"Workers of the world, unite!" Ever since these words brought to a close the Communist Manifesto of 1848, this has been the basic slogan of our movement.
It brings together, in the most succinct form, two fundamental ideas:
1) that our movement is the movement of a definite class, the working class or proletariat;
2) that it is an international movement – the working people of all countries are our brothers and sisters. The first of these ideas I discussed earlier in this series; in this column I shall discuss the principle of internationalism.
"The proletariat has no fatherland". With these words, also from the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels signaled their complete break with the ruling ideas, the ideas of the ruling class, on the question of patriotism and nationhood. Across the globe, from the cradle to the grave, we are all indoctrinated to believe that our first loyalty is to, and our basic identification is with, our nation. Education, culture, sport and politicians all contribute to this process to the point where it is made to seem almost unnatural not to support ‘our’ (Korean, British, American, Chinese, whatever) industry, team, army, etc.
In reality there is nothing ‘natural’ at all about nationalism. For the vast bulk of human history people had no sense of nationhood whatsoever for the simple reason that there were no nations. Nationalism emerged in Europe over the last 4-500 years and in most of the world only in the last century. This is because nationalism is a product of capitalism.
Like capitalism itself, nationalism was originally progressive. It served as a rallying cry against the dynastic empires, monarchies and petty principalities of feudalism – witness its role in the French Revolution. Like capitalism it has long since become reactionary, acting as the principal ideological mechanism for obscuring the conflict of interest between the working class and the capitalist class and creating a false sense of identity between exploiters and the exploited. At the same time it works, like racism, to divide and weaken the working class by making them see foreign workers as their rivals and enemies.
Breaking with nationalism is, therefore, central to breaking with capitalist ideas and is one the key dividing lines between Marxists and reformists, who, by and large, go along with nationalism (as they tend to go along with much of bourgeois ideology, importing it into the workers’ movement).
The question of internationalism versus nationalism comes to head in time of war. For the socialist movement the test case was the beginning of World War 1 in 1914. This led to split between the reformist leaders of most European socialist parties who supported their ‘own’ ruling classes in the imperialist slaughter and the revolutionary Marxists, such as Lenin and Trotsky in Russia and Luxemburg and Liebknecht in Germany, who opposed the war and followed Liebknecht’s maxim that "The main enemy is at home".
In general terms the internationalist attitude to war is to condemn wars between big capitalist, ie imperialist, powers and to work for the overthrow of our own ruling class and the unity of the workers of the contending nations. In wars of imperialist conquest, such as the Vietnam War or the Iraq War, internationalists both condemn the war and positively support the right to self-determination of the oppressed nation , including its right to wage a war of national liberation.(Though it must be remembered that each war is different and a concrete analysis must always be made.)
Does this support for ‘national’ liberation violate the principle of internationalism? No. The support is given to the struggle against national oppression, not to nationalism. Its aim is to weaken imperialism, our common enemy, and to facilitate the voluntary unity of the working class and oppressed of all countries.
There is a further, equally important, reason why Marxists are internationalists. Capitalism is a global system and the workers’ struggle against it can only be waged successfully on an international basis. The revolution may begin in one country but to be completed it must be spread. A socialist society cannot be built in one country, because of the counter revolutionary pressure, both economic and military, that will inevitably be applied to by the rest of world capitalism.
Marx and Engels realized this from the beginning. Already in 1847 in The Principles of Communism Engels directly posed the question, ‘Will it be possible for this revolution to take place in one country alone ?’ and answered ‘No. By creating the world market, big industry has already brought all the peoples of the earth… into such close relation with one another that none is independent of what happens to the others.’
The experience of Russia proved the point in practice. The adoption of the policy of ‘socialism in one country’ by Stalin in 1924 marked Stalin’s break with Marxism and produced not socialism but state capitalism. Having abandoned international revolution the Soviet bureaucracy was forced to compete with western capitalism on its own terms ie in terms of the exploitation of its working class.
Today, in the age of globalisation and global warming, internationalism is more relevant and vital than ever. It must be applied at home in defense of refugees and migrant workers, in the trade union struggle against the multinationals, in the struggle against Bush and Blair’s ‘War on Terror’, and in the international anti-capitalist and socialist movements.
Now more than ever we have a world to save and to win!
This article was written for the Koran socialist newsletter CounterFire in July 2006.