1990s >> 1992 >> no-1051-march-1992

Book Review: ‘National Liberation’

National Liberation

‘National Liberation’, by Nigel Harris. (I B Tauris, £24.95.)

Capitalism, argues Harris, has now become a single world economy in which international capital finds the frontiers which divide the world into 170 or so political states irrelevant. Governments are forced to take this economic reality into account by pursuing policies that allow the free movement of capital and commodities.

A similar view was expressed by many in the Marxist tradition before the First World War. In fact, it was almost the mainstream Marxist view, though only a few like Rosa Luxemburg, Pannekoek and Bukharin drew the conclusion that this meant that nationalism no longer had any progressive role to play and so should be opposed by socialists. Harris, of course, is well aware of this, and his first chapter is an analysis and debunking of nationalism and its myths. He sees nationalism as we do—as a political creation imposed on people by states (and movements seeking to set up states) in the interest of the ruling class (or would-be ruling class) of those states.

But in a sense, says Harris, the pre-First World War Marxists were proved wrong in that the war was followed by an increase in economic and political nationalism, not the decline that their theories implied. Indeed, “Marxism” itself came to be associated with economic nationalism so that today most of those in the world who call themselves “Marxists” are nationalists of one sort or another.

Harris is a long-standing member of the SWP, but his book has been severely criticised by the leadership of that organisation who find its political implications disturbing. For if you hold that capitalism has become a single world economy in which national frontiers are irrelevant, this implies that you should also regard the nationalist programme of economic “independence” as reactionary. Harris, himself, does not explicitly argue that socialists should no longer support nationalist movements, but he does cautiously say that we can expect nationalism to slowly decline and implying that this would be a good thing:

    “Thus, if politics were no more than a reflex of economics—as some of the cruder Marxists seemed to imply—the world ought to be within sight of the end of nationalism as a political force. On such a reading, it might survive as a cultural-linguistic concern, but the economic and political issue would be over for all except the economically least developed. Such an eventuality would once more restore the pre-1914 theorization.”

To adopt the pre-1914 Marxist position of opposition to nationalism as economically reactionary is the last thing the SWP leaders want, as it undermines their whole case of supporting such groups as the IRA, the Sandinistas, Pan-Arab Nationalism and the like, as well as support of countries like Iraq when at war with more powerful capitalist powers. They are forced to stand by their dogma that nationalism has some progressive role to play and that state capitalism in one country is something to be supported, so placing themselves amongst those Harris calls “the last quixotic defenders of a world of national State capitalisms, replacing the tyranny of the market with the dictatorship of the bureaucracy”.

Adam Buick

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