Some more thoughts on "the national question"

Some more thoughts on "the national question"

After almost six months of putting it off, I spent an afternoon reading over Against Nationalism recently, as well as some of the criticism published in response.

I was one of the main authors of the pamphlet when I was a member of the AF in the UK. It's been long enough since I looked at the text to allow to look at it with something close to fresh eyes. In lots of ways I think its sound –there's nothing wrong with the arguments on the historicity of nationalism and the nation-state as a political discourse and its relationship with capitalism. Obviously, the rejection of specifically nationalist politics as ultimately a dead end is as necessary as ever.

However, there are problems with the text, and I don't stand by it in its entirety now. I want to discuss the important ones in this post.

I think one problem is that the text doesn't explain why nationalism, despite its relative modernity, is so resilient, mutable, and attractive for so many people. It doesn't provide a materialist explanation for the 'continuing appeal of nationalism'. I won't try and provide that here, because it's been done very well by Junge Linke / Wine and Cheese here. Their analysis is very compelling.

The main problem I want to look at is a lack of materialist engagement with the reality of nationality as a determiner of the concrete experience of exploitation. In retrospect, it is incorrect to dismiss the nation as a “smokescreen”, as despite its very recent history (by the standards of human history), and its contradictory, alienated nature, it is something that is experienced in a direct way on a daily basis.

One paragraph stood out as problematic:

Anarchists in the class struggle (or communist) tradition, such as the anarchist federation, do not see the world in terms of competing national peoples, but in terms of class. We do not see a world of nations in struggle, but of classes in struggle. The nation is a smokescreen, a fantasy which hides the struggle between classes which exists within and across them. Though there are no real nations, there are real classes with their own interests, and these classes must be differentiated. Consequently, there is no single ‘people’ within the ‘nation’, and there is no shared ‘national interest’ which unifies them

In a sense, this is not correct. In the case of war there is a shared interest in not being bombed to pieces, just as there is a shared interest for example in not contracting Ebola or being killed by a tidal wave. Nonetheless, broad generalities like this aren't of much interest to communists – they obscure the specific interests, experiences and realities of classes in capitalism. The overarching shared “interest” will be experienced in radically different ways.

However, there is a more serious criticism. While it is important to differentiate and delineate the experiences of classes, it is also important to understand the experience of class within everyday life. This daily experience is modified dramatically by identity, most importantly by nationality, race and gender.

I want to illustrate this by focussing on a couple of examples.

Migrant workers

One obvious case which illustrates how the experience of work is mediated by national identity is that of migrant workers. Specifically, I want to briefly look at the case of illegal migrants.

According to the International Organisation for Migration there are at most 32.1 million illegal immigrants in the world, in the UK, the figure is frequently estimated as being up to half a million. In terms of employment, illegal migrants frequently find work in manufacturing, cleaning and in restaurant kitchens in the UK, as well as in domestic work.

With regard to the daily lived experience of migrants in conditions of illegality, is would be reckless to say “The nation is a smokescreen, a fantasy which hides the struggle between classes which exists within and across them.” The reason for this is that national status in this case determines the experience and nature of class exploitation. Illegal migrants cannot rely on the rights or protections afforded to the rest of the workforce1, nor can they insist on the legal limits on exploitation with regard to working hours, rest breaks or minimum wages. On top of this, their illegal status puts them at the mercy of both the UKBA and threat of deportation, employers exploiting this threat, and in many cases (sometimes the same case) extortion by traffickers and other criminal elements.

The experience of exploitation, and the possibilities available to do something about it are directly figured through nationality as a lived experience. It is a material reality. In this case, it would be a gross simplification to describe the nation as a “smokescreen.”

Workers under occupation

A second case in which nationality determines the lived experience of class exploitation is in the case of military occupation.

The obvious case here is Israel/Palestine, and given the polemical purpose of the original pamphlet this is the example I'll be looking at, again keeping it brief.

The situation of Palestinian workers is dire. Trapped within the bantustans of the West Bank and Gaza, and surrounded by a fortified wall and a ring of Israeli checkpoints, they face massive unemployment (45.2 % in besieged Gaza2). Most industries in Gaza have been destroyed by the blockade of raw materials. For those that have a job, life is harsh – the wall has cut off many from their jobs and livelihoods, and those who travel through checkpoints face long waits.

Palestinians form a vast pool of cheap, highly exploitable labour for the Israeli economy. Those who travel to Israel or to the illegal settlements rely on a system of short-term permits, which can be revoked for various arbitrary reasons, placing them in a highly precarious position. Moreover, international development agencies have assisted in the development of “industrial zones” in the territories. The jobs there are frequently highly precarious and reliant on the Israeli economy, and labour laws have not yet been codified, leaving the workers unprotected. In effect, these regions will cheaply manufacture goods which will then be sold back to Palestinians via the Israel-controlled Palestinian economy.3

In short, the lived reality of class exploitation in Palestine is determined in a very harsh and real way by nationality.

None of this is to say that there is no working class in Israel with struggles of its own, or that there is no exploitation of Palestinian workers by Palestinian bosses (or the Palestinian authorities), or that we should line up behind “the resistance”. But the depth and breadth of the reality of occupation mean that we can't speak in vagaries about the nation being a “smokescreen”, “hiding” class struggle – the occupation penetrated society so fully that it is not possible to understand class exploitation in the territories without discussing it.

So can we talk of “national oppression”? Yes, technically. But again, this is such a broad general statement that it's not of much use to communists – Palestinian proles are oppressed in a qualitatively different way to Palestinian bosses or government hacks, and "national liberation" politics are ultimately a dead end.

However, on the other hand we cannot discuss class in the territories honestly if we do not account for the realities of nationality.

Does any of this change the politics we adopt in response to “the national question”? Not really – our praxis should always be to organise across racial, national, gender, etc boundaries, but effective strategies need to be based on an understanding of the specific realities faced by actual groups of workers on a day to day basis.

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Jan 17 2012 20:40


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Jan 18 2012 02:07

I thoroughly oppose the slogan and concept of "national liberation", especially in this time period. However, I agree that to reduce national oppression to a "smokescreen" is incorrect. National oppression is a very real thing. Resistance against imperialism is definitely class struggle. However, when we say (correctly) that "national liberation is a fraud", in the minds of many people that translates to "national oppression isn't real." Now that isn't our fault, but that is the reality we are with.

I think we need to emphasize that we do support resistance against imperialism, and that oppression of nationalities is a very real thing. However, we need to argue at the same time that the politics of national "liberation" can not pose a solution to imperialism or national oppression at all. "National liberation" or "right of nations to self-determination" can not fight it at all. The reasons for opposing national oppression by the national bourgeoisie is completely different and completely opposed to the opposition to imperialism by the proletariat. Hence, the only resistance that can be at all meaningful is one that rejects the bourgeoisie of any nation, rejects nationalism, and is fought on a class basis.

Another problem with the correct opposition to the politics of national liberation is that some people think this means that the proletariat in oppressed nations should "wait" for the proletariat of the oppressor nation to 'join forces' with them or whatever. We should always say that those proletarians who know clearly the line of march should never wait for other workers to play catch up - they must struggle with or without them.

In summary, nationalism of any type can not end the realities of national oppression.

Jan 19 2012 12:11

Some useful corrective points made here.

What strikes me though is that the problems associated with migrant labour both legal and illegal are not just associated with movenent accross existing national boarders but movement within some national boarders - China being a good example. Of course that also gives rise in some cases to similar seccessionist and separatist political movements claiming their own national liberation and so it goes on with the division and redivision of the world.

Global capitalism also appears to be creating a more and more 'unattached' and flexible globalised working class without that necessarily being reflected in a conscious recognition of that reality by those experiencing it in their daily lives, partly due to deliberate manipulation of laws around labour 'rights' and 'citizenship' to the advantage of capitalism. Opposition to that 'discrimination' is not however the same as nationalism but rather it's opposite - class unity irrespective of 'national' origins.

Jan 27 2012 15:20

I think these are useful clarifications. Would you want to incorporate these changes into Against Nationalism and then run them by the AF to see if they could just be incorporated? I'm sure that would be fine, then it means the updated text can be circulated, which would be really good I think

Nov 26 2014 12:33

This popping up again is handy given the continueing arguments around Kurdish nationalism on other threads, but did the AF ever get round to discussing this collectively and can we expect this otherwise good pamphlet to be amended or have an addendum inserted in current editions?

Mike Harman
Mar 4 2018 17:32

I've just written up a blog post on the multiple general strikes (and inter-territorial transport strikes) that hit post ww2 sub saharan africa. Strikers shot by colonial police and troops, British TUC officials sent in to negotiate with and restructure unions. If you look at Kenya you can see the narrative of the Mau Mau uprising is mostly a British invention since there was a massive urban strike wave connected to Rift Valley agricultural workers prior to the KLFA being driven into the forests. I really think it would do everyone good to get more familiar with this history and that position papers like Against Nationalism need to deal with concrete examples a lot more.