Editorial: Forget,forget the 5th of November – and Trafalgar Day
“The only man to enter Parliament with good intentions”. So some describe Guy Fawkes, though this isn’t the official line on the Gunpowder Plot which was uncovered four hundred years ago this month. Actually, this saying is wrong on two counts. Guy Fawkes did not enter Parliament with good intentions, and to wish to blow up Parliament can’t really be said to be a good intention (blowing them up wouldn‘t achieve anything; voting them out is the intelligent thing to do).
Four hundred years ago the English ruling class was engaged in a life-and-death struggle with Spain which, with the backing of the Pope, was trying to incorporate England into a revived Holy Roman Empire. Capitalism had only come into being in the previous hundred years or so and the English ruling class was in the process of transforming itself from a serf-exploiting feudal nobility into a ruling class whose wealth and power would be based on producing for and trading on the world market. To achieve this it was essential to avoiding being incorporated to an economically stagnant Absolutist Empire such as Spain was trying to establish in Europe.
The ideological smokescreen under which this conflict of economic interest was fought out was Protestantism versus Catholicism. Henry VIII had broken with the Pope in 1529 and Protestantism became the ideology of that section of the English ruling class striving for a national capitalist state. Catholicism that of its enemies. Throughout the 16th century in England, Catholics and Protestants were successively burned at the stake. Guy Fawkes was a Catholic and had entered Parliament with a view to blowing it up in a bid to re-establish a Catholic regime in England.
From the point of view of the English ruling class, he was a traitor, and has traditionally been portrayed as such in school history books. In fact, anti-Catholicism remained a key feature of English nationalism right up until the end of the 19th century. By then it had become an anachronism. England – since the union with Scotland in 1707, “Great Britain” – had long since established itself as the leading capitalist power in the world and was no longer under even the remotest threat of being incorporated into some backward-looking Absolutist Catholic Empire.
In view of the anti-Catholic aspect the media didn’t know quite how to mark the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot. They had no such doubts about how to mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar – by an obscene display of jingoistic nationalism.
The ground had already been prepared by London’s successful bid to stage the 2012 Olympics and England’s regaining of the Ashes from Australia, both of which saw a mindless mob gather in Trafalgar Square to sing jingo songs known to socialists as “Fool Britannia”, “Land of Dopes and Tories”, “Good Save the Queen (and all who sail in her)” as well as – though quite out of place – Blake’s “Jerusalem”.
Socialists are utterly opposed to such manifestations of nationalism. In fact, we find disturbing the revival of nationalism in Britain in recent decades, as seen in the acceptance into the mainstream of formerly fascist usages such as the term “Briton” and the flag of St. George. At one time, British patriots used to call on people to die for their “country”, i.e. for the state which for accidental historical reasons happened to have jurisdiction over the geographical area where they lived. Nowadays, the appeal is to the “nation”, i.e. to an imaginary community. But there never can be any real community under capitalism. A “nation” is a false community, and a dangerous illusion because of its divisive nature.
Britain, like every other country or state in the world, is class-divided: a minority of rich owners and the rest of us. We have no interests in common with them and anything which encourages the illusion that all the people of Britain form a community with a common interest can only serve their interests. They need us to believe this because their rule and privileges depend on our acceptance. They are few but we are many. They know this but most of us don’t, yet.
When we do then we will see that the only community possible today, given the integration of the world economy, is a world community. But to be a real community there must be no class division. There must be common ownership of the globe’s resources so that they can be used for the benefit of all the members of the human race. We will then recognise ourselves, not as British, French, American, Australian or any of the other labels our rulers impose on us, but as members of the human race, citizens of the world, Earthpeople. Then the sort of narrow-minded nationalism orchestrated on Trafalgar Day – and let’s hope it’s not going to become an annual event – will be looked back on with a shudder as a manifestation of a barbarous past when ruling classes incited people to regard themselves as members of rival, competing “nations”.