Nationalism or Socialism?

One of the unique positions of the socialist case against capitalism is that we reject nationalism, nationalist struggles and national identity. For socialists, nationalism is bound up with the historical development of capitalism during the 19th century. Capitalism is made up of competing capitalist states, each with a capitalist class and working class. The capitalists own the means of production and distribution to the exclusion of the working class majority. There is a constant struggle over diametrically opposite interests. It was Marx and Engels who stated, in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO of 1848, that workers "have no country". They wrote "We cannot take from them what they have not got" (COMMUNIST MANIFESTO).

Increasingly, the capitalist left have courted nationalism to gain support from the conservatives and populist politicians. The Labour Party now wraps itself up in the Union Jack, claiming they are "proud patriots" and would support the Tory government in any war or conflict to show that Labour was just as nationalist as the Tories. It should be remembered that the Labour Party has a history of supporting capitalism's wars.

The crisis in Ukraine has allowed Labour to demonstrate their nationalism and uncritical support for the Tory Government's foreign policy in the region. Starmer became the first Labour leader to visit NATO in Brussels, where he met Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary-general. Starmer said he wanted to "reassert" Labour's "reputation" as the party of national security in the tradition of Ernst Bevan, the foreign secretary who helped found NATO (TIMES 10 February 2022).

Labour has been helped in this embrace of nationalist politics by some journalists who should know better. Socialists put the class struggle first and last. Socialism is a global social system or it is nothing. There will be no nation states in socialism, no boundaries, and no borders preventing people from moving across the world.

Nationalism is a barrier to socialism. As a set of ideas and beliefs nationalism prevents workers from clearly seeing their class interests. It splits the working class geographically and aligns workers with the interests of their respective ruing class. It diverts workers away from the socialist objective: the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.

The ugly and divisive "Left Wing" nationalism embraced by the Labour Party is no different to the one pursued by the Tories. Both have a detrimental effect on workers who are seduced by the misguided belief that they have a country, identical interests with the capitalist class and will kill and be killed for their class interests. When Starmer was interviewed on his Party's support for Ukraine he sat in front of the union Jack. For Labour, patriotism wins votes from workers, the class struggle does not.

So who are these journalists claiming nationalism trumps the class struggle and that to get rid of the Tories we all have to become patriots? Regrettably one of the leading advocates of "Left-wing" nationalism is Patrick Cockburn, a leading journalist at the i newspaper.

In an article, "How to stop Populist leaders exploiting patriotism" (January 1 2022), Cockburn wrote that "nationalism, national identity and national self-determination are three main driving forces of modern history".

Contrast this with the statement in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO made by Marx and Engels that the class struggle is "the motor force of history". Nationalism and nationalist struggles changes very little: usually one ruling class by another. The class struggle - the working class struggle over the intensity and extent of class exploitation - has a revolutionary and political potential; the end of buying and selling, labour markets, class exploitation, employers and its replacement of the profit motive with production solely and directly for use. In short, with the class struggle pushed by a socialist majority to its final limit with the establishment of socialism, we will have: "... an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all" (COMMUNIST MANIFESTO).

Not so with the capitalist left. They spend their time denouncing the evil of US imperialism rather than putting forward the case for socialism. They tell workers the Tories are more evil than the Labour Party. They want workers to give their vote to the Labour Party, not to think and act in their own class interest.

And Cockburn has fallen squarely into this camp.

Cockburn went on to write that, nationalism, national identity and national self-determination, are the force of history. Nationalism:

"...remains the primary focus of communal loyalty - something demonstrated decisively by the response worldwide to the Covid-19 pandemic. The lack of international co-operation when the chips were down has had destructive consequences and this has been the repeated pattern in the past two years".

Really? Was "communal loyalty" the reason why capitalist government vaccinated workers within their country as opposed to workers elsewhere in the world. Or was it the primary function of governments to keep a fit and healthy workforce for capitalists to exploit and make their profits. Did the working class formulate the government policy on the Covid -19 pandemic? Of course not. It was the Tory government who refused to give vaccines in any great number to poorer countries not workers in the UK. And what of the stupidity of comments like "communal loyalty"? Capitalists like Dyson have no compunction to move their operations abroad to tap into cheaper labour markets or to stash their profits in off -shore tax havens. Their only loyalty is to the profit motive.

And despite the nationalist platform given to politicians like Nigel Farage and the millions the capitalist class spend on class division through the media, there was mass support for the RNLI saving lives of desperate men, women and children coming over in boats from France

It is class solidarity which should be aimed at, not class division through nationalism and nationalist struggles.

Cockburn criticises those who believe nationalism:

"... is largely a mask for racism and imperialism". While he chides "progressives" who once supported:

"...national liberation movements in Vietnam and Algeria.... and faces on the placards they carried during demonstrations were those of patriotic heroes"

And he concludes:

"...for good or ill, the basic building blocks of international co-operation are the nation states and the idea of a truely global response to anything has always been wishful thinking".

How does a socialist respond to this nationalist apologetics?

For a start if you do not want the corrosive and divisive politics of nationalism then socialism is the only answer. The "patriotic card" should be replaced by the acknowledgement that the working class do not have the same interest as the capitalist class. We do not share their history. And class, class interest and class struggle trump the "patriotic card", no matter who holds it. A war led by Sir Keir Starmer is just as repugnant as one led by Boris Johnson.

Workers have no interest in wars led by a Labour government anymore than they have for ones led by a Tory, Green of SDP government. There is a world working class with identical interest in replacing the profit system with socialism. Class unity is everything.

Second, nationalism is a mask for racism and imperialism. Behind the mask is class division and British exceptionalism. Behind the mask there is contempt for "the other" and pride in Empire with its genocide, slavery, plunder and colonialism. Take the mask off and deal with the politics behind it. Socialists have to confront class division to make a socialist case for class unity.

What of socialist support for "nationalist movements" in the 1960s and 1970s? There was none. The Socialist Party of Great Britain rejected the politics associated with nationalist movements. We opposed the IRA and Irish nationalism and we opposed the Nationalists in the North during the Vietnam War. We had no placards with "patriotic heroes" since socialists reject political leadership and political heroes. Facts, evidence and reasoned argument to support the socialist case against capitalism is what socialists care about.

This is what socialists said about the Vietnam War and "patriotic heroes". On the front page of the SOCIALIST STANDARD (October 1968), we said:

"Vietcong, No!, Mao, No!, Che, No!: Socialism, Yes!"

And inside the issue we reminded readers what the SPGB had said at the outbreak of the First World War:

"Having no quarrel with the working class of any country, we extend to our fellow workers of all lands the expression of our good will and socialist fraternity, and pledge ourselves to work for the overthrow of Capitalism and the triumph of Socialism"

And third what does "international co-operation" under capitalism amount to. We live in a capitalist system where capitalist states are in constant conflict with each other - look at Russia and Ukraine, EU in one part of the world and China and the United States in another. War and conflict over oil, gas, land, spheres of political influence and, trade routes is the reality. We live in a world of international competition rather than international co-operation.

Does not Cockburn read his own past articles where he has shown "International co-operation" to be a mirage? What about his articles on the Civil war in Syria and Libya? And what about his comments regarding the proxy war in Yemen and the territorial disputes in the China Sea? The hollowness of "international co-operation" cannot only be seen in the problem of dealing with global warming but from another violent political angle. Capitalism maintains armed forces to protect the privileged position of the capitalist class not only from workers but from each other.

The basic building block we should be struggling for is not "international co-operation" but the formation of a world socialist movement with its only goal being the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society. And that co-operation starts with rejecting the "patriotic card" and its class division.

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Object and Declaration of Principles


The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

Declaration of Principles


1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.

2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.

3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.

4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.

5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.

6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.

7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.

8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.