The Point
Last updated: 02 August 2019.

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Socialism and Independence: And/And, Not Either/Or

Steve Arnott is interviewed on his philosophy of life, the universe and everything...

 

 

Politics degree student Daniel MacIver recently did an interview with Point Editorial Co-ordinator Steve Arnott. He has kindly given us permission to reproduce it here in The Point Online Magazine.

 

Steve, what do you think, conceptually and ideally, when you think of socialism?

 

A huge question, and one that deserves a properly reflective answer.

You’ll know the dictionary definitions are available, of course, and they are handy if you come across the sectarian politics that sometimes lurks in the left that says only my views, or my party’s views, constitute real socialism. But there is a deeper truth. We all have our own visions and conceptions of what socialism is that we hold in our heads, and hold dear, and that can vary widely. We need to be prepared to conduct a dialogue with one another.

There are many people in the Labour Party or the SNP, for instance, who might describe themselves as ‘socialists’ who believe in the kind of social democratic society that has been built quite successfully in the Scandinavian countries, but there are also others who would characterise such views as ‘social-democratic’ rather than socialist, because they see socialism as a complete change from a capitalist system to a wholly socialist system.

Myself, I believe socialism is as much a journey and a living process as it is an actual end to be aimed at (although there is very definitely an end to be aimed at, which I’ll come to in a minute). I think it is important not to be sucked into some of the false dichotomies sometimes posed in the discourses of the left; reform/revolution, nature/nurture, and so on, but to entertain the thought that things can be and/and, rather than either/or. This maybe reflects the fact that I have a deep and abiding interest in philosophy (I took my MA in it), as well as politics.

I also have a lifelong interest in science, and in particular evolutionary biology and neuroscience, which inform my thinking in socialism and political questions in general. I believe that any form of socialism that is truly going to work, and not repeat the totalitarian errors of the 20th century, has to work with the grain of human nature, not against it, has to root itself in the scientific method (i.e. what actually can be shown and proven to work, rather than just what we might wish to work), must embrace the new technologies (AI, roboticisation, nanotechnology and 3d printing, and the huge possibilities of gene editing) and shape the use of these technologies for the benefit of the whole of humankind, rather than the mere generation of profit for the privileged few. I wholeheartedly oppose some of the anti-scientific and Luddite tendencies that exist within the broad socialist movement

I regard myself as a Marxist and a Darwinist, and believe that socialism can only ultimately succeed if it rids itself of what I call the ‘absolutist social constructivist’ error. Now, I AM a social constructivist. All Marxists and most socialists are – but both a careful reading of Marx and a proper consideration of what makes us all persons from a biological/neuroscience point of view points to the conclusion that we are both social and biological beings, that it is both nature AND nurture that shape us, and that while many aspects of our lives are socially constructed by the TYPE of society we live in, nevertheless our evolutionary heritage is real, that there is such a thing as human nature, and that certain aspects of our personalities and intelligences (emotional and abstract) are heritable.

(Again – I often refer to this as an example of the and/and, not either/or stance)

The scientific evidence for this is overwhelming, but, alas and alack, for reasons I have never quite figured out the ranks of practising socialism are not filled with scientists, biologists and engineers, but social workers, teachers and employees of NGO’s and charitable pressure groups. Nothing wrong with teachers and social workers of course – some of my very best friends are teachers and social workers! But such folk tend to have done their degrees in the softer sciences where they are often taught by Marxists of the cultural relativist school that biology somehow doesn’t matter, that almost everything is socially constructed, that there is no such thing as human nature, only socially constructed nature, and that would be changed utterly in a different form of society.

This is completely untrue, and borders on a level of barminess that should really only be found in the satirical novels of Swift, Voltaire and Kafka

It is also the root of the ‘absolute social constructivist’ error I’ve referred to above, and the cause of most authoritarian mistakes that socialists made in 20th century and continue to make (in a different authoritarian form) to this very day.

I take the long view of history. Socialism has only been on the scene for a few centuries and Marx and Darwin only wrote their stuff a few short human lifetimes ago. We are still growing up.

Socialism for me (in the end goal sense) would be a society where the capitalist mode of production, distribution and exchange that we have today, and which is essentially exploitative and unstable, is superseded by a society based on multiple forms of public and common ownership. It would be a mass democratic society. It would be a super abundant, post scarcity society operating on a higher productive material and cultural basis than our current society, able to develop both organically, from initial conditions carefully chosen to allow such organic development, and according to the democratic goals of society as a whole. It would be a society which ended war, disease, poverty, inequality and ignorance, and allowed the full flowering of the individual – of all individuals, irrespective of race, sex, sexual orientation or creed – through collective solidarity, empathy and action.

Utopian?

Perhaps. But who ever said that Utopia couldn’t be built. I very probably won’t see this in my lifetime, though I might see its humble beginnings. But you might live long enough to see it.

And to return to my earlier refrain, socialism for me is also a process, as well as an end. It’s every small struggle that gains a bit for working class people against the elites and oligarchs. It’s every reform that improves life. It’s the wonderful possibilities for improving human life that science and technology bring. It’s not just the destination. It’s the journey.

The process develops the end, and the developing end recursively informs the process.

Again (r)evolution, not revolution OR evolution, and/and, not either/or.

 

How much does socialism affect your policies and politics?

 

In the sense of my Marxist/Darwinist vision of socialism that I briefly outlined above, it informs my practice, politics and policies absolutely. BUT (and think here of what I said earlier about and/and rather than either/or) we are at a current political juncture where one of the main issues and progressive demands in Scottish politics is NOT a socialist issue, as such – but a democratic one. I speak of course about Scottish Independence.

As both a ‘keyboard warrior’ and a traditional ‘physical’ activist doing traditional activist things I have had to ride two equally legitimate horses in dealing with the independence issue; first as the broader, democratic, but not necessarily socialist demand, that the demand for Scottish independence is, and secondly the possibilities for the growth of socialism and socialist ideas in Scotland that independence offers. Again, developing my and/and not either/or theme, these two things are clearly different and require different approaches, sometimes at different times, but neither are they incompatible or mutually exclusive.

It wasn’t always the case, but a majority of socialists in Scotland now probably believe to one degree or another, that the call for independence is a legitimate and laudable democratic aim, as well as the best way – in the longer term – to promote the ideas of socialism in Scotland and beyond.

 

 

How involved were you in the 2014 Independence campaign and on what side?

 

Yes, I was very involved in the 2012 -2014 campaign on the YES side. It all kicked off for me by being asked to debate alongside then SNP MSP David Thompson for YES, against a Tory and Labour MSP at a big tent indy debate at the 2012 Belladrum Rock Festival near Beauly. I recall it was chaired by the respected Herald columnist Iain MacWhirter. I think there must have been around 150 in attendance and an indicative vote was taken at the end, which YES won by a margin of around three to one.

It was at that point that I really began to feel that independence COULD be won, if the right arguments were made in the right way. I was then very heavily involved in activism in my local YES group, playing a leading role, and to a lesser extent in some wider initiatives. I spoke at a number of meetings during the campaign and wrote a number of articles, but as the campaign went I found myself using social media – notably The Point online platform* - as a way to promote both the independence agenda and the possibilities for socialist policies after independence.

 

For people who are just coming across it for the first time, what is The Point Online Platform?

 

The Point is a reasonably well known online magazine and Facebook page that is pro-left, pro-independence and pro-science. We were founded back in 2011, when an antecedent publication the ‘Democratic Green Socialist’ came to the end of its natural life, We have an Editorial and admins board consisting of people with a wide range of experience and from various socialist backgrounds. Some of us are in parties and some of aren’t (I’m not) – but while we support the broad cause of socialism and the left, and Scottish Independence we are not beholden to or part of any party political agenda.

The best advice I could give to anyone is to check out our online magazine and our Facebook page for themselves.

www.thepointhowever.org - magazine

 https://www.facebook.com/DGS.network - Facebook page

 

Do you feel socialism was a prevailing aspect of the Yes Campaign?

  1. If yes - Did you find this a strength or weakness and why?

 

Yes (in a sense).

The SNP ‘offer’ on independence, as the media tended to refer to the SNP’s white paper, had a few radical and welcome things in it (universal childcare provision, a sovereign oil and gas fund) but was largely a don’t frighten the horses approach to breaking with the Union. They kept stressing things like it was only one out of eight Unions we would be leaving, we would still have the monarchy (Union of crowns), the social Union (whatever that was) the economic Union (again…?), the European Union etc etc.

This approach barely moved the opinion polls for nearly the first 18 months of the campaign.

It was only in the latter months of the campaign, when thanks to the efforts of groups like the Radical Independence Campaign, the Solidarity and SSP parties, the Greens, and more radical individual YES figures, as well as platforms like The Point, pumping socialist and more left wing ideas and memes into the campaign, that more young people and more working class people began to get involved in the campaign. And they responded warmly to a vision of Scotland that was much more radical and progressive than the kind of society delivered by the Tory and Blairite Westminster Governments.

The campaign became a genuinely MASS campaign when it was taken up by a radicalised working class, and in truth the SNP really no longer had full control of events at that point. I believe it was that it was YES becoming a genuine mass and radical campaign, no longer under the control of the SNP, that enabled it to surge close to victory in the opinion polls. At the end of the day the vote was lost, but independence was put firmly on the agenda and it shall now never go away. A majority of under 55’s in Scotland voted for it so the demographic for eventually winning an indy vote is very much on the YES side.

 

  1. If no - did you find this a strength or weakness, and why?

 

And no (in a sense)

While there was an appreciable mass working class character to the YES movement by the time of the ballot in 2014, and continues to be to this day, along with a healthy appetite for big progressive ideas, there was at the same time a big part of the consciousness that independence was a democratic demand, and that it was about giving Scots real choice. In that sense no one vision – be it ideological, party or from any group or individual – had a right to commandeer the movement for its own agenda. We could all put forward our ideas (many banners under one banner) as it were, but ultimately it would be for Scots to choose their own way forward ONCE independence was achieved. Individual visions of what we could do under indy were OK, as long as they part of the greater broad, general and democratic case for independence.

And I think that was absolutely correct and a strength as well, and the way we will win independence in the future.

(Again…and/and, not either/or)

 

If you didn’t feel that the campaign was socialist - how would you describe it politically?

 

I think I may have answered that already, in my answers above? It was campaign that had strong working class and socialist elements which were a huge boon to the campaign, but it wasn’t a socialist campaign as such, but a broad democratic campaign, and that was also a strength (And/and, not either/or…to keep returning to my theme). It might be worth emphasising that as a 100% supporter of independence I feel I can only vote for, or call for a vote for, pro-independence parties in Scotland. But I see no contradiction with that and supporting a Corbyn led Government for the remainder of the UK (UK), for instance.

 

Why do you think the left is so divided? In Scotland, and more generally?

 

Why is almost any religion you care to name, for instance, divided into various groupings – all claiming to have the right angle on the way things are? Or why – in science and medicine – do various schools develop that stand in contradiction to one another?

I think the reasons are partly to do with human nature, partly to do with historical things, and partly because the project we are all involved in is not an easy one – it’s nothing less than the transformation of society and the opening up of a new stage of human social, cultural, scientific and economic development based on different fundamental operating principles than that of capitalist exploitation, and the accumulation of capitalist wealth and social/political power by the few.

But at The Point were very much for trying to develop a new left unity, not on the basis that we should all agree on every last dot and comma of this or that program or policy, but on the kind of broad principles I’ve been outlining to you in this interview.

 

Nearly five years on from the 2014 referendum- what future do you see for an independent Scotland?

 

Scotland is no better or worse than any other country in the world…and its people are no better or worse than any other people in the world. That’s a fundamental truth – even though in science, philosophy, literature and art Scotland has historically punched above its weight (In the fiftieth anniversary year of the Apollo 11 moon landing, for instance, you might be amazed to know six out of twelve human beings who have ever walked on the moon were of Scottish descent, including of course, Neil Armstrong himself)

Independence is the normal state of being though, for the vast majority of nations upon this ‘good Earth’, and it’s ‘comin’ yet, for a’ that’.

All things being equal, Scotland will become independent sometime in the next 3 - 5 years.

There are potential barriers though, as I see it. Scotland voted 62% to 38% for the UK to Remain in the UK at the 2016 UK EU referendum. In my view, based on personal experience, political nous and many conversations I had at the time, that vote reflected nods and winks from the SNP that a vote to stay would bring about a near immediate second indyref, and the trade unions calling for support for EU protections from Tory Westminster rather than any great conviction that the EU is a wonderful institution.

And, of course, it reflected the votes of many honourable lefts who were well aware of the capitalist, undemocratic and bureaucratic nature of the EU, but could not bring themselves to vote for the left wing case for Leaving the EU (commonly known as ‘Lexit’) because they felt their votes would be interpreted as support for the nasty, racist agenda of UKIP.

The problem that has left for Scottish independence is this: the SNP, who were a naturally middle of the road pro-EU party anyway, grabbed that with both hands as a ‘mandate’ to make the next indyref about ‘keeping Scotland’s place in the EU’.

Unfortunately, for those who want to suddenly start portraying indy as being all about staying in the EU, 1 in 3 YES voters in 2014 also voted to Leave. The consequence has been that for every NO vote that has moved to a YES position on the basis of ‘keeping our place in the EU’ a YES Leave vote has been lost because of the SNP prioritising keeping the UK in the EU rather than putting independence first.

As a result of this strategic error by the SNP leadership, the polls - in terms for support for independence - have hardly moved (up in some a tiny bit, but currently still stuck broadly at the 47-48%% mark, when they SHOULD be hitting the 50% plus mark regularly by now).

The solution I’ve proposed through The Point on social media is one that aims to promote the idea of Scottish democracy and choice after independence, while uniting all potential YES voters, both those who voted to Remain in the EU, and those who voted Leave, under the broad, general and democratic case for independence that we all agree on. And it’s a remarkably simple strategy.

It’s basically that the YES movement, the SNP and the Scottish Government puts indy first, and leaves the question of the EU to be decided by sovereign Scots themselves, after independence is achieved.

In short, we argue that ‘we’ - the Scottish Government, SNP and the wider YES movement - should promise that it will be the people of an independent Scotland themselves that decide their future, in or out of the EU, in their own referendum, based on the circumstances and arguments of the time, during the first Parliament of an independent Scotland. Via The Point I have suggested that this be through a three way referendum, decided by Single Transferable Vote, with the options being: join/rejoin the EU, a Norway style option, or stay out of the EU and its institutions altogether.

Having said all that, I will vote for independence anyway and support it even if it means staying in the EU, which is a neo-liberal, undemocratic and capitalist institution. Even if I believe the strategy and reasons the main independence party put forward are less than sound.

Let’s take every small step forward. Let’s enjoy every step of the journey.

I believe in a future where Scotland is independent.

I believe in a future where mass direct democracy decides things, not careerist politicians.

I believe in a future based on science, technology and reason.

I believe in a socialist future.

But hey, you don’t always get everything you want at once...

 

 

Steve Arnott is a pro-independence, pro-left, pro-science writer and social media ‘nudger’. He has led other lives, tilted at windmills, and fought the good fight in other times and other places. Apart from the political stuff, he is currently re-watching Game of Thrones and the complete inspector Morse box set.

 

 http://www.thepointhowever.org/index.php/the-big-idea/372-evrything-you-wanted-to-know-about-how-to-get-rid-of-capitalism-and-replace-it-with-something-nicer-but-were-afraid-to-ask

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left

Greenpeace

The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Laurie Penny

New Left Project

Newsnet Scotland

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Socialist Unity

UK Uncut

Viridis Lumen

Wings Over Scotland

Word Power Books