How Should Socialists Approach Nationality? Part One

Amal Samaha

 
Part One
 
“Left” National Chauvinism

I have been inspired to write the following series by Christian Noakes’ short article “On the Problem of Red US Patriotism” which recently appeared in Peace, Land, and Bread. [1] I wanted to commend him for tackling this problem, but also to go further, and ask how socialists should approach nationalism in the 21st century? Out of what contradictions within the socialist movement has “red” US patriotism arisen? Will similar movements emerge across the world? Have they already done so? While many discussions of “red” patriotism have thus far centered on figures in the United States, I have seen similar ideas to “Red” patriotism expressed in Aotearoa, [2] and the phenomenon is worth investigating across borders. We share a settler-colonial context, and a marginal socialist movement split into sects, and so I am interested to see whether any of the ideas expressed here find resonance with US comrades. I am also interested in starting a dialogue on questions of nationalism within Peace, Land, and Bread, and strongly encourage replies to address the faults in this series. There is a problem inherent in viewing “red” patriotism as a phenomenon unique to the United States in recent years. [3] Nationalism has always been a uniquely international phenomenon, particularly sensitive to changes in the global economy. Surges in nationalist sentiment are rarely contained to one country—often they occur in great waves of national uprisings, and while each individual movement is responding to internal problems within their respective borders, the timing and overall character of the broader nationalist shift usually says something about changes in the world-economy, or in other words, the general form which imperialist relations take with each successive era. [4]


 

“Red” patriotism is quite clearly, even self-consciously, [5] a reaction to a global rise in indigenous and anticolonial nationalisms, especially within the settler-colonies. It is a reaction to movements for the return of land, for reparations, and for counter-sovereignty.

 

Crucially, “Red” patriotism is not the only reaction to this: it is just one part of a broader push from within progressive movements to distance leftism from forms of struggle which proponents see as distractions from core economic concerns. [6] In this worldview, indigeneity is another “false consciousness” [7] promoted by shady cultural elites as a sideshow for the workers within the settler-colonial nation, who would otherwise be united in organising to combat their true class enemies. Interestingly, a very similar argument is made by many antinationalists concerning both nationalism in the west, and various revolutionary nationalisms around the world. Nationalism to them is the king of “false consciousness,” a deep-seated irrational tribalism that distracts workers from their world-historic task of organising along international class lines, forming a global proletarian consciousness to fight for their shared economic concerns. Sub-state or counter-sovereign nationalisms are particularly insidious, as they serve to further divide an already hopelessly atomised global class. [8] In practice, “Red” patriotism is just one of many political forces opposed to indigenous and anticolonial nationalisms in the developed countries. What then might be gained by looking at these forces as one category? Perhaps by looking at both left-nationalism and left-antinationalism in the west, we can find a common point of origin for opposition to indigenous and anticolonial sub-state nationalisms.

“Left-Wing” Nationalism in the West

There are two broad kinds of national chauvinism on the left in most developed countries: those who say that all forms of nationalism can be expressed in a useful, progressive manner regardless of world-economic context, and those who say that all forms of nationalism are ultimately reactionary, regardless of world-economic context. From these two broad kinds, there are further subtypes worth discussing in-detail. We will start by looking at the first broad kind of national chauvinism.


In many countries it is common enough to find left-liberals who believe in a “left-wing patriotism.” Left-liberals and social-democrats will often respond to accusations by the right of being unpatriotic by saying: “of course we are patriotic, we believe in the betterment of our nation, but through welfare policies and other progressive means.” In saying this, the left-liberal hopes to prevent further accusations that they are subverting this or that aspect of state power or national identity. In this they usually fail, and are accused anyway, but the exchange is nonetheless revealing: many progressives have a genuine belief in “left-wing patriotism.”


 

Patriotism is—make no mistake—just nationalism by a different name, designed to appeal to a more educated, liberal strata.

 

To many, “patriotism” connotes a kind of progressive, non-interventionist, civic nationalism, [10] whereas “nationalism” carries with it images of ethnonationalism—of blood feuds, genocide, and balkanisation. While patriotism has different cultural connotations to English-speakers, it is identical in function to nationalism, and nationalism scholars do not meaningfully differentiate between the two.


Even if this patriotism is simply a kind of nationalism, this is not enough to denounce it: after all there are many genuinely progressive nationalisms in this world. But “progressive” patriotism in the west generally fails to investigate three fundamental assumptions:


  1. By saying that the progressive patriot seeks to “better” their country through progressive means, they fail to investigate whether the development of one area is possible without the relative immiseration of another. Since the 1950s, Marxist theorists of imperialism and economic geographers have demonstrated that mutually-beneficial development between rich and poor countries is largely an illusion, and that development is often a zero-sum game. [11] The primary mechanism by which developed nations have “bettered” themselves is through exploitation, and even progressive policies within rich countries can serve to deepen this divide if they are not matched by redistributive policies.[12]

  2. By referring to the betterment of their nation, progressive patriots treat the nation as a reified whole without investigating the role of classes, social strata, and political forces within. In other words, by talking of “national” betterment, they sidestep any discussion of internal class conflict or redistribution. A truly progressive project would instead benefit some classes, social strata, and political forces at the relative expense of others

  3. Finally the progressive patriot fails to investigate the wider context of their patriotism. Should we focus on the betterment of the richest states at all? Or does their role in the world-economy and interstate system necessarily prevent the development of other nations? The progressive patriot does not consider whether the abolition of their nation and state may be the best thing for the peoples of the world, especially in settler-colonial contexts where state sovereignty necessarily prevents the existence of national projects among colonised peoples.


In addition to left-liberal patriotism, there is another kind of “left-wing” nationalism in the settler-colonies and developed nations of the world. This is the kind ably criticised by Christian Noakes: “red” patriotism, and other ostensibly “Marxist” expressions of nationalism in the west. This is a much less common phenomenon than left-liberal patriotism, but it is all the more disturbing for its appropriation and subversion of the rhetoric of socialism.


In addition to sharing the same under-investigated assumptions as the left-liberal patriot, the red patriot adds a set of assumptions about the nature of the working class, and purports to act in our interest. The red patriot assumes that working class people are stupid, and as fundamentally stupid and uneducated people, we are incapable of understanding politics beyond base emotional appeals, and our most immediate economic interests. We cannot possibly understand solidarity beyond jingoistic appeals to unity and shared identities, and we cannot understand that our short-term economic interests as individuals might contradict our long-term economic interests as a class. Since they see proletarian cultures as inherently static, the red patriot cannot imagine a transformation of those cultures through education and discussion.


On this basis, the “red” patriot denounces decolonisation: “working class people couldn’t possibly understand that! What if they think they’ll be deported?” Likewise they denounce any form of internationalism which goes beyond non-interventionism: “but working class people care about problems here most of all.” Any talk of abolishing the official nationalism of the colonial or colonising state is unthinkable: “you are alienating the real workers.” The red patriot imagines themselves to be an interpreter of the real needs of the working class, counterposed against a horde of unrealistic, out-of-touch, academic, or activist leftists, when in actual fact their “real working class” doesn’t exist. They have invented a conservative-minded, middle-aged white man in a high visibility vest, who is also inexplicably open to talk of socialism. Having invented this real worker, they become his servant, and seek his approval.


While left-liberals hide behind the innocuous connotations of civic nationalism, Red patriotism sometimes exists as a pantomime of revolutionary anti-colonial nationalism transplanted onto the bloated form of the settler-colonies. The red patriot will quite happily throw around some out-of-context quote from Fred Hampton or Ho Chi Minh on the validity of revolutionary nationalism, while supporting the official nationalism of the very white supremacist states those revolutionaries struggled to defeat. While red patriots will often ostensibly support colonised peoples, they will only do so insofar as this anti-colonialism does not threaten the foundational assumptions of their own nationalism. For this reason it is common enough for red patriots to support anti-colonial struggles on another continent, but will refuse to support indigenous movements fighting a similar and interconnected struggle a few miles away. [9]



Anti-Nationalist Chauvinism

Given these problems with nationalism in the West, many socialists conclude that nationalism is just one of many artificially constructed ruling class ideologies designed to atomise, distract, or impede working class movements towards truly progressive goals. This is perfectly true in the context of many European and settler-colonial nationalisms. However, there is also a crude antinationalism which takes this argument one step further to claim that all nationalism is fundamentally reactionary, and leads to irrationality, violence, and division. This view is not as mainstream as progressive patriotism, but is very common in academia, western leftist organisations, and progressive civil society.


At first glance it may appear that these antinationalists have nothing in common with “progressive” patriots. After all they stand diametrically opposed to one another on the question of whether nationalism can ever contribute positively to the socialist movement. But below the surface there is a great degree of commonality between many antinationalists and progressive patriots: they both oppose the nationalism of indigenous or colonised peoples, they both hold the European concept of nationhood to be the norm, and they both fail to account for the world-economic context of different nationalisms. In practice, many antinationalists and progressive patriots only disagree on their definition of nationalism: the progressive patriot sees their actions as taking place on a national level, using nationality as a boundaried space for activity, whereas the antinationalist does exactly the same thing but fails to see it for what it is.

A recurrent theme in bourgeois theories of nationalism is the idea of a “good” and “bad” nationalism. “Civic” nationalisms, those commonly promoted by liberal, conditionally multicultural, settler-colonial or colonising states are counterposed against “Ethno” nationalisms: a more barbaric, nonwestern form, based in imagined kinship groups. The same is true of “patriotism” versus “nationalism” generally. To most antinantionalists, nationalism is only ever this latter, “bad” form, and if “good” nationalism does its job, the antinationalist does not see it as nationalism at all. As Michael Billig notes, most western liberal nationalism is “banal,” it consists of consistent, subtle signifiers of identity, peppered throughout everyday life. Just because liberal nationalism is banal does not mean it is benign—this is precisely the activity that allows western populations to explode into “spontaneous” patriotism when called upon—yet most discussions of nationalism place undue emphasis on only the most spectacular and readily apparent nationalism of nonwestern states. [13]

Working class institutions are not immune to this subtle reinforcement of nationhood either. Nearly all progressive or working class institutions around the world take place on a national level, within the boundaries denoted by the interstate system of borders and other limitations upon movement. This is natural, after all, as working across borders is difficult and costly—only capital can freely move around without significant restrictions. [14] Most unions will only organise within the established boundaries of a single state, even as their opponents in the capitalist class become ever more international in scope. Thus even though class oppression takes place on an international scale, working class institutions are usually national in scope, and will tend to reinforce the congruence of national and state boundaries. [15]


Antinationalists thus benefit from wages, institutions, and rights that have been achieved through forms of organisation which reinforce nationalism. It would not be enough to simply point out hypocrisy here—it is perfectly possible to benefit from a system one is criticising without being wrong, but the problem is instead that the dogmatic antinantionalist has benefited from a system wherein nationhood confers legitimacy and economic benefits, and has reached a higher level of development, only to then break the ladder for any who might follow. Many Indigenous and anti-colonial nationalist movements desire recognition of nationhood not out of any irrational or sentimental impulse, but because they realise that there are tangible benefits to nationhood in the current geopolitical system. Nationalist movements are often the only route oppressed cultures have towards achieving a place within international legal and political bodies, sometimes called the interstate system, whereupon they can conduct themselves on an equal legal footing to other world powers.


Revolutionary nationalism is also an important route towards breaking the interstate system that enforces limitations upon a more internationalist mode of organisation. The interstate system is reinforced and presided over by hegemonic powers, always a member of the settler-colonial or colonising powers which first created the world-economy to benefit themselves. This power can be broken, and it is clear that socialist and anti-colonial revolutions, as well as the actions of weaker states propelled forward by modernising nationalisms, have presented the greatest challenge to dominant hegemonies. [16]


 

By multiplying the contradictions that must be mediated within the interstate system, as well as by pushing forward with nationalisms which multiply contradictions within the dominant powers (such as indigenous nationalisms), there exists a clear path towards eliminating an important obstacle to international class consciousness. Only after this point can nationality truly be abandoned.

 

This represents one strategic criticism of crude antinationalism, but I do not think it will convince many anti-nationalists, nor do I think it gets to the heart of the problem. The main critique I will provide for the moment is that crude antinationalism and “progressive” patriotism play a similar role in terms of function, if not in intent. They play an identical role in suppressing the aspirations of indigenous nationalisms; they play an identical role in falsely equating European and nonwestern ideas of nationhood and culture [17]; and they play an identical role in causing socialists in the developed world to disregard problems of imperial wealth extraction, underdevelopment, or cultural assimilation. Both progressive patriots and left antinationalists can work together quite well, and agree more often than not on these issues. The question that concerns both groups the most is not whether the left should support nationalism, but rather how nationalism or antinationalism can be used to grant a progressive veneer to the supremacy of their own national group.


I do not want to tar all antinationalists with this brush. I am referring to a very specific expression of antinationalism that has developed in the settler colonies to provide cover for chauvinist attitudes towards the independence of colonised peoples. There are other expressions of antinationalism, such as the Revolutionary Intercommunalism of Huey P. Newton, [18] or the attitudes of many anarcho-communists, [19] which have their basis in different definitions of the nation and state, rather than a fundamentally chauvinist politics. While I have disagreements with some of these approaches, and many contain significant contradictions, [20] many such people support the independence of colonised peoples, even if they use different words to describe their support. There are also many well-developed leftist critiques of nationalism by authors who do not fully discount the liberatory possibilities of certain nationalist movements, such as by Immanuel Wallerstein, Tom Nairn, and Eric Hobsbawm, and I will return to these more considered critiques in parts two and three. By illustrating some similarities in the functional outcomes of both nationalism and antinationalism in the west, I have not yet gotten to the roots where “left” national chauvinism stems from. It is one thing to illustrate a constellation of similar phenomena, and another thing to demonstrate the laws that govern their formation, development, and function within a broader system. I have not yet shown why present-day national chauvinism was able to develop from within the Marxist movement, as this has its origins in earlier Marxist theories of the nation—something I will discuss in part two. In part three, I will introduce an alternative theory of nationality drawn from both a reading of Hegel through Soviet Activity Theory, and from Wallerstein’s World-Systems Analysis.


 

Amal Samaha is a Lebanese-Australian writer living in Aotearoa. She works in adult education and studies history and politics at Victoria University, Wellington.

 

Endnotes

[1] Noakes, Christian. “On the Problem of Red US Patriotism.”

[2] Basing progressive arguments in axioms of state sovereignty became common during protests against the Trans Pacific Partnership, for example.

[3] This is not at all a criticism of Noakes—no one could be expected to provide more depth in a 700 word article.

[4] I will be using some terms and ideas taken from Immanuel Wallerstein over this series to discuss world-economies. An accessible introduction to his work can be found in Wallerstein, Immanuel. The Politics of the World-Economy.

[5] A recent livestream featuring Caleb Maupin was titled “5 settlers discuss #landback”, to give some idea.

[6] The root of this belief is pure economism, and a better path would be to find a route between economism and liberal theories of identity, a task ably performed in Parkinson, Donald. “Neither Intersectionality nor Economism: For a Genuine Class Politics.”

[7] This phrase is heavily overused to describe nearly any formation of consciousness which is not explicitly marxist. The concept of a formation of consciousness will be discussed in Part 3.

[8] An overview of sub-state nationalism, or nationalism among nations without access to state power, is given in Tierney, Stephen. “Reframing Sovereignty? Sub-State National Societies and Contemporary Challenges to the Nation-State.” pp. 161–83.

[9] Antinationalists are sometimes the mirror image of this approach, supporting nearby indigenous struggles, but refusing to support similar struggles overseas that do not conform to their standards of martyrdom.

[10] This in-turn has its origin in a political project by British Conservatives of the 1870s to ascribe to British imperialism a progressive, liberal, and humanitarian set of connotations, while describing the imperialism of other powers as regressive, protectionist, and tyrannical. For the origins of this idea, see Knox, Bruce. “The Earl of Carnarvon, empire and imperialism, 1855–90.” pp. 48–64.

[11] The realisation that colonised and formerly colonised countries are undergoing active underdevelopment had its origins in economists inspired by Frantz Fanon, such as Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy. This “underdevelopment school” would come to include such writers as Andre Gunder Frank, Walter Rodney, and Samir Amin. For an overview see Brewer, Anthony. Marxist Theories of Imperialism: A Critical Survey, pp. 150–200.

[12] Wage disparities in particular have an enormous effect on underdevelopment, and working class pursuit of the “wages of imperialism” creates the impetus for social imperialism. The specific mechanism by which wage disparities result in greater superprofits is given in Cope, Zak. The Wealth of (Some) Nations: Imperialism and the Mechanics of Value Transfer, pp. 47–58, 75–87.

[13] See generally Billig, Michael. Banal Nationalism.

[14] This is the origin of many problems within the present-day world-economy, perhaps best illustrated by Emmanuel, Arghiri. Unequal Exchange: A Study of the Imperialism of Trade.

[15] Wallerstein. World-Economy, pp. 10–11.

[16] These are referred to broadly by Wallerstein as “antisystemic forces,” really anything that cannot be re-territorialised by capital, and which creates further contradictions within the interstate system. Ibid, pp. 20–22.

[17] The totalising effect of even the more nuanced Eurocentric models of nationality are criticised in Chaterjee, Partha. Empire and Nation: Selected Essays 1985-2005, pp. 23–36.

[18] Newton’s critique was based on a belief that the classical Marxist theories of the nation could no longer describe the international order of the 1970s, and in this he was entirely correct. See Newton, Huey P., and Erik H. Erikson. In Search of Common Ground: Conversations with Erik H. Erikson and Huey P. Newton, pp. 25–30.

[19] Uri Gordon gives an overview of anarchist approaches to nationalism, and is quick to dispel the idea that all anarchists are opposed to all forms of nationalism. See Gordon, Uri. “Anarchism and Nationalism.”

[20] For example, one local group supports the sub-state nationalism of local indigenous people, but not the Bolivian Movement for Socialism due to its acquisition of state power.


Bibliography

Billig, Michael. Banal Nationalism, London, Calif: Sage, 1995.


Brewer, Anthony. Marxist Theories of Imperialism: A Critical Survey, London and New York: Routlege, 1980.


Chaterjee, Partha. Empire and Nation: Selected Essays 1985-2005, New York: Colombia University Press, 2010.


Cope, Zak. The Wealth of (Some) Nations: Imperialism and the Mechanics of Value Transfer. London: Pluto Press, 2019.


Emmanuel, Arghiri. Unequal Exchange: A Study of the Imperialism of Trade, New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1972.


Gordon, Uri. “Anarchism and Nationalism.” In Brill's Companion to Anarchism and Philosophy, edited by Nathan J. Jun, pp. 196–215. Leiden: Brill, 2017.


Knox, Bruce. “The Earl of Carnarvon, empire and imperialism, 1855–90.” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 26, no. 2 (1998): pp. 48–64.


Newton, Huey P., and Erik H. Erikson. In Search of Common Ground: Conversations with Erik H. Erikson and Huey P. Newton, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1973.


Noakes, Christian. “On the Problem of Red US Patriotism.” Peace, Land, and Bread, September 23, 2021. https://www.peacelandbread.com/post/on-the-problem-of-red-us-patriotism.


Parkinson, Donald. “Neither Intersectionality nor Economism: For a Genuine Class Politics,” Cosmonaut, August 7, 2019. https://cosmonaut.blog/2019/08/07/neither-intersectionality-nor-economism-for-a-genuine-class-politics/.


Tierney, Stephen. “Reframing Sovereignty? Sub-State National Societies and Contemporary Challenges to the Nation-State.” The International and Comparative Law Quarterly 54, no. 1 (2005): pp. 161–83.


Wallerstein, Immanuel. The Politics of the World-Economy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

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