I learned many things about human nature in my obligatory Marxism-Leninism classes, for which reason although they were worthless academically, part of me is still very glad I was made to endure them. I learned that Lenin was the most perfect human being who ever lived. That he didn’t really die. Look, he was everywhere in a thousand poses in every town I could go to. Look, how he was preserved, lifelike on Red Square. To find any fault with him, or in any way to mock him was just the same as if I mocked the Soviet Union and the Soviet people. Marxism, too was a flawless system of political thought. Discussion was welcome in class, but only insofar as it was in the end supportive of Marx. It was far better to keep silent than to come up with genuine counter-examples or evidence of the failures of Marxist philosophy. For this reason I kept silent and whispered only to those I most trusted.
One of the great critics of Marxism, who I never mentioned in our classes, was Karl Popper. Popper’s great idea is that theories should be falsifiable. The purpose of science is to conjecture theories and then strive to refute them. Theories are only to be held conditionally until they are falsified. In the Middle Ages it was a truism that all swans are white. This was refuted by the discovery of black swans in Australia. But imagine if instead of allowing the discovery to refute the theory, it was kept on the grounds that those birds in Australia were clearly not swans. In that case really nothing could refute the theory. This was Popper’s point about Marxism and other pseudosciences like psychoanalysis. It didn’t matter what objection was made, what counterevidence was pointed out. It didn’t matter that the theory was falsified by events. These counter examples were always reinterpreted in order to support the theory. This was my experience, too. My Marxism classes looked at apparent objections to Marx, but only and immediately in order to refute the objections. Any counter-examples were always reinterpreted in Marxist terms to confirm, rather than refute the theory. Nothing, not even the collapse of the Soviet Union, could convince the true Marxist. You meet some of them even today. The break-up of the Soviet Union didn’t refute Marx and Lenin. It just proved that the Soviet Union was not Marxist and Leninist enough.
Unfortunately, there is always the tendency in science to collective thinking and dogma. Rather than scientists conjecturing a theory, for example, that man is responsible for devastating climate change, and then setting out to refute it, the tendency is for scientists to seek confirmation of their theory and to guard it from all attacks. For this reason a matter that is crucial for all our lives, which should be debated dispassionately is politicised. Some people take the existence of man-made climate change as an article of faith, others take the opposite view and defend it equally dogmatically. It is no doubt a part of human nature to act in this way. But it means that sometimes it looks as if science has not really progressed any further than Galileo. Truth is not democratic. The true theory is correct even if everyone thinks it’s wrong.
The danger of this tendency in human nature to go with the group rather than to think individually is that it leads us into making false conclusions. In science frequently false ideas are maintained for longer than they ought, because there is a scientific consensus backing them. Washing your hands before treating patients was ridiculed by the scientific establishment until the middle of the 19th century. Doctors literally killed patients because of their cosy consensus.
In politics the inability to accept that a viewpoint may be falsified can lead to decades of suffering like in the Soviet Union. But as Popper also pointed out it is fundamentally authoritarian. If nothing can refute my political philosophy, then it must be true. Not to believe what I believe is clear evidence of false consciousness and bad faith. It was the fact that nothing could refute Marx and Lenin that meant I had to listen silently in class. This was also the case with religion until relatively recently in the West and still to this day in some other parts of the world. It was the fact that nothing could refute the beliefs of the monarch that meant I could be burned for being a Protestant during the reign of Mary Tudor while I could similarly be burned for being a Catholic during the reign of her sister. Under these circumstances, my only way of avoiding being burned was either to simply believe what my queen believed or to keep silent.
Scotland today is a land full of dogma, just as much as it was during the time of John Knox. We are reverting to a time of reformation and there is a party that holds the truth in just the same way as the party that commanded me to sit silently during my Marxism-Leninism lectures. We are not there yet. It’s a process, but once a country begins to go down a path like this, it can be quite hard to get off it. We need to find another path.
Supporters of the Scottish National Party routinely see their party as equivalent to the Scottish people. This was implicit even when they were a tiny band in tweeds. The key is in the word 'national'. They thought they represented the Scottish people even all those years ago when they began. They were the vanguard, even when the Scottish people didn’t know of their existence. In just the same way the Russian people knew nothing much of Lenin and his friends even a few months before the revolution. They may have been called Bolsheviks, from the Russian word большой [bolʹshoĭ], meaning 'big', but actually they were a small band of conspirators who engineered a coup. But a small band, that remains a minority, can readily enough identify itself with the people and when it does so, it immediately shuts down all dissent. The Party in the Soviet Union represented for all time the Soviet people. To question this and to criticise it meant that you were an enemy of the people. Members of my Russian family were sent to the Gulags because they were deemed enemies of the people. It is for this reason, above all, that I find it deeply offensive that Scottish nationalists equate their party with the people of Scotland. This in no way is to imply that Scotland is the same as the Soviet Union. It is simply to point out, before it is too late, that this is not a railroad Scotland should travel on much further because it is implicitly authoritarian and has no branch lines.
The SNP is treated by its supporters as being above criticism. Any criticism is taken to be an attack on Scotland rather than a political party supported by a minority of Scots and an ideology, (the nationalist goal of independence), that was rejected by a decisive majority last September. If I cannot criticise the SNP without criticising Scotland, then I am unpatriotic. I am really, in fact, attacking the Scottish people or at least it’s vanguard which is attempting to rid Scotland of the false consciousness that made it vote No. This likewise makes me an enemy of the people.
My local SNP shop, which last summer was a Yes shop, sells Scottish flags and other items of tartanry in the window. They obviously think that this flag represents their party. The implication is that to be a Scot is to vote for the SNP. It is for this reason that the appropriation of all the symbols of Scotland by one political party is so dangerous. Who are we who voted No? What flag represents us? Quite frequently online we’re referred to as the Brits. We’re not part of Alex Salmond’s “Team Scotland”. The narrative from the SNP is that true Scots voted Yes and support the SNP. This is the same narrative that I got in my Marxism-Leninism lectures. True Soviet citizens support the party, everyone else is a counter-revolutionary enemy of the people. The red flag with the hammer and sickle represented the same thing as the Party. Party shops would sell it and we would all wave it on May day.
Is there anything that could refute SNP supporters' belief in the party and the ideology of the party? If I had supported Scottish independence, I would have done so only if I believed that the majority of the population wanted this. What might refute this theory? Well, if the majority of the population voted No, that would suggest something similar to refutation. But the fact that the Scottish people rejected independence is always reinterpreted so that far from repudiating the theory, it confirms it. The Scottish people were tricked into voting No by 'the Vow'. According to the nationalists the majority of people born in Scotland in fact did vote for independence. Therefore it was because of people who were not Scottish that Scotland voted No. These people were clearly not voting according to the interest of the Scottish people, how could they, because they were not born in Scotland? They were in fact enemies of the people. No doubt, this is why some nationalists I've come across use the slogan “Brits out”.
The SNP provided all sorts of reasons why we should vote for independence. How could I set about refuting any of these reasons? They made claims about the Scottish economy and how wealthy we would be if we voted for independence. Ordinarily, one would think that the refutation of these claims would lead people to reject the theory on which independence was based. Well, in the last few months we have seen a fall in the oil price and we have found out recently that far from being better off with independence, we would all be much worse off. Has any of this led SNP supporters to reject the theory on which they vote? Quite the reverse, support for the SNP appears to have increased.
It has to be asked therefore is there anything that would refute SNP supporters' belief in the party? The past few months have been just as large a refutation of the ideology of Scottish nationalism as the collapse of the Soviet Union was a refutation of Marxism-Leninism. But at least I no longer had to go to my Komsomol meetings when that happened, at least I no longer had to sit silently while the idiocies of Marx and Lenin were explained to me. If nothing could refute Scottish Nationalism in the eyes of supporters, then really it is a pseudoscience. Either you have faith in this new Scottish religion or you don’t. There’s not much point people like me trying to reason with someone whose ideology is founded not on argument but on faith. Nothing I could possibly write would persuade a nationalist, no refutation would dent his certainty about Alex or Nicola or the Party.
You weren’t allowed to crack jokes about the Party in the Soviet Union. People like Solzhenitsyn found that making derogatory comments or cracking jokes about Lenin, or Stalin made you an enemy of the people. Humour is always disliked by authoritarians. That’s not funny, they say. That’s the leader of the Scottish people. How dare you mock? You’re in fact mocking the Scottish people when you do that. How long before laughing at anti-SNP jokes makes me an enemy of the people? That would indeed be to swing on a wrecking ball crashing through Scottish democracy.