often despair at the softness of those on the left currently, who seem to cry “abuse” any time they hear something they don’t like, or hear a potentially derogatory remark. The Tories and the oligarchs aren’t going to be nice and polite when we come to take their power and privileges from them, so to be perfectly frank most of the Scottish left needs to seriously toughen up.
Having said that, there is of course no room for abusing comrades within the movement. This is especially so when you claim to be opposed to bullying. If you don’t accept people using derogatory terms to describe you, don’t use derogatory terms to describe others. It’s just blatant hypocrisy if you do, and destroys your claims to honesty and integrity.
Apart from the derogatory nature of the term, there is another important reason why socialists in particular should dispense of this means of categorising the participants in any given debate. Let’s just look at the term. “Male” gives us an analysis in terms of sex or gender, “stale” gives us an analysis in terms of age, and “pale” gives us an analysis in terms of ethnicity. For socialists this is a very poor way to analyse any set of circumstances. Where is the analysis in terms of class? In other words, these middle class student types in RISE, by making others think in terms of “stale pale males” have succeeded in removing class consciousness from large parts of our movement. It is for this reason that prominent RISE activists, including some on the Holyrood lists, are able to throw their weight about social media telling anyone and everyone that white males not only are not oppressed, but CANNOT BE oppressed. If you remove class consciousness from the equation it becomes incredibly difficult to recognise very real occurrences of oppression and very real disadvantages that many white males do in fact suffer. Now of course age sex and ethnicity are important elements in the understanding of very many occasions of oppression and disadvantages, but socialists recognise that a proper understanding of these requires an understanding of the broader class struggle which gives rise to these oppressions.
Let me explain this by using sex as the example. Some feminists will be inclined to point to the lack of female CEOs and decide it’s an issue that needs to be tackled by creating more female CEOs. Likewise, some will point to women being sexually objectified and commodified and claim we should do the same with men. Others will argue that we should have equal numbers of females as males in the army. They all claim these as examples of liberating women from the patriarchy.
Socialists, on the other hand, by employing class consciousness as part of their analysis are able to recognise that this is not genuine women’s liberation. Women becoming corporate executives oppressing working women at rates equal to male capitalists is not women’s liberation or equality. Men being sexually objectified and commodified at rates equitable to women is not women’s liberation or equality. And women joining an imperialist military to stand guard as their male colleagues rape their way across invaded countries is not women’s liberation or equality. Women’s liberation is only possible with socialism, and by convincing others to think in terms of “pale stale males” we are removing them from socialism. Those who seek to end racism but do not work to end capitalism and its inherent class struggle will fail. Those who seek to end xenophobia and national chauvinism but do not work to end capitalism will fail. And those who seek to end sexism and gender discrimination and gender inequality and oppression, but do not work to totally destroy capitalism will fail. Bourgeois individualist feminism only ensures that a few more women participate in the continued oppression and subjugation of the vast majority of women. Women’s liberation is the cause of socialists, and women and men must join together as revolutionary comrades to end capitalism and gender oppression side by side, since the existence of those is inextricably bound together and part of the same system of elite class tyranny!
The problems of terms like “stale pale male” go beyond the ideological. They are symptomatic of a much larger problem of the left; our almost complete irrelevance to the working class communities of Scotland that we claim to be representing. Let’s just look at this tactically here: prominent RISErs are announcing on social media that they are effectively against white working class males over 35 – in a predominately white working class country! Not much of an election strategy! And it probably goes some way to explain why their candidate in one area was actually polling BELOW 0%!
The right wing doesn’t appear to be suffering from the same problems. So why is the right gaining while the left is struggling? The main reason is because the right is actually listening to working class people, as opposed to RISE’s favoured method of lecturing them about whatever they read in Gender Studies last week at Uni. When people are worried about immigration, UKIP listens to those worries. The left calls them racists and xenophobes. When the elections come round who do you think gets the votes? UKIP’s answers to the “immigration problem” are of course totally wrong, but at least they appear to be listening to working class people. Our job is not to berate people for having concerns. When unemployment is already inexcusably high, and affordable housing already in chronically short supply, it is not difficult to understand why working class people are concerned about an influx of (essentially) competition for the jobs and affordable housing. Our job as socialists is to listen to these concerns and offer our socialist solutions. Not to treat people as if their opinions don’t matter cos they’re just “angry men” or “stale pale and male”.
So of course white males can be oppressed, despite what prominent RISErs will tell you. They are generally not oppressed AS white males, but there are a whole host of ways in which they are oppressed. They can be oppressed as working class, for example. As poor, as unemployed, as homeless, as disabled or for having mental health problems. They can be unfairly taxed for having a spare bedroom, they can be denied access to much needed medical care for living in the wrong postcode, they can be more likely to be sent to jail than a rich person who committed the same crime, or be stuck on a zero hours contract. There are many ways in which they can be and are oppressed. Socialists must learn to listen to their concerns or be condemned to irrelevance while the right continues to gain support. People who use the term “stale pale male” are unable to do so, or at least that’s how it appears to stale pale males like me.
*The term “pale stale male” of course predates the current discourse, and was introduced originally as a descriptive term to describe the political environment, i.e. one dominated by old white men. I have no issue with the term when it is used in this descriptive sense. It is the newer way in which it is used as a means to shut down valid opinions that I take issue with.
On Friday 30th November 1923 a stunned working class population of Scotland read in their newspapers that their great leader, John MacLean, was dead. He was only 44, but years of selfless toil in the service of the people coupled with the hardships he had suffered during successive terms of imprisonment had seriously undermined MacLean’s health. MacLean’s death was a blow to the working class movement, not only in Scotland, but throughout the world. The esteem in which he was held was reflected at his funeral which was attended by over 10,000 people. The poet Hugh MacDiarmid recalled MacLean with the following words, “Scotland has had few men whose names matter, or should matter, to intelligent people. But of these MacLean, next to Burns, was the greatest, and it should be of him with every Scotsman and Scotswoman to the end of time, as it was of Lenin in Russia. When you might talk to a woman who had been a young girl in 1917 and find that the name of Stalin lit no fires, but when you asked her if she had seen Lenin her eyes lit up and her reply was the Russian word which means both beautiful and red. Lenin, she said, was “krassivy, krassivy”. John MacLean too was “krassivy, krassivy”, a description no other Scot has ever deserved”.
At times it seems like everyone in Scotland claims to be following in the footsteps of MacLean, from the Communist Party on the left to the SNP on the right. This has led many to ask the question, was MacLean a socialist or a nationalist? To those who have studied the man, it is obvious he wasn’t a nationalist. His desire to see Scotland independent was not based on a narrow parochialism, but on a much broader understanding of the necessary eventual failure of the British capitalist class and on a belief in internationalism. In fact, the stand that MacLean took on the topic of Scottish independence in the first few decades of the 20th century are remarkably similar to the stance that the Scottish Socialist Party takes now in the first few decades of the 21st century. While this is now regarded as the obvious moral position of any true socialist, in MacLean’s day it was the opposite and led to many criticisms of the man from people who should really have stood by him. As the referendum has shown, history has proven MacLean to be correct, and so we see many people who were always dismissive of MacLean’s politics on independence (such as the ultra London centric Socialist Workers Party) now try to claim MacLean’s name.
While John MacLean’s legacy belongs to the whole of Scotland, he did of course have a special relationship with Inverclyde, and Greenock in particular. Early in 1908 MacLean issued his first pamphlet, The Greenock Jungle. In this early piece of writing MacLean displayed his characteristic concern for the plight of the working classes and anger at the selfishness and insidiousness of the profit chasing classes. The pamphlet itself was a strong indictment of the slaughterhouse methods and trade in diseased meats that was being carried out in Greenock at the time. This pamphlet was a result of the tireless campaigning MacLean did in Greenock. He could often be found at the gates of the slaughterhouse in what used to be Crown Street, addressing the workers as they arrived for or left work. One such worker is prominent in MacLean’s pamphlet, and I’m certainly interested in finding out more about the person.
The Greenock worker who featured so heavily in Maclean’s pamphlet was a Mr Houston. He plays a central role due to the fact that he was the one who exposed many of the practices being carried out by the owners of the slaughterhouses, which included selling diseased meat for human food. It was a practice that targeted poor people, as any diseased meat would be made into “cheap sausages” for being sold to the working classes. MacLean argued that this was a direct cause of tuberculosis among the working class, and as a result of his campaigning a government inspector was appointed to investigate the slaughterhouse conditions.
Mr Houston deserves further mention for his role in these events. As a socialist, he was fully aware that he was risking his own job by exposing the practices of the slaughter house owners, but he did so anyway as he was driven on by a desire to protect his own class from disease and death. Mr Houston, after 31 years of service, was forced out of work as a result of his whistleblowing. His employer was a broker, who the owners of the slaughterhouses boycotted until they got rid of Mr Houston. When the pamphlet was published, Mr Houston had already been unemployed for 8 months, and MacLean makes an appeal in it to the good people of Greenock to assist in finding Mr Houston new employment. They certainly owed much to him, given his selfless defence of their health to his own detriment. So while the guilty owners continued to enjoy the profits of their enterprises, for only protecting others Mr Houston ended up in poverty. MacLean commented, “Why should the guilty one enjoy such a great privilege, while the innocent one must suffer the worries of unemployment, and the fears and forebodings accompanying the prospect of immediate financial ruin”. MacLean is commenting here on a theme that continues to this day, when we think about the persecution of the likes of Snowden and Manning. I don’t know what eventually became of Mr Houston, if anyone does know I would be delighted to hear from you.
Of course, this affair was not the only time MacLean would visit these parts. We find many references in the history books to MacLean coming here to address the working class. One such reference captures perfectly MacLean’s attitude and enthusiasm for politics. A member of the Scottish District Council recorded, “I stayed with John MacLean and I must say he is the most earnest worker for socialism I have ever met. He has just spent his seven weeks’ holiday preaching socialism in the North of England and Scotland. On my last day he arranged a sail down the Clyde, getting back to Greenock in time to give my last address. After I had left to catch my train to London, MacLean stepped onto the platform and went on with the meeting.”
MacLean also gave up much of his free time to give education to working men and women, and was often giving evening classes in Greenock on the topic of Marxist economics.
For many though, MacLean will always be remembered as a great anti-war hero, and it is probably for this reason more than any that his memory is so dangerous to the British ruling class, to the extent that his name doesn’t even appear in the approved school text books from which our children learn about the first world war. There is as much a need today for MacLean’s message as there was during that terrible war. As we see our country drift closer and closer to militarism, we need those voices who speak out, those who see the working class as more than mere cannon fodder to be used by our imperialist masters in their illegal wars. The poppy, once a symbol of remembrance of all those wasted lives is now being used by right wing politicians as a symbol of British exceptionalism. We have TV adverts from companies such as Sainsbury’s portraying the First World War as a rather pleasant experience. And now we even have the Royal British Legion attempting to sanitise the war by releasing heavily edited versions of an anti war song, The Green Fields of France, which omits any criticism of the war.
What MacLean knew was that, despite the jingoism and propaganda from the British state, the First World War was not fought to keep us safe. It was a war for colonies, for spheres of influence, for markets. In other words, it was a war for profits. A great Scot and contemporary of MacLean said: “If these men must die, would it not be better to die in their own country fighting for freedom for their class, and for the abolition of war, than to go forth to strange countries and die slaughtering and slaughtered by their brothers that tyrants and profiteers might live?” These sentiments were shared by MacLean.
In the years leading up to the outbreak of war, Britain had seen a great deal of left wing activity, and MacLean was certainly recognised as one of the stalwarts of the left. Between 1911 and 1914 trade union membership had doubled, and Brits were increasingly active in the internationalist socialist circles as well. At the Internationalist Socialist Congress in Copenhagen British socialists were amongst those who agreed that “should war break out, their duty is to intervene to promptly bring it to an end and with all their energies to use the political and economic crisis created by the war to rouse the populace from its slumbers and to hasten the fall of capitalist domination”.
Instead, and much to MacLean’s dismay, when war did indeed break out, many of these same socialists entered their national governments to help the war effort. Leading British socialists, such as Hyndman, actively and enthusiastically supported the war – including speaking on recruitment platforms. While a majority of socialists in the country didn’t sink this low, many did argue that the war could be supported on grounds of defence, to keep us safe from supposed German aggression.
MacLean had no time for either position. He argued right from the start that the war couldn’t be defended on any terms. “Plunderers versus plunderers with the workers as pawns. It is our business as socialists to develop class patriotism, refusing to murder one another for a sordid world capitalism”. MacLean was clear that only socialists could bring about an acceptable end to the war. He insisted that a capitalist settlement of the war could only lead to further wars between the capitalist powers. His position stood out like a sore thumb at the time, but has proven to be correct as the settlement reached at the end of that war lead directly to that other great war of the 20th century – the second world war.
When we look back at the First World War through the eyes of the British state and its propaganda machine, the main stream corporate media, we would be forgiven for believing that there was universal and enthusiastic support for the war in the country. We’re told that “conscientious objectors” were widely hated and considered to be cowards. This of course is a complete misrepresentation of history. The war was in fact deeply unpopular with the population, and there were massive anti-war demonstrations all over the country. In fact, the anti-war movement during the First World War was even larger than what greeted New Labour when they made the despicable and illegal decision to take us to war in Iraq. The greatest threat to Lloyd George’s terrorist regime in London was not the German troops, but the anger of the British working class, which in Scotland was lead by MacLean. In order to impose their will and ensure their monarch got his war with his German cousin, the London government had to enact a series of emergency draconian laws to control the workers, which included suspending many civil liberties and making it illegal to strike.
To MacLean they were even more severe. For speaking out against their war, the British ruling class twice had MacLean jailed in Peterhead. The treatment he received while he was locked up was horrendous, he was drugged and force fed, and this time inside had such an adverse affect on his health that it contributed to his early death in 1923. That the ruling class would turn on MacLean is no surprise. He was after all, according to their own head of military intelligence Basil Thompson, the most dangerous man in Britain. Basil Thompson, we now know from declassified documents was involved in a deliberate campaign to smear MacLean by spreading rumours about his sanity.
The British State knew fine well that MacLean was sane, but the British left were only too keen to jump on this particular bandwagon. MacLean stood for an independent Scotland, which has earned him an everlasting vilification by the British left. All the British writing about MacLean declare him to be insane. Even today, the Socialist Workers Party continues to vilify MacLean due to his stance on independence. Their reasoning is easy to understand, as due to their own political bigotry they are unable to view any Scot who does not want to be ruled by London as anything other than insane or fascist or racist. Any slander will do.
While the British left vilified MacLean, to the Scottish left he was a hero. Beyond this island he was held in the highest regard by international socialists. In recognition of his principled stand against the mass slaughter of ordinary people in the First World War the Bolsheviks elected MacLean an Honorary President of the First All Russian Congress of Soviets, along with Lenin, Trotsky, Liebknecht, Adler, and Spiridonova, which was ecstatically received on his beloved Clyde; an area which had become known as Red Clydeside due to the likes of MacLean and many others. He became Lenin’s man in Scotland when the Soviet leader ordered that the Russian Consul be handed over to him. He was refused a visa to visit Russia; he could have travelled illegally but decided not to.
It was a tactical error on MacLean’s part and one which only increased his isolation in British politics. As it transpired, a certain Willie Gallagher took the opportunity to meet Lenin which MacLean had passed up. Like other revolutionaries of the period, MacLean hadn’t fully grasped the significance of the Bolshevik Party, even after the October revolution. With the encouragement of Lenin, Gallagher became instrumental in setting up the Communist Party of Great Britain, largely funded by Moscow wealth. The Bolsheviks regarded MacLean as the authentic voice of the revolution in Britain but he never joined the new party, although he remained a convinced revolutionary and supporter of Lenin.
His own party would never enjoy the success that MacLean’s popularity seemed to indicate it should. Party membership never amounted to more than a few hundred, and votes never more than a few thousand. His tactical errors in failing to meet with Lenin or secure funding from the Soviets were fatal to his political career. He continued to campaign for the Scottish working class right up to his death, but sadly left nothing behind in way of a Bolshevik style political organisation.
Rather than fade into political obscurity, however, MacLean remains every bit as relevant today as he was to those countless working class men who were sent to their unnecessary deaths during the Great War, or to Mr Houston whom he personally campaigned for when the bosses turned on him. Today, MacLean’s message about the necessity of revolution appeals to a new generation who are clamouring for real political change.
In May 1918, when facing jail for inciting the workers to transform war into revolution, he made his famous speech from the dock:
“I am not here as the accused – I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot. In the next five years there is going to be a great world trade depression and the respective governments must turn more and more to the markets of the world to get rid of their produce. And in fifteen years time from the close of this war we are into the next war – if capitalism lasts we cannot escape it. My appeal is to the working class. I appeal exclusively to them because they, and they alone, can bring about the time when the whole world will be in one brotherhood, on a sound economic foundation. That, and that alone, can be the means of bringing about a reorganisation of society. That can only be obtained when the people of the world get the world and retain the world.”
MacLean stood for internationalism, socialism and independence. That message is relevant now more than ever. We must keep the memory of MacLean alive, to ensure that the message did not die with the man.
(I was browsing some of our old radio broadcasts recently, and the short piece we did on Sacco and Vanzetti stood out as one of my favourites (clicky). It doesn’t read like my style of writing, so I suspect it was written by one of my comrades in Inverclyde SSP, although I genuinely can’t remember who. I’ve reproduced the script here with the music we played on the radio added at the relevant parts. Hope you enjoy! Beinn)
In the South Braintree area of Boston in April 1920, five armed robbers got away with $15,000 from a robbery at a shoe factory. In the process of the robbery they killed two men.
Over 7 years later, on the 23rd of August 1927, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed in the electric chair by the State of Massachusetts. They had 6 years earlier been found guilty of the two murders, a judgment now accepted as being a miscarriage of justice. In truth, it was not the evidence of the case that condemned these two innocent men to die at the hands of the state; it was a combination of their political views and ethnicity.
Both were immigrants in America, both originally from Italy. And both adhered to a brand of left wing politics that advocated relentless opposition to violent and oppressive governments. Then, as now, the government of the USA met those criteria. All attempts to appeal the conviction were denied, despite serious doubts over the reliability of the evidence and even a confession by another more likely perpetrator. By 1925 the case had generated an international movement, which continued to grow as details of the case against the men and their probable innocence spread. In 1927, protests demanding they be saved from the electric chair were held in every major city in North America and Europe, as well as cities in Japan, Australia, Brazil, Argentina and South Africa.
It would not be until 50 years after their wrongful execution that the American establishment would try to cleanse itself of this injustice, when in 1977 a proclamation was issued that the men had been unfairly convicted and that “any disgrace should be forever removed from their names”.
Nicola Sacco was born in the Italian town of Torremaggiore in April 1891. At age 17 he immigrated to the states where he found work in a shoe factory, got married and started a family. Bart Vanzetti was also of Italian origin, being born in the town of Villaffalletto on 11th June 1888. When he was 20 he moved to the states where he found work as a fish peddler. Vanzetti was shocked and appalled by the treatment of working class immigrants, and this was instrumental in his becoming involved in left wing politics. At one gathering of anarchists he met Sacco and the two men became friends, often attending political meetings together.
Like many on the political left, Sacco and Vanzetti were opposed to the First World War, and in 1917 when America entered the war they fled to Mexico to avoid conscription. It was a principled decision, one firmly rooted in their opposition to the imperial war in Europe, but it would be twisted by the prosecution into evidence of their cowardice and lack of patriotism.
The America that Sacco and Vanzetti lived in was changing rapidly. Both men had been able to move to the States due to that countries Open Door policy, which had been designed to make immigration to the States as easy as possible. In the lead up to the First World War, however, there was a shift in American public opinion towards the newcomers. Clear anti-immigration sentiments, and at times explicit xenophobia, started to become commonplace, especially among the more affluent classes. Catholics and Jews in particular would feel the brunt of this rising resentment.
Racial persecution only intensified when America became gripped by the Red Scare. The collapse of the Russian Empire and the rise of the Soviet Union worried many of the moneyed classes in America. Anti-communist paranoia and hatred was often directed towards immigrants, especially those from an Eastern or Southern European origin.
The America that Sacco and Vanzetti inhabited was therefore one which hated the two men, on account of both their ethnicity and their politics.
In court Sacco claimed: “I know the sentence will be between two classes, the oppressed class and the rich class, and there will be always collision between one and the other. We fraternise the people with books, with literature. You persecute the people, tyrannize them and kill them. We try to educate the people always. You try to put a path between us and some other nationality, to hate each other. That is why I am here today on this bench, for having been of the oppressed class. Well, you are the oppressor.”
At trial, the main evidence used against the men was that they were both carrying a gun when arrested. It was argued at the time, and even as recently as the 1980’s, that ballistics could trace the fatal shots to Sacco’s gun, although it has been agreed by experts that the evidence was so badly handled and tampered with that no judgment of any type can be made based on it. For example, the barrel on the gun had been changed at least once since it was confiscated, and as it is the barrel that leaves the tell tale evidence on a bullet it is therefore impossible to say whether or not this was the gun that fired the fatal shots.
Throughout the trial it became evident that the establishment were going to find the men guilty no matter what. Judge Thayer has been roundly criticised for showing blatant bias and prejudice against the two. At one point Sacco was asked to try on a cap which had been found at the crime scene, a cap which eye witnesses said had been worn by the murderer but fell off as he made his escape. Those present at the court agreed that the cap was far too small for Sacco, but the prosecution lawyer continued to refer to it as “Sacco’s cap” for the remainder of the trial anyway, and was allowed to do so by Judge Thayer. During questioning it was clear that the two men didn’t fully understand many of the questions put to them, which led to them giving contradictory answers at times. Judge Thayer was well aware that the two men had only a limited grasp of English, but decided to let them incriminate themselves.
Eugene Lyons (a journalist who worked on the case) wrote in his book, The Life and Death of Sacco and Vanzetti, “It was not a frame-up in the ordinary sense of the word. It was a far more terrible conspiracy: the almost automatic clicking of the machinery of government spelling out death for two men with the utmost serenity. No more laws were stretched or violated than in most other criminal cases. No more stool-pigeons were used. No more prosecution tricks were played. Only in this case every trick worked with a deadly precision. The rigid mechanism of legal procedure was at its most unbending. The human beings who operated the mechanism were guided by dim, vague, deep-seated motives of fear and self-interest. It was a frame-up implicit in the social structure. It was a perfect example of the functioning of class justice, in which every judge, juror, police officer, editor, governor and college president played his appointed role easily and without undue violence to his conscience. A few even played it with an exalted sense of their own patriotism and nobility.”
By the summer of 1927 it became clear that Sacco and Vanzetti would be executed. Vanzetti commented to a journalist: “If it had not been for this thing, I might have lived out my life talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have died, unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life can we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man’s understanding of man, as now we do by accident. Our words – our lives – our pains – nothing! The taking of our lives – lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish peddler – all! That last moment belong to us – that agony is our triumph.”
My purpose in writing this piece is to try to offer a way to move beyond a current impasse in anti-racism dialogue. The problem arises when the question of whether or not white people can experience racism is asked. On one side are those who argue that white people can not experience racism because racism involves “power plus privilege”, and as we live in a “global white supremacist hegemony” then by definition it is impossible for white people to suffer racism. On the other side we have people pointing out fairly regular occurrences of white people being targeted for abuse simply for being white, which to them is ample evidence of white people actually suffering from racism. The two sides are locked in disagreement, which often descends into nonsensical arguments and accusations of the other side “being part of the problem” of racism. As a result, genuine action against racism is almost zero while student types control the discourse demanding that everyone else accept their definition of a word and verbally abusing anyone who disagrees with them.
I’ve experienced the arrogance of these (usually) white middle class anti-racists recently. The type who with no sense of irony demand that we adopt the definitions they learned on sociology degrees at white middle class first world universities, while simultaneously accusing anyone who rejects these definitions as being part of the “global white supremacist hegemony” problem. For full disclosure, I think white people can suffer from ‘racism’, but that is just because I recognise a rather mundane aspect of the English language – words can have more than one definition. So when we say a black person in America suffered from racism and then also say a white person in Scotland suffered racism, although we have used the same word (racism) we are not equating the two situations. Unfortunately this is not enough for some. I was previously told by members of the Executive Committee that I am no longer welcome in either the SSP or RISE because I identify as a Marxist. That has now been followed up with me being told by members of the Executive Committee that I am no longer welcome because I don’t share the stance that the “power plus privilege” definition of racism is the only acceptable definition. So as it stands I am currently in a state of limbo, I don’t actually know whether I’ve been expelled from SSP and/or RISE for not thinking in the way dictated that I should. I await an official communication from them to settle this one way or the other.
As I said above, I think white people can suffer racism. What usually happens when I say that is I’m then challenged to explain how this can be so, when white people have the privilege. This response misses the point, I tell them, I’m speaking from a different definition of racism. Call the “power plus privilege” definition racism-Φ, and call white people being abused for being white racism-Ψ. We can then see the mistake more clearly: I say “white people can suffer racism-Ψ”, to which it is argued “white people have privilege so can’t suffer racism-Φ”. It misses the point, they are talking passed what I said. When I point this out, that there is more than one definition in play here, they challenge me to explain why my definition should be used instead of theirs. Again, this misses the point. Words can have more than one meaning. These meanings don’t compete with each other, neither is independently more valid than the other. Competent users of a language can more often than not easily deduce what meaning of a word is being used based on the context. If we are talking about a black person in America we are using the racism-Φ meaning; the power plus privilege meaning. If we are talking about a white person in Scotland we are using the racism-Ψ meaning.
My hope here is that we can start to make progress, and get beyond this artificial barrier created by an inability of certain people to accept that others use language differently. Neither side is right or wrong in their usage of the language, they are just different. Certainly, if someone interrupts a discussion about police racism against the African-American population of the USA by saying something like, “yeah, but white people also suffer racism”, then that person is mistaken. Their mistake, however, was in the use of the word ‘also’ not in the use of the word ‘racism’. The word ‘also’ here conflates the different meanings of the word racism, it deliberately equivocates racism-Φ with racism-Ψ in order to shut down a discussion. These people need to be challenged, but it does not follow from this that every person who says that white people can suffer from racism also need to be challenged. To do so just leads to a situation where various injustices are competing with each other to demand our attention, with certain people claiming that only the genuinely ‘racist’ injustices should be tackled. We should reject this position, and to paraphrase Che, we should shake with indignation at EVERY injustice, not try to be clever about which ones deserve our attention and which ones don’t.
This problem finds it roots in the identity politics which currently infects most of the left. As with many modern feminists, the modern anti-racist movement has also lost any sense of class consciousness. This common problem between the two is most visible in the question of domestic labour, which is now largely understood in terms of “unpaid labour” and income for housework. Income is a matter of consumption; class is a question of production. Rarely do modern feminists or anti-racists struggle against the existing labour relations based on the hegemony of global capital. The few exceptions were the historical-materialist feminists and anti-racists of the 70’s and 80’s, who engaged the class consciousness of gender, race and sexuality. Unfortunately this work has largely been abandoned and cut off by the modern feminists and anti-racists due to the rise of identity politics amongst the left.
Racism, contrary to Foucauldian theory, is not simply a matter of asymmetrical power relations. Nor is gender, nor is sexuality. Racism (even understood as only racism-Φ) is not simply oppression, it is not simply the exercise of power by whites over blacks. There is a lot more going on here than simply white versus black. Power is the social and political manifestation of the ownership of the means of production. Clearly the means of production are overwhelmingly owned by whites, but it is a failure of logic to conclude from this that all white people are therefore part of the “global hegemony”. The vast majority of whites don’t own the means of production either. This gives the modern anti-racist a problem if they get this far: it appears that if they are intent on demanding the “power plus privilege” definition of racism be the only one permitted then they are going to have to accept that the vast majority of whites can not be racist, as they have neither the power nor the privilege that comes with ownership of the means of production.
At this stage they play what they believe to be their trump card. All dialogue, they claim, is created by the “global white hegemony” to protect itself, so by taking part in this dialogue all white people are in fact talking from a position of power and privilege as they are talking from the position of the white supremacists. Now I’m no stranger to the argument that the media and politicians use language in a certain way to protect the power of the ruling class, I made that very argument in a previous contribution to this site. However, in claiming that it’s not only the media and politicians but the population at large who take part in this sort of power preserving dialogue, the ‘white middle class-ness’ of these sorts is painfully apparent. Remember, the people I’m talking about here include EC members of the SSP and prominent members of RISE (Scotland’s Left Alliance). They are supposed to represent Scotland’s working class, but comments like these create the impression that they have never actually conversed with anyone from the lower classes. Our language in no way whatsoever resembles the language of the ruling class. If a Rupert Murdoch or Prince Charles were to find themselves in a housing estate in Glasgow or Inverclyde or Dundee they would find the locals totally incomprehensible. The language used by the working class has often evolved through conflict with the ruling class, not to protect it. The language of the working class is rooted in our working class communities, not in some hidden conspiracy to protect the capitalists. And this language which evolved independently and in conflict with the capital hegemony also includes the way many working class people use the term racism (i.e. racism-Ψ). Nothing could be more hegemony protecting than demanding we drop our working class usage of the language in favour of a usage supplied by first world white middle class university students.
My neighbour, not a close friend but someone I know well enough to talk to when we meet in the street, has a small dog with an interesting interpretation of the world. I recall this dog, not in terms of its breed or size or general temperament. Why I mention this dog at all is due to a not so obvious similarity I have detected between this dog’s interpretation of the world and those in the medical profession’s attempts to treat my problems.
My problems are in my head, that is to say they are mental health problems. There is not really a conspiracy against me. There are not people stealing thoughts out of my head. My episodes of rage and anxiety and depression are not responses to environmental stimuli, but rather a sign that something is amiss inside my brain.
The little dog’s problems, on the other hand, are all those fucking trains that keep coming to the bottom of his garden all day long. Now this garden belongs to this dog, he left his scent everywhere so these fucking trains should know to stay away. But the fuckers keep coming back. So he keeps chasing them away. When a train comes he runs to the bottom of his garden and barks as loud as he can. This obviously scares the trains because they keep going right passed his garden. The wee dog knows that he can chase the trains away, he has observed the evidence. A train comes, he chases it, the train goes away.
My doctor knows that she can chase away my problems, she has observed the evidence. When I feel down she prescribes me drugs. My symptoms recede. The wonder drug has worked! The drugs are reduced and she congratulates herself for chasing away my demons. But the fucking trains keep coming back. Fucking bastards! He’ll catch one one day you know! So she increases the drugs to chase it all away, and it all seems to go away, so she was right again. And so I’m not on the higher dose any more, and then I am cos I have the demons to chase away again. And so on and on forever. The drugs keep chasing away the demons and the wee dog keeps chasing away the trains.
Actually, let me start again.
I have a mental health problem.
You can’t see it but it’s real and at times it’s debilitating.
It’s an extremely difficult thing to tell people. I just spent most of this piece talking about a dog chasing a train, rather than just say I suffer from depression. That’s what the stigma does, it makes you want to hide it, keep it hidden, an embarrassing secret to be kept from the world. Everyone must think you’re normal. To have depression is not to be normal. Or to be more correct, it’s to be treated by others as if you are not normal. So you don’t talk about it.