What internationalists say about nationalism

November 3, 2017

Donald Trump's repulsive nationalism has to be opposed, but that isn't the end of the matter for socialists. Alan Maass looks for answers to the national question.

HERE'S A question for Donald Trump: Why build a wall on the border between Mexico and the U.S. rather than, say, on the border between Arizona and California?

The answer, of course, is that Mexico and the U.S. are separate nations, which is totally different than two states in the same nation.

But is it so different? The legal definition of national citizenship is largely based on where people happened to be born, but what makes someone born in Arizona different from someone born in Sonora, but not so different from someone born in California?

This is the thorny problem of giving an adequate definition of what makes up a nation.

It can't just be the people who live in one geographic entity, even if you do accept the arbitrary drawing of border lines. What about the people among the population who identify as being part of another nation--or those who see their ways of life as being connected to two or more nations, or none, or all?

A common culture is sometimes put forward as a distinguishing characteristic of nations, but it's pretty much impossible to define national cultures without being racist and exclusionary. And as the British Marxist Chris Harman wrote, "[E]verywhere, differences in culture, or ways of living, are greater between the rich and poor, or the workers and peasants, within a national state than they are between neighbors from the same class on different sides of national borders."

Left: Donald Trump; right: Angola's national liberation struggle
Left: Donald Trump; right: Angola's national liberation struggle

Common language doesn't work either. There are plenty of Spanish speakers among residents of Arizona.

The philosopher Ernest Gellner put the truth simply:

Nations as a natural God-given way of classifying men are a myth...It is not the case that nationalism imposes homogeneity...It is the objective need for homogeneity that is reflected in nationalism.

NATIONS, AS we understand them today, are relatively new to history. The modern nation state came into being as the structure of political power common to capitalism as it spread around the globe, almost entirely in the last several centuries.

This, too, clashes with the mythology of the free-marketeers, who claim that capitalism functions best without any state intervention.

That's a fantasy. Capitalism simply won't work unless it's backed up by a state: one that issues money; ensures debts are paid and capitalist private property is respected; builds roads and ports; keeps order and makes sure the poor don't revolt; and militarily protects its national free market against the militaries of other states.

This is the "objective need" Gellner wrote about--capitalism's need for a state to administer and police--which gives rise to nationalism as the ideological justification of the nation state.

Nationalism is necessary to justify the whole enormous state apparatus that intrudes on people's lives in profound ways--especially in repressing dissent or sending citizens off to kill and be killed in wars.

And it also provides a legend to explain why all the people within nations, whether rulers or ruled, are supposedly in it together, against all the people of other nations.

We're all familiar with those legends and the lesson they teach: You may be poor and have to scramble to get by from week to week, but at least you're an American. And maybe you'll be less poor if someone Makes America Great Again, so it isn't taken advantage of by its foreign enemies.

Benedict Anderson, who wrote a left-wing account of nationalism, called his book Imagined Communities. It's an appropriate word--the things that supposedly link and bind us all together as Americans are imagined, not real. More specifically, they are imagined for the rest of us by the few at the top of society, for their financial and political benefit, not ours.

THAT'S A brief summary of some of what socialists have to say about nations and nationalism--but it's not complete because of a very important fact: Not all nationalisms are the same.

Because we live in a world of capitalist competition, which gives way to competition between nations, there are winners and losers among the nations of the world--and the political impact of the nationalism of the conquerors is very different from that of the conquered and the oppressed.

It isn't hard to see how nationalism in a country like the U.S. obscures the class differences among the population while bolstering the status quo. The supposed common interests we share as Americans are used to justify a state devoted not to ensuring the well-being of all, but to expanding the power and wealth of the small minority that rules U.S. society.

The nationalism of conquered or oppressed peoples--whether they live in an existing nation like, for example, Haiti that is subjugated by more powerful ones, or they have been denied a nation state of their own, like the Kurds, who are an oppressed minority in Turkey and other countries of the Middle East--has to be approached differently.

The class differences within oppressed nations may be just as obscured and the commonalities among those who belong just as imagined. But a nationalism of the oppressed that opposes and challenges the oppressor can be a step toward challenging the imperialist hierarchy of strong and weak nations--and the small elite at the top of that hierarchy.

The history of rebellions and revolutions in the 20th century illustrates this.

For example, during the First World War, as the initial wave of patriotism gave way in all European countries to a growing anger at both the carnage and deteriorating economic conditions, one of the first ruptures was the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, an insurrection to end colonial rule by Britain.

The Russian revolutionary Lenin recognized that this revolt, though it took place under the banner of establishing an independent Irish republic, shook the power of one of the most powerful nations, England, and with it, the whole imperial structure.

Several decades later, the revolt of Portugal's colonies in Africa in the 1970s precipitated an even more explosive upheaval in Portugal itself, toppling a dictatorship and putting the question of revolution in Europe on the table.

In the same era, the Black freedom struggle in the U.S.--which Marxists have understood as a struggle for national liberation, though with particular characteristics--not only rocked American society, but inspired the left around the world and reshaped its politics.

SO THAT'S one reason socialists support the right of self-determination of oppressed nations--that is, the right of oppressed peoples to make their own decisions about their affairs, and not be dominated and dictated to by the powerful. Because such struggles confront and battle an international system of oppression, they can spark and inspire struggles that spill over the specific national issues.

But there is another, perhaps more important reason for this support--one that flows from the need to achieve working class unity and solidarity in order to win the struggle for socialism.

In order for true unity to be achieved, the inequality of nations in the imperialist order--just like other forms of inequality--has to be flattened, at least in the relationships among and between the working classes of oppressor and oppressed countries.

There has to be a commitment to the right of nations to self-determination for workers in oppressed nations to believe that a united struggle will end their specific national oppression and won't just reproduce the same hierarchy, with them toward the bottom.

And workers who live in oppressor countries need to be committed to fighting oppression in order to confront the nationalism of their own society, which is one of the primary means of binding workers to their rulers.

When Karl Marx and Frederick Engels began confronting this question, they recognized that the tyranny of British colonial rule in India, for example, didn't bring capitalist development and prosperity to a developing nation--as they had put forward sometimes in earlier writings--but instead bred injustice, along with inevitable revolts against injustice.

But even more than the potential of anti-colonial revolts, Marx and Engels laid stress on the importance of confronting the national chauvinism of workers in oppressor nations, as a condition for the working class to win its own struggles for liberation. As Marx wrote about Ireland:

The English working class...will never be able to do anything decisive here in England before they separate their attitude towards Ireland quite definitely from that of the ruling classes, and not only make common cause with the Irish, but even take the initiative in dissolving the Union established in 1801...If not, the English proletariat will forever remain bound to the leading strings of the ruling classes, because they will be forced to make a common front with them against Ireland.

LENIN, WRITING later about Russia, was also unequivocal--and for good reason, given the importance of the national question in a country where the Tsar had conquered and subordinated dozens of less powerful nations. As Lenin wrote:

[S]elf-determination of nations today hinges on the conduct of socialists in the oppressor nations. A socialist of any of the oppressor nations...who does not recognize and does not struggle for the right of oppressed nations to self-determination (i.e., the right to secession) is in reality a chauvinist, not a socialist.

Lenin's main concern, echoing the attitude Marx had arrived at, was that socialists must be committed to the fullest extension of democratic freedoms, including national self-determination, as a means of encouraging internationalism.

The internationalist unity of the working classes living in oppressor and oppressed nations depends on a wholehearted commitment to the demands of the oppressed, even if that means national secession and separation. Socialists don't necessarily advocate secession, but our support for the right of self-determination, even to the point of secession, is absolute.

Lenin explained that the goal is unity and internationalism, not separation--but this can only be achieved if all traces of national chauvinism are confronted. As he wrote after the Russian Revolution of 1917, when the secession of Ukraine from the new workers' state in Russia was on the table:

We want a voluntary union of nations--a union which precludes any coercion of one nation by another--a union founded on complete confidence, on a clear recognition of brotherly unity, on absolutely voluntary consent. Such a union cannot be affected at one stroke, we have to work toward it with the greatest patience and circumspection, so as not to spoil matters and not to arouse distrust...

THERE IS much more to the Marxist tradition's discussion of what is known as the national question, but it is worth underlining how very relevant these insights are for today.

We see the repulsive effect of patriotism and xenophobia every day during the Trump era. Nationalism is probably the most important ideological prop for Trump's agenda--Making America Great is the one-size-fits-all justification for deporting the undocumented, threatening war abroad, giving away tax breaks to corporations, and spying on the "foreigners" in our midst, to name a few Trump atrocities.

It goes without saying that socialists oppose this. But opposing nationalism is every bit as important, if not more so, when it comes in a form that appears left-wing and pro-working class--like when Bernie Sanders demands protection for U.S. companies against "unfair competition" from China.

When Sanders and union leaders bash China as the cause of U.S. workers' suffering, the inevitable conclusion is that workers in this country have the same interests as the corporate bosses and bankers, rather than other workers in other countries.

Sanders' economic nationalism defends American industry and American jobs--but that means identifying both foreign companies and workers as the enemy. Even when it comes in the form of sympathy with U.S. workers suffering from layoffs and declining conditions, such an appeal corrodes the internationalist spirit of solidarity that we need to confront injustice.

The working class consciousness needed by a revolutionary socialist movement can't be achieved unless workers in a country like the U.S. give up the idea that the nation they live in should somehow be empowered to boss around others and dictate to them.

This is a reactionary conclusion, not just an unfortunate one, and it disarms the working class movement in this country on critical questions--while confirming the suspicions of workers in other countries that they can't trust anyone in the U.S., even working people, to stand for equality and democracy.

So socialists need to not only oppose Trump's nationalism, but nationalism when it is preached by left-wing figures like Sanders.

Internationalism has been a foundational principle of socialism since Karl Marx and Frederick Engels that called for "workers of the world, unite" in the Communist Manifesto.

Our support of the right of self-determination of oppressed nations flows directly from that internationalist principle--and the vision of a united struggle for socialism by the workers of all countries.

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