Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Does Nationalism Trump Class?

Unfortunately for socialists, the socialist case against capitalism comes up against the barrier of nationalism. Nationalism is a successful politics of disreputable political charlatans found across the capitalist spectrum, from Trump in the US, Farage in the UK and the mediocre populists in Hungary, Poland, Germany and France who exploit the fear of “migrants”.

Nationalism gets the votes of workers. It creates crowds waving flags, singing national anthems and painting national emblems on their faces. It creates the “other”; the refugee, the immigrant and the “alien”. And it gets workers to kill.

Socialists are told that nationalism trumps class, class interest and the class struggle. We are told that there is something called “the national interest” to which both capitalists and workers automatically defer. It is true that non-socialist workers carry nationalist ideas, particular in times of war, but even during periods of war workers have been known to strike and the class struggle is never suspended.

Strike action, both large- and small-scale, was by no means uncommon during the First World War. The government had powers under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) to deal with labour unrest, and was eager to negotiate so as to prevent delays to the production of commodities vital to the war effort.

The onerous powers at the disposal of the state still did not prevent the class struggle from taking place. At the height of World War I, in February 1915, workers in munitions factories on the Clyde walked out, with industrial unrest spreading to factories in Sheffield and Birmingham. Later in the year, 15,000 Clydeside shipyard workers went on strike again, in protest at the compulsory deduction of rent arrears from their pay packets. Then, in 1917, 200,000 workers in 48 different towns walked out, mainly over wages, but also over food prices, exemptions from military service, and what they termed ‘war profiteering’.
http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/first-world-war/home-front-stories/strike-action/

Class is a real struggle between capital and labour while nationalism is a convenient fiction. As Marx and Engels perceptively wrote in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO (1848):

"The Communists are . . . reproached with desiring to abolish countries and nationality. The working men have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got."

Workers have no stake in a country. It is utterly irrelevant which section of the capitalist class owns the world. Workers have a world to win, not an interest in killing and being killed for the interests of another class.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain’s position is quite simple. Socialists warn workers not to take sides in capitalism’s wars and urge them to refuse their consent. Nationalism, sadly, has some force as a power and emotive set of ideas and beliefs but it is nevertheless a political fiction; it has no reality.

The only real divisions which exist in the world today are the ones between classes; a division between the capitalist class, which owns and controls the means of production and distribution and the working class, who for the most part own none of these and is forced to sell its mental and physical labour-power to the capitalist class in order to live. Workers in the UK and the US have more in common with workers in other countries, like Libya, Afghanistan, Syria and Africa than they do with their respective ruling class its political agents. One class and a unified class struggle across the world. Working class unity is everything.

And what of the nationalism embraced by the capitalist class?

Vickers and Krupp shared out their war-time profits after World War One. http://armingallsides.on-the-record.org.uk/case_studies/vickers-and-krupp/.

During the Second World War capitalism still worked for the interest of profit through and within the belligerent nation-states. In a book about the Bush family, it was shown that Dubya’s grandfather – Walker – had been Hitler’s banker in the 1920s to 30s, while Prescott Bush was found guilty by Congress of trading with the enemy, during the war (GUARDIAN 25th September 2004).

In his book TRADING WITH THE ENEMY: AN EXPOSE OF THE NAZI-AMERICAN MONEY PLOT 1933-1949", Charles Higham showed in detail how, when it come to profit-making, capitalism has no patriotic flag to wave.

One example Higham gave in his book was the Bank for International Settlements located in Basel, Switzerland towards the end of the war. The BIS was a German-controlled bank presided over by an American, Thomas H. McKittrick, even as late as 1944. While workers from the US were killing and being killed in Europe for the interest of the US capitalist class, McKittrick met with his German, Japanese, Italian, British and American colleagues to discuss the gold bars that had been sent to the Bank earlier that year by the German government for use by its leaders after the war. According to Higham that gold was:

Gold that had been looted from the national banks of Austria, Holland, Belgium, and Czechoslovakia, or melted down from the Reichsbank holdings of the teeth fillings, spectacle frames, cigarette cases and lighters, and wedding rings of the murdered Jews” (p.1)

Morality has no place in the calculation of the capitalist class, only naked self-interest and callous “cash payment” (COMMUNIST MANIFESTO).

Today, capitalists do not think twice about moving production to other parts of the world to secure cheap labour or import foreign labour to reduce wages and working conditions. Flags of convenience are another example of the “nationalism” the capitalist, where a ship's owner may decide to register a ship in a foreign country to avoid the regulations of the owners’ country which might impose stricter safety standards. They may also select a jurisdiction to reduce operating costs, bypassing laws that protect the wages and working conditions of sailors. The flag the capitalist class fly is the flag of trade and profit.

Borders are both arbitrary and political. They are arbitrary because they are artificially imposed, usually by conquest or enforced “alliances”. And they are political because, whatever assets of a country’s ruling class they contain - minerals, oil, the physical means of production and distribution, transport and communication systems – these are all under the protection of the machinery of government, backed-up by the armed forces of the state.

In modern capitalism, where paradoxically international travel sand communications are far easier than in past times, the world is increasingly subdivided by political borders defined by walls and fences, backed by border guards or armed troops (e.gg. Isreal-Palastine, India-Bangladesh, or the Us-Mexico border).

Socialism, by contrast, would be a world without borders, without border guards, without detention centres and concentration camps, without walls and barbed wire. Passports, migrants desperately searching for work and refugees fleeing war-zones will not exist. People will be able to freely travel around the planet, and meet with other people elsewhere in the world in human friendship and mutual respect. World socialism will be one people living where and how they want to live without a “hostile environment”, the imposition of “immigration acts, xenophobia, a fear of the “other” and the “outsider”. There will not be “patriots”, “white nationalists” or the struggle for “national liberation”. Socialism will be a society of inclusion not exclusion.

Nationalism and Patriotism is only for idiots. Does nationalism trump class and class interest? If you want to see the consequences of nationalism – a political poison that affects the minds of the working class, particularly during the build-up to conflict between nation states, - then visit the war cemetery at Passchendaele.

There are no common interests between capitalists and workers, only class conflict. The pursuit of profit by employers always means two classes, with diametrically opposite interests struggling over the reality of class exploitation; profit and wages, and politically over the ownership of the means to life.

Back to top

Socialist Studies

email: enquiries@socialiststudies.org.uk | www.socialiststudies.org.uk