Confessions of an anti-nationalist

David Landau writes: People yearn to belong. This may sound like pop psychology but it underpins the co-operative labour which makes surplus value, that forms the basis of working class solidarity and consciousness and ultimately, makes socialism possible.

But this yearning to belong is not always progressive. It can form solidarity of one group of people against another rather than the progressive solidarity which brings us all together. Particularly when there is a crisis, when things fall apart, when communities disintegrate there will be those with a flag saying “you belong here, these are your people, as opposed to those who do not belong with us”. Nationalism is one of the most important of those flags, alongside its cousin, the flag of racism.

We socialists are building an INCLUSIVE solidarity as opposed to the EXCLUSIVE solidarity of nationalism. These are fundamentally opposed to one another.

Great Britain versus Little England

These two nationalisms appear to be diametrically opposed at first sight. British Nationalism believes in the union. It harks back to the days when sun never set on the British Empire. English nationalism usually supports the union as well. It is envious of Wales and Scotland and generally hates the Irish. So actually the substance of British and English nationalisms are much the same. Both of them are rooted in Empire it’s just that the English nationalist includes in its dominions the other parties to the UK.

Look at Brexit. British and English Nationalists marched shoulder to shoulder. Both Johnson and Farage behind the Union flag and the likes of Tommy Robinson behind the St. George Cross. All of them hated ‘Johnny Foreigner’, wanted to control ‘our’ borders, renew sovereignty, be liberated from the nasty powers of Europe, and the ‘cosmopolitans’ of London and so on.

Of course if you look at the history of England you can find lots of great events. The Levellers and the Diggers, the Battle of Peterloo, the English Revolution… Yes, the English can look at these pride but not because they are English but because they are high points in working class struggle in England but nothing especially English about it.

It should not be for socialists to counterpose Englishness to Britishness. We counterpose class struggle and community activism. This is not simply ‘preaching’ against nationalism. It is not simply a battle of ideas; it is an emotional thing because that yearning for belonging is a strong emotional force. But above all, it is a struggle in practice in fighting for inclusive community and class – from food banks, to strikes, from fighting immigration raids to rent strikes, occupations. It is in these battles that we can unpick nationalism.

National Liberation Movements

Does this mean that we oppose all movements that contain a nationalist element? No, but the nationalist component is always dangerous. Of course we should support anti-imperialist/anti-colonialist struggles in general. People have every right to overthrown their imperialist overlords and build a new society. The fact, however, that this is usually framed as National Liberation suggests, as most of these movements to, that they are nationalists as well as socialists, or whatever. That nationalist component, the exclusive element, can turn around and bash minorities in those countries and so forth, and turn their fire according to national divisions constructed over the years by imperial powers. Look at Rwanda. Look at the partition of India and Pakistan.

So in our solidarity with these movements it cannot be uncritical and unconditional. Yes we are for the defeat of imperialism, but our support of a particular movement should not be unconditional. Nationalism shows the sting in its tail often enough; the emergence of a theocratic state for example (An extreme example is one small left group I know who support the Taliban because they are fighting imperialism).

Homelands for Persecuted Peoples

There are struggles for independence for a minority that is persecuted in that country to secede or to find a homeland somewhere. The Tamil struggle, the Kurdish movement for Kurdistan across a number of borders, the struggle for Kosovo. Socialists will usually support these but to create these countries there is a danger of ethnic cleansing or apartheid of people not of this group living in the seceded territories. The break up of old Yugoslavia was not exactly a great success. We might, perhaps correctly, have supported certain nationalist movements, on the grounds of the persecution of particular ‘national’ groups. But it was a horrible bloody episode, manipulated by imperialism to deliver certain outcomes. All the nationalisms still have a nasty sting in their tail. The treatment of Roma in Kosovo is a good example.

Then, there is Zionism where the persecution and genocide of Jews over large stretches of the world is addressed by seizing the land of the Palestinians.

Back to the British Problem

One positive thing that must be said about Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalisms is that they are all opposed to British nationalism and Britain which is, as we saw above, an imperialist dominant. Often the mainstream nationalist parties are actually to the left of the Labour Party (not under Jeremy Corbyn). But does this mean that they transcend the problematic nature of nationalism? I don’t think so.

Ireland is somewhat different to Scotland and Wales in that it had a partition forced upon it by British Imperialism after a bloody struggle and that there was and still is great economic discrimination against the Catholic community. We are for a unified socialist republic of Ireland and should remain so.

So we are left with the questions of whether a united socialist republic of Scotland, Wales and England (it needs a name which is NOT Britain) is better than the break up into three countries and secondly, what do the people, and in particular, the workers, want. These two questions are not necessarily the same – we may suggest that a particular way forward is objectively better but if the mass of workers in Scotland and Wales move in another way then self-determination is the watchword.

Before Brexit I would have argued against the break up. Do we really want to have borders on the ‘British mainland’? The already weak trade union movement would be weakened further in such a break up. Militancy often came from the class in Scotland and Wales and pulled England along. Are there issues in which Wales and Scotland have been discriminated against, do they need a more powerful voice through federal structures – definitely in this workers’ republic – absolutely yes. But that is not the same as independence.

Brexit has dramatically changed this introducing a huge centrifugal force. Brexit combined with the victory of the referendum on gay marriage and abortion in the south has profoundly strengthened the case for a united Ireland. Scotland voted one way, England the other. So who has control? Isn’t this a travesty of democracy which can only be resolved by independence? Perhaps. Certainly it strengthens nationalism throughout ‘Britain’. I remain unconvinced. We want no borders not more borders and I feel that there is not enough to convince me that break-up is better. But Brexit may have started an unstoppable avalanche towards break up, regardless of what I or we have to say on the matter.

A position critical of break up does not mean siding with the British state against that movement. If the Brits deny a referendum or refuse to recognise the result of such a referendum then we must, of course, oppose the British State, against tyranny and for democracy, in solidarity with the Scottish and Welsh people, but without embracing nationalism.


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