Workers of one country, unite!

Around the left

There has been quite a fuss over recent weeks in these pages about the term ‘national socialist’. Some seemingly hypersensitive comrades in Scottish Militant Labour have protested (too much) that we are characterising them as beer-swilling tartan Nazis. But, in reality, it is quite clear what we mean by that term - a pithy label for all those groups which advocate a national road to socialism, parliamentary or otherwise. SML clearly fits the bill.

However, for a ‘classical’ example of national socialism pick up a copy of Communist Review, the ‘theory and discussion’ journal of the Communist Party of Britain/Morning Star.

The most notable article (and not just for its appalling proof-reading) is by a certain professor WJ Rees, who died three years ago. His claim to fame, apparently, is to have translated the Communist manifesto into Welsh from the original German in 1948 for the Welsh Committee of the Communist Party. Rees’ article is entitled, ‘ “The working men have no country” - what did Marx and Engels mean?’ Communist Review announces almost with a sense of pride, as if we are witnessing history in the making, that professor Rees “prepared a paper on Marxism and the national question which the Communist Review is publishing for the first time, in two parts” (spring 1997). Excellent, more to come.

In the manner of a medieval theologian discussing how many angels you could squeeze onto a head of a pin, or what Jesus really meant when he said that the poor shall inherit the earth, so our professor tortures himself, and the reader, with his scholastic deliberations on what Marx and Engels really meant by their (in)famous statement, “The working men have no country”. Clearly, argues our learned gentleman, only a fool or simpleton could believe that what Marx and Engels actually meant was that the workers have no country - ie, socialism is international or it is nothing, and that communists actively look forward to the disappearance of national characteristics. No, no. “There can be little doubt that this is a misinterpretation,” says Rees. 

In order to shed some light on Marx and Engels’ “unfortunately” obscurantist formulation, our professor deploys his full academic armoury and splits it into five separate meanings, and then launches into an ultimately befuddling textual analysis of those six words.  After all, as Rees explains, “During the last century the word ‘nation’ and its equivalents were being used in at least five different senses and we have to try to discover among them the meaning or meanings which [Marx and Engels] had in mind”. These five “senses” are the legal, ethnic, ethnico-legal, idealist and social meaning.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with trying to dig beneath the surface of any concept/term or in trying to approach it from a different angle. Yes, this is a highly complex and important question, and we should not take it for granted that we know what Marx and Engels meant. Question everything, doubt everything - including, obviously, Marx and Engels. If this was the intention behind professor Rees’ project then, in many ways, good luck to him. Even if we thought he was profoundly wrong, we can enter into a polemic (with his epigones, that is, in the CPB) and the debate moves on.

But this is not the purpose of the article. Professor Rees is being deliberately obfuscatory, precisely in order to provide a ‘theoretical’ justification for the CPB’s (and the CPGB’s before that) rightist opportunism. The conclusions that the late professor draws are designed to be music to your average CPBer’s ears. Frankly, this makes professor Rees a scholastic prostitute for rotten, and rotting, ‘official communism’ and right-moving left reformism.

Hence, in the ‘new and approved Marx and Engels’, as according to Rees and the CPB, we are told this: “When the Manifesto was being written the migration of workers across national frontiers in Europe was already considerable ... Under such circumstances an Italian settled in France had no patria and a German settled in America had no Vaterland ... Marx and Engels were not expressing their approval of the fact but expressing their disapproval”. The authors of the Communist manifesto thought that the best thing for workers would be for them to stay in their ‘own’ patria or Vaterland, Rees suggests.

Hold on though, it gets better: “When Marx and Engels said that the working men have no country it seems reasonably clear therefore ... translated into present-day language, they were saying that the right to [national] self-determination is but an empty right where workers are concerned. They thought it an empty right because the conditions of life of the working class did not permit them to take advantage of it”. Everybody “clear” now? Still, it certainly helps explain the CPB’s position on Ireland ...

Professor Rees also draws another conclusion, which will bring a warm glow to the heart of all national socialists everywhere, but only nausea to international socialists. After much study, “it seems obvious enough that there is nothing to justify the view that Marx and Engels looked forward to the disappearance of national characteristics”; “there is nothing” to “indicate” that the “disappearance of national characteristics would be the probable consequence of the adoption” of the views of Marx and Engels; and even that they “acknowledged a nation’s right to defend its own characteristics”. It almost goes without saying that, “‘Trotskyism’ has been seen as a cosmopolitan deviation which ignores the different levels of revolutionary consciousness of different national groups”. Not that professor Rees or anybody in the CPB ever subscribed to such a view, of course.

If you fancy a straightforward defence of national socialism though, then try ‘Britain can take the road to socialism’, by Rob Griffiths in the same journal. We can “make substantial inroads into state-monopoly capitalism” and start “clearing the path to socialism”, Griffiths tells us cheerfully - if the Labour government can “resist the drive to European state-monopoly capitalism”, if it is “prevented from going the same way as its predecessors”, and so on. What is more, if the CPB and the left in New Labour get their act together, there is the exciting prospect of “a Labour government of a completely new type” around the corner, one “committed to anti-monopoly policies and far-reaching democratisations of the state apparatus”.

Idiocy, yes. But cheerful idiocy at least, as opposed to the dark and gloomy scholasticism of the late professor Rees.

Don Preston