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All kinds of socialists deride nationalism, as do some republicans. It is often seen as a recruiting base for fascism, for imperialism and the cause or justification for war. Indeed it has been all those things. And yet …. Perhaps the way in which nationalism has been viewed by the Left and Republicans is one-sided and its progressive potential overlooked. And perhaps taking a look at Basque, Catalan and Irish nationalism can demonstrate this.
Was James Connolly1 being reactionary when he upheld the rights of the Irish nation to separation from the United Kingdom, to self-determination? Was Thomas Davis being reactionary when he composed the words
“Oh can such hope be vain?
That Ireland, long a province be
a nation once again!”2
Recently I began to question some of the criticisms of nationalism politically while at the same time I had struggled with them culturally for much longer. A few people may say that it matters nothing to them whether they are Irish, Italian or Iraqi. But most Irish people identify themselves quite strongly as “Irish”. I think that is primarily a cultural question. They have accents, sayings and history they share, character flaws and positive aspects, heroes, songs, poems, writers …. It is not the same for everyone but some of those aspects, in some kind of mix, are there for each person who identifies themselves as Irish. And of course, the sadly neglected Irish language. I don’t believe identifying oneself as Irish (or Icelandic, Iranian or Indonesian) makes one any less an internationalist.
“OK,” the socialist and the republican might say, especially the socialist, “but what does that matter? You can have regional cultures too. They do not detract from the fact that we are all socialists, fighting for the working class everywhere.”
And I would agree.
But the socialist is not finished. “It’s a different matter entirely when you elevate that cultural distinction to a political one, which is nationalism. That creed puts your nation above others and is a breeding ground for fascism and war and, in powerful nations, for imperialism.”
He has a strong case – but we’ll see.
Fascism is on the rise all across Europe and many other parts of the world and we see signs of its resurgence here in Ireland, with discourses against migrants, moslems and social freedoms on the rise. The fascists and the racists working among those discourses are indeed using nationalism as a cover and at the same time as some kind of a base. Recently, supporting Gemma Doherty, they were playing the Soldiers’ Song and Irish Republican ballads and they were waving the Tricolour. Some of them approached the antifa opposing them, asking questions like “Are we not all Irish?” 3
Now, as it happens, the national flag, the Tricolour, is not only about inclusiveness, i.e of a unity (white) between the descendants of colonists (orange) with those of the indigenous (green), but was also made by foreigners and presented by them to the Irish. It was in fact republican women of Paris, which was then amid revolution, who presented it to Thomas Francis Meagher in 1848.
Of the heroes and martyrs mentioned in the ballads, many were born outside of Ireland, including two of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation of Independence: Tom Clarke and James Connolly. Constance Markievicz too was born in England, daughter of a colonist family in Ireland; Wolfe Tone and Henry Joy McCracken, Republican leaders and martyrs of the 1798 United Irish uprising, were descendants of French Protestants. Many too were the sons of a non-Irish parent, such as Thomas Davis, whose father was Welsh and Patrick and William Pearse, whose father was English., also Eamonn De Valera, son of a Cuban father. The man who organised the sea journey to Howth with German Mausers as illicit cargo for the Irish Volunteers in 1914, Erkine Childers, was English and his wife and one of his crew, Molly, was from the USA.
On the other hand, those who made the deal with the British ruling class after years of liberation struggle were Irish — in 1921 they paralysed the revolutionary struggle, agreed to the partition of the country and in 1922 set out, even using artillery on loan from the British, to slaughter their opposition, their former comrades who wished to continue the revolution. Childers, the English gun-runner to Howth, joined the IRA in the War of Independence and in the Civil War, during which the new Irish State executed him.
The conservative forces, political and religious, that were the base of the new state and gave rise to the Civil War, had a kind of nationalism but it was quite weak. Most of Ireland became part of the British Dominions4, owed allegiance to the British Crown and “God Save the King” continued to be played at state occasions even while the Tricolour waved overhead. And it was from that seedbed that Irish fascism sprung for the first time, in the form of the Army Comrades Association, popularly known as “The Blueshirts”.
And because this fascism came from what was perceived as a State that had sold out the struggle to the foreign oppressing power, the Irish Republican movement found itself obliged to fight it and did so. From the most anti-communist right-wing Republicans to the most left-wing, they fought the fascists with publicity and physically, with fists and boots and, occasionally, with pistol shots. Socialists and democrats fought them too but it was the Republican-nationalist Government of Fianna Fáil5 that banned the Blueshirt march intended to lead to a coup and forced the organisation to back down, after which, despite enthusiastic support of the Catholic Church hierarchy, it did not again pose a serious threat of assuming state power.
Since those years and particularly since the end of WWII, Irish society has been on the whole anti-fascist in sentiment and the Irish Republican movement, with some exceptions, particularly so.
It seems to me, upon reflection, that although much of this sentiment is based on democratic and even socialist ideals, it is also, in part, a defence of Irish nationalism, a deep-seated wish for independence and self-determination, a memory that fascism in Ireland serves British domination.
And not only a memory but current reality: British Loyalism in Ireland, the militant force that garrisons and underpins colonial possession of the Six Counties (one-sixth of the area of Ireland) by Britain, is extremely reactionary. Apart from the numerous links with British (and even European) fascist groups over the years, Loyalism is deeply socially and politically reactionary. British Loyalism in Ireland is opposed to immigration, has been implicated in racist attacks on migrants, is opposed to any state recognition of the Irish language or civil rights for people of Catholic background, in addition to being against the struggles of the Palestinians, Basques, Catalans; also to gay rights and to the right to choose abortion.
SPAIN AND “THE RISE OF THE RIGHT”
In another part of Europe, there is a state which had experienced a military-fascist coup and war, after which it suffered four decades of fascist repression. Spain, after the death of the dictator Franco, went through a supposed Transition to democracy but the fascists remained in their positions of power which they handed down to their sons and daughters, these making room for a few social-democratic climbers at the table.
The November 10th elections this year in the Spanish State saw the rise, it is being widely said, of the far-right. It would seem so on the surface but one needs to understand that all the parties of the Right in the Spanish state have their origins in the Dictatorship: the allegedly “conservative” Partido Popular was created by followers of Franco; the allegedly “centre-right” Ciudadanos was formed by deserters of the Partido Popular, while the “ultra-Right” Vox was formed by deserters of Partido Popular and of Ciudadanos. There is in fact little political difference between those who vote for different parties of the Right and certainly none between those who voted for Ciudadanos before and those who have now voted for Vox. Most of the trumpeted “rise of the Right” in the Spanish territory is in fact a re-allocation of votes from one right-wing quasi-fascist Spanish party to another, rather than an increase of votes for fascism. Of course, that does not at all mean that there is no danger to popular and democratic forces but still …..
Viewing the rise of those votes for Vox and their pattern across the territory of the Spanish State, one can see that Catalonia and the Basque Country remain untouched, as any map of voting results will show. Basque and Catalan independentists tend to be proud of this, no doubt justifiably so but perhaps there is a danger here too. Do they think that at base, Basque and Catalan people are superior to those in the rest of the Spanish state? If so, they should think again …. and think deeply.
The Basque Country was, until the military-fascist coup, ruled by deeply conservative and Catholic elites. When Franco and the other Generals struck with German Nazi and Fascist Italian assistance in 1936, of the four Basque provinces within the territory, only two unequivocally decided to fight it: Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa. Alava’s resistance was half-hearted and in Nafarroa, the conservative Carlists wiped out three thousand socialists, anarchists and democrats and joined the fascist-military forces.
Until very recently, the Nafarroan regional government has been dominated by the UPN, a Basque version of the Partido Popular and, after a brief interval, they are in power again. The other three southern Basque provinces have a separate regional government which, for most of its existence, has been in the hands of the right-wing Basque Nationalist Party and the only time it has not, has been a brief period under the Basque version of the Spanish social-democratic party, the PSOE.
In 1936 the attempt to bring Catalonia into the fascist-military side was only prevented by a workers’ uprising and actual street battles. After the death of Franco Catalonia was also run, until very recently, by right-wing Catalan forces which, not so long ago, sent its regional police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, to beat social and economic protesters off the streets and to shoot them at close range with rubber bullets, causing around a dozen young men and women to lose an eye.
On the other hand, the regional Government of Andalusia, now seen as a stronghold of the Vox party, has been ruled by the social-democratic PSOE from the moment the region had democratic elections after the Transition. However years of corruption and lack of concern for the fate of working people and high unemployment in the region has whittled away the electoral lead of the PSOE until this year, when Vox and Ciudadanos were able to combine and to take over the regional government.
FOR NATION, AGAINST FASCISM
Within both Catalonia and the Basque Country, independentist forces, which is to say, those of a nationalist and republican motivation, have evolved to be led by groups espousing left-wing ideology. Generally, the young activists and supporters are atheist or agnostic, anti-racist, liberal socially and environmentally conscious. But they also defend their language, enjoy their cultural expressions and either support independence or at least the right to self-determination. The opposition of these forces to fascism seems to me to rest on two pillars: 1) left-democratic ideology and 2) defence of the nation.
Similarly to the case of Ireland, those of unionist ideology and opposed to self-determination in Catalonia and the Basque Country tend to be on the Right with a fascist core and the major support for those fascists and unionists comes directly from the Spanish State through its police, military and judicial systems, as well as from fascist groups mobilised from outside Basque and Catalan territories. English and English-colonist nationalism tends to be based on colonial and imperialist history and thinking, to be reactionary and even fascist, features which it shares with Spanish nationalism, with the added factor that the forces creating and managing the Spanish state in its current form have been actually fascist and fascist-collusive.
I have therefore come to the conclusion that Basque, Catalan and Irish people are no better than anyone else fundamentally, including the English and the Spanish, but that the conditions governing the development of their culture and their resistance to foreign occupation and domination have given rise to a different kind of nationalism. This nationalism tends to be progressive, democratic, inclusive and anti-fascist …. and is playing a progressive role in the world.
1James Connolly (1868-1916), born into the Irish diaspora in Edinburgh, is considered by many the foremost revolutionary socialist thinker in western Europe in his time but he was also a trade union organiser, founder of political parties, journalist, historian, author and song-writer. He was a co-founder of the Irish Citizen Army, the first worker’s army in the world, which also recruited women on an equal basis.
2A Nation Once Again, published in The Nation, by Thomas Davis (1814-1845), Irish Republican journalist and song-writer.
3Protest of racist campaigner Gemma Doherty against proposed restrictions on “hate speech” at the Irish Department of Justice, Stephens’ Green, Dublin at the beginning of November this year.
4This however changed in 1937 with De Valera’s new Bunreacht (Constitution) which declared the Irish State to be a Republic and the Articles 2 and 3 of which laid claim to the Six Counties (overturned in 1999).
5A 1926 split from Sinn Féin on the issue of occupying seats in the Dáil (the Irish Parliament), it grew quickly and was soon elected to government (1932) and, as the preferred party of the native Irish capitalist class, has been in government more years than any other Irish political party. Despite its Republican origins and rhetoric, it continued to support the capitalist-Catholic Church alliance of its predecessor until very recently, when it criticised abuses by the Church of those in its care and failure to pay adequate compensation.