Dave Stockton explains why class is a better focus for unity THE PROJECT to develop “our own progressive patriotism”, as Owen Jones puts it, is seriously misplaced, indeed a fool’s errand since all the positive points he cites for inclusion are not national at all, but international, indeed universal, values.
Another of the left’s most popular speakers, Clive Lewis, has also fallen for the idea that we need to mix a dose of nationalism into our socialism. He has called for “an inclusive, civic, outward-looking, open, tolerant version of [English nationalism]. I think it’s there for the left to say, ‘we’ve got a stake in national pride and identity as well’.” Clive says “English” so as not to cramp the style of Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalism.
But this open and tolerant nationalism is the spoonful of tar that ruins a barrel full of honey. National identity is by its very nature defined against other national identities, and embodies the potential of conflict between them, however peaceful and good natured relations may be at any given moment.
Indeed, short of that, national identity is the origin and result of the kinds of hostility to migrants and refugees that we are witnessing in the Brexit furore. When millions have been poisoned on a daily basis by the Mail, Sun and Express, prescribing a milder version is not just useless, but will only make their fever worse.
Above all it divides the workers of one country against another. It potentially alienates our brothers and sisters across Europe and beyond. In a world where many jobs cross national borders, it can only weaken and sever the ties of solidarity we need.
Since every state contains people from different national origins and traditions, deliberately fostering the national identity of that state can only divide and weaken an identity that is a hundred times more important: working class consciousness and active solidarity.
Of course, socialists have never been so stupid as to deny the existence of nations or national culture, nor that there are elements within every national culture that are justifiably the object of pride. These include, first and foremost, progressive struggles for democracy, for workers’ rights, for independence where a nation is oppressed.
What Marxists have always insisted is that the whole question must be understood in the context of the fundamental underpinning of society – class. The national state, its traditions, culture and popular consciousness, are a product of the development of capitalism. The dominant influence on all these is therefore capitalism – constantly validating them and making them seem common sense to all classes, the exploited as well as the exploiters.
For this reason, the national culture and consciousness justify the state institutions of our rulers – private property, the royal family, the supremacy of parliament, the rule of law, the eternity and normality of the patriarchal family, etc. The working class and the middle class, of course, play a role in this; they may be flattered as the very heart and soul of the nation. But they play a subordinate part and must sacrifice their “sectional” or “selfish” interest to it. It can be see from this that, when the chips are down, the nation is a jealous god – tolerating no rival.
Last, but not least, if the interests of “our” nation are challenged by another, it is “our” duty to defend it and to support “our boys” (and girls) who are doing so, whether or not we agree with our rulers: “My country, right or wrong”.
For all these reasons, those socialists who want to defend the everyday interests of the working class – wages, social services, democratic rights – must not fall victim to appeals to the national interest, deployed constantly to defend austerity cuts and wage restraint.
War is more serious and therefore more difficult, since the ruling class and the media set up a totalitarian barrage of propaganda. Opponents of war are silenced or hounded.
It is only in the aftermath of war that millions wake up to the facts, why the war was fought and how empty the promises were. So powerful was this waking up at the end of the First World War (revolution in Russia and Germany, strike waves in the countries of the “winners”) that our rulers have never successfully rehabilitated the carnage of the trenches.
The Second World War did not end in revolution but it did end with major reforms. Despite the horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust, the idea that this was what it was fought for is also a lie on a grand scale, since the priority for our rulers was the protection of Britain’s empire.
All patriotism is an enormous deception used to justify trade wars, cold wars and shooting wars. Nice, polite, apparently harmless patriotism only prepares the way for the brutal sorts: a soporific that prepares the way for the poison of national chauvinism.
Given the (narrow) triumph of anti-European nationalism that Brexit represents, we need more than ever to foster international solidarity, not try to imitate Farage or Nuttall, albeit in a minor key. Any concession on patriotism or freedom of movement by sections of the Left will fracture the forces fighting to break the Right’s control.