“The communists are further reproached with desiring to abolish countries and nationality. The workers have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got” (Communist Manifesto, 1848)
Capitalism, the system of exploitation which rules the planet, cannot maintain itself by force and violence alone. It cannot do without the power of ideology – the endless production of ideas which turn reality on its head and persuade the exploited that their best interests lie in lining up behind their own exploiters. Exactly a hundred years ago, hundreds of thousands of workers from Britain, France, Germany and other countries, at the Battle of the Somme, paid the ultimate price for believing the basic lie of the ruling class – that the workers should ‘fight for their country’, which could only mean fighting and dying for the interests of the ruling class. The horrible massacres of World War One proved once and for all that nationalism is the deadliest ideological enemy of the working class.
Today, after decades of attacks on living standards, of the break-up of industries and communities, of financial shocks and austerity packages, and of a whole series of defeated struggles, the working class is being subjected to a new tidal wave of nationalist poison in the form of the populist campaigns of Trump in the USA, Le Pen in France, the Brexiters in Britain and many other central capitalist countries. These campaigns are openly basing themselves on the real disorientation and anger within the working class, on growing frustration about the lack of jobs, housing, healthcare, on widespread feelings of powerlessness in the face of impersonal, global forces. But the very last thing these campaigns want workers to do is to think critically about the real causes of all these misfortunes. On the contrary, the function of populism is to divert any attempt to understand the complex and apparently mysterious social system that governs our lives and to come up with a far simpler solution: look for someone to blame.
Blame the elites, they scream: the greedy bankers, the corrupt politicians, the shadowy bureaucrats who run the EU and tie us all up in red tape and regulations. And all these figures are indeed part of the ruling class and play their part in ramping up exploitation and destroying jobs and futures. But “blaming the elites” is a distortion of class consciousness, not the real thing, and the trick can be exposed by asking the question: who is peddling this new anti-elitism? And you only have to look at Donald Trump or the leaders of the Brexit campaign, or the mass media who support them, to see that this kind of anti-elitism is being sold by another part of the elite. In the 1930s, the Nazis used the same trick, scapegoating a sinister international elite of Jewish financiers for the devastating effects of the world economic crisis, and pulling workers behind a fraction of the ruling class which claimed to defend the true interests of the national economy. The Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels once said that the bigger the lie, the better the chance of its success, and the claim to stand for the little guy against the elite, mouthed by politicians like the billionaire Trump, is a lie worthy of Goebbels himself.
But above all, the target of the new nationalism is not a section of the rich but the most oppressed layers of the working class itself, the most direct victims of capitalism’s economic crisis, its savage imperialist wars, its devastation of the environment – the mass of economic migrants and war refugees driven towards the central capitalist countries in search of a respite from poverty and mass murder. Another “simple” solution offered by the populists: if we could stop them coming in, if we could kick them out, there would obviously be more to go around, a better chance for the “native” workers to find jobs and housing. But this apparent common sense obscures the fact that unemployment and homelessness are products of the workings of the world capitalist system, of “market forces” that cannot be blocked by walls or border guards, and that the migrants and refugees are being pushed by the same capitalist drive for profit which closes down factories in the old industrial regions and displaces whole sectors of production to the other side of the world where labour is cheaper.
Faced with a system of exploitation that is by nature planetary in its reach, the exploited can only defend themselves by uniting across all national divisions, by forming themselves into an international power against the international power of capital. And in direct opposition to this need is the tactic of divide and rule, which is used by all capitalist parties and factions, but which has been pushed to an extreme by the populists. When one group of workers sees the cause of their problems in other workers, when they see their interests being upheld by parties which call for tough measures against immigration, they give up the possibility of defending themselves, and they weaken the prospect of resistance by the working class as a whole.
False alternatives to populism
Behind the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the populists lies the very real threat of violence, of the pogrom. In countries like Greece and Hungary, the toxic hatred of ‘foreigners’, the rise of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism have engendered out and out fascist groupings that are willing to terrorise and murder migrants and refugees – the Golden Dawn in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary, and the list could easily be extended. In Britain after the Brexit victory, there has been a real upsurge in racist attacks, threats and insults against Poles and other EU immigrants as well as against black and Asian people, as the most overtly racist currents in society feel that the time has come to emerge from their sewers.
But the example of Britain also shows that there is a false alternative to populism which ‘remains’ on the side of the capitalist system. The chaotic political situation created by the Brexit vote (which we analyse in another article in this paper), the growing threat to immigrant workers, has led many well-meaning people to vote for the Remain camp, and in the wake of the referendum, to organise large demonstrations in favour of the EU. We have even seen anarchists, in a panic about the increasingly overt expressions of racism stirred up by the campaign, forgetting their opposition to capitalist elections and voting Remain.
To vote for or demonstrate in favour of the EU is another way of falling into the hands of the ruling class. The EU is not a benevolent institution, but a capitalist alliance which imposes the most ruthless austerity on the working class, as we can see most clearly from what the EU demanded of the Greek workers in return for receiving EU funds for Greece’s bankrupt economy. And the EU is certainly not a kindly protector of migrants and refugees. In favour of the ‘free movement’ of labour power when it suits the profit motive, it is no less capable of building walls and razor wire fences when it sees migrants and refugees as surplus to requirements, and of coming to sordid deals to send refugees whose labour power it can’t use back to the camps that they are trying to escape from – as it has done in a recent agreement with Turkey.
The nationalist Tower of Babel and the fraud of bourgeois democracy
The division between pro- and anti-EU cuts across the traditional left-right divide in bourgeois politics. Both camps have their right and left supporters. The Remain campaign in Britain was led by a faction of the Tory party but was officially supported by the majority of Labour, and by the SNP in Scotland. The left itself was split between Remain and Leave. Corbyn was nominally for Remain but he comes from the Old Labour idea of a “socialist Britain”, in other words an island of autarkic state capitalism, and it was obvious that his heart wasn’t in the Remain campaign. Corbyn’s supporters in the Socialist Workers’ Party and similar groups were for Left Exit, an absurd mirror image of the Brexit camp. This Tower of Babel of nationalisms, whether pro- or anti-EU, is itself another factor in the prevailing ideological fog, posing everything in terms of ‘in’ or ‘out’, of the interests of Britain, of the existing system.
And all these capitalist groups and parties were further thickening the fog by spreading the fraud of “democracy”, the idea that capitalist elections or referendums really can express the “will of the people”. A key element of the Leave campaign was the idea of “taking our country back” from the foreign bureaucrats – a country which the vast majority never had in the first place because it is owned and controlled by a small minority, which manipulates the institutions of democracy to ensure that, whoever wins the majority of votes, the working class as a class remains excluded from power. The democratic polling booth – which in some countries is rightly called an “isolator” – is not, as the capitalist left will often argue, a means for the working class to express its class consciousness, at least in a defensive manner. It is a means for atomising the working class, for dividing it up into a mass of powerless citizens. And referendums in particular have been a time honoured means of mobilising the most reactionary forces in society – something that was already apparent under the dictatorial regime of Louis Bonaparte in 19th century France. For all these reasons, despite the political convulsions the Brexit vote has produced, the EU referendum was a “success” for bourgeois democracy, presenting it as the only possible framework for the conduct of political debate.
The working class alternative
Faced with a world system which seems intent on turning each country into a bunker where only you and yours deserve to survive, some groups have raised the slogan “No Borders”. This is a praiseworthy aim, but to get rid of borders you have to get rid of nation states, and to get rid of the state you need to get rid of the social relations of exploitation which it protects. And all that requires a world-wide revolution of the exploited, establishing a new form of political power which dismantles the bourgeois state and begins to replace capitalist production for profit with communist production for universal need.
This goal seems immeasurably distant today, and the advancing decomposition of capitalist society – above all, its tendency to drag the working class into its own material and moral downfall – contains the danger that this perspective will be definitively lost. And yet it remains the only hope for a human future. And it is not a question of passively waiting for it to happen, like the Day of Judgement. The seeds of revolution lie in the revival of the class struggle, in returning to the path of resistance against attacks from right and left, in social movements against austerity, repression, and war; in the fight for solidarity with all the exploited and the excluded, in the defence of ‘foreign’ workers against gang masters and pogroms. This is the only struggle that can revive the perspective of a world community.
And what about the communists, that minority of the class which is still convinced by the perspective of a world human community? We have to recognise soberly that in the present situation we are swimming against the stream. And like previous revolutionary fractions which withstood the challenge of a tide of reaction or counter-revolution, we need to reject any compromising of principles learned from decades of class experience. We need to insist that there can be no support for any capitalist state or alliance of states, no concessions to nationalist ideology, no illusions that capitalist democracy provides a means of defending ourselves against capitalism. We refuse to participate in capitalist campaigns on one side or the other, precisely because we do aim to participate in the class struggle, and because the class struggle needs to become independent from all the forces of capitalism which seek to divert it or corral it. And faced with the enormous confusion and disarray which is currently reigning in our class, we need to engage in a serious theoretical effort to understand a world that is becoming increasingly complicated and unpredictable. Theoretical work is not an abstention from the class struggle, but helps prepare the time when theory, in Marx’s words, becomes a material force by gripping the masses.