As the Brexit deadline nears with no deal in sight, we bring this contribution from Dr Paul O’Connell on the vexed question of internationalism and the nation-state. Arguing that the state ‘has not been transcended, but rather augmented to better serve the interests of capital’, he puts forward a vision of socialist internationalism that begins with the assertion and restoration of democracy and working-class power at a national level.

An oft heard refrain in sections of the European left holds that while the EU is flawed, it is important to remain in and reform it, to advance the cause of internationalism. This argument is usually run alongside derisory dismissals of some caricatured notion of ‘socialism in one country’, and uncritical assertions about the power of globalised capital.

The problem with this argument is that it fundamentally misunderstands the nature of socialist internationalism, and as such misapprehends what a commitment to internationalism demands of us in the era of Brexit and the multiple crises of the EU. This is a shortcoming we cannot afford, and as such we need to be clear about what the internationalism of the working class means in the current conjuncture.

Back to basics

At the heart of socialist internationalism lies the shared, material interests of working people. This point was well made by James Connolly in 1909, who noted that just as the interests of the capitalist class are international, so too workers must be ‘interested in every revolt of Labour all over the world’. This key insight has provided the basis and impetus for centuries of solidarity amongst working people. It also provides the starting point for socialist commitments to anti-fascism, anti-racism and all forms of liberation politics. And this form of internationalism remains at the heart of any form of socialism deserving of the name.

Indeed, the foundational document of the international socialist movement, The Communist Manifesto, concludes with the rousing call for workers of all countries to unite. Socialism, then, has from the outset been internationalist in its orientation. It has acknowledged that workers shared interests transcend the narrow horizon of nationalism. But even in the Manifesto the complexity of what this internationalism meant in practice was appreciated by Marx and Engels.

A commitment to internationalism in principle, cannot justify the abandonment of concrete, local struggles in practice. As Marx and Engels put it,

 Though not in substance, yet in form, the struggle of the proletariat … is at first a national struggle. The proletariat of each country must … first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoise.

What this observation draws out is a crucially important, but often overlooked, point about the complexity of socialist internationalism. The internationalism of the working class is based precisely on the strength of working-class movements and organisations at the national level.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but it is well captured by C.L.R. James’ observation that ‘genuine internationalism must be based on the national scene’. Working class internationalism, then, is not about the construction of castles in the sky, or of unmoored ‘internationals’ with not organic connection to national working classes. It is about building the power and solidarity of working-class communities, movements and organisations at the local, national and international levels.

The class consciousness of the frequent flyer

In contrast to an internationalism that foregrounds the shared interests of working-class people, the EU project represents and institutionalises the interests of capital. It constitutionalises the free movement of capital, and in this way makes governments and states subject to the diktats of capital. As Claus Offe notes the freedom that the EU treaties accord to capital dramatically diminishes the power and rights of democratically elected national governments and enhances the power of capital.

While the political economy of the EU enshrines the transnational interests of capital, the ideology of liberal cosmopolitanism provides a moral veneer for the project. By waving the flag of free movement of people (a freedom that has always been partial, and subject to the interests of capital), and extolling the virtues of a post-national constellation, this truncated internationalism naturalises and valorises the EU project and the internationalisation of capital.

This is, however, a world away from the internationalism of the working class. It reflects, instead, the class consciousness of the frequent flyer. The sections of the national middle classes around Europe who are best placed to take advantage of the opportunities for material advancement presented by the EU project.

In the actually existing EU, notwithstanding allusions to solidarity and Social Europe, the Treaties and political economy of uneven and combined integration constitutionalise inequality between the core and peripheral states, and within countries. This structural inequality then generates resentments, from constituencies in the core who are told they are bailing out their profligate cousins in the South, and from the masses of the PIIGS who see their living standards decimated to service capital based in the core countries.

This form of integration does not, and cannot, foster solidarity, but instead produces stark divisions and enmities of all sorts. It is for this reason that Asbjørn Wahl argues that the EU project represents ‘the greatest threat to Europe’s unity, not on a national, but on a social, basis’. The political project that Europe’s ruling classes are wedded to serves, first and foremost, the interests of capital. The social and economic policies they pursue to advance this project decimate the living standards of working people and provide fertile ground for the siren call of reactionary, nationalist and nativist politics.

It is the EU project itself that fundamentally undermines and precludes the advancement of genuine internationalism. In the face of the deepening crises of global capitalism, the EU’s main role is to try and stabilise and restore the system, in the interests of capital. The EU as it actually exists cannot be reformed in any meaningful way, and as currently constituted it represents a threat to solidarity within and beyond Europe, and would be a fetter on any national, left-wing government which sought to break with the logic of neoliberal capitalism. As such, socialist internationalism today requires a fundamental rupture with the EU.

Global capitalism and the nation-state

One of the central tenets of left-wing arguments to remain in the EU is an uncritical acceptance of the liberal canard that national states have been transcended by global capitalism, and only in a transnational bloc, such as the EU, can the interests of working people or the political left be advanced. This reflects a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of contemporary capitalism. While capitalism is, and always has been, international, it has never, actually transcended the need for nation-states.

This point was well made by Ellen Meiksins Wood, who observed that, notwithstanding the rhetoric of globalists and neoliberal ideologues alike, the ‘state is more essential than ever to capital, even, or more especially, in its global form’. The truth of this can be seen clearly from the fallout of the financial crisis that began in 2008: after decades of the end of the state rhetoric it was national states that bailed out banks and financial institutions, it is national states that implemented and continue to implement the austerity policies that transfer the costs of these bailouts onto working people, and it is national states that police and repress opposition to these policies, such as the Macron regimes violent repression of the Gilets Jaunes protests.

Certainly, in the era of globalised, finance-led capitalism, the balance of power between democratically accountable national states and capital has shifted decisively in favour of the former, but this has been as a result of policies adopted by states, and regional trading blocs such as the EU. The state, then, has not been transcended, but rather augmented to better serve the interests of capital, and the EU has been a central actor in this process of state transformation.

A central task for socialists, then, is to be at the forefront of asserting and restoring the power of democratic, nation-states vis-à-vis transnational capital. Because, as Samir Amin noted the nation-state ‘remains the [site] in which decisive struggles that transform the world unfold’. It should go without saying that this is not about a retreat into bourgeois nationalism (which it is increasingly clear is served best by the stunted project of EU integration), rather it is about understanding the centrality of building internationalism in the only place that the foundations for it can be laid: the struggles of working people at the national level.

This point is well made by Asbjørn Wahl who notes that

Coordination of resistance across borders … requires strong and active movements at the local and national level. There is no abstract global fight against crisis and neoliberalism. Social struggles are internationalized only when local and national movements realize the need for coordination across borders in order to strengthen the fight against international and well-coordinated counter-forces. But international coordination presupposes that there is something to coordinate. In other words, organizing resistance and building the necessary alliances locally are decisive as a first step.

The illusion that the left can, through sheer will, capture the levers of power within the EU and use these to transform Europe into a more social space is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the EU, but also on what is required to build genuine internationalism.  Breaking with the system that constitutionalises and privileges the interests of capital does not sound the death-knell for internationalism, rather it can provide the impetus for rebuilding genuine, socialist internationalism. The nation-state has not been swept from the stage of history, rather it is the principal site for socialists today to launch a counter-offensive against the internationalism of capital.

Our internationalism now

There is a fundamental difference between the truncated liberal cosmopolitanism of the EU, and the tradition of socialist internationalism. It is a fundamental error for anyone on the left to overlook this difference, or to conflate the two. In the context of the ongoing crises of capitalism it is only the internationalism of the working class that can offer real solutions to declining real wages and living standards, and to the rise of the right. Attempting to yoke anti-racist and pro-migrant politics to a defence of the institutions and political forces that were central to producing the current crises would be a tactical dead end for the left and would surrender crucial terrain to the right. In the present conjuncture the threats posed by the rising far right and the ongoing crises of capital can only be confronted by building new forms of internationalism, grounded in the struggles of working people at the national level.

Originally published on 12 February 2019 at as part of the In historical thunder and lightning series which examined the Impact of Brexit.

About the author:

Dr Paul O’Connell is a Reader in Law at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. His particular interests lie in the areas of globalisation, public law, human rights (particularly socio-economic rights) and social movements. He is an editor of Legal Form, a forum for Marxist analysis of law.