Left Nationalism and Support for Imperialist War in the United States

Article from 1919 (mcmxix.org), the new journal of the North American affiliates of the ICT.

Submitted by Internationali… on April 10, 2021

A large part of the legacy that hangs on the modern left is left nationalism, the idea that there is a good nationalism that is progressive and fights against the great imperialist powers for a supposed national self-determination. With the epoch of imperialism, nationalism transformed into a thoroughly reactionary political force reflective of great power rivalries. It has also bolstered the attempts at industrial development of local factions of the bourgeoisie that dwell on the periphery of the tectonic plates of imperialist power. Nationalism is the appeal of the left for national liberation and it is also the call to fight against national liberation. It is what leftists have used to mobilize the working class into support for imperialist war. It festers with the perception of wounded national pride. Whether it is a German government invading Poland to stop “Polish aggression” or the United States government calling for the overthrow of seven governments in five years in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, nationalism is always antithetical to communism.

To understand nationalism as a political force one must grasp a basic Marxist understanding of the state as the product of irreconcilable class antagonisms, as “bodies of armed men”. Nationalism never includes the working class save as cannon fodder, as labor units to be mobilized in support of any particular faction of the bourgeoisie. For left nationalists the working class is a spectator. It is particularly pernicious a form of nationalism in that it seeks to control the working class and to disrupt any class resistance to imperialist war. It hides behind a humanitarian guise but its purpose is to move the boundaries between imperialist powers.

At one point in the war in Syria, proxy armies funded by the Pentagon fought proxy armies funded by the CIA. Most leftist organizations took sides. For every organization that was “pro-Assad” there was another leftist organization that was waging a struggle on behalf of the invading imperialist powers. A leftist, who would never support an obscurantist theocracy or nationalist regime at home, can support all manner of political reaction when it comes to their support for imperialist war abroad. There is no thought that every imperialist conflict on the periphery of capitalist power brings nuclear armed powers closer to war with each other, that each one brings with it the increased possibility of a confrontation between the powers of the imperialist metropoles.

The last two decades have seen the aggressive reassertion of US imperialist power all over the world. There is no shortage of “Polish aggression” for American imperialism to initiate one slaughter after another. Few leftists in the US have any clue of how many people have died in these US armed and supported conflicts. The subject is one of discomfort. American leftists have the same exceptionalism that whispers to them that if no US citizens are dying then the conflict doesn’t matter.

America is back?

Whether it was Reagan’s mixed metaphor claiming that America was “standing tall in the saddle again”, or Biden saying that “America is back” the meaning is the same. It is a promise to carry out more wars and aggression. Like the last slogan out of the White House, “Make America Great Again”, it shows a section of the capitalist class that is keenly aware of its own decline as a capitalist power. The capitalist class in the US sees its interests increasingly frustrated by rival capitalist interests and is thus inclined towards greater levels of military brinkmanship. Driven by a crisis that has its roots in the process of capitalist accumulation, their actions become more desperate and more dangerous.

The leftists that have joined the Democratic Party in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), just as those leftists who stand around the Democratic Party, take up support for imperialist proxy wars and play a key role in giving imperialism a mantle of freedom. Yet there are few forces more oppressive, racist, or religious obscurantist than imperialist war. Where capital tears down all boundaries, it imposes them around the working class. The refined nationalism of the left contributes to the legitimation of imperialist war. The left forever follows in the footsteps of the old social democracy in its support for humanitarian wars so that nations can self-determine themselves into their preferred imperialist bloc.

Counterposed to this is internationalism and revolutionary defeatism. These forces took concrete form during the days of the Russian and German Revolutions and brought an end to the First World War. This is far more bound to the real historical experiences of workers than the idea that nationalist armies and religious obscurantist mercenaries are going to do anything that isn’t completely hostile to the working class.

Over the years the Internationalist Workers' Group has written frequently on the subject of nationalism but it bears repeating, nationalism is a force that is antagonistic to the interests of workers. It is the domination of capital in the guise of patriotism. Even when it appears that most workers have bought into a nice nationalist lie, the subsequent course of events can still shatter these illusions and cause workers to turn against the global imperialist order that spawns nationalism and war. In the end it must be an international working class, organized in its own party, with their own organizations of struggle that can put an end to the class rule of capitalism and imperialist war.