CWO polemic on nationalism: the road to nowhere

by David Broder

Last Saturday I had a five-hour bus journey to Manchester. It was cold, the guy sitting next to me was eating something weird, and I’d forgotten my earphones so couldn’t listen to any music.

Further misfortune struck when I received an email on my phone, bearing an attachment of the Communist Workers’ Organisation article ‘The National Question Today and the Poisonous Legacy of the Counter-revolution’.

Part of this article was a reply against my own piece ‘The Earth is not flat’. Or, to be more precise, it was supposed to be a reply to my article, but in fact neatly sidestepped my points and instead held up their programme as a shining alternative to various straw-man arguments.

Megabus-stricken on the M1, I was stuck, unable to write a reply. Instead I brimmed with injustice (and, it must be said, no little amusement) at the CWO’s polemic. But this morning I took the time to make a few comments.

The Kingdom of Lesotho finds its place in the world

My earlier article was a review of the Anarchist Federation’s pamphlet ‘Against Nationalism’, also the main polemical target of the CWO piece. AFed claim that “all states are imperialist”, an assertion I hotly contested:

“The mere fact of international alliances or promoting ‘ideology’ does not make a state imperialist. Colombia is not imperialist but its rulers are little but proxies of US imperialism. Where is the Bolivian, or Congolese, or Afghan corporation which gets cut-price privatised resources and controls foreign governments in the manner that American ones can?”

This is characterised by CWO as:

“Seizing on the AF categorising of all states as imperialist, he rhetorically asks where Bolivian, Congolese or Afghan imperialism is to be found. Concluding it is non-existent, he opens the door for the support of these nations, and their national bourgeoisie, against the US.”

A significant logical jump: I write that not all states are imperialist, not that I support particular nation states or proto-states. In fact I have never advocated support for the Taliban; I have written plenty of critiques of the Evo Morales’ ‘Andino capitalism’ in Bolivia; the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo isn’t exactly the apple of my eye either. The examples given are of notably poor and unpowerful countries, not of models of socialism.

The CWO’s misunderstanding is that where I attempt to explain why anti-imperialist populism exists, and why some elements of the ruling class (such as the Venezuelan, Bolivian, Cuban states) are able to secure substantial working-class support, they jump to the conclusion I believe we should idolise such governments.

But does saying a state is not imperialist imply support for that state? The CWO claim that this is the necessary logic of my argument. So what is their own take on the AFed assertion that all states are imperialist? It comes in a footnote:

“Counter examples can be given. How, for example, are states like Lesotho or Bangladesh imperialist?”

Following the CWO line of argument, I can only assume that this is intended to tell us that they support the current government of the Kingdom of Lesotho as anti-imperialist… According to Wikipedia, “Historically, Lesotho has maintained generally close ties with Ireland”. This is news to me, and I do wonder if these ties are reciprocal. However it provides a firm grounding for the CWO’s uncompromising pro-Lesothan stance, which is apparently unique on the left.

‘To advocate’…

The CWO article is full of neat little logical jumps and ‘presumablies’. This is particularly the case in one of the general themes of my article, which is where I outline the basis for anti-imperialist populism.

The argument can pretty much be summarised as follows: Each ruling class has divisions within it. In developing countries we find varying degrees of division between that section of the bourgeoisie with a more long-term vision of national capitalist development, and those with an immediate interest in working in the service of some imperialist power. Underdevelopment lowers working-class living standards, which will lead many workers to side with the developmentalist section of the ruling class. Such a course is inimical to the interests of the imperialist power which hopes to plunder resources: however, this is not the basis for socialism, only national capitalist development.

Yet while the CWO’s position is that opposition to a particular imperialism is not as such socialist, everywhere that I describe any ruling class faction as anti-imperialist, they insist that I am therefore saying it is ‘progressive’.

“He argues that European nationalism and colonial or semi-colonial nationalism are different since they are different in origin. From this he concludes that the national bourgeoisie can be progressive in the peripheral countries. He gives Cuba as an example and argues that statecapitalist development in Columbia [sic] would undermine the Columbian [sic] [1] bourgeoisie’s alliance with the US and so, presumably, also be progressive.”

The word “progressive” has no meaningful political content and I nowhere used it. All politicians and parties (even the Tories) claim to be “progressive”, because it is a vacuous objective like “fairness” which no-one could disagree with. The question is not “progressive”-ness, but rather, what economic and political developments and struggles increase the power, confidence and self-reliance of the working class and other subaltern classes?

Support for this or that section of the bourgeoisie clearly works against this objective, and even where it allows for increased living standards or more democratic freedoms, we should reject allegiance to “progressive” bourgeois leaders, who at root are agents of one form or another of capitalist exploitation and social hierarchy.

But none of that puts into doubt the idea that, yes, we ought to fight against national oppression and imperialism. Their material consequences, and effects on people’s consciousness, are very real. Yet the CWO simply counterpose to imperialism the idea of class solidarity, steadfastly insisting on the need to ignore the particularities of any situation and rather than explaining why things are as they are, instead simply propagandise for the idea of socialism, “continue the class struggle”, etc.

Rather than engage in a discussion of the nature of national oppression and how it can be fought, the CWO resort to laughable condemnation-by-association, such as the phrase, “to advocate Gazan workers support their national bourgeoisie in the shape of Hamas is utterly reactionary”… my article’s comment on Hamas was in fact:

“Support for the Palestinians does not have to entail support for Hamas, even if it is Hamas who most ardently fight the Israeli state, and we must strongly oppose Hamas sexism, homophobia and hostility to strikes. The reverse is also true: nor do these actions on the part of Hamas somehow taint and render untouchable the Palestinian national movement, as Zionists who appeal to liberal public opinion would have us believe.”

Errors of Social Democracy

Charmingly the polemic is illustrated with an advert for a pamphlet titled Trotsky,Trotskyism, Trotskyists. ItExamines the course of how Trotsky, who made such an enormous contribution to revolutionary practice, ended up giving his name to a movement which returned to the errors of Social Democracy” (it is unclear if the use of this ad is supposed to pass comment on my article).

One among the errors of social democracy is that it portrays the working class just one of a number of sociological groups – ‘the poor’ – who need to be given a bigger stake in capitalist society, rather than as a revolutionary force-for-itself which can overthrow capitalist social relations.

Communism is not more power for the working class: it is the abolition of classes, including the working class. It is a project to liberate the whole of humanity. Therefore a communist attitude to class struggle is not simply ‘more power to workers’ or cheerleading for labour militancy. It is also to fight the specific manifestations of exploitation and hierarchy. In ‘The Earth is not flat’, I wrote:

“There are oppressions and divisions of labour which structure capitalism other than straightforwardly defined social class. These are facets of an alienated anti-human class society but are not simply binaries of class: for example, the division of labour and power in society to the disadvantage of women; the differing roles migrant workers as opposed to ‘British-born’ workers (as well as overt racism); homophobia and sexual repression.”

I therefore argued that these oppressions have to be fought within the working-class – itself part of capitalist society – in view of the objective of egalitarian and solidaristic social relations. I gave the example of the Lindsey Oil Refinery strike (which had a definite if over-exaggerated chauvinist element, advocating ‘British jobs for British workers’) as evidence of the fact that working-class militancy does not simply cause prejudice to melt away. The CWO response to this argument is that:

“These arguments are profoundly wrong. Firstly racism, xenophobia, sexism etc. are all ideological weapons of the bourgeoisie whose very purpose is to divide workers and weaken class struggle. What binds workers together is their position as wage labourers in capitalist

society. This is based on class and only class. It is precisely in class struggle that this unity becomes apparent since the fight is from a common position for a common cause. Similarly it is only in the heat of class struggle that what Marx called the “muck of ages” which includes racism, nationalism, sexism etc. can be repudiated.”

Racism, xenophobia and sexism are indeed divisive and undermine a class front against the bourgeoisie. But they do not only exist at the level of some capitalist plot – they are a real factor in millions of people’s thinking and are played out in struggles. They “can be repudiated” during struggles, but this does not necessarily happen (or else they would be no threat to class unity): in reality such ideas have to be fought politically, tooth-and-nail.

While it is true that Israeli and Palestinian workers share some common class interests (I did not write, as the CWO claim, that they have “no common interests”), it is also the case that their consciousnesses are affected by their material conditions. Israeli trade unions have a long history of defending the crudest sectional concerns of their members – ‘no Arab competition’ – against their bosses’ attempts to force down wages. That is social democracy: more for the workers of this country within capitalism.

This will not always be the case. Such reactionary ideas can be broken. But the resolution of national oppression will be key to this, since more industrial militancy does not necessarily challenge such sectionalism politically. “No war between nations, no peace between classes”, yes. But this cannot be realised with an ultimatum that those people oppressed in function of their nationality should ignore it in the name of ‘peace’ and support from workers in the oppressor country.

All in it together?

The discussion on LibCom following my posting of ‘The Earth is not flat’, as well as the CWO response, have clearly generated more heat than light.

One point that arose on the LibCom discussion worthy of attention was the response to my claim that calling for class unity is not enough, and combined with this, my assertion that national oppression does not simply fit into a class binary.

The intention was to highlight that there are hierarchies and oppressions which are reproduced within the working class, and that these themselves need to be fought. As with gender oppression or racism, national oppression both shapes and is shaped by class struggle, but it is not a straightforward function of class struggle.

One does not have to be a working class (or any other subaltern class) Palestinian to be the subject of Israeli discrimination. That is simple reality. It is just as true as the fact that the Afghan government is not really independent of US imperialism or that Hungarian Stalinism used to be subordinate to the interests of the Russian state. But that is not a recipe for lesser-evilism. It does not follow that therefore we should support Hamas or Fatah or any other nationalist faction, and nowhere did I suggest this. The reality of national oppression is no reason to ignore all the other conflicts and contradictions within a given nation.

Neither is the existence of such factions and their various reactionary characteristics an excuse to just dismiss the national question by rhetorical opposition to “rulers” and general calls for class struggle. Trying to avoid addressing the question is not a ‘nation-neutral’ or ‘internationalist’ perspective: rather, it is to encourage acquiescence to the national oppression that really exists. The key task of communists in Britain is first and foremost to expose and fight our very “own” British nationalism (in particular its superficial “liberal internationalism” and the democratic-humanitarian interventionism which flows from that).

So let me be clear: I am not advocating support for any section of the ruling class, anywhere or at any time. The argument is that without confronting particular oppressions, without fighting prejudices within the working class, the international solidarity we are all so keen on will never happen.

[1] While not myself an expert on Colombia, I would imagine that anyone who had read anything much about the country would not relentlessly repeat this spelling mistake. ‘Columbia’ is the capital of South Carolina.