The danger of left nationalism in the UK and Europe

What’s happened to Socialist Internationalism? Anna Paterson finds disturbing signs around the Corbyn leadership of an insular political project

From Germany to France to the UK, some parts of the left see clawing back the sovereignty of the nation state and curbing immigration as key to protecting “our own workers and communities” and rolling back neoliberalism. These ideas are now more than ever at odds with the reality of global capitalism, and the limits of what nation states can achieve in isolation. In going down this left nationalist path, left leaders in Europe and the UK are losing touch not only with the core values of socialism, but also with progressive grassroots movements as well as their own supporters. Critically, they are also feeding into racist and divisive narratives about immigrant workers which can only benefit the far right.

In the fog of Labour’s Brexit policy, events in late January and early February shone a light on the hardening position of Jeremy Corbyn and some of his key advisers and friends. First, in late January, the Labour Party vacillated and prevaricated over the Immigration Bill, allowing this most feeble of governments to pass a detestable bill with ease. Then news broke in early February that Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey had been conducting direct negotiations with Theresa May on the Brexit deal, offering support for delivering Brexit in return for guarantees for British workers. McCluskey’s comments on Brexit have long focused on the dangers of immigration. After the referendum in 2016 he condemned the ‘gigantic experiment’ of the common labour market, which he said had been conducted “at the expense of ordinary [British] workers”. In December 2018, McCluskey warned that “the party has to take concerns about immigration into account, and that if politicians had done so sooner we might have avoided the current situation”.

Corbyn himself has said he is “not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens” and has on several occasions called for the curbing of uncontrolled immigration, referring to the deliberate ‘undercutting’ of the wages of UK workers. It is important to emphasise that these statements are not supported by the evidence on immigration to the UK. Amongst the serious studies available some do show negative impacts for unskilled workers, but these are small and short-term in nature and are also likely to be greatest for resident workers who are themselves migrants. Declines in both wages and employment rates of UK-born workers in the short run can be offset by immigration’s long term effects in increasing wages and employment. There is a problem with declining incomes and working conditions in the UK, but this is not being caused by immigration.

A recent book on Corbynism by Frederick Harry Pitts and Matt Bolton argues that its key components lie in “seeing the world as constituted essentially of nations” and “posing the nation against global and international capital”. But, the authors point out, the search for sovereignty is destined to fail, not least because “we live in a world structured by capital, a social relation which exists as a world market, from which single states cannot abdicate, no matter how hard they try”. Not only is this emerging aspect of Corbynism pitting itself against the tide of history, but it also produces political rhetoric that shares territory with the nativist Brexiteer right wing. In casting the ‘national community’ as the primary community for whom the left speaks, and in describing not only global flows of capital but also of people as threat to this primary community, the left has clearly contributed to racist othering of migrant workers. Which is why some of Corbyn’s speeches on Europe have drawn praise from the likes of Nigel Farage.

Corbynism’s emerging left nationalism is treading the same path as parts of the French and German left. As far back as 2016 Sahra Wagenknecht of Die Linke challenged Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to accept more than one million refugees, calling for limits on entry. In an environment where the far right is stoking fears about ‘violent’ immigrants with fake news and conspiracy theories, Wagenknecht has called for the deportation of any refugees who ‘abuse’ German hospitality: a call in complete contravention of the UN 1951 Refugee Convention, and one that drew praise from the far right Alternative für Deutschland.

In 2018 Wagenknecht and husband Oskar Lafontaine set up the Aufstehen (Rise Up) political movement that promotes left wing economic policies and social protections alongside an explicit criticism of Germany’s refugee policy and a ‘left wing case for curbing economic migration.’ The Aufstehen narrative is very similar to that of Corbyn and McCluskey: letting in migrants makes life harder for German workers and the left needs to take workers’ concerns about migration seriously and claw back ‘sovereignty’. This trend is echoed in France where Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise populist left movement combines left economic and social policies with an explicit criticism of migration. “I have never been in favour of freedom of arrival”, Mélenchon has stated. Migrants, he has said, “are stealing the bread” of French workers.

These leaders appear to be at odds with the very founding heroes of socialism whom they claim to follow. Marx famously said the working class had no nation, and Marx’s view of history and progress envisaged that as it progressed, capitalism would break down national boundaries, which socialism would eventually erase completely. In an 1870 letter, Marx wrote that in their prejudice against Irish immigrant workers, English workers became ‘a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists’. Indeed the prejudice of the English worker against these Irish immigrant workers was the ‘secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation.’ Lenin, to whom some of Corbyn’s advisers are known to look for inspiration, was clear in his internationalist approach to immigration. Responding to various attempts by American socialists to restrict Chinese and Japanese migration, Lenin wrote in 1915 that those in favour of such restrictions could not call themselves internationalists. ‘Such socialists are really jingoes’ he wrote. Socialism was inherently internationalist, because socialism could never be achieved within the borders of one country.

The history of left-nationalism in action is hardly covered in glory. Of course the biggest and most consequential example of left-nationalism in government was the Soviet Union. The theoretical justifications for ‘socialism in one country’ in the Soviet context were penned by Stalin, who turned the necessity of surviving as an isolated ‘socialist’ regime into a virtue. Stalinism increasingly fuelled a messianic Russian nationalism and conspiracy-driven mistrust in foreigners, including the vicious anti-Semitic campaign against ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ from the 1940s.

Turning to the mainstream British left, anti-immigrant sentiment in the UK Labour movement has produced more shameful episodes than can be included here. The Aliens Act of 1905 imposed the first modern immigration controls in the UK, in response to the immigration of Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. The Act was passed and implemented by Conservative and Liberal governments, but the Labour movement was critical in pressing for controls, often using grotesque anti-Semitic language. The Trades Union Council formally opposed Jewish immigration, and passed several resolutions for immigration to be curbed.

After the First World War, demobilised white servicemen who returned to the shipping industry experienced more competition from black and brown workers who had been increasingly employed during wartime. They began to mobilise against these workers through the unions and with the support of certain Labour MPs. Sailors’ unions operated a ‘colour bar’ on black and Asian sailors. The TUC passed a resolution condemning ‘Asiatic Labour’ and demanded preference for white British workers before any others. Racist violence, in which unionised white sailors attacked black and brown workers, ensued in many port towns in 1919 and the crisis culminated in the 1925 ‘Coloured Alien Seamen’s Order’, one of the worst examples of state-sanctioned racial discrimination in modern British domestic history.

In the 1960s and 70s, Asian workers were still fighting for union recognition and against colour-bars that prevented Asian workers from getting promotions. Unions such as the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) repeatedly refused to support strikes by Asian workers. In Tower Hamlets, where I live, the lack of solidarity shown to Asian workers by the Labour movement has cast a long shadow over Labour politics. Of course, both Corbyn and McCluskey would likely condemn these episodes, but they should consider the extent to which their current stance on immigration echoes this lineage.

European left nationalists are clinging to anachronistic views of the extent to which nation states can opt out of the global market, or address global challenges in isolation. They are placing themselves in the dubious tradition of socialism minus its core principle of internationalism. Their final failure is just as important: they are losing touch with, and are unable to engage properly in, grassroots progressive opposition to far right racism and nativist nationalism.

In October last year an estimated 240,000 people in Berlin demonstrated against the far right and anti-immigrant rhetoric. But Wagenknecht declared she would not join Die Linke’s section of the demonstration, inaccurately criticising the organisers for “calling for open borders for everyone”. It is hard not to make some comparison with the 700,000-strong march for a People’s Vote on Brexit in London during the same month, in which Corbyn and the Labour Party leadership were conspicuously absent. There is a deep horror amongst ordinary grassroots progressives at the juggernaut of right wing national chauvinism and anti-immigrant racism. It is the left that should be galvanising that horror into a movement.