Nationalism is at the top of the list of political illusions used to blind capitalism's victims: the workers of the world.
Of nations, Marx and Engels wrote that:
The Communists are . . . reproached with desiring to abolish countries and nationality. The working men have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got. (The Communist Manifesto, 1848)
Workers own no country, so why should we care which section of the class of thieves owns which national portion of the world? Workers have a world to win, not nations to fight for.
Not everyone who has called themselves Marxists or socialists has followed such simple logic. Too often in history workers have been urged to concern themselves with the interests of nations - to fight to defend one against the other, or to establish new ones.
In Ireland the cause of nationalism was advanced not only by rabid anti-socialists like Arthur Griffiths (the founder of Sinn Fein whose contempt for trade unions was notorious) and Padraig Pearce (who rejoiced at the heroism of Irish workers who were slaughtered in the trenches of the First World War), but by men calling themselves socialists, such as James Connolly. He contended that religious faith and nationalist politics were compatible with the objective of establishing socialism. The creation of the Irish Republic has demonstrated all too clearly that a nation run by priests and armed by police and soldiers little different from the British variety is no step forward for the working class. All that Connolly's mistaken association of the concepts of nationalism and socialism has done has been to add to the confusion in working-class minds about what socialists really stand for. In practical terms, it has served to alienate the non-Roman Catholic, non-nationalistic Irish workers (many of them active in the trade unions) from anything they imagine to be socialist politics.
Zionist nationalism had its share of leftist confusionists in its early days — people who imagined that the establishment of an independent Jewish state would provide not only a refuge from the threat of racist persecution but a territory in which a new socialist order would emerge. In his book, From Class To Nation, David Ben Gurion wrote optimistically that
Socialist Zionism means a full Zionism. . .This is a sort of Zionism which will not be content with redeeming only a part of the people, but aims at the complete redemption of all the people of Israel; this is a sort of Zionism which envisages the Land of Israel as a homeland not only for a few privileged and wealthy but wants it to be a homeland for every Jew who returns there - a homeland that equally provides for all her children, revives them, makes them into citizens and redeems all of them without discrimination.
Ben Gurion was later to become Prime Minister of the Israeli state. Things did not turn out as those who saw Zionism as a step forward to socialism had thought it would. It is very easy to say, before a nation has been established, that it will not only be a homeland for the "privileged and wealthy". But under capitalism, in which Israel exists, countries belong to the minority class who own their resources and for all the talk of equality Israel is a country of brutal contradictions between affluence for a few and poverty for many. The almost racist assumption in the above quotation explains much that has happened since. If Israel is to be a homeland for the Jews, then what is to happen to those not invited into the new land of supposed equality? The answer is to be found all too evidently in the recent brutalities committed by the Israeli state on the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Israel is not unique in its anti¬social military savagery: all capitalist nations act that way — they usually call it "national defence". But those who advocated the creation of such a state in the name of socialism have much to answer for. There is no shortage of disillusioned left-wing Zionists in Israel today who will have to make up their minds whether to support nationalism or its ceaseless enemy - socialism.
In the Guardian on 21 December 1987, Dafydd Elis Thomas, the Plaid Cymru MP for Merionydd Nant Conway, urged English leftists to develop a new kind of English nationalism to supersede what he regards as the aggressive nationalism of the Thatcher government. He contends that this would lead to a new, different kind of patriotism to which English "socialists" (he means supporters of state capitalism) could appeal in the working class. The hard fact is that nationalism cannot be de-odorised or made to look pretty. The Labour Party in the early 1980s made great play of how their non-nuclear defence policy was connected to a more morally pure, humane conception of British nationalism. By 1987, when Kinnock and his team were desperate to sell their policies for running the system to the capitalist-minded voters, Kinnock was making great play of the fact that only under a Labour government, with increased defence spending and even more ferocious conventional weapons than the Tories are willing to invest in, will Britain be Great. The pornographic Labour election material with the Union Jack on the front summed up the folly of believing that you can mix policies for patriotism with any of the ideas of world unity which only socialists put. Indeed, Kinnock even offered in his speech at the Labour Party conference to die for "his" country. According to some political commentators, the 1987 election result was not a bad suicide attempt.
Of course, when it comes to providing the really lunatic policies, one might step back from the likes of Kinnock and the Welsh Nats and read the absurdities which abound in the circles of the "theoretically sophisticated" Leninists. The Leninist contention is that in all wars "small nations" must be supported against larger, oppressive ones. We recall how in 1982 the crazy Revolutionary Communist Party urged workers to suppport fascist-run Argentina in its military battle against Britain. Not to be undone by the RCP, the ultra-confused Socialist Workers' Party set its leading theoretician, Alex Callinicos (a name to watch in the circles of especially misguided Leninists) to work out a policy on the Iran-Iraq war. The Socialist Party policy is simple: like in all wars within capitalism we warn workers against taking the side of one capitalist gang against another. But the Ayatollah Khomeni will be delighted to learn that luck has come his way: the SWP has decided that
We have no choice but to support the Khomeni regime against the US and its allies. (Socialist Worker, 28 November, 1987)
The article goes on to state that, although the SWP is in favour of Iranian workers opposing the Khomeni regime while fighting for it, "there will be instances when it is wrong to strike". (For example, when strikes will affect the war effort). So Iranian workers, oppressed by one of the most monstrous dictatorships in the modern world, living under the misery of religious totalitarianism, conscripted almost at childhood to die in a pointless war, are now told by the official interpreters of the creed of Lenin that "socialists" must support Iran in its war. Keep laughing, dear reader, or you might just start to weep.
S. Coleman, Socialist Standard February 1988