Bollox to Progressive Patriotism

Updated: Feb 12

Neil Faulkner argues that in an age of creeping fascism we must not give an inch on socialist internationalism.

12 January 2020.

Because she is the Corbynista candidate for the Labour leadership, Rebecca Long Bailey’s support for something she calls ‘progressive patriotism’ cannot be ignored. In the end, this concept amounts to bending under pressure from far-right racists.

The Johnson government is on the nationalist-racist spectrum which stretches to the Tommy Robinson fascists. The moderate Tories are gone: purged from the parliamentary party before the election, defeated wherever they stood during the election, giving us a Johnson-led Tory Party dominated by the Far Right.

Let us be clear: Farage, UKIP, the Leave campaign, and the Brexit Party have been the mechanism of an internal Tory Party coup and now a Tory Party election victory that has delivered a large working majority to the British Trump.

For that is what Johnson is. He heads a regime of neoliberal ultras committed to privatisation, corporate power, and climate nihilism, laced with nationalism and racism. Profit for the rich, migrant-baiting for the mob. That is the recipe.

To make concessions to nationalism and racism in the present context is to make concessions to creeping fascism.

What is creeping fascism?

When we first coined this term to describe what was happening, we were denounced as alarmists. We were lectured on our failure to understand the classical Marxist theory of fascism (Trotsky’s). We were accused of irresponsibility in bandying the term around willy-nilly and sowing confusion among activists.

The Lexit Left in particular is operating with a caricature of fascism based on interwar images of swastikas, Brownshirts, and the Nuremberg rallies. So let me quickly recap what we said in the book:

Fascism can be understood as the active mobilisation of a mass movement of reactionary class forces and atomised ‘human dust’ around the right-wing nexus of nationalism, racism, sexism, and authoritarianism – just as socialism can be considered the active mobilisation of the working class and the minorities around the left-wing nexus of internationalism, equality, and democracy.

Fascism is a mechanism by which a deeply dysfunctional, crisis-ridden system of exploitation and oppression generates social forces capable of smashing democracy, civil liberties, and any effective resistance to the rule of the rich and the corporations.

Everything else is secondary. Critical to our argument is that fascist paramilitaries/street fighters are necessary only in so far as there is mass working-class resistance.

Even then – even in the most extreme case, that of Germany between 1929 and 1933, where Hitler needed 400,000 Brownshirts to smash the Left on the streets – the paramilitaries were never the primary instrument of repression. That was always the state.

After Hitler was made Chancellor, a process of gleichschaltung (‘streamlining’) began. The personnel of the state apparatus were purged, cowed, and bribed, and thereby brought into line with the Nazi programme. It was the Nazi-dominated German state – not the Brownshirts – that launched the Second World War and carried out the Holocaust.

In the absence of armed militias of the working-class and the oppressed, fascism has no particular need of paramilitaries. The aim of the Far Right is to take state power. If they can do this by donning suits and seeking election, they will do so. They will then activate mobs of street-fighters if and when they need them.

The crisis this time is shallower and is playing out more slowly than in the 1930s. But fascism is a process, and the direction of travel is clear. Take the example of India right now.

The Indian form of fascism

As my colleague and co-author Seema Syeda has explained so well, Hindu chauvinism is a modern analogue of fascism in the Indian Subcontinent, and Narendra Modi’s BJP party has its origins in organisations of hard-core nationalist ultras.

Modi’s creeping-fascist regime has triggered mass strikes against austerity (here) and, at the same time, a countrywide movement that has united Muslims and Hindus in a struggle against Islamophobic persecution (here), murderous police violence (here), and the thuggery of Hindu-fascist mobs (here).

‘It was kristallnacht for Muslims,’ said activist Kavita Krishnan, describing events unfolding across the state of Uttar Pradesh on 20 and 21 December last year.

Kristallnacht – ‘the Night of Broken Glass’ – was the notorious anti-semitic pogrom on 9/10 November 1938, when at least 90 Jews were killed, thousands beaten, and shops, homes, and synagogues ransacked across Germany.

Krishnan’s characterisation of recent events in India is accurate. The police have killed dozens, tortured and raped hundreds, and incarcerated thousands. The police and Hindu-chauvinist mobs have acted in tandem, in an effort to smash protests against the regime’s threat to strip many Indian Muslims of their citizenship and discriminate against Muslim migrants.

This is the face of creeping fascism, of state fascism, of one possible future. This is what fascism looks like in the early 21st century (here).

To peddle ‘patriotism’ in a world increasingly polarised between Right and Left is to play with fire.

The nationalism of the oppressed

The nationalism of the oppressed.

None of this has anything to do with the nationalism of the oppressed. Nationalism often provides the framework for organising anti-colonial, anti-oppression, and anti-regime struggles that are essentially progressive.

A hundred years ago, for example, British imperialism was challenged by anti-colonial national movements in Ireland, Egypt, and India. Socialists in Britain – like Sylvia Pankhurst – backed these movements. The aim was to overthrow foreign rule, achieve political independence, and then embark on programmes of economic and social reform.

What used to be called ‘the Third World’ was transformed by a global wave of nationalist revolutions between the late 1940s and the 1970s. European colonial empires were broken in this wave of insurrection. Again, socialists in the imperialist countries supported these national liberation movements. In some cases – the Cuban Revolution, the Algerian War, the Vietnam War, and the long struggle against apartheid in South Africa are notable examples – they had a radicalising effect across the wider world.

Today, a range of progressive struggles are waged under national banners – in Palestine and Kurdistan, for example, and, in a different way, in Catalonia and Scotland.

The last example is especially important for socialists in Britain. The Thatcherite destruction of Scottish industry in the 1980s, and the Blairite failure to offer an alternative to neoliberalism in the 1990s and 2000s, led to a collapse in first Tory, then Labour support north of the border. The Scottish National Party re-positioned itself as a social-democratic party, and the demand for independence became a radical one.

The nationalism of the oppressor

But there is no ‘national question’ in Britain as a whole. British nationalism is the ideology of a great imperial power. In this case, patriotism and nationalism come to have a completely different meaning. The Union Jack – ‘the butcher’s apron’ – is a symbol of militarism, colonial oppression, and political reaction.

Patriotism and nationalism are the same. Trying to distinguish them is an exercise in semantics. Both words have the following implications: 1) That the nation-state is a rational framework for political action; 2) That the people of a nation-state share culture, values, and identity; and 3) That the people of a nation-state have common interests vis-à-vis others.

This is only true in the case of mass struggle from below – by an oppressed people against a colonial regime or a system of discrimination and repression. It is not true in an imperialist state like Britain.

The nation-state is a product of the last 250 years of human history. Ancient and medieval states were not ‘nation-states’ – they were imperial or dynastic states whose people spoke different languages, worshipped different gods, had different cultures, and so on.

The nation-state is the state form of capitalism. Territorial unification and cultural homogeneity flowed from capital’s need to create a coherent economic zone with easy access to raw materials, labour, and markets, and a matching state authority to provide essential infrastructure, maintain internal order, and project military power abroad.

Modern imperialism was (and is) an outgrowth of the nation-state. Control over foreign raw materials, labour, and markets, and opportunities for profitable capital investment abroad, are achieved by projecting military power.

The colonial wars of the 19th, the world wars of the early 20th century, and numerous neo-colonial wars since have been wars for empire and profit waged by nation-states on behalf of their respective ruling classes.

All nation-states are flawed historical constructs, many of them deeply so. Often they are little more than crude amalgams of people created by past accidents of war and diplomacy. In consequence, they are as likely to be racked by civil war as to be waging foreign war.

The 200 or so nation-states of the modern world range from great superpowers to tiny island communities. Virtually all of them waste valuable resources on armaments to engage in geopolitical rivalry. Together they constitute a profoundly dysfunctional system in a world crying out for rational global decision-making.

Blood-and-soil myth

Every nation-state is internally divided along the fracture-lines of exploitation and oppression that characterise the whole of capitalist society. Working people have no interests in common with their own rulers. There is no such thing as a ‘national interest’. The interests of working people and the rich are diametric opposites.

This is even true in the case of national liberation struggles – the nationalism of the oppressed – which socialists support. Workers, peasants, women, and minorities need to self-organise in the context of such struggles, so that their interests can be advanced against nationalist elites opposed to radical social reform.

Nations, then, are artificial constructs. So traditions are invented, and colossal ideological effort expended, to persuade us that ‘we’ – the British, the French, the Hungarians, the Iranians, the Hindus, whoever – are a ‘people’ united by shared history and common interests.

Not only are these invented traditions myths, but they are, invariably, when you scratch the surface, underpinned by racism. Of course they are: for what is their inner purpose if not to paper over the fracture-lines of class and oppression, and substitute an irrational prejudice against ‘foreigners’ that can, when necessary, be fanned into the psychotic rage of fascism and war?

So it’s Bollox to Brexit, and Bollox to Progressive Patriotism. We are for internationalism, for tearing down the borders, for solidarity with the oppressed, and for the unity of working people in the struggle to overthrow the system, emancipate humanity, and save the planet.

Or, as a couple of young German revolutionaries put it back in 1848, ‘Workers of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains.’

Neil Faulkner is the author, with Samir Dathi, Phil Hearse, and Seema Syeda, of Creeping Fascism: what it is and how to fight it.

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