1990s >> 1990 >> no-1036-december-1990

Nation or class?

Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. But, as is so often the case, this famous saying is usually taken out of context. Dr. Johnson was not opposed to patriotism. On the contrary, for him the problem was opportunist politicians who drape themselves in the flag of the nation. For socialists, however, patriotism is the problem. Being the zealous support for what one believes to be one’s own nation, patriotism is a snare and a delusion for the working class. Across the world, from Lithuania to Scotland, from Ireland to Israel, workers are embroiled in nationalist struggles which are none of their concern.

A nation has been defined as a collection of people with their own culture in a specific territory. A nationalist then is someone who emphasises the distinctiveness of a nation, and usually strives for it to become a nation-state. The trouble with this, as Rosa Luxemburg pointed out, is that it presupposes a community of interests with the nation:

    In a class society, the nation’ as a homogeneous socio-political entity does not exist. Rather, there exist within each nation, classes with antagonistic interests.

Moreover, since the nation is not necessarily the same thing as the state and its machinery of government, and since there are few (if any) genuine examples in the world of the nation and state exactly coinciding to form a nation-state, there has been plenty of scope and motivation for struggles for “national self-determination”

Nationalist myth-making

Accept the premise about the nation and you have an excuse for armed conflict. Nationalists, of course, will offer the defence that the nation is a set of cultural traditions worth preserving; it is said that there is a shared history, with a common language and institutions. The nation, in some versions, is the spirit of the people embodied in the church, monarch and empire. There interpretations of the past, however, are an exercise in myth-making. Many people would be surprised at how many of the “immemorial” national traditions go no further back then the nineteenth century. The “traditional’’ Scottish kilt, for example, was invented by an Englishman (see The Invention of Tradition. 1983, edited by E.J.Hobsbawm and T.Ranger).

Our rulers take great care and go to some expense to try and imbue us with a sense of “our” nation, even though the geographical limits of the nation have changed and will change as international capitalism re-aligns itself. Meanwhile, no matter what the colour of the rag at the top of the mast-head, poverty remains a working class issue. An affection for where we live is understandable, but nevertheless, when we do not possess the means of livelihood we will always be a tenant with an opposing interest to that of the landlord

The medieval aristocracy tried to inculcate a sense of obligation to the land in the lower orders, as part of the master and serf relationship. In some places this outlook still persists, and capitalists have used it to their own advantage. But nationalist movements arose with the development of capitalism and the state. In the 19th century, Karl Marx supported some nationalist movements on the grounds that they were historically progressive because they served the class interests of the rising bourgeoisie in its opposition to the traditional aristocracy. Marx had made demands, in 1848 and 1880, for Polish independence from Tsarist Russia. Rosa Luxemburg, at one time a member of the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPL), described Marx’s demands as ‘‘obsolete and mistaken”. Obsolete because no longer relevant, mistaken because the demands were never relevant to the working class.

The name of the party, SDKPL, was deliberate since the “Kingdom of Poland” was the official name of Russian Poland; the party’s name therefore proclaimed that it was a party operating only in that part of Poland; because states are organised on a territorial basis each Social Democratic party had the task of getting political power in the country where it operated. Luxemburg was aware that this was an organisational convenience, and that working class interests transcend national boundaries. For this reason, at the turn of the century, the SDKPL was the section in Russian Poland of the Russian Social Democratic Party. Luxemburg argued that the demand for an independent Poland was a demand for the establishment of another capitalist— and inevitably expansionist and oppressive—state. Experience of national liberation struggles in the twentieth century fully confirm the accuracy of this theory.

No meaningful democracy

Poland has been in and out of the Russian empire a number of times. The SDKPL at the turn of the century included Lithuania in its name and organisation, which was also then part of Russia. Lithuania had been part of Poland since 1361 and part of Russia since 1801. Along with the other Baltic republics of Estonia and Latvia. Lithuania was independent only from 1919 to 1940. Ironically, they were given independence by Gorbachevs hero, Lenin, though Gorbachev seems reluctant to emulate him in this respect. Lenin declared that socialists should support “the right of nations to self-determination”, arguing that nationalist struggles were simultaneously struggles for democracy. (The SWP, being a true Leninist organisation, supported Lithuania in its recent battles with Gorbachev for much this reason).

The theory of national self-determination, however, failed to show how antagonistic classes have a common “national interest”, and there is not a single example of a meaningful democracy being established anywhere in the world. Now that workers in eastern Europe have some limited political democracy they will find, as workers in the West have found, just how limited that democracy is (in effect, electing governments). How can capitalism, both East and West, be compatible with real democracy? When was there ever a vote as to who shall live in poverty? Who elected the rich? Where has there been a referendum on instituting homelessness? Who was consulted over the numbers to be unemployed? How often has there been a ballot on whether to declare war? Merely to pose these questions is to show the futility of nationalist struggles for democracy. The profit system has its own priorities and these are not susceptible to democratic control.

To-day nationalism rears its ugly head in eastern Europe and elsewhere. It is an ideology which conceals and distorts the exploitative social relationships of capitalism. As such, socialists are hostile to it and oppose it with the class interests of workers everywhere. It is as workers we are oppressed, not as a national grouping. It will be as workers we get our emancipation, not in national liberation. And as capitalism is the predominant world system, so the social revolution must be a world revolution.

Lew Higgins