Chris Harman (1992), a British socialist who died in 2009

The left cannot fulfil its responsibilities unless it is clear on the relation between nation and class. Its starting point has to be a clear understanding that nationalism is about the organisation of capitalist society. On this Kautsky and Lenin were absolutely right against Otto Bauer. Internationalism cannot be achieved by the arithmetic addition of different nationalisms, but by a conscious opposition to them all. There are not Serbian or Croat, English or Irish, Russian or Ukrainian socialists, but socialists who happen to live in one or other of these states. Socialists are not proud of their nationality. They are proud of the denial of their nationality. By the same token, socialists do not stand for the maintenance of “their own” national culture, but for the integration of all that is best in every culture into a new, cosmopolitan, human culture. This is important for those who have been brought up to identify with the culture of oppressor nations – but not for them alone. As Lenin stressed repeatedly, any defence of the separation of cultures ends up in a defence of the separating off of workers from one another, just as the capitalist production process pulls them together. It plays into the hands of reactionaries among both the oppressor and the oppressed nationalities.

At same time, however, socialists have to understand the only way to bring workers of different nationalities together is to insist on free association. Internationalism does not mean identification with existing states. Workers who regard themselves as having a certain nationality cannot unite freely with other workers within the same state unless they know those workers defend their right to secede if they so wish. Croat workers will not unite with Serb workers unless the Serb workers defend their rights – including the right to secession. Serb workers will not unite with Croat workers unless Croat workers oppose every attempt to discriminate against and oppress the Serb minority within Croatia. Only by the workers of different nationalities defending each others” rights can they create circumstances in which nationality ceases to be of significance to any of them.

There is a difference between oppressor and oppressed nationalities that socialists have to understand. We can fight on the same side, temporarily, as the bourgeois or petty bourgeois leaders of the oppressed nations against the oppressor. We can never be on the same side as the oppressors against the oppressed. And internationalism can never mean simply balancing between one and the other.

But even when we find ourselves on the same side of the barricades as the leaders of a national movement, we have to understand their goals are not our goals, their methods not our methods. They are out to establish new capitalist or state capitalist states, and that will mean them turning against their own workers and if necessary turning their guns on us. We are out to develop the international struggle of workers, to unite workers of the oppressed nationalities with workers who have mistakenly identified with the oppressor in the past.

We are for the right of secession – and, in certain concrete situations for the struggle for secession – because we are for the unity of workers. Nationalists who are for the same goals are out to break this unity, to put nation before class. One of the reasons the left is in such poor shape to deal with nationalist challenges like that in former Yugoslavia or the former USSR is that it has not understood these things in the past. It has flipped between wrapping itself in the flags of small “progressive” nationalisms and identifying with the great oppressor states like the USSR – or even, in the war in former Yugoslavia, calling for the intervention of the major Western imperialisms. It will indeed be tragic if the left does not learn how to fight for internationalism as people become sickened by the nationalist delirium.


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