A short discussion on nationalism took place recently on the ‘Commune’ blog (see blog roll – useful links – below right) which was sparked off by a much needed critical look at the bid for Scottish independence by Barry Biddulph and how it was being addressed by some parts of the Scottish left. The comments on the article raised some interesting issues and it is these issues and the starting points for some of them which prompted me to write this article. It seemed to me that what was missing in a number of the comments, given the restricted space, was an insufficient recognition of the fundamental economic basis from which most of the anti-capitalists who follow in the revolutionary-humanist tradition of Karl Marx, start. So to continue the discussion begun by Barry and also with newer anti-capitalists in mind, l will sketch out this humanist basis, before re-engaging with the issues of Class and Nationalism.
Since its origins in the distant pre-historical past, humanity has collectively provided what they needed from the worked-up materials and processes provided by nature. They have done so in various forms (or modes) of social production and re-production. From hunter-gatherers, pastoralists and agriculturalists, humanity has over millions of years, formed communal groupings corresponding to their mode of production – as they variously thought suitable. Production and re-production are the economic and biological foundations upon which all of human species life is built. It is not upon politics, but productive and re-productive relationships, therefore, that all subsequent revolutionary-humanist analyses are founded. However, it is not production in the abstract, but production in its capitalist mode – and not as it once was but – as it has developed in the 20th and 21st centuries. This is the basis for any further sensible anti-capitalist analysis and needs to be always kept in mind.
The capitalist mode of industrialised production is merely the latest historical form of human social production to emerge out of the previous feudal one. It is a social mode of production which has progressively torn the means of humanities production away from the bulk of society and at the same time concentrated, revolutionised and increased the complexity of these means of production. The organisation of these means of production has also contrived to place them under the control of an elite. This concentration of societies means of production in the hands of an elite minority – who only stir it into action in order to further increase their wealth – creates widespread problems for both the bulk of the worlds populations and for the ecological conditions of the entire world.
The most obvious problems are large-scale unemployment, low-pay and poverty along with large-scale pollution, ecological damage, detrimental climatic changes and increasing extinctions for the non-human inhabitants of the planet. There are of course, numerous other serious social problems which spawn multitudes of charitable and campaigning organisations. The capitalist mode of social production is in serious, existential conflict with the needs of the bulk of humanity and with the welfare of the planet.
Yet the capitalist mode of social production is tremendously beneficial to the minority who own and/or control it. The capitalist class, their beneficiaries and supporters have no incentive to seriously reform their system, let alone change it for some other form of social production. Even under the present dire economic and financial crisis, they are greedily milking the system for as much wealth as they can wring out of it, irrespective of the effects upon the environment or the lives of billions of people. This war-torn 21st century reality is the modern foundation of the revolutionary-humanist position with regard to all other questions facing not only the working classes but all humanity.
Which brings us to a closer look at class. Since the past and present ruling capitalist and pro-capitalists classes have no incentive to change the system which supports them so regally, the question of who might be both capable and oppressed enough to initiate the much needed and now urgent need for change was long ago addressed to the working class.
Marx, in an earlier period, rejected suggestions made by many socialists that it would be an enlightened bourgeois or petite bourgeois who would seriously challenge the capitalist mode of production in order to transform it. He did so for very good reasons. When he further identified the working class as the potential agents of the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist mode of production, he did not do so from any romanticised or idealised view of working class abilities or organisational inventiveness. Indeed, he often referred to the practical and theoretical challenges they would need to face and frequently commented upon how they faced them.
He drew his conclusion about their potential role from his analysis of capital and because their situation, unlike that of the middle-classes, forced them to struggle against capitalist forms from day to day necessity. Further, this necessity to struggle could become generalised and thus revolutionary during any large-scale economic or socio-economic crisis. This was the basis of his comment in the ‘German Ideology’ that a revolution was necessary not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown except by way of revolution but because only in a revolution can the class overthrowing it succeed in ridding itself of the ‘muck of ages’.
So when we discuss the working classes it is not some totally abstract, imaginary or ideal class we need to have in our minds, but the actual classes in their 21st century economic and political interconnections – warts and all – and dominated as they are by the capitalist mode of production. For these modern discussions we cannot automatically rely upon any past studies or the generalisations about the working classes arising from these studies. Some things have very definitely changed. [See ‘Workers and others in the 21st Century’ for a brief contribution on these changes.] We need also to consider how the past and present changes in economic and political experiences are reflected in their frequently contradictory and shifting understanding of their own positions within the present mode of production.
Due to their position within capitalism, the ideas of the working classes are often based upon a generalised notion of ‘common sense’ in which appearances are often taken for reality. In addition, everyday bread and butter, leisure and family issues, are what demand their constant attention leaving little time for anything beyond keeping their heads afloat, so to speak. For this reason they are largely unaware of the historic nature of the task only they have the potential to fulfil. Instead, they usually operate with ideas and solutions promoted by the class which dominates the economic, social and political landscapes of societies. These bourgeois ideas and values are rendered into seemingly logical sequences and taught to the subordinate classes via formal and informal education along with media publicity as being ‘naturally’ produced elements of understanding. They are promoted as – universal for all – rather than socially constructed understandings with a particular built-in ruling class bias.
As noted, but it is important to stress, immediate class interests tend to focus thinking and ideas narrowly within these supposedly ‘natural’ class and national boundaries. Struggles and opinions are concentrated around how these class interests are to be preserved and protected. This is no less true of the working classes, than of the middle and capitalist and pro-capitalist classes. If there is a general and wide-spread acceptance among all classes that the capitalist mode of production – despite its problems – is the best possible (and as yet there is such wide-spread acceptance and/or resignation), then struggles to preserve and protect existing class positions and interests are consequently narrowly defined and narrowly adopted.
Trade Unionism within the working class reflects this bourgeois ideological assumption, that work (wage-slavery) under the capitalist system, is a ‘natural’ part of human life and that there is no preferable alternative, short of winning the lottery. Therefore everyday common-sense dictates that the task of organised workers is to protect the jobs and conditions of their respective locations within the capitalist created economic divisions of labour. This involves struggles, often severe and even violent, against individual capitalist concerns and occasionally pro-capitalist governments, but never against the entire capitalist mode of production itself. This cannot be surprising. The modern working classes are a product of the 21st century capitalist mode of production with all that entails, economically, socially and educationally.
Revolutionary anti-capitalist ideas and the role of the working classes in an alternative potential future for humanity arose out of their combined struggles, a careful and sustained critical examination of the capitalist mode of production and the direction it was already taking. However, such revolutionary ideas have so far failed to take a fertile root within working class communities or consistently surface within working class struggles. These ideas more often than not have to be taken to those day to day struggles but it must be said that they are rarely taken there in forms suitable for united action.
Over the past decades certain anti-capitalist ideas, not without serious sectarian and patriarchal distortions, have been promoted among workers but usually by what amount to pernicious self-appointed sects, who frequently did more harm than good. They saw their role as ‘leading’ the working classes, rather than facilitating workers self-activity and knowledge. Where they succeeded in getting workers to trust their sectarian vanguardism during 20th century revolutionary challenges to the capitalist system, they have left a trail of unmitigated disasters. These disastrous examples also act, and have been deliberately used by pro-capitalists, as a barrier to workers envisioning any post-capitalist alternative.
I suggest that what has been largely missing in the past and still missing in the present is the facilitative role of non-sectarian workers and their supporters among the working classes. A movement is needed whose members have not only reached an overall understanding that the capitalist mode of production is the problem facing humanity but which also consistently promotes the message that workers need to prepare themselves for the revolutionary-humanist tasks which are posed by the competitive and destructive anarchy of capitalism. And it has to be said in this regard, that an important task for the working classes in the modern era, is the need to rise above narrow class-based, trade union, nationalistic and other self-serving struggles constructed to remain within the capitalist mode of production.
There needs to be a clear and consistent recognition that working class struggle is a universal struggle; that its future lies in not seeking just to right the particularly savage wrong inflicted against its own members – wage slavery, poverty, exploitation etc., – but to right a universal wrong inflicted by capitalism against all suffering humanity and the planet. In the present struggles there is need to recognise that the most important task is the practical and intellectual preparation for struggle against the whole present system. The future target is to become fully-rounded human beings. It is not simply to become better-paid, overworked (or more patronisingly discarded) wage-slave appendages of an economic system, which rewards a tiny minority and in the process creates devastation among people and the planet.
In a serious collapse of the capitalist mode of production more and more people will be faced with attempting to understand the economic and political contradictions and complexities of capitalism. Common-sense will only take us so far. Abstract, rote-learned slogans are unlikely to get us nearer to solving difficult problems. As in every other part of life complex situations require complex understanding and whether they like it or not more and more activists will need to seek up-dated theory as much as up-dated theory needs to seek out activists. Meanwhile there is a continuing need and responsibility to criticise any and every bourgeois generalisation or rationalisation which seeks to appeal to commonly understood ‘sense’ in order to once again shepherd workers down certain ideological cul-de-sac’s. For they will do so in order to render workers divided and powerless to change the world other than in directions economically and politically advantageous to a bourgeois or petite-bourgeois ruling elite. As Marx long ago noted in a letter to F. Bolte;
“Where the working class is not yet far enough advanced in its organisation to undertake a decisive campaign against the collective power, ie. the political power of the ruling classes, it must at any rate be trained for this by constant agitation against this power and by a hostile attitude toward the policies of the ruling classes. Otherwise it remains a plaything in their hands.” (November 23 1871.)
Not every view or opinion that Marx wrote over 100 years ago is transferable to the modern period, but many things are. Of course, considerable care needs to be taken in utilising his views to strengthen a point of view. However, the above paragraph concerning the need to argue for the working class not to become a ‘plaything in the hands’ of the ruling classes, I suggest is one of the many instances which indicates Marx’s well researched opinions are well worthy of study. One such method of becoming playthings in the hands of the ruling classes is to succumb to a bourgeois or petite-bourgeois struggle for regional and national ‘independence’ and encourage the consequent enmeshment of workers in any re-emergence of nationalist sentiments.
And of course having a shared human and class experience does validate a considered criticism being made by working class activists. This is particularly so when other human beings and/or members of the working class are judged to be in danger of making a mistake or becoming ‘playthings’ in the hands of the ruling classes – as they indeed became during the two-world wars of the 20th century. For this reason considered criticism becomes something of a duty! Which brings us to a criticism of nationalism.
The bourgeois mode of production based upon the domination of capital long ago broke out of the national boundaries created by themselves or their fore-runners. The periods of colonialism and imperialism were driven by a capitalist economic imperative which found that production and consumption needs could not be met from within a single national boundary. Markets for mass-produced surplus products and sources of raw materials for production had to be forcibly obtained throughout the known world in order to keep the system going. No atrocity or outrage was too much for the captains and barons of industry and commerce to contemplate in pursuit of profit, nor too unthinkable to order their military equivalents to commit. It is, as we know, a process, which is still going on today but now using 21st century technically advanced arms and equipment.
Today the economic and financial system overseen and controlled by capital and its elite agents, is truly global. Energy, media, finance, petro-chemicals, pharmaceuticals, air and sea transportation, metals, minerals etc., are all controlled by internationalised infrastructure links and international capital. All major local and localised means of production have been destroyed. Production of essentials along with many non-essentials is on such a scale that it is production which can only be met by an extensive world market. There can no longer be a capitalist economy – in one country – let alone a post-capitalist one.
Economically now, and at least for the foreseeable future, the world is one of inter-reliant, integrated production and consumption – albeit one in need of down-scaling. Only in terms of politics, religion and class is the world still irreconcilably divided. Religion and politics have for centuries been the ideologies which militarised ruling elites have adopted, promoted and enforced in order to divide and thus manage their exploitation of the masses. Nationalism is just another such ideology but one of more recent origin.
The national boundary and the ideology attached to this unit of land appropriation was kept alive in the 20th and 21st centuries, merely as a base of operations for some of the human agents of capital and as a means of influencing and controlling the human agents of production – the working classes – via the nation-state. This ideological construct based upon a mixture of ink (or pencil-drawn) and geographical boundaries, exists only for people and not for capital and has been advantageous in preventing international working class unity. Indeed, it has been extremely useful over a few centuries now, for dragging workers into fighting each other as foot-soldiers and cannon-fodder during the competitive antagonisms of various national based concentrations of capital.
It has been accurately said in discussions and comments that Marx once supported a nationalist struggle but this fact simply cannot be used to support a modern left adaptation to this petite bourgeois strategy. Marx, it should be remembered, saw the capitalist mode of production as terribly destructive, but as also creating the conditions for the emancipation of labour, both in terms of the rapid creation of a working class and in the creation of advanced social means of production. Both developments being necessary to allow the future advance of collective humanity beyond domination by capital.
This was the social and economic basis for his very limited – and time specific – tactical support for such struggles in the 19th century. Additionally, in a previous period, support for working-class tactical involvement in bourgeois national struggles could, under certain circumstances, create conditions conducive to workers self-organisation and self-activity. Even then, bearing in mind the anti-capitalist perspective this anti-colonialist or anti-imperialist involvement would only be as a tactic – not a strategy. Can it be so in the 21st century?
We know in the recent historical past patriotism and nationalism have been used to conduct colonialist and imperialist wars including two world wars between rival concentrations of capital. An alliance of nationalistic German, Italian and Japanese capital on one side and an alliance of nationalistic British and American capital and Soviet state-capitalism on the other – all defending or extending the respective ‘fatherlands’. The number of working class lives lost by persuading them that their primary identity was national and that their patriotic duty was to kill, torture and destroy the rival capitalist countries workers, has been astronomical. In the two nationalist and capitalist inspired wars it is estimated that sixty-four million died – most of them working class. We know also that along with religion and racism, nationalism has been used to internally divide the working classes of each country and to make solidarity with their capitalists trump the solidarity among themselves. The track record of the influence of nationalist ideology upon working people is overwhelmingly grim if not downright catastrophic.
How could it be otherwise? The theory of nationalism and the practice of nationists is to unite people around an elite and the physical appropriation of a territory delineated around borders secured only by force. Under the capitalist mode of production a ‘nation’ whether large or small, can only be composed of classes in which the most wealthy and powerful class are able to dictate or dominate the public discourses and the national form of legitimate organisation – including the decision to make war on other workers. Nationalism, which as we have seen can only be political nationalism under the 21st century capitalist mode of production, requires an alliance between workers and the bourgeois or petite-bourgeois elements in which the bourgeois elements exercise political power. At best some token worker representatives are accepted as left cover. In other words, nothing substantial changes and certainly for the workers – nothing for the better.
Political nationalism and its human advocates can no longer use it to develop the means of production. That is now an international technological and constructional process dominated by multi-national and trans-national organisations. Political nationalism and its advocates cannot increase the numbers of workers for there are already more workers than capitalism needs to profitably supply the world market with its goods and services. It is estimated that since the 1970’s neo-liberal capitalist expansion, approximately an additional 2 billion rural people world-wide have been propelled into the proletariat by being dispossessed of their previous forms of partial economic self-sufficiency.
In addition, in the 21st century, no nation-state can fund its current levels of expenditure, let alone increase the benefits to workers and non-workers because they are all in fiscal crisis. They are all teetering on the brink of financial melt-down and collapse. All national political elites must therefore cut their own and their supporters share of the annual surplus-value created or that portion currently going to welfare recipients. No bourgeois or petite-bourgeois elite can do the former without turning in on itself and self-destructing. An extremely unlikely scenario in any nation, large or small.
Instead, attacks upon the workers and others will be the logical and circumstance-determined steps after a short national ‘independence’ honeymoon period where any misguided alliance between a self-serving bourgeois or petite-bourgeois political class and working people takes place. Such a tactic will not allow workers to weather out the coming economic and financial storms for like real storms these also recognise no artificial national barriers. For all these reasons it would only be in exceptional circumstances that in the 21st century, revolutionary anti-capitalists would support or vote for such efforts at nationalistic political independence.
One such possible exception is the case of Palestine. Palestinian workers would doubtless be marginally better off politically and economically under the rule of their own indigenous pro-capitalist elites, than under the Fascistic-style occupation of their territory by the Zionist controlled state of Israel. Although given the revelations of the ‘Palestine Papers’ and other events – even that is debateable. It is also conceivable that Palestinian capitalists could for a time update and expand the local means of production and more jobs would be created. Palestinian workers would then at least be freed of Zionist restriction and free to defend themselves on just the one front rather than on two.
But can a case be made for Scotland being an exception? I doubt it. Scottish workers are not under military curfew, with severe restrictions in movement, and cut offs of electricity and water supply. Their houses and orchards are not being bulldozed to the ground by the foreign occupier. Nor are their children locked up and tortured for throwing stones at occupying military forces. Scottish students do not have to negotiate checkpoint after checkpoint, along with sick and injured people, both of whom may or may not be allowed to get to college or hospital. Scottish trade unionists are not locked up, tortured or assassinated.
The destruction of Scottish rural life has already made a Scottish proletariat and a large reserve army of labour out of the Highland clearances of the 19th century. Scottish capital is already as free to develop production as any other national capital can be within the neo-liberal regime of global capital. In addition there will be no change in the political form under independence for Scotland and therefore no advantage for Scottish workers. Therefore, it is legitimate to ask, as Barry Biddulph did; what tactical benefit does such an accommodation to bourgeois nationalism create and how in the 21st century can it contribute in any positive way to an anti-capitalist strategy? I too genuinely await enlightenment on that question.
So what is the possible if not probable motive force of some of the left support for Scottish Independence? I suggest its origins lie in the fact that there is a severe economic crisis occurring during a period of extreme weakness of working class organisation. If the working classes were collectively strong enough their representatives would be told to pursue their own agenda not hitch a ride on dubious bandwagons created for them. This weakness at the moment restricts the possibilities for class-wide defensive or offensive action against the capitalist system, creating a problem. [see ‘Crisis! So what else can we do?‘]
In such circumstances an impatient political left might be tempted to accept an invitation to sign-up for opportunist alliances with, or support for, other political forces wanting limited elite forms of change. But this would be an electoral alliance in the forlorn hope of advancing or defending the disappearing, boom-period, reformist programme temporarily granted to workers. To my understanding, exceptions apart, left involvement in such ’nationalist’ independence struggles are not only a sign of this periods working class weakness but also of a ‘left’ which has abandoned the struggle to revolutionise society and has settled for political manoeuvring in the hope of gaining a few additional crumbs for a tiny section of the exploited and oppressed.
Roy Ratcliffe (January 2014.)