The call to embrace patriotism is one heard over and over on the left. Particularly in the wake of Brexit and when the far-right is resurgent, many seek some way to ride the tide of nationalist sentiments. But for class-struggle socialists, the project of left-wing nationalism can only ever be politically incoherent and strategically a dead-end.
Advocates of British left-nationalism (and English - see below) often draw on the freedom-fighting histories of heroic movements like the Chartists and suffragettes. But this requires assuming there was something particularly British in what socialists celebrate about these movements, when in truth their heroic and positive aspects were those of the universal
struggle by the oppressed and exploited to fight back against their subjugators. And the subjugators were just as British as the freedom-fighters who confronted them.
We cannot cherry-pick history in this way. The colonial massacres in Kenya, Amritsar and the Irish Famine, not to mention the ruling classes’ crimes at home, were just as British as the Chartists.
A softer-left version of this tries to posit things like fairness and tolerance are quintessentially “British values”. Again, it is absurd to imagine that Britain is special on these measures, and the victims of British imperialism past and present might have different views on British “fairness” and “tolerance”.
Looking forward, there are regular attempts to frame socialism as a patriotic project: building a better society for the nation. But this is to fatally limit our ambitions. Neither the society we live in, nor the one we fight to build, stop neatly at the lines on maps carved out by our rulers’ historic rivalries. As socialists and class fighters we do not serve our nation-states. We aim to transcend and ultimately dissolve them. To win even our immediate battles we need to argue that as workers, our shared interests lie not with our class enemies within our nation, but our class sisters and brothers around the world, and to build solidarity on that basis.
The question of “who belongs?” also becomes fraught if we found our movement on nationalism. Of course, many migrants adopt the national identity of the country they come to, and are welcomed at least by some liberal and left nationalists. But many do not, there is no good reason they must, and to create a requirement or expectation that they should is exclusionary and dangerous.
Thus, nationalism cannot be treated as if it were just a value-free vessel that can be drained of reactionary content and re filled with liberatory, socialist content. Its intrinsic logic inevitably promotes the wrong allegiances and divides the working class both within and across borders.
A retreat into nationalism is understandable when workers rightly feel increasingly disempowered by capitalist globalisation. But parochial anti-globalisation and identitarian national division will not put one iota more power into the hands of the exploited and oppressed. Only class unity across borders as well as within them, pursuing socialist internationalism, can.
Should socialists celebrate and learn from their nations’ radical histories? Of course, but we would do even better to draw on that of the entire globe. Socialists in Britain should remember and learn from the Haitian Revolution, the Paris Commune and Solidarnosc, just as much as the Chartists.
Despite all this, the demand that we embrace patriotism arises repeatedly. We expect it from Blairites like Martin Kettle, Tristram Hunt and Stephen Kinnock, as well as the more old-school Labour right and of course Blue Labour, the tendency whose proto-fascistic “family, faith, and flag” slogan takes this conservatism almost to the level of parody. But it is also found among those who consider themselves further left. An odd occasional theme is the attempt to propose that English nationalism can be more progressive than British.
Last July, we responded to the foundation of the English Labour Network (Solidarity - 445 see here), and the role played by former Corbyn aide Sam Tarry in lending left cover to the project’s Blue Labour backers. More recently, we saw a comically incoherent hot-take (here) from Red London, the Stalinist social media outlet around which a clique of careerist demagogues and bullies organises itself in the Labour Party. They employed most of the tired arguments above, but most ludicrously, argued that English nationalism could be more left-wing because “when [England] was subjugating other nations it always did it under the name 'BRITAIN'. ... To refer to England as the British Empire is try and associate every day English culture and values with a reactionary, horrific, racist entity”.
In this contorted logic, “Britain” becomes an alien entity, to which the class enemy and all the bad bits of the historical legacy can be conveniently assigned, and with which its constituent nations have nothing to do! Socialists must face up to the enemy “at home” – class lines cut across every nation.
RL also counter left-wing critics who raise the racist implications of nationalism by reminding us that non-white people can hold English national identity too. As discussed above, this is true but does not resolve the problem entirely. And it is particularly weak for English nationalism. YouGov polling in March (see here) investigated people’s prioritisation of English vs British identity. It reaffirmed that black and ethnic minority people in England, if they identify as either, are three times more likely to choose British before English than vice versa. This might be down to recognising the even more parochial character of English nationalism, and its association with the racist right: those who prioritise English identity are also far less likely to think of diversity as an important characteristic of the country.
Red London’s incoherent ramblings on nationalism are consistent with that clique’s wider social conservatism: clinging to a “traditional” macho stereotype of the working class; sneering mockery of those who don’t conform to conservative social norms around gender and more; agitating for anti-migrant policies; and their proudly advertised sympathies for Blue Labour. On these issues as on many others, they are a source of poison on the left and in the labour movement.