Is Wales’ left-leaning nationalism a contradiction?
This week’s YouGov poll showed support for the Welsh conservatives dropping to 19% while Welsh Labour had climbed to 53%. Despite some minor gains for right-wing populists Reform UK, Welsh values remain predominantly and unambiguously socialist, liberal, and progressive. Since 1867, in fact, when Wales’ working-class were first allowed to vote, Wales has never returned a conservative majority.
Welsh nationalism is likewise a movement coming predominantly from the left. But in an age when nationalism is associated with right-wing authoritarians like Putin, fascists like Italy’s Meloni, or flag-waving bigots like Trump and Truss, isn’t our left-leaning nationalism a contradiction? And aren’t all socialists supposed to be internationalists anyway?
Marx and Nationalism
Karl Marx, the father of modern socialism, believed strongly in nationalism.
Marxists are internationalists by definition, but for Marx, wanting the workers of the world to unite didn’t require people to trade in their love of nation for a love of humanity.
Nonetheless, Marx and Engles’ universalism is often understood to be antithetical to nationalism, because critics have quoted the Communist Manifesto out of context:
“The working men have no country,” they say, quoting from chapter two, and taking this to mean that all socialists should be globalists looking to do away with all divisions and differences between the world’s peoples.
Obviously, Marx understood Communism as unifying, but not as something requiring supranational uniformity. According to Ukrainian Marxist scholar Roman Rosdolsky, “When the Manifesto says that the workers ‘have no country,’ this refers to the bourgeois national state, not to nationality in the ethnical sense.”
In other words, just as Wales has been subjugated within the ‘democracy’ of the English majority UK, the working classes of various nations were disenfranchised from the political life of those nations, because they were controlled by a ruling class which kept them oppressed so as to exploit and live off their labour.
Engels on Welsh Nationalism
This is backed up by what Friedrich Engels said about Wales. Writing in the journal The Commonwealth in 1866, Engels recognised the Welsh, Scots, and English as separate ‘nationalities,’ but not as three separate nations:
“The Highland Gaels and the Welsh are undoubtedly of different nationalities to what the English are, although nobody will give to these remnants of peoples long gone by the title of nations, any more than to the Celtic inhabitants of Brittany in France . . .”
In the same sense, for Marx, the workers ‘have no country’ because, even though they undoubtedly understand themselves to be German, or Polish, or French, or whatever, they have no real stake or say in the running of their country.
Thankfully, times have changed; both Wales and Scotland now have a realistic chance of becoming fully sovereign nations again.
Marx and Engels spoke at meetings held in London and Brussels in support of Polish independence.
In his 1875 speech ‘For Poland,’ Marx said: “It is not in the least a contradiction that the international workers’ party strives for the creation of the Polish nation. On the contrary; only after Poland has won its independence again, only after it is able to govern itself again as a free people, only then can its inner development begin again and can it cooperate as an independent force in the social transformation of Europe.”
In the case of Ireland, Marx believed Irish discontent over social inequality between the native Irish and the landed aristocracy oppressing them would become all the more incendiary because it was enabled by English foreign rule.
In an 1869 letter to Ludwig Kugelmann, Marx wrote that it would be “infinitely easier” to overthrow the ruling class in Ireland than in England, “because in Ireland it is not only a simple economic question, but at the same time a national question, because the landlords there are not, as in England, the traditional dignitaries and representatives of the nation but its mortally hated oppressors.”
Since the time of Marx and Engels, communism has failed, but the number of independent nation-states around the world has multiplied. As Plaid has it, “independence is natural.” It is natural for us to be ourselves, at home, as part of the European community, and on the world’s much bigger stage.
Loving and noisily passionate, generous, and quietly kind, the Welsh are a courageous people of calon, always ready to speak out or stand up for ‘fair play.’
Our nation today can be fiercely proud of its unique sort of nationalism, a nationalism choosing love and humanity over bigotry and exclusivity: a nationalism of the left.
Hayden Williams is a New Zealand based journalist, a member of Plaid Cymru, and a member of the New Zealand Labour Party.
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