The Lexit road to English patriotism

English patriotism is good, Scottish nationalism is a dead end – according to the Morning Star, writes Andy Stowe.

From the Soviet “theory” of socialism in one country to Kim Il Sung’s fantasy of Juche self-reliance in North Korea, Stalinism has always had a predilection for nationalism.  And now that Boris Johnson is about to give them the Brexit they campaigned for, the Communist Party of Britain (CPB) is using its daily paper to make the case for progressive
patriotism. It remains an important publication because it is still influential among many in the labour movement including amongst the bureaucracy. It carries a range of viewpoints – so long as they are no too much in conflict with its basic politics.

Matt Widdowson’s article in the Morning Star, There is no contradiction between patriotism and socialism, is illustrated with a massive image of the flag of Saint George, the traditional emblem of the English far right.

Yet while the paper is gung ho for English nationalism, it’s rather less enthusiastic about the Scottish variety saying that independence “means the continuation of a broken capitalist system, with a little less red in the national flag.”

Aiden O’Rourke cites the Irish revolutionary James Connolly “whose focus was on promoting social issues; bread and butter issues, which push workers to confront capital itself, rather than national issues which pose no threat to the capitalist system which is the cause of all of the problems which lead people to the wrong conclusions; namely, that the national question takes priority over the social question.”

It’s an unfortunate choice. The main thing most people know about James Connolly is that he and the Irish Citizen Army participated in the insurrection against British imperialism and that he was in alliance with a range of bourgeois figures. He also advised his people to hold onto their guns for the coming class war.

English patriotism

In certain historically specific cases, Widdowson is right about the overlap between a struggle for national independence and radical socialist politics. The Vietnamese war against American imperialism was both a war of national liberation and a class war. The same is true of the Chinese struggle against the Japanese invaders. We can also point to the war of liberation by the workers, farmers and small business people against the Nazi imperialists in occupied France

The difference, as every English nationalist likes to point out, is that their country hasn’t been successfully colonised since 1066 and they subsequently spent several centuries colonising other peoples’ countries. The Morning Star’s elision of anti-colonial struggles and the resurgent English nationalism generated by Brexit is politically incoherent to socialist internationalists.

Worse than that, Widdowson’s assertion that “the specific struggle for socialism and democracy only happens within the framework of the state” has demonstrably and irrefutably been shown to be wrong. The Trump / Johnson / Putin / Erdogan rightward shift in politics is a global trend. It was the Soviet bureaucracy’s commitment to “building socialism” in a poor, backward country that led to the obscenities of Stalinism and has left Russia today as the most unequal society in the world. This flagrant failure to build a socialist society in one country isn’t an “ultra-leftist” complaint, it’s a visible fact.

This imperial legacy has been the great weakness of the English working class, and as the Morning Star demonstrates with its alarming enthusiasm for English patriotism, also for its labour movement. As examples of “progressive patriotism” it offers the Levellers, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Suffragettes and Red Clydeside (which is rather inconveniently in Scotland). These movements are parts of working-class history and none of the people participating in them were motivated by patriotism. They were internationalists, feminists and class fighters. Their spirit was more that of the Paris Commune which demolished the Victory
Column Bonaparte had cast from captured enemy guns because they saw it as “a symbol of chauvinism and incitement to national hatred”. As far as we know, Engels, the author of that phrase, did not have an EU flag in his Twitter profile

Contemporary English patriotism has absolutely nothing progressive about it. Consider its icongraphy and historical references. In some pubs it’s hard to find a beer that doesn’t hark back to a mythological World War Two in which Britain stood alone or the imperial past. It’s subsumed in a love of the monarchy, military history. Have a look at the BBC iPlayer’s history and documentary section and good luck trying to find anything that isn’t about British involvement in wars or the Windsor family and their ancestors.

Inevitably a significant portion of the English working class has bought into this version of its national identity and the state is constantly reminding them of it. The unquestioning glorification of the British military has become more intense in the last two decades and this is inseparably bound up with a celebration of imperial adventures from India to Iraq. In the past there were large workplaces and collective organisations which offered something in the way of an ideological alternative. In their absence in much of England, the older white working class is pulled towards reactionary nationalism.

Their vote for Brexit was a vote mainly to keep migrants out of Britain.

Rebecca Long-Bailey, the probable next Labour leader made an ill-judged attempt to tack towards “progressive patriotism”. A couple of days later she was questioned on the issue by a BBC journalist whose assumption, widely shared in British society, is that you prove you are properly patriotic by declaring your willingness to start a nuclear war. Long-Bailey could have answered that question in many ways, but she reluctantly conceded she was sufficiently proud of her country to kill millions by pressing the nuclear button. This alone demonstrates the irrationality of the concept.

A new working class is taking shape in Britain, one that lives in big cities, not run-down towns. It tends to be in precarious employment but is more self-consciously socially liberal and internationalist. It is increasingly becoming Labour’s electoral stronghold. This will not be
drawn to a left version of little England greatness. Instead it provides the possibility of building a new internationalist labour movement with the intellectual self-confidence to face down the patriots who feel their country is better than everywhere else just because of an accident of birth.

The working class is international.

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