Above Photo: Illustrations by Zoran Svilar
If the class struggle is to be reignited, we must denounce the left’s resurgent social chauvinism. The worker, once again, must come to realize that she has no country.
The tyranny of capitalist social-property relations, ever more consolidated across the globe, leads humanity to perpetual war and ecological catastrophe. The very future of life on the planet is under threat, the cancerous contradiction between the imperative for growth built into capitalism and the finitude of natural resources ever more manifest. The entrenched obstacles to collective rationality that we must successfully surmount if we are to avoid a brutal and tragic denouement are immense and global in scope.
We desperately need a new revolutionary internationalism, capable of coordinating and connecting local struggles against global capitalism and against related, intersecting systems of domination — of ethnicity and race, of gender, over nature. And yet, the specter of nationalism continues to haunt hegemonic social imaginaries, hindering the urgent task of organizing anti-capitalist resistance both above and below the level of the nation-state.
Parts of the left move to embrace anew the tactic and strategy of national populism, when we need instead a thoroughgoing internationalism. We have seen such opportunistic capitulation to the appeal of social chauvinism before, with devastating human consequences. There is no plausible reason to believe that riding the nationalist tiger again will lead to a socialist destination this time around.
To the contrary, there are good reasons to be even more skeptical. Not only is the global scope and coordination of capitalist production, finance and, consequently, capitalist political dominance more intense and cohesive than ever before in history, a state of affairs sufficient to render promises of a renaissance of the “golden age” of social democracy smack of utopianism; more disturbingly, so too are these neo-social-democratic agendas tainted by chauvinistic compromises, especially on matters of “foreign policy” — that is, in relation to policies of neo-imperial intimidation, sanctions, violent aggression and natural resource plunder. Worse than compromise: complicity.
WHEN THE WORKER HAD NO COUNTRY
In the middle of the nineteenth century, Marx and Engels could famously declare that “the worker has no country.” The origins of working-class internationalism lie in the absence of political representation and of material integration into the nation-state. The working class was at first beneath and beyond the nation. Its “nationalization” took place rather late in the day, in the last decades of the nineteenth century, and especially in the first decades of the twentieth.
Compulsory education for the purposes of creating a literate and nationalized pool of labor; recruitment into war machines capable of mobilizing masses for suicidal sacrifice in total war — these were the motives and mechanisms that underpinned and propelled forward the “nationalization” of the masses throughout much of the capitalist core. “Nationalization” and state-propagated nationalisms were the products of deliberate decisions made by rulers commanding rival ships of state across the stormy seas in an era marked by creeping democratization, capitalist and imperialist expansion, and looming inter-imperialist War.
As Eric Hobsbawm eloquently insisted, during this era, all versions of nationalism that “came to the fore” had one thing in common: “a rejection of the new proletarian socialist movements, not only because they were proletarian, but also because they were, consciously and militantly internationalist, or at the very least non-nationalist.” Indeed, in the crucial prelude to the unprecedented level of human destruction of the so-called Great War, mass nationalism competed directly for appeal amidst a host of rival ideologies — “notably, class-based socialism” — which, tragically, it vanquished.
The Second International eventually succumbed to the opportunism of social democracy, and to the intimately connected contagion of nationalism. Working-class solidarity was undermined by the machinations of divide and conquer, crushed in the context of inter-imperial rivalry, and buried in the trenches of the First World War.
In the paradigmatic case of Germany, Rosa Luxemburg famously diagnosed and sought to explain opportunism as a fundamental obstacle to the victory of revolutionary struggle, as a pathological but historical phenomenon, which she persuasively interpreted — through the lens of historical materialism — as related to the infiltration of a creeping petit-bourgeois mentality by the growth of the Social Democratic Party of Germany and its corresponding bureaucratization. The arc of the party’s organizational trajectory was thus: from a small group of professional revolutionaries to an ever-bigger bunch of reformist bureaucrats.
It was a trajectory that mirrored and corresponded with the growth of the state itself in Germany, and indeed, across much of Europe and North America in the so-called “capitalist core,” from the third quarter of the nineteenth century, and that continued with an ever-more militarist bent with the onset of the age of imperial scramble.
Only the most committed revolutionaries, who were by no coincidence among the most profound theorists and thorough-going critics of imperialism, most prominently Lenin and Luxemburg, but also all the individuals and organizations involved in the Zimmerwald movement, held true to internationalist principles; only they proved capable of resisting the hegemonic current towards “national integration” and ultimately capitulation before the warring idols of the nation.
Where was the mass mutiny? Where was the will to resist a meaningless and brutal death? Where was the solidarity among the workers of the world? Where was their will to unite, to break the chains that bound them together, despite and across national boundaries? Even Luxemburg’s faith was shaken by the outbreak of war, causing her, from the prison cell in which she would pen her Junius Pamphlet, to double down, or up the ante, formulating the alternatives in the famous phrase “socialism or barbarism” — a phrase which she attributed to Engels.
If, and only if, out of the ashes of the catastrophe the phoenix of the world revolution were to arise, then, and only then, could humanity avoid an endless descent into “barbarism,” a telling term in its own right. A world revolution, nothing less, was what anti-capitalist internationalists believed the necessary outcome and denouement of the contradictions, the crisis, the total war. The alternative was simply unthinkable, or at least unspeakable, for them.
LUXEMBURG AGAINST BOLSHEVISM
The Russian Revolution, when it came, was hailed among internationalists — Luxemburg, Trotsky and Lenin alike — as a precursor and trigger for world revolution. Such was the criterion upon which all the most prominent revolutionaries — in the Marxist tradition, at least — agreed was most relevant for judging the ultimate success or failure of the “local” revolution: whether it served to set off the world revolution.
All the great Marxist internationalists concurred: the revolution to overthrow capitalism was bound to be global in scope. Lenin, for certain, had a very hard time conceiving of the prospect of a Russian revolution without “further repercussions,” “abandoned to itself.” Indeed, as Paul Mattick pointed out long ago, Lenin seemed to assume “that the onslaught of the imperialist nations against the Bolsheviks would break the back of the Russian revolution if the proletariat of Western Europe failed to come to the rescue.”
However, when the world revolution in fact failed to materialize, the Bolshevik party in power did not put down its weapons and simply give up. Instead, it proceeded to improvise, to further fasten its grip on the levers of power, its fusion with the state apparatus, and ultimately to forge ahead with the project of “socialism in one country.” A hyper-centralized dictatorship of the Bolshevik party in a one-party state; and within the party, a hyper-centralized dictatorship of the Central Committee over the members; and within the Central Committee, a hyper-centralized dictatorship of the Chair. In sum, a dictatorship of the party, over the proletariat, and over the population more generally.
This was the governing model of Marxist-Leninist democratic centralism in practice, in the USSR, and, with some variation, in all the states where Marxism-Leninism subsequently came to power, most frequently transforming into state-capitalist and “developmentalist” dictatorships. A tyrannical model, a far cry from human emancipation as envisioned, for example, in Marx’s early writings, or for that matter, in his depiction of the dictatorship of the proletariat in his later work on the Paris Commune — or even as envisioned by Lenin in State and Revolution, on the eve of the Bolshevik seizure of power.
If only Luxemburg had lived! There is a case to be made that her martyrdom, along with that of her comrade Karl Liebknecht, in January 1919, marks a world-historic turning point — a critical juncture at which the world-revolutionary tide began definitively to ebb, and the counter-veiling forces of fascism began to gain momentum instead.
But Red Rosa was certainly right in her early criticism of the Bolshevik organizational form for its authoritarian structure and style, its promotion of “blind subordination, in the smallest details, of all party organs, to the party center, which alone thinks and decides for all” — a criticism she first formulated as far back as 1904. Though it is more controversial to say so, Red Rosa was also more right than wrong in her tenacious opposition to nationalism in all its manifestations. She, not the Bolsheviks, proved the more “far-sighted about the dangers lurking in nationalism for revolutionary internationalism.”
Luxemburg was indeed correct to emphasize the link between Bolshevik opportunism and its espousal of the dogma of national self-determination, a piercing criticism for which she has been much caricatured and maligned. Not that Luxemburg was opposed to national freedom; she was not. As Jacob Talmon pointed out, she was just more honest, more sober, more incisive than the Bolsheviks in her two-pronged assessment that “socialism could not be reached via national liberation struggles,” and, inversely, that “national freedom could be obtained only through an international social revolution,” which together led her to espouse the programmatic conclusion that “the first and categorical imperative was therefore to sink all national differences and to unite in a common anti-imperialist front.”
Easier said than done; more difficult to practice than to preach.
The World War and the Bolshevik revolution may not have spread across Europe and triggered the world revolution, as its protagonists had initially hoped and believed it must. But it did certainly contribute to the percolation of anti-colonial consciousness throughout the colonized world — with the conscription of colonial subjects into imperial armies playing a significant part in the process.
As Timothy Mitchell has emphasized, while “Lenin’s declaration the day after taking power that ‘any nation that desires independence’ should be allowed ‘to determine the form of its state life by free voting’” definitely had a broad appeal among the colonized, and beyond; indeed, it “echoed wider campaigns, emerging across several continents, against the violence and injustice of Empire.”
After all, Lenin’s own theory of imperialism was largely derivative of the work of J.A. Hobson, the British liberal who provides the seemingly paradoxical connection between Lenin’s ideas about self-determination and those of Woodrow Wilson. Hobson had “supported the Afrikaner republics that Britain defeated in the South African war,” and had befriended the Afrikaner military and political leader Jan Smuts, “who fought the British but then negotiated the incorporation of the Boer republics into the Union of South Africa,” and who later joined his ‘old friend’ on the British War cabinet “to participate in framing the post-war settlement.”
Indeed, as Mitchell has provocatively but compellingly argued, it was Smuts who would “in fact guide the formulation of the ‘ideal’ of self-determination later attributed to Woodrow Wilson.” The model for self-determination in practice? None other than “the development of self-government in South Africa, which became a method of empowering whites and further disempowering non-whites.”
The experience of the Boer republics thus shaped “the wider solution to the claims of subject populations after the First World War,” in a way that subtly transformed “the demand for democratization into the very different principle of self-determination, or ‘the consent of the governed’.” The regime of self-determination as an alternative to more thoroughgoing democratic demands, as an efficient means to fend off the threat and the specter of an emergent global demos — in sum, decolonization as a re-equilibration and transition to a neo-colonial global system of “decentralized despotism,” to invoke Mamdani’s most suggestive term.
Luxemburg, like no other, saw right through the pious cant about self-determination. She cogently insisted, against Lenin, in no uncertain terms, that “so long as capitalist states endure, particularly so long as imperialist world-politics determines and gives form to the inner and outer life of the states, the national right of self-determination has not the least thing in common with their practice either in war or in peace.”
Nor did she refrain from drawing far-sighted conclusions from this analysis, urgently appealing to her fellow revolutionaries to resist at all costs the siren song of the nation, clairvoyant in her warning that, as Mattick later put it, “any socialist policy which fails to take account of this definite historical level and which in the midst of the world vortex lets itself be governed merely by the isolated viewpoints of a single country is doomed in advance.” A more concise description and diagnosis of the inherent limits of the tactics, strategies, and (lack of) principles destined to be pursued by the Third International would indeed be hard to find.
To side with Luxemburg against Lenin on the matter of self-determination of course begs the question of the relationship between revolutionary internationalism and anti-imperialism. We could argue, with Mattick, that anti-capitalist internationalism must certainly be anti-imperialist — but at this point in history, we simply can no longer afford to delude ourselves into thinking that putting an end to imperialism can be achieved by any other means than by destroying the capitalist system in the so-called “advanced capitalist core.” In the absence of such destruction, we can rest assured, sooner or later, “‘liberation’ from one type of imperialism leads to subordination to another.”
READING LUXEMBURG WITH FANON
In a recent article for Al Jazeera, Hamid Dabashi called Luxemburg “an unsung hero of postcolonial theory.” This perhaps takes the point too far, but Luxemburg’s revolutionary internationalism certainly has a lot more in common with later postcolonial thinkers than is too often assumed. Emblematically, with Frantz Fanon, who lived long enough to witness the “pitfalls of national consciousness,” to see with his own eyes that “nationalism, that magnificent song that made the people rise against their oppressors, stops short, falters, and dies away on the day that independence is proclaimed.”
Indeed, Fanon was particularly acute in his observations about the degeneration of party politics in the post-colonial context, in his denouncement of nascent national despotism and creeping corruption. As he astutely surmised:
After independence, the party sinks into an extraordinary lethargy. The militants are only called upon when so-called manifestations are afoot, or international conferences, or independence celebrations. The local party leaders are given administrative posts, the party becomes an administration, and the militants disappear into the crowd and take the empty title of citizen. …
After a few years, the break-up of the party becomes obvious, and any observer, even the most superficial, can notice that the party, today the skeleton of its former self, only serves to immobilize the people. The party, which during the battle had drawn to itself the whole nation, is falling to pieces. The intellectuals who on the eve of independence rallied to the party, now make it clear by their attitude that they gave their support with no other end in view than to secure their slices of the cake of independence. The party is becoming a means of private advancement.
Even so, Fanon remained perhaps overly optimistic in his formulation of the remedy for this collective ill, in what now appears a rather naïve prescription: “If you really want your country to avoid regression, or at best halts and uncertainties, a rapid step must be taken from national consciousness to political and social consciousness.” In retrospect, Smuts and Hobson were more realistic, in their judgment that national consciousness was the precise antidote and alternative necessary for fending off and domesticating the prospects of revolutionary internationalist challenges to the tyranny of global capitalism, for translating and transforming threatening claims about global justice into more innocuous matters of international charity.
Less naïve on Fanon’s part were his two additional, related points of counsel: the first, about the vital urgency of the task of “political education”; the second, intimately related point, about the need for “decentralization in the extreme.” To open people’s minds, to “awaken them,” means nothing else, for Fanon, than “allowing the birth of their intelligence.” This task cannot be confused with “making a political speech.” It means, on the contrary, “to try, relentlessly and passionately, to teach the masses that everything depends on them; that if we stagnate it is their responsibility, and that if we go forward it is due to them too.”
To put such revolutionary pedagogy into practice, Fanon continues, “in order really to incarnate the people,” extreme decentralization is essential. A political education into self-determination, understood and practiced, literally, as taking matters into one’s own hands — this is Fanon’s radically decentralizing spin on self-determination. It constitutes a crucial, dialectical counterpart to Luxemburg’s emphasis on thoroughgoing, revolutionary internationalism.
BEYOND THE CULT OF THE NATION
The nation as a mystified basis of community has not only defeated revolutionary class-based alternatives at multiple critical junctures over the course of the past century, it has also been institutionalized and thus reified in the educational system, the mass media, the state bureaucracy, as well as by political parties, including the representatives of social democracy.
The forces of social democracy, along with their allies in the trade union movement, were together responsible for many of the democratic limits to commodification imposed upon capitalism, especially in the north and west of Europe, in the decades after the Second World War, when social rights expanded under the aegis of the welfare state. Yet such accommodation came at a price — namely, the disorganization and depoliticization of the working class, its progressive conversion into passive spectators of politics at most, more often than not, into mere consumers. This waning, if not death, of class consciousness helped paved the way for the subsequent victory of neoliberalism, the triumph of the cult of the market — not to mention the resurgence of the cult of the nation.
The manifold ways in which national consciousness has been institutionalized, reinforced by the frequent appeals of political elites to supremacist, exclusionary and patriarchal conceptions of national belonging, for the purposes of dividing and conquering the exploited and oppressed, have effectively hindered the popularity and salience of feelings of transnational empathy, solidarity, loyalty, community and belonging.
In a word, the cult of the nation constricts and constrains the horizons of our collective consciousness. It thus undermines our capacity for exercising collective rationality in the face of the urgent social and political problems we must confront together, as members of the human race, if we are to stand a chance of successfully transforming global constellations of social-property relations.
Such a transformation is urgently needed not just for the sake of justice. The privileges of the plutocrats, the tyrants and the war-mongers must be checked, they must be held accountable, because their greed, their lust for power, their lethal ineptitude and their colossal irresponsibility are literally threatening the future of life on our planet. But so long as the cult of the nation continues to mystify our consciousness, we will remain disempowered — or worse, we will remain complicit, condemned to aiding and abetting their crimes.
There is a long history of crimes committed in the name of the nation, especially in the name of those nations that can be classified as “Great Powers.” In fact, the crimes of the past can in large part account for the “Great Power” status of some nation-states today. In this sense, these crimes do not remain in the past, but live on in the present. And they live on in another sense as well, for the lies and propaganda employed to justify the crimes of the past continue to resonate in the present, even when they are not explicitly repeated and defended, but simply downplayed and whitewashed, or even covered over in an attempt to induce historical amnesia.
When not confronted directly and deliberately deconstructed, in the name of truth and more than mere reconciliation, in the pursuit of just compensation, the lies and propaganda inherited from the past will continue to weigh on the collective guilty conscience. They will continue to contaminate the collective subconscious, and they will thus inevitably seep into, be inflected and reflected in, the contours of contemporary collective consciousness.
This is precisely why conflicts and taboos about collective memory are never just about how the past is remembered, but are instead so often central to struggles for hegemony in the present, pitting those committed to the preservation of the status quo against those committed to alternative projects seeking to contest and transform existing constellations of material and social power relations. “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
We on the left must denounce in no uncertain terms any and all concessions to resurgent social chauvinism. The worker, once again, must come to realize that she has no country. The transnational cohesion and global coordination of the capitalist class has effectively outflanked and progressively undermined the class compromises and limits to commodification that had been negotiated and institutionalized at the level of the nation-state in response to the collective demands of organized labor.
As a consequence, the working class finds itself ever more disorganized, unincorporated, disenfranchised. Now, more than ever, it finds itself scattered across the globe, multi-ethnic in composition, below and beyond the nation. If the class struggle is to be reignited, both locally and globally, it is imperative that it reorganize and re-articulate itself accordingly.