Corbynism and the National Question

To most Europeans, nationalism is inextricably linked with violence, despotism and racism. The horrors of the long 20th century have shown it for what it is, the precursor ideology to fascism and a threat not only to minorities of every stripe, but to humanity at large.

Socialists too find themselves in direct ideological confrontation with the principles of nationalism. “Workers of all countries, unite!” proclaimed Marx. The worker has no country. Nationalism deceives the workers into believing they have more in common with the landlords and capitalists of their own nation than with the working class of all nations.

And still, despite every dire warning from history, the feeling of nationalism persists – just there under the surface. More often quietly ignored than actively resisted.

In Britain today we find ourselves with a problem. The revolutionary forces of capitalist globalisation have suddenly been thrown into reverse by the working classes, but everywhere we see nationalism, nationalism, nationalism. How do we respond? What paths lay open to us beyond repeating marxist maxims, irrelevant at the sidelines?

To get a grip on the question I propose we take a look at those other nationalisms that, throughout history, progressive forces have been able to occasionally wield to less barbaric ends.

In one of history’s little jokes, modern nationalism began life as a force for liberalism and progress in 19th century Prussia; a German state that would be literally wiped off the map a century later as punishment for its violent excess. Ruled over by an absolute monarch supported by a brutal military aristocracy (the “Junkers”), the idea that there existed any power other than God higher than the monarchy was unacceptable.

The Prussian nationalists emerged with a liberal challenge to the absolutism of the monarchy – that the will of the German people as manifested in the nation was indeed a higher power, justifying the creation of Prussia’s first democratic institutions, including a parliament. The inscription on the entrance of the Reichstag – Dem Deutschen Volke (to the German people) – stood not as mark of xenophobia or chauvinism, but of progress. The very idea of a German people was, at the time, a deeply progressive suggestion, superseding as it did the minor despots that wielded actual executive power in the various states and regions.

The German flag began life as a revolutionary banner, inspired by the tricolour of the French Republic. It was never used by the Prussian monarchs and was reintroduced by the Weimar Republic, only to be replaced by the Nazi Party flag during the period of fascist ascendance.

The story of the Prussian “Iron Chancellor” Otto Von Bismarck is well known. In conjunction with the Kaiser and his Junkers he managed to bend the fledging Prussian democracy to his will, and through military conquests forged a new Germany in blood and iron – directly setting in motion the clash of civilisations that would lead to World War I.

Out of the smouldering ruins and fragmenting empires left in the wake of The Great War arose many new states, particularly in central and eastern Europe. Formed around national groups ravenous for their first real chance at self determination, this era was initially hailed as great new chance for democracy. Waves of revolution rocked a continent with a staggering new power in town – the Soviet Union.

The 1920s would see a great experiment in socialist internationalism unfold, in which communist parties throughout Europe co-ordinated their political activity via a body called The Comintern (or the Communist International), to which they each sent delegates and from which they received policy instructions. The Comintern attempted to direct the activity of individual national parties in conjunction with what it interpreted as the will of the international working class, against the nationalist ruling classes.

In opposition to these forces grew a new kind of popular nationalism, more vicious than any yet witnessed. Communist parties included – and were often led by – Jewish intellectuals and workers, and as such were framed as an invading foreign political force, with age old tropes of anti-semitism invoked against them. Anti-semitism had been widespread as a sort of “scientific racism” among the ruling classes of Europe for generations, but its adoption by nationalists as a specific tool for driving a wedge between communists and the working classes cannot be overstated.

As the world plunged into economic crisis in the 1930s, the reactionary nationalist forces throughout Europe adopted this and other forms of racial hatred not simply as a protest against the “Judeo-Bolshevik” fifth column, but as a wholesale explanation for the economic problems the working classes were facing.


These 1920s posters (Polish and German respectively) use explicit anti-semitism to propagandise against communism.

As well as the major axis powers, there arose smaller but no less repulsive nationalist parties throughout central and eastern Europe – forces which have often been carefully sanitised and rehabilitated as the basis of the post-communist national identities of our new EU allies. While modern liberal voices continue to heap condemnation on the fallen communist regimes, the Polish legislate against any mention of their own complicity in the holocaust while the Croatian football team wear the emblem of the fascist Ustaši on their national kit.

However, it was at this point that the progressive movement took a swerve in the direction of a kind of nationalism too. The “class on class” period of the Communist International had been an abject disaster, poisoning moderate social democratic workers against what they saw as a belligerent foreign conspiracy against their own national identities. Partly in response to this, and partly in response to the fascist uprising threatening the new Spanish Republic, the Comintern swerved towards a policy of forming “Popular Fronts” with all progressive and democratic national forces. An appeal of national unity against the fascist menace was made to the workers, who often responded with outstanding bravery.

In this darkest chapter of European history, one of the greatest moments of international solidarity ever took place, as workers defied their carefully neutral (or actively fascist) governments to flood into Spain to defend the beleaguered Republic. Although the effort ended in defeat and tragedy, the heroism of the Republican Spanish and their internationalist allies stands as a shining light of hope in an historical epoch choked in darkness.


Spanish Republican poster calling for victory to the popular front and cover image from “Der Hammer” a Yiddish communist paper based in New York, calling for international solidarity.

The political aftermath of World War II posed new and troubling questions for internationalists, especially in those countries liberated by the Soviet Union. While the western powers would frame this group of nations as under foreign occupation from 1945 until the eventual collapse of Soviet communism in 1991, the communists were faced with the opposite situation. They couldn’t realistically keep half a continent under genuine military occupation, so the communist parties of the liberated countries had to be “nationalised”, in order to establish legitimacy within those populations who’s own nationalism had only been strengthened by the experience of Nazi occupation.


Polish communist leader Władysław Gomułka depicted with triumphantly waving Polish flags. Initially popular, Gomułka would in later years begin to encourage anti-semitic attitudes in Poland in response to the worsening economic situation –  to the absolute dismay of those Polish Jews who had returned to take part in the rebuilding of the country.

Where the allied forces often tacitly rehabilitated large chunks of the fascist administration of the areas under their own occupation, in order to quickly rebuild the national economies and begin to fight the cold war, the Soviets employed a different strategy. Having borne the brunt of Nazi criminality they engaged in total denazification of the areas under their oversight, installing the surviving remnants of the national communist parties in as governments.

Although much is made of these “puppet” governments installed by Moscow, its often overlooked that they included returned exiles, partisans and camp survivors (including many Jews) who’s task it was to create a new national identity that could overcome the terrifying forces of racism evoked by the previous fascist incumbents. This stands in sharp contrast to the path of least resistance taken by the West in their own efforts in state building.

In places were communist partisans had led the anti-Nazi resistance and liberated themselves, as in Albania and Yugoslavia, they were able to adopt the mantle of national saviours to legitimise their new administrations. Just as WWI had triggered the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, WWII triggered the decline of British and French hegemony around the globe. Legitimacy-through-national-liberation would be replicated by new socialist and nationalist governments emerging throughout the newly independent states of the Third World.


“That flag, that sky, that land. We will defend them at any cost”

Here again, the question of nationalism as a progressive force raises its head. In the Arab world powerful nationalistic forces were invoked to hold at bay western imperialism on one side, pan-Islamism on the other and aspiring communist insurgents internally. Often through careful inclusion of some or all of these forces under the banner of national unity. Considering the overtly Islamist conservatism which overtook certain parts of the Middle East (most especially Saudi Arabia) its hard to view the secular, welfare states – built by Arab Nationalists like Gamal Adbel Nasser in Egypt – as anything other than distinctly progressive in comparison.

This argument is still made today by supporters of Israeli nationalism, who contend that Israel acts as a bastion for democracy and civil liberties in an otherwise deeply conservative Middle East. Questions of Jewish national self determination and progressive nationalism are deeply interlinked.

Although much bloodshed and anger has been spent defending or contesting the progressive character of Zionism, we might ask ourselves whether the question would have been quite so acute had the Soviet Union not made every effort to suppress the demands for Jewish national autonomy within its own borders. The Jewish Labour Bund – the trans-continental political union of the Jewish working class – had been a key participant in the Russian Revolution, but after a brief flowering of cultural freedom, found their demands for national recognition rejected and their membership given a harsh choice between assimilation or persecution.


Tito, Nasser and Nehru: Left nationalists who viewed as global figureheads for the anti-imperialist and non-aligned movements.

Perhaps the last great attempt at progressive nationalism in the 20th century came in the form of Black liberation movements. The politics of Malcolm X in the USA were formed within the black nationalist movement “Nation of Islam”. NoI were engaged in a project of creating a new black American nation based on a “recovered” African identity centred around Islam.

This nationalist demand based around cultural autonomy as opposed to a territorial claim has strong echoes of the demands made by the Jewish Labour Bund decades previously, and would give rise to the secular Black Panther Party. Through the creation of parallel political and social institutions, the Panthers attempted to create a black nation in the same place but separate to the white supremacist state. In a somewhat ironic tragedy, this project ran into the very same problems predicted by the Marxists of the 1920s: the black working classes found themselves tied to black elites who in reality now had more shared interests with their white counterparts among the ruling class – and found themselves divided from the white working classes who in turn shared their own interests completely.

We must now return to the current situation in the world today. We recoil in horror at the return of ethno-nationalism all too reminiscent of the dark days of the early 1930s. I think that at this crucial juncture the socialist movement must keep its head and draw a more subtle lesson from the past. We must absolutely and unconditionally resist what may well be the thin end of a new fascist wedge, and violently resist any and all attempts to scapegoat some internal minority or external threat.  Keeping in mind the memory of Spain and drawing on the countless other examples of socialist internationalism, we must maintain strong links with progressive forces throughout the globe and resist any temptation to shrink into navel gazing isolationism.

However, we must take great care not to confuse a pernicious and aggressive capitalist globalisation for “internationalism”, making ourselves the useful idiots of capital as we defend its great institutions in the confused belief that we are fighting xenophobia.

We must avoid the mistakes of socialists before us, and maintain a cautious respect for the incredible power of nationalism over whole populations. We would do well to remember those occasions where progressive demands have merged with national demands and become unstoppable.

We must remind ourselves that an attitude of sneering superiority or preachy moralism is to be avoided at all costs. Running with and playing our part in shaping the national mood is a surer path to victory than setting ourselves up for a head on collision with the popular will.

These, to me, are the answers Corbyn and other progressives can draw from the national questions of the last 100 years.


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