Sunday, 28 August 2011

Britishness – an impossible concept?

I think we can all agree that any concept of nation and nationality, wherever they are in the world, are social and political constructs. Nations are historically constructed based upon lines on a map, often many hundreds of years old. As an island nation, the lines of the map are rather more easy to define for Britain, but historically, the “kingdom” of Britain could have included much of northern France, and if it were not for the various struggles of medieval Britain, the concept of Britishness, and of much of Europe, could have been very different today.

Nations are also constructed on ethnic grounds. These ethnic divides were accentuated as history progressed, with various ethnic groups settling in different geographic areas, often based upon the same artificial lines described above.

But nationhood is also capable of encompassing ethnically diverse groups. We are quite familiar with concepts of British-Asian, British-Afro-Caribbean etc. and many people self identify as such. National identity along these lines allows different groups to come together and construct a shared identity based upon common values and engaging in common expressions of democracy and government.

But what is it that makes British identity different from French identity, or American identity, or Chinese identity? Where did Britishness come from? How is this concept constructed, and more importantly, how is this concept exploited?

In the Communist Party pamphlet, Whose Nation? - Democracy and the national question in Britain, John Foster outlines the CP's position thus:

What we call the 'democratic nation' in Britain is composed of all those currently in it, wherever they come from, united by their democratic right to determine their future using the political institutions fought for by generations of working people. . . It is a democratic nation that is committed to change because its members are exploited and oppressed. It is defined by class struggle because of the class nature of our society.

In that sense the 'democratic nation' of Britain is exactly the same as the democratic nations of any capitalist country, for wherever capitalism is present, there are members of that nation who are exploited. But this definition does not answer the question of what defines national identity.

We must also never fall into the trap described by Georgi Dimitrov in his report to the 7th World Congress of the Communist International (1935):

We Communists are the irreconcilable opponents, in principle, of bourgeois nationalism in all its forms. But we are not supporters of national nihilism, and should never act as such. The task of educating the workers and all working people in the spirit of proletarian internationalism is one of the fundamental tasks of every Communist Party. But anyone who thinks that this permits him, or even compels him, to sneer at all the national sentiments of the broad masses of working people is far from being a genuine Bolshevik, and has understood nothing of the teaching of Lenin on the national question.

So there is something that we need to do to define Britishness, and to defend our concept of Britishness against those put forward by the bourgeois state and the far right.

I have suggested that Britishness encompasses values of tolerance, diversity and equality. But that is not true. Those ideals are not British, they are values shared by all democrats and progressives across the world. My original definition was scrawled onto a T-shirt I was wearing at a UAF rally. It was a slogan written to counteract a reactionary opponent. It is a concept put forward by the bourgeois state and liberal elite. That does not make it bad in itself, but it is another construct, an aspiration, used to plaster over the divisions in our society and nation created by our existing political and economic system.

Our current society and concept of nation attempts to bind together the various diverse groups who have been thrown together following years of empire, colonialism and imperialism. We are forced to define Britishness in the liberal-elite way in order to prevent our society from collapsing.

What we, as communists, need to do is challenge the concept of a nation built on an amalgamation of multicultural sentiment. We need to allow ethnic diversity to exist and flourish, but we need our 'democratic nation' to be built not only upon a shared sense of culture, but a shared realisation of class. By highlighting and emphasising the class nature of our nation, the antagonisms that so often divide ethnic groups, and are so often exploited by the far right, will be diminished.

And that same sense of identity is present in our party's structure. We are the Communist Party of Britain. But in Scotland the party is “The Communist Party of Scotland” and the same is true for Wales. But there is no Communist Party of England. Why? Because although the various nations of Britain express their own identities within the party, so too does each district. The party is organised by branch, district and nation, but, as is the case in the South West, we have district committees that operate autonomously under the leadership of the National Executive Committee.

The South West is officially the “South West of England and Cornwall District”. Similarly, each branch will define itself by place. A branch has every right to call itself not just, for example, the “North Devon Branch” but also the “North Devon Communist Party”.

There is nothing unusual in this. As we aspire to the “withering away” of the state, the very idea of nation defined by Britishness loses significance. As the vast structures of state are dismantled, and the nation is not governed nationally, but locally, each locality within the nation is able to develop its own sense of identity. National structures become irrelevant as the only functions they need to perform become bureaucratic. The state becomes the servant of the nation, rather than its master.

I realise I haven't actually defined Britishness yet. Nor can I. Britishness will be defined as it always has been – by whatever ideology is dominant at any given time.

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