Socialism For Goodness’ Sake

For the fourth anniversary of Jimmy Reid’s death on 10th August 2010

Many socialists in Scotland are campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote, and their ideas have influenced the broad campaign for independence. They are part of a tradition of Scottish socialists who believe Scottish independence is a useful, perhaps crucial, condition to be met before people in Scotland can reorganize society for their collective benefit. John Maclean, R. B. C. Grahame, Hugh MacDiarmid, Hamish Henderson and Jimmy Reid all supported the tradition in earnest. The latter died four years ago last Sunday; and it is on a reading of his famous inaugural lecture that I want to base this critique of pro-independence Scottish socialism.

Jimmy Reid’s famous rectorial address is one of the only major statements by a Scottish socialist that has tried to balance the end of individual freedom with the means of social reorganization through national reconstitution, seeing the end of socialism as the beginning of a moral society that can happen in Scotland. Its passion and rhetoric leaves the reader convinced Reid was a socialist who had, in his words, ‘faith in humanity’. Yet the lecture does indicate Reid was not clear about the flaws and traps of too much faith in collective cures to human alienation. His rhetoric concealed a tension we should explore today.

This tension is between the political ambition for better social organization, and the moral ambition for individual liberty. Critics of socialism exploit this tension, which the best socialists have tried to resolve.

Scottish socialists have a weak case for Scottish independence because they have tended to let solutions concerning society carry them away from what should be the real motivating force for socialism, which is the moral freedom of humans. Scottish socialism has disconnected itself from Scottish people’s conditions and aspirations, which has dehumanized it.

At the same time, Scottish socialism has become too bound up with an abstract campaign for independence of the nation-state, which has nationalized it. By neglecting real-life human aspirations in favour of collective or social-national visions, Scottish socialists have struggled to relate their aims to the lives of the people. They have developed a habit of missing the trees for the wood.

So it seems to me that Scottish socialists today neglect a more valuable and radical aspiration for liberty. This omission has obvious practical consequences as well as moral implications. After the referendum socialists will no longer be able to rely on building national visions. The appeal of socialism must then be to remove barriers and oppressions that force people’s lives down certain paths: inflexible working hours and conditions, pressures of convention, gender norms, financial insecurity. The positive side of these ambitions is a struggle for liberty.

At home with freedom

Jimmy Reid said his famous inaugural lecture was “an affirmation of faith in humanity” and he ended it with the following lines from Burns:

In virtue trained, enlightened youth shall move each fellow creature,
And time shall surely prove the truth that man is good by nature,

Despite the dreams and wishes of countless socialists, no degree of social organization can replace human relationships and interaction that are the ways, chiefly through sympathy with one another, that we become better humans. “Beneficence is always free, it cannot be extorted by force”, wrote Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which many scholars believe to have inspired Burns more than any other work of philosophy. Our sympathy with one another, our long and helpless childhoods under the guidance of other people, and our diverse ways of living, inventing and reinventing ourselves, are key to understanding how virtues can develop.

To force people down certain tracks is to inhibit the goodness of humanity. This happens in our society: capitalism allows and encourages people to exert control, homogenize, and manipulate other people into living in a way that makes them worse human beings. Modes of social organization created to contain capitalism’s excesses allow for lives to be influenced and molded collectively, creating more dependent kinds of life. In each case, the power to choose goodness and live humanely is taken away from the common people.

In his opening remark, Reid famously defines ‘alienation’ as:

“[The] feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies.”

Reid suggests alienation is a symptom of a badly organised society. It is a “major social problem”. Reid’s imperative is that a person should be able to determine their destiny – so the role of social organization must be to make people free. Good politics reorders society so our desires and passions are unconstrained (unless such passions inhibit the humanity and liberty of others), whereupon people will contribute to a more creative, lively and fulfilling culture. Freedom is just the start of morality and of giving value back to human relations.

Reid clearly believed in human goodness – that much I have picked up not just from reading his lecture but also from speaking to people who knew him, including comrades from the UCS work-in and family members who are carrying on his legacy. His teleological belief in humanity is given in terms of a challenge:

“The big challenge to our civilisation… does involve morality, ethics, and our concept of human values. The challenge we face is that of rooting out anything and everything that distorts and devalues human relations.”

The struggle to meet this challenge takes many forms, and requires much more than a programme for social reorganization. But when Reid turns to a social solution, he begins to lose sight of the freedom and worth that has characterized the lecture so far. Reid describes a different target for society, and finds an answer that has preoccupied the Scottish left ever since:

“Let’s gear our society to social need… Our aim must be the enrichment of the whole quality of life.”

What is this social need? If the individual, free not just from capitalism’s coercion but from the coercion of gender, race, and other oppressions, must enrich their own life through chosen moral actions, then how can we hope to meet social needs collectively? A prescription for general enrichment rather than individual freedom lays bare the tension I have described, and Reid comes down on the side of saying society should be geared and aimed at raising living standards.

Reid then offers a second target, this time in terms of collective control:

“… economic decision making by the people for the people… is an ethical and moral question for whoever takes the important economic decisions in society ipso facto determines the social priorities of that society.

We may well grant that economic decisions determine social priorities. But to what extent should social priorities be collectively determined? A criticism of his case is easy and obvious: setting social priorities through collective control of the economy is an ersatz substitute for freedom. It places socialism as an end, which is an approach to politics that has cruelly tested consequences. For collective responsibility is not the same as control of your own destiny; shared power is not how most people understand freedom; and socialism is not collectivism.

Reid then concludes this section with a third demand or claim that leaves us even more unsure of where we stand – a less-than-radical demand for the “restructuring of the institutions of government and where necessary, the evolution of additional structures so as to involve the people in the decision making processes of our society”. His justification for bringing national political administration into people’s lives is based on the collective ‘we’:

“To unleash the latent potential of our people requires that we give them responsibility.”

This is the social nationalist move that completes the triad of collective economic decisions to meet the social needs of our people. Our people, who are to be made responsible, are collectively defined in terms of the nation that represents them – for he is thinking in terms of the Scottish people when he says we must give them responsibility. They must have responsibility for economic decisions and social organization to provide for themselves. But are these ingredients sufficient for socialism? They seem to put a lot of stock in the kind of national political and economic decisions that we expect governments to take. He seems to want national government to introduce a form of economic democracy and control by the workers, in order to meet social needs, and enrich people’s lives.

In terms of his prescriptions, Reid leaves us close to the social nationalism that socialists are offering in the referendum. It is at least an inadequate solution to the language of moral crusade that sets his speech apart. Why is responsibility for social control a solution to an individual’s lack of freedom?
But Reid does return towards the end of his speech to the individual, with a declaration of faith in the essential goodness of humanity:

“I am convinced that the great mass of our people go through life without even a glimmer of what they could have contributed to their fellow human beings. This is a personal tragedy. It’s a social crime. The flowering of each individual’s personality and talents is the pre-condition for everyone’s development.”

This must be so, and Reid could express it better than anyone else on the left.

Social Nationalism

In the course of his speech, Reid’s solution does not seem to address the problem he raises, of alienation and a lack of freedom. Instead of individual control over your social and economic life he posits collective control. Reid prescribes that we urgently need to give people collective responsibility for economic and political decision-making; that such involvement in production will lead to an improved society. But why does this follow? It is good to control our own destinies, which are of course tied up together; but collective control is not the same as control of our destiny, nor is the latter a necessary outcome of the former. There is nothing inherent in collective governance that ensures any kind of freedom, even of the collective. Sometimes collective control inhibits individual freedom. The collective can govern badly, immorally, and to ends other than freedom. The collective is not inherently good. It is not easy to see how Reid’s conception of a radical, moral socialism will grow from the form of collective rule he proposes.

In the end Jimmy Reid moved from the Communist party to the Scottish National Party – a move made by other Scottish left-wing thinkers like Tom Nairn and Hugh MacDiarmid. Their faith in humanity and the struggle for liberty puts its earthly hopes in social and economic organization through a national social democratic party. Such social nationalism lacks the moral integrity that Reid exhibits in his commitment to freedom for the oppressed and alienated.

These socialists’ support for the SNP did not mean they rejected any of their principles, since their move was probably instrumental. But socialists would do well to notice the different ideas that pull against each other in the thought of all of these thinkers, and consider whether in this political moment, the SNP social democratic model is the best carrier for socialism they aspire to. The ends of socialism held by each individual cannot find true expression in the available means of parties and movements. In the end, their joining the SNP meant that in time their real socialism was dulled through the means of social nationalism.

Many people on the Scottish left have joined with this social nationalism, and are unsure of their own socialism. They seldom refer to the lives and potential freedom of the people in Scotland, starting instead with a collective idea that is not real, relying too much on a national campaign for social reorganization.

A popular theory on the left says that in an independent Scotland we can progress towards socialism via a kind of utopian Nordic model of social partnership. This is flawed because the people do not aspire to such a society, those who would be willing to concede to such a transition do not control sufficient resources in Scotland. Even if such Nordic policies were put in place, they would not provide the kind of freedom that amounts to empowerment of every person to determine their own destiny.

A popular slogan, ‘Britain is for the Rich, Scotland can be Ours’ – along with another, ‘All of us First’ – contain a collective ‘we’ identity which is not in fact widely felt and imposed or encouraged by those who believe the nation can be a rallying point for so-called socialist demands. Furthermore, the suggestion that we may all control and own Scotland presupposes a national collective that necessarily leads to freedom, simply by virtue of being a collective.

The policy of universal social service provision is defended (by the SNP, by the Common Weal, by Ramand and Foley among others) even when the poorest lack other vital services. Universal services are not a priority ahead of the social investment that would provide the poorest cohorts of society with the kind of housing, education, health and social care that would bring to their lives the kind of choice that is enjoyed by the numerous middle class who get most benefit from universal services. The temptation of collective provision for has trumped the actual freedom policies might bring to those who are deprived, oppressed and, in a word, alienated. The principle of governance of everyone for everyone by everyone fails to take into account the priorities of socialist freedom.

The fish that never swam

An unanswered question lies at the heart of the socialist case for independence. Why is independence a solution to the alienation of people living in Scotland?

The question is very difficult to answer, and I can attempt only a cursory overview of the things that socialists might focus on. The priorities for the left in an independent Scotland will become clear when oppressive forces and interests start to show their hands. But we should be honest that if there is a Yes vote, the initial years will be rough and turbulent. We should focus less on scoping out the kind of systems that will make us better, and focus more on getting rid of the kind of systems that made us worse. Reid believed in the potential of humans, free humans (almost unknown in a world of gender and economic and racial and other oppressions), to live well if they have the opportunity. We should not work to create good lives, but to end bad systems that hold us back from being human.

Freedom must belong not to society, not to a nation, but to the individual. Freedom is the end of politics, and the start of goodness. This radical ambition has yet to be expressed as part of the socialist case for independence.

Too much attention is placed on rearranging or trying to bring about another Scotland. Better figures on the left remember our struggle’s aspiration is not social organisation but social morality. Socialist aspirations should become more radical and humanistic; when systems take over our minds, whether designed ones like social utopias, or economic ones like neo-liberalism, or long historic social ones like patriarchy and oppression, our sense of humanity retards. This should inspire not only our ideals, but also how we treat each other as comrades.

It is not uncommon to find people involved in left politics who leave their human impulses at the door of a meeting room, or at home. Some think they are too big for everyday morality. Others insist morality is a system that is contingent on society’s development. Of course it is, but those who ignore morality are cranks. They are the ones who scare and deter most people from the left. They also spread their inhumanity, because they see politics as a struggle for power or a game in which their own character is only important for what it can be for the movement. They will change their attitude and temperament – do what they would not naturally do – in order to bring something about they think is closer to the social organisation and political engagement they have in mind. Eventually their temperament comes out in a flash. So long as they are fired up by their ideal, they seem to fly, but they always burn out to reveal a woodenness: no personal morality, only political direction. Up like a rocket, down like a stick.

These are the people who would do well to look again at Jimmy Reid’s lecture, and to read it as a reminder not just to the left but to a whole generation that their ideas and ideals, and their personal gain, are not important compared to their morality. The body of Reid’s argument, the social solution, is fishy. But the head and the tail are morally sound. Social thought and social planning is necessary, but totally insufficient for socialism to swim at all. The goodness of those who are free is what underpins the aspiration for socialism.

I never met Jimmy Reid, and cannot purport to be able to discuss his own morality or his humanity. But I have as much of a sense of his legacy as most others on the left in Scotland. I know him through a few folk who were close to him, and through his most well-known piece of writing. I have a sense of Jimmy Reid as a Scottish socialist who was clever, witty, hard-working, audacious, and determined, who also studied people and had enough sense of history to know he was part of a moral struggle older than Maclean or Marx or anyone in the movement. And it is precisely because his prescription falls short of his own moral test, that I have no doubt that Jimmy Reid was a socialist for goodness’ sake. It’s up to us to start building a programme worthy of his legacy.

Cailean Gallagher

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