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Scotland's Libertarian Left by Kevin Williamson

Scotland’s Libertarian Left by Kevin Williamson

18 October 2007

About ten years ago, when I was working there, Canongate Books published a coffee-table hardback called The Commissar Vanishes. It was a visual record of the way the Soviet Union had manipulated their earliest photographic records to airbrush certain figures out of history. Most notably, Leon Trotsky.

There’s a couple of reasons why this comes to mind. The first is personal. Since 2001, when I parted company with Canongate, the Booker-rescued publishing house has gone to great lengths to try and airbrush both Rebel Inc out of its history.

Almost all of the Rebel Inc titles have been republished with the Canongate logo, their origination quietly concealed. That Canongate’s profile is based almost entirely on the underground credibility, cutting edge authors, media buzz and international attention that Rebel Inc brought to them seems neither here nor there. It’s irritating when someone passes your work off as their own, but hell hath no fury like an aristocrat scorned.

The second reason is less frivolous. Trotskyists complain that their Commissar hero was airbrushed out of Russian history. Which, as the book shows, was true, although not particularly important in the general scheme of things. Yet the same people seem to have lost all sense of irony when it comes to the libertarian left.

The Marxist left seems to spend more time sifting through the historical debris of the Russian revolution that is either healthy or necessary. Yet few of them actually understand the process whereby, between 1917 and 1921, the soviets were systematically emptied of all opposition and power by Lenin and his communist party. Nor do they understand that soviets were syndicalist in nature. The successful but short-lived participatory period of the Russian revolution was essentially anarchism in action.

It is to the marginalised historians and writers of the libertarian left that we have to turn to in order to glean an accurate account of historical events like the Russian revolution. The writings of Emma Goldman, Maurice Brinton and Noam Chomsky help redress the balance and give us fresh perspectives on seemingly familiar ground. This is important and nowhere less so than here in Scotland.

Consider John Maclean, the most famous Red Clydesider. Since his death in 1923 Maclean has been elevated to the role of martyr and saint by Scotland’s authoritarian left. Yet if the same folk stopped to reflect meaningfully on the actualities of Maclean’s life they’d observe that he rejected all attempts to be incorporated into either wing of the authoritarian left of his day. Maclean steadfastly refused to join either the Scottish Labour Party or the Communist Party of Great Britain. Nor did he have any illusions in bureaucratic trade unions. For John Maclean was a syndicalist.

Near the end of his novel, Poor Things, from which Bella Caledonia takes its name, Alasdair Gray contrasts John Maclean with the communist left in a fictitious letter to Hugh MacDiarmid:

“I cannot like the orthodox communists. They have one simple answer to every question and believe (like the fascists) that they can forcibly simplify what they do not understand. In any discussion with one I feel I am facing a bad school teacher who wants to shut me up. McLean is a good school teacher.”

Gray then relates a fictitious speech, supposedly made at John Maclean’s graveside, where “Bella” orates:

“John was not a Zapata, galloping on horseback over the corn-fields. He was of the peasantry who fed Zapata. He was not a Lenin, working to move his office into the Kremlin. He was of the Kronstadt sailors whose mutiny gave Lenin the chance. John was not the sort who lead revolutions. He was the sort who make them.”

The Scottish Marxist left, who deify Maclean, don’t seem to get it. Lenin and the Bolshevik government bestowed the highest honour on Maclean given to any foreigner but still he refused to join their party. Maclean was a Scottish republican rather than a Brit, but his inherent distrust of authoritarian organisations is lost on the Marxist left. But not on writers like Alasdair Gray.

This is the significant thing. The current political juncture in Scotland did not drop out of the sky from nowhere. The rise in support for Scottish independence, and for the break of the British state, was built upon a foundation memorably described by Duncan McLean as “a government of books”.

In the late eighties and early nineties, when the aftershocks of Thatcherism still reverberated around Scotland, the cultural output of writers such as Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, Tom Leonard and Irvine Welsh were at the forefront of an immense clash of ideas. The spoken languages of Scotland, and our unique and distinctive Scottish identity, were at the heart of a shifting political landscape.

It is my firm opinion – if the dots are joined and the processes examined with forensic precision - that without the work of our creative writers and thinkers, there would be no Scottish Parliament, no left-leaning SNP government, and the break-up of Britain could have gone down a much more divisive anti-English route, characterised by insular or even xenophobic nationalism.

A closer examination of Scottish literature would seem to confirm that many of its most influential writers, including Alasdair Gray, seem to be leaning strongly towards a libertarian left perspective.

This would seem to undermine the idea that the libertarian left is marginalised or without influence in modern Scotland. It could even be argued that those who have come into the orbit of libertarian left thinking are at the forefront of the political and cultural agenda of Scotland today.

There isn’t the space here to analyse the seemingly contradictory convergence of libertarian left ideology and Scottish republicanism. Yet overlap they do. The break up of large imperialist states into smaller and more democratic ones is a process which decentralises power. It also creates new democratic spaces. This is a far cry from the ethnic nationalism of the 19th and 20th centuries.

There isn’t the space here to analyse the spectacular implosion of the Scottish Socialist Party. However it would be incorrect to assume this was a major set back for the Scottish left. Such were the ideological foundations of the SSP, and the authoritarian culture which dominated its internal life, it was better all round that the whole project exploded Vesuvius-like than continue indefinitely in stasis, wasting the political energies of thousands of well-meaning activists. The primary purpose of the SSP – to “unite” the Scottish left – was doomed from day one. Only self-flagellating masochists would be so naïve or foolish to seek to repeat such a disastrous and futile experiment.

While the proponents of authoritarian leftism, state socialism, and vanguardist parties, have sunk into a deep depression, the libertarian left, more at ease with community building, direct action and cultural activity than parliamentary posturing, centralised mono-parties and great leaders, is as vibrant and confident as ever.

How else could you explain the remarkable decision by one of Scotland’s most influential radical historians, Dr James D Young – someone who all his adult life has been described as a Marxist thinker and writer – to state unequivocally, in this paper, that for the first time ever, at the tender age of 76, he’s happy to call himself an anarchist. I’d echo that sentiment.

Kevin Willaimson's latest book is In a Room Darkened
18 October 2007

About ten years ago, when I was working there, Canongate Books published a coffee-table hardback called The Commissar Vanishes. It was a visual record of the way the Soviet Union had manipulated their earliest photographic records to airbrush certain figures out of history. Most notably, Leon Trotsky.

There’s a couple of reasons why this comes to mind. The first is personal. Since 2001, when I parted company with Canongate, the Booker-rescued publishing house has gone to great lengths to try and airbrush both Rebel Inc out of its history.

Almost all of the Rebel Inc titles have been republished with the Canongate logo, their origination quietly concealed. That Canongate’s profile is based almost entirely on the underground credibility, cutting edge authors, media buzz and international attention that Rebel Inc brought to them seems neither here nor there. It’s irritating when someone passes your work off as their own, but hell hath no fury like an aristocrat scorned.

The second reason is less frivolous. Trotskyists complain that their Commissar hero was airbrushed out of Russian history. Which, as the book shows, was true, although not particularly important in the general scheme of things. Yet the same people seem to have lost all sense of irony when it comes to the libertarian left.

The Marxist left seems to spend more time sifting through the historical debris of the Russian revolution that is either healthy or necessary. Yet few of them actually understand the process whereby, between 1917 and 1921, the soviets were systematically emptied of all opposition and power by Lenin and his communist party. Nor do they understand that soviets were syndicalist in nature. The successful but short-lived participatory period of the Russian revolution was essentially anarchism in action.

It is to the marginalised historians and writers of the libertarian left that we have to turn to in order to glean an accurate account of historical events like the Russian revolution. The writings of Emma Goldman, Maurice Brinton and Noam Chomsky help redress the balance and give us fresh perspectives on seemingly familiar ground. This is important and nowhere less so than here in Scotland.

Consider John Maclean, the most famous Red Clydesider. Since his death in 1923 Maclean has been elevated to the role of martyr and saint by Scotland’s authoritarian left. Yet if the same folk stopped to reflect meaningfully on the actualities of Maclean’s life they’d observe that he rejected all attempts to be incorporated into either wing of the authoritarian left of his day. Maclean steadfastly refused to join either the Scottish Labour Party or the Communist Party of Great Britain. Nor did he have any illusions in bureaucratic trade unions. For John Maclean was a syndicalist.

Near the end of his novel, Poor Things, from which Bella Caledonia takes its name, Alasdair Gray contrasts John Maclean with the communist left in a fictitious letter to Hugh MacDiarmid:

“I cannot like the orthodox communists. They have one simple answer to every question and believe (like the fascists) that they can forcibly simplify what they do not understand. In any discussion with one I feel I am facing a bad school teacher who wants to shut me up. McLean is a good school teacher.”

Gray then relates a fictitious speech, supposedly made at John Maclean’s graveside, where “Bella” orates:

“John was not a Zapata, galloping on horseback over the corn-fields. He was of the peasantry who fed Zapata. He was not a Lenin, working to move his office into the Kremlin. He was of the Kronstadt sailors whose mutiny gave Lenin the chance. John was not the sort who lead revolutions. He was the sort who make them.”

The Scottish Marxist left, who deify Maclean, don’t seem to get it. Lenin and the Bolshevik government bestowed the highest honour on Maclean given to any foreigner but still he refused to join their party. Maclean was a Scottish republican rather than a Brit, but his inherent distrust of authoritarian organisations is lost on the Marxist left. But not on writers like Alasdair Gray.

This is the significant thing. The current political juncture in Scotland did not drop out of the sky from nowhere. The rise in support for Scottish independence, and for the break of the British state, was built upon a foundation memorably described by Duncan McLean as “a government of books”.

In the late eighties and early nineties, when the aftershocks of Thatcherism still reverberated around Scotland, the cultural output of writers such as Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, Tom Leonard and Irvine Welsh were at the forefront of an immense clash of ideas. The spoken languages of Scotland, and our unique and distinctive Scottish identity, were at the heart of a shifting political landscape.

It is my firm opinion – if the dots are joined and the processes examined with forensic precision - that without the work of our creative writers and thinkers, there would be no Scottish Parliament, no left-leaning SNP government, and the break-up of Britain could have gone down a much more divisive anti-English route, characterised by insular or even xenophobic nationalism.

A closer examination of Scottish literature would seem to confirm that many of its most influential writers, including Alasdair Gray, seem to be leaning strongly towards a libertarian left perspective.

This would seem to undermine the idea that the libertarian left is marginalised or without influence in modern Scotland. It could even be argued that those who have come into the orbit of libertarian left thinking are at the forefront of the political and cultural agenda of Scotland today.

There isn’t the space here to analyse the seemingly contradictory convergence of libertarian left ideology and Scottish republicanism. Yet overlap they do. The break up of large imperialist states into smaller and more democratic ones is a process which decentralises power. It also creates new democratic spaces. This is a far cry from the ethnic nationalism of the 19th and 20th centuries.

There isn’t the space here to analyse the spectacular implosion of the Scottish Socialist Party. However it would be incorrect to assume this was a major set back for the Scottish left. Such were the ideological foundations of the SSP, and the authoritarian culture which dominated its internal life, it was better all round that the whole project exploded Vesuvius-like than continue indefinitely in stasis, wasting the political energies of thousands of well-meaning activists. The primary purpose of the SSP – to “unite” the Scottish left – was doomed from day one. Only self-flagellating masochists would be so naïve or foolish to seek to repeat such a disastrous and futile experiment.

While the proponents of authoritarian leftism, state socialism, and vanguardist parties, have sunk into a deep depression, the libertarian left, more at ease with community building, direct action and cultural activity than parliamentary posturing, centralised mono-parties and great leaders, is as vibrant and confident as ever.

How else could you explain the remarkable decision by one of Scotland’s most influential radical historians, Dr James D Young – someone who all his adult life has been described as a Marxist thinker and writer – to state unequivocally, in this paper, that for the first time ever, at the tender age of 76, he’s happy to call himself an anarchist. I’d echo that sentiment.

Kevin Willaimson's latest book is In a Room Darkened

This article first appeared in Bella Caledonia, Issue 1, Winter 2007. Bella Caledonian is available free from Word Power Bookshop, 43-45 West Nicolson Street, Edinburgh EH8 9DB.

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