Sunday, February 05, 2006

Nationalism and Internationalism (revised)

Part of the essense of Marxist theory and practice is the notion of Internationalism. I will attempt to present a brief and useful definition and explication of internationalism and ways of applying it.

The roots of internationalism are in French Revolutionary notions of human brotherhood or sisterhood and universal political rights. This bourgeois notion is given a revolutionary class character in the last sentence of the Manifesto of the Communist Party: "Proletarians of all countries, Unite!" Meaning that the working people involved in production all over the world have a common bond and interest in overthrowing the capitalist system and thier own national capitalists to create something like a world revolutionary state that would eventually wither away during a stateless mature communist era.

If one questiones wheather Marxists should want a world state, ask yourself about the alternative. Individual national states existing for the purpose of controlling the natural resources and labor within its borders? Of course not. Borders must be destroyed, the states that exist for the control of the workers by parasitic rulers (not just a polemic, they really exist at the expense of their hosts) must be smashed and replaced with democratic, popular, directly elected, immidiately revokable, provisional assemblies whose prime task is to break down the resistance of the propertied classes.

But what does this have to do with nationalism and internationalism? One reason why workers are not smashing the state apparatus is precisely the question of nationalism. The way toward revolution is precisely the question of internationalism. Just this evening a friend of mine remarked that the problem with Marxism is internationalism, that the workers are the most nationalistic people. Is this a problem with Marxism or a problem with the labor movement which has shown national chauvinist policies and often supports the anti-labor activities of its own imperialist government?

The proletariat's patriotism stems from their experience of loyalty to family and community. These concrete social relations are extended to encompass compassion for the whole nation. This is accomplished through learning patriotism from the family, schools, media, friends, work, in short most of society and its institutions reinforce, to varying degrees, patriotism to the nation. Thus, the source of national chauvinism, for the working class is rooted in their own sense of altruism and care for their family and community. The sources of internationalism, or the common ties of the world working class, spring from differnt sources. These must usually be either purposfully sought out or they must be arrived at through experience and struggle in the workplace or in other realms that bring humans together in nationally trancendent ways.

Patriotism for the ruling class, the bourgeoisie, stems from very differnt roots. Their patriotism stems from rational (value maximizing) self-interest. The logic is that the state exists and was constructed by and for the capitalists. It is in thier interest to support the mechanism of the state, foster its national institutions, traditions, and practices.This fostering and support contributes to the national feelings on the part of the workers. National feeling is further cultivated through state patronage of public goods and welfare projects meant to win the support of workers and the poor. National capitalists are in competition with other national capitalists for control of different markets, labor, resources, and power. The rulers do not die in wars but they are war's biggest planners and boosters. They must get the workers motivated to fight other workers in wars.

In an 1870 letter, reflecting on national division in Europe, Karl Marx wrote: “Every industrial and commercial center in England now possesses a working-class population divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians.” .” In the same paragraph Marx outlines the racial and national structures erected that divide the proletarians against themselves. English workers see the Irish as competitors that undercut them; they see themselves as part of the “ruling nation” and become allied with the bourgeoisie “…thus strengthening their dominion over himself. ( “Marx to Meyer and Vogt” in Letters to Americans, NewYork, 1953, p. 78).” Marx then extends his argument and compares this situation to the attitude of “poor whites” toward blacks in the postbellum American South.

Internationalism argues that workers of all countries are being exploited by capitalists, and should have no enmity between each other, only the common bonds of being human and being exploited. Thus, racial and national antagonisms only serve to deepen and secure the exploitation of workers. Those workers who receive preferential treatment should struggle against it and for the equal treatment of thier fellow workers in oppressed or disfavored national or racial categories. This logic also brings Marxists, especially after Lenin's interpretations, to struggle for national self-determination, for nations free from domination by other nations as part of the course for the goal of proletarian revolution. Of course all of these elements must be assesed by the facts on the ground, the true democratic desires of nations and peoples, through scientific enquiry, and not simple application of theory to the world, without analysis.

The task of Marxists is to represent an internationalist stance to the working class. To point out and to criticize the gross misdeeds of reformist left parties that believe that imperialist aggression carried out in the name of a humanitarian mission can be anything but a form of nationalism and the attempt to oppress another people. Under this logic Marxists can under no circumstances promote or defend wars undertaken by imperialist powers, such as the U.S., even in the name of humanitarianism. Behind the false assertions of human rights, lurks imperial aggression.

This is still a work in progress. Feel free to add input in the comments section.


Renegade Eye said...

It is easy to point out the reactionary nature of nationalism, in an advanced capitalist state.

How do you apply those principles with for example; Palestinians or Kurds?

I agree with you. I don't know how to apply that correct idea, in say the Palestinian struggle.


Nicholas said...

Very good question Renegade. As I understand it the logic is that when a people clearly want national independence, then Lenin argues it is the duty of communists to support, to the death if nescessay, their right to self determinination. Perhapse the best example is the Black liberation struggle. In the US it was/is perhapse themost radical arena of struggle in US history, more so even than the struggle of labor. Marx says that "labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin when in the blck skin it is branded (I do not have the sitition handy but I will post it)."

Thus, as labor is branded in the Palestinian skin, it cannot be free in the Isreali skin! We must do all that is in our power to defend palestinians from aggression on the part of imperialism. Yes they have petty-bourgeois right wing leadership in the Fatah and fundamentalists in Hamas, but by defendng them we are upholding the best of internationalism.

The Kurds, I think history has shown, should have had (I caught myself writting 'should have been given' as if it was the imperialists right to give) a state of their own.

Lenin's point in stressing self determination is not the bourgeois nationalist notion that naturally all nations should have their own state, on the contrary, that only those fighting for it and really wanting it (a mass movment) need to have it defended by communists. This not only breaks down bourgois power but it can realse other social forces of class struggle.

I am very drunk and must go to bed
Long live the struggle!

Edie said...

An understanding of self-determination is crucial to avoiding these sorts of pet causes such as IRA and PLO that tend to steal the hearts of radicals.

Blogging can sometimes be a lonely affair. I hope you aren't discouraged; it is still a good exercise for Marxists.

Umer A. Chaudhry said...

"There is one, and only one, kind of real internationalism, and that is -- working whole-heartedly for the development of the revolutionary movement and the revolutionary struggle in one's own country, and supporting (by propaganda, sympathy, and material aid) this struggle, this, and only this, line, in every country without exception". -Lenin

Umer A. Chaudhry said...


You are correct. Marxism recognizes the 'Right to Self-determination of Nations'. Without recognition of this right, a healthy and trustful relationship between nations can never come into being.

For detailed discussion on this subject, please read 'Marxism and the National Question' written by J. V. Stalin in 1913. This article was approved by the R.S.D.L.P and became the final word of Bolsheviks on the national question.

In Solidarity,

Anonymous said...

marx greatly, greatly underestimated the power of nationalism.

first, classes within a state are too fragmented politically and monetarily. they are not static entities given a fixed amount of $$. Those making more will not unite with those making less, simply because of self-interest. secondly, classes are not territorially homogenous--they are scattered. thirdly, dont you think on a personal level that people will unite more with their countrymen over someone from a different culture that cannot even speak the same language? class warfare was meant to remain within a fixed territorial unit, and not meant to be fought on a global scale.

Nicholas said...

In response to Anonymous

A lot of critics and sympathizers including Hobsbawm, have thought that Marx underestimated nationalism. I say that neither he nor others such as Lenin or Trotsky have underestimated nationalism (the ability of the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeois to set ideological "traps" through racism, national oppression, and imperialism to divide the workers.) I believe that Marx may have underestimated (though not his fault) the treherous nature of the labor aristocrats and the labor misleaders who betray the interests of their class to make side deals with their own imperialist bourgeoisie (See Lenin State and Revolution and Prolet Rev and Renagade Kautsky)

As to Anonymous's points: First, yes classes are often fractured but it is the duty of the leaders and the vangaurd elements of the workers to, through self sacrificing struggle, to unite all of the workers and oppressed behind a common banner, revolution. This has been shown to be the case in 1905, 1917, and in other cases. Second, of course classes are territorially separated, this means they are world wide, but they are concentrated where there is heavy industry and in urban areas, this is crucial, and this is their power! Third, on the countrymen question, yes there is patriotism and national feeling, but it is the task of the revolutionary leadership, and the workers who see nationalism as the sham that it is to fight agaist it for proletarian internationalism. Thus I defend Iraq, Iran, and China against US imperialism without lending Saddam or the Mullahs one ounce of political support, and in the case of China to defend the gains of workers from the revolution, however deformed by the bureaucrats, from capitalist counter revolution! Class warfare may and does begin at a local, regional and eventually a national level, but eventually a successful revolution must aid the workers in other countries to overthrow their rulers. In any case workers must act in solidarity and certainly condemn and fight against imperialist wars and turn them into class wars.

Kai! said...

Excellent article, Nicholas. I always enjoy your work and was just prowling for a read on Nationalism. Thank you.