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Journal of the Communist Party of Australia


Beware False Internationalism

by Erna Bennett

Interdependence and “internationalism” have been promoted to some prominence lately by capitalism’s ideologists. Words such as these, however, come strangely from the lips of those whose preferred social system, in the opening years of this century, sent millions of conscripted worker-soldiers to their deaths in the nightmare battlefields of World War I in the name of nationalism and, still today, think nothing of stage-managed wars around the planet to boost their flagging national economies.

Fashions in ideological weaponry may change, but the reality they conceal remains the same. Words like “internationalism” and “nationalism” are in danger of the same ideological distortion and devaluation that “democracy” has already suffered if their new use by the theoreticians of capitalist globalisation is not challenged.

In the communist and working-class movement, too, nationalism and internationalism have been keenly debated, and continue to be so. With the Cold War defeat of the socialist states, under nationalist and reactionary external pressures, the debate has intensified.

There is still a great deal of ideological confusion on what we mean when we speak of nationalism and internationalism. The two words are almost always presented as opposites. One, internationalism, is widely accepted as a natural principle of socialism and the working class, while nationalism by default is seen as its opposite, and therefore reactionary. But this counterposing of internationalism and nationalism misses the point and to do so is a major source of confusion.

For example, where are the national liberation struggles to be placed and how are we to regard them? As nationalist? What is the difference between regional autonomy, on the one hand, and national independence, on the other? And, if the European working class is internationalist, why do we feel that it must oppose European Union? And what should be our view of regional international trade pacts, such as NAFTA and APEC or to the liberalisation of international trade under the aegis of GATT and the WTO?

The more such questions are considered, the clearer it becomes that the distinction that needs to be made is not that between nationalism and internationalism, but rather between what kind of nationalism and what kind of internationalism.

The growth of trade leading to prosperity in the towns, and especially London, was the economic foundation for the strengthening of the British nation-sate. The conditions for economic growth on a more than merely local scale had to be guaranteed.

The nation states that emerged in this way restored, though in a qualitatively different form, a unity that had prevailed in Europe for centuries under the domination of the church of Rome. But nation states did not appear on a European scale until much later — when that continent was shaken by a series of revolutions and near revolutions in 1848.

Then, and only then did the European bourgeoisie, having gained the upper hand, feel confident enough to assert its doctrine of the nation state. As Hobsbawm says:

Whatever else it was, 1848, the “springtime of peoples”, was clearly also and in international terms primarily an assertion of nationality, or rather of rival nationalities …

The revolutions failed, but European politics for the next 25 years were dominated by similar aspirations. As we have seen, [the revolutions] were actually achieved, in one form or another, though by non-revolutionary or only marginally revolutionary means …

Even outside Europe, the construction of nations was dramatically visible. What was the American Civil War, if not the attempt to maintain the unity of the American nation against disruption? What was the Meiji Restoration if not the appearance of a new and proud “nation” in Japan? It seemed undeniable that “nation-making”, as Walter Bagehot called it, was taking place all over the world, and was a dominant characteristic of the age.1

Certainly, some nation-states (defined by a coherent history, a common culture, ethnic composition, language and economic viability among other characteristics) had already existed for some time. However,the process of nation-making peaked dramatically in the third quarter of the 19th century in Europe, following the revolutions of 1848, and marked the heyday of the triumphant bourgeoisie.

Just as certainly as some nation-states emerged, other small aspirant “nations” failed to achieve such a status. They were, in the view of the bourgeoisie, too small or too backward to be able to “progress economically”. Irish, Czechs, Finns, a host of Balkan peoples, to say nothing of the Breton, Basque and Catalan peoples and many others, failed to convince rulers of the major European states that they, too, might meet the criteria for “statehood”.

As far as the bourgeois ruling class was concerned, therefore, the criterion for statehood was neither all nor even a part of the cultural criteria that are often cited as constituting a nation.2 The only criterion, according to them, was the purely practical one of economic viability, defined as they chose to define it. Similar definitions have since been widely adopted by modern development economists.3

Clearly the God of economic viability carried decisive weight although cultural criteria are also cited as necessary to constitute a nation. Economic viability was of immense practical advantage to those other nations which did qualify for statehood by virtue of their size. The dominant states then assumed a “right” to intervene, control and exploit both the people and the resources of those non-qualifying nationalities who failed to achieve statehood.

The bourgeoisie promoted its own class version of nationalism —jingoistic, missionary and racist — but consistently greed-driven and accumulation-driven. They exploited “nationalism” to justify the conquest of a great part of the world in search of wealth and raw materials to supply the mills and factories in which a growing working class was creating wealth on an unprecedented scale.

In the century since then, accumulation has led to the growth and eventual quasi-complete economic, and political, dominance of the global economy by the transnational corporations (TNCs) that characterise the present stage of capitalist development. The larger of the TNCs have annual turnovers that considerably exceed those of many nation-states, and are in a position to exert correspondingly heavy economic and political pressures on governments and government agencies.

Governments thus, increasingly, serve the interests of the TNCs and political theories have their origin in these same interests. Here is where the new “internationalism” takes form in the hands of a new generation of “internationalists”, whom we can only call false internationalists.

For example, during the decades-long process of constructing the European Union every sort of deception has been put to work at enormous cost, to present unification as bearing every kind of economic and political advantage — but to whom?

Certainly not to the European working class, who have suffered not only a massive rise in unemployment but also catastrophic cuts in education and social and public services. There is a widening gap between rich and poor. Nor have advantages accrued to Europe’s multitudinous small businesses which have gone to the wall in their hundreds of thousands in the last few years — more than 350,000 in 1994 and 1995.

But the banks and transnational corporations have done very well indeed, and it is from these and their spokesmen that we hear the praises of internationalism so incongruously sung, so much have fashions changed. Why?

The capitalist unification in Europe serves the interests of capital, of the rich and powerful, not labour and the poor and increasingly vulnerable. Nationally elected governments are suborned to the bureaucratic and technocratic control of Brussels more than people in Europe are aware, and much more than the majority of them would tolerate if they did know.

On a world scale, similar processes are unfolding. “National” economies, before long, will cease to have meaning. In 1990, the world’s total foreign direct investment (FDI) was conservatively estimated to amount to more than $2,000 billion, and is increasing rapidly.4 At the same time, FDI has shifted from its traditional concentration on manufacturing and primary industries to a more diversified range of investments, in which finance and banking, insurance and real estate, play a significant part.

Against this background, and assisted by GATT agreements and such regional trading associations as NAFTA, globalisation is dissolving national frontiers. The process is driven by the same forces as drove nation-building in the 1800s, and built empires and waged wars subsequently — “Accumulation, accumulation! It is God and the prophets”, as Marx said.

Until now it was only possible to dissolve the boundaries of nations and swallow their contents by waging war. This was always a risky affair. But transnational capital’s ideologues have now discovered that the dinner jacket is every bit as good as the jackboot, and that the power of money is as great as that of the sword — and both are a great deal safer.

Today’s TNC-inspired and now fashionable “internationalism” is clearly a device to serve the present phase of capitalism in the same way that nationalism was its ideological tool in an earlier stage of its development.

Capitalist “internationalism” demonstrates how easily national boundaries that stand in the way of accumulation and economic expansion CAN be dissolved, in the interests of the TNCs, by laws and trickery as well as force. The end result is the same.

Not surprisingly, a whole new breed of theorists has appeared out of the woodwork to condemn the nation-state as out-dated, and to sing the praises of an “internationalism” that conceals the harsh realities of economic globalisation.

It is no surprise to find such theorists breeding rapidly in right-wing think-tanks and in similar favourable environments, but what is surprising is that some theorists on the left and in the labour movement have embraced these ideas.

Some, in the name of Marxism, have welcomed the arrival of TNCs in any guise and using any means because, they argue, in such a way an industrial working class will arise where it did not exist before, and that this class will, in its turn, open the road to socialism.

Others, mostly social democrats and reformist “socialists” and “labourists” argue that capitalism itself is changing in the direction of greater concern for civil and human rights and that the new “internationalism” reflects this change.

But in reality, capitalist “internationalism” does no such thing. In spite of talk of a common global crisis that “we must meet together” the crisis deepens under the pressure of exploitation and the misuse of resources. The gap that separates rich from poor and rich countries from poor countries, widens to a chasm.

These “internationalists” are internationalist only in their appetites — they are completely indifferent as to the nation or the people they feed on. They are internationalist only in the same way as were the European powers when they spread out into Asia and Africa to construct their empires on previously unheard-of levels of exploitation.

They are internationalist in exactly the same way as Fascism’s New Order in Europe which aimed to conquer the world. That cost scores of millions of lives only 50 years ago.

Those on the left who have fallen for the internationalism of capitalism’s globalisation theorists should think again. What capitalists mean by internationalism, and what the working class mean by it are two very different things.

The real question that must be faced is not that of a choice between internationalism and nationalism, but rather a choice between “what kind of internationalism?” and “what kind of nationalism?”.

The new theorists of internationalism that have sprung up in recent years, and socialists who have fallen for their widely publicised and superficial appeals to universal brotherhood and “our common crisis” have taken to telling us that the time of the nation-state is past and that the nation- state is dead.

If they are talking about the capitalist nation-state, we have no bones to pick with them on that score. But the successor to the capitalist nation-state is not capitalist internationalism but the people’s, socialist nation-state.

The nation-state will reach its maturity when socialist forces rule socialist nation-states. Then, and only then, can we talk about real internationalism — socialist internationalism — built on the foundations of a world community of socialist not capitalist societies.

  1. Hobsbawm, E.J. (1975) The Age of Capital 1848-1875. Ch. 5, pp 103-121, “Building Nations” is as clear an analysis of the process of nation-building and the emergence of nationalism as it is succinct.
  2. The same consideration applies with equal force today, as may be seen from studies on contemporary national independence movements. See, for example, Chapter 2 on “Viability of Nation States” in Tuma, E.H. and Darin-Drabkin, H., The Economic Case for Palestine, London, Croom-Helm, 1978. A more general discussion may be found in Demas, W.G., The Economics of Development in Small Countries, McGill University Press, Montreal, 1965.
  3. “Globalisation — to what end?”, Parts 1 and 2 in Monthly Review, Vol 43, parts 9, 10. New York.
  4. Ibid.

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