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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After the lockout in 1913, James Connolly realised that Irish independence was necessary to build a state on socialist principles.
.. and Connolly’s example is one of the best, most practical of them all. However he was a real socialist and would be utterly shocked by the posturing of today’s crop of pseuds over issues of marginal relevance.
I’ll be a nationalist, separatist and socialist until Independence Day plus 1. Then I’ll resume being an internationalist and socialist.
It’s Karl Marx and not Carl Marx. Proof-reading is needed before posting. Welsh nationalism is not “a nationalism choosing love” because those who claim to be ‘Welsh nationalists’ constantly verbalise their hatred towards the English and anyone who doesn’t agree with them. Anyone who listens to the ‘nationalists’ can hear or read it. It’s more akin to national socialism of Nazi Germany and their hatred of Jews, Slavs, Romany, Sinti, etc. It’s because of the nationalist’s internationalism that is taking their attention away from putting Wales and the Welsh language and culture first. They have been putting others first for… Read more »
I have always understood ‘nationalism’ to be the opposite of ‘imperialism’, and in that sense is always ‘internationalism’.
Some interesting points. I fear that the ‘hate speech’ is something that has drifted over from the nasty corners of Facebook and the like. It is deplorable really so well done for reminding us, but given what the Tories do and say in relation to Cymru it is easy to become cross. Why not write us an opinion piece on how people could become the type of Nationalist that you propose?
Policies from the “non-nationalist” party:
British jobs for British workers
Controls on immigration
No return to Freedom of Movement
Has anything held back Wales as much as Nationalists’ childish fear of being anything like the big, bad sinful Tory boogy man scarecrow?
Come on fellow Welsh, be bad.
Really pleased we’re being lectured about our own country by someone who lives in New Zealand
I’m from Wales
An excellent read – as a lifelong socialist and a lifelong supporter of welsh independence im pleased to see Hayden Williams demonstrate how there is absolutely no contradiction between the two. But i think Hayden’s piece also helps explain why there’s always been a heavy dollop of british chauvinism running thru the british left and why the british left (whilst always claiming to be ‘internationalist’) has always had a blind spot when it comes to welsh and scottish nationhood
Serious question, Leigh – If a truly Socialist government were established in London, proving to enact every single policy and introduce every single law and statute you see as being within your Socialist ideal but opposed independence for Cymru, would you still advocate for indy and oppose that government?
Good question, if it was ever likely to happen that is. My answer would be to support that government’s good initiatives whilst still supporting an independence modelled on them (with our own thrown in – they’re not going to think of everything). The fact is it’s never going to happen because England is fundamentally a more right-wing country than Cymru (with apologies to the many decent English people over the border), so we’ll never have to worry about it. Independence is the only way we’ll ever get anything even close to socialism.
Thank you, an answer from someone who isn’t ideologically possessed. I don’t think your model for progress is a good one, and I think that it is tactically disastrous – any substantive support for a Westminster government whilst under their rule begs the obvious question: why fix what isn’t broken? As unlikely as it would seem, a socialist government of the UK would be one I oppose more vehemently that this wishy-washy kleptocrats – ideological entrenchment would make them more vehemently against indy than the Conservatives, you watch. But that’s just a prediction (based on historical and extant examples). If,… Read more »
If you need to ask a question like that you obviously didnt read my comment properly 😉
Who are Carl Marx and Engles?
I’m assuming they are not to be confused with those 19th century political philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
What I also find fascinating on this subject is the fact that there is only one (nationalist) party in Wales. That’s something which usually occurs only in totalitarian countries, ‘the unique party’… However, comparison is not reason and it works remarquably well for Wales, and it does not keep its supporters to be open, humanist and democratic, the contrary. That’s quite unique (is it the same for Scotland and Ireland?). It means that the majority of these Welsh patriots, somehow, have the same political sensibility. How is that even possible? In Brittany, there is now about six or more nationalist… Read more »
Greetings to our cousins in Brizh
Look closer at Plaid and the SNP – there is no political unity at all, only the ever-dissipating fumes of a once united goal – our freedom. Further, this one party approach does not work “remarquably well” at all. In fact, I think it will prove to be the main reason we have not already gained our independence. The Scots failed. We haven’t even asked yet. All the while scores of other nations have claimed their place among the community of nations. Political plurality (that is to say a broadly left, broadly right, a liberal and a socialist-ish option but… Read more »
We now have an authoritarian “left” leader who’s even abandoned liberal “free speech”, as in his Covid rules and refusal of a Welsh Covid inquiry. As it would have exposed his errors
If Wales returns a Labour government in 2023/4, it will be the first time the people have returned a conservative majority.
Read that again.
It probably is.Does it harm us ,probably not however voting Labour most certainly is.
Nationalism is left wing when the nation is not independent.
Right wing for when it is established
Not necessarily. The Texans who want to succeed from the US are pretty right wing, same with Alaskan separatists.
Welshness by definition is an oxymoron statement when applied to those of Cymru. Especially seeing how we aren’t foreign to Britain and the term British directly comes from the British language, a language English speakers call Welsh. We are being disingenuous and lied to every time we call ourselves Welsh over Cymric, or even British. We will never gain independence while we 1. Ignore our own history and self identity, and 2. allow someone else to benefit of said History, as the English are currently doing.
Welsh nationalism should be neutral when it comes left/right politics. There is an automatic assumption that Wales is a left leaning simply because we compare ourselves to England
The last thing Wales needs is to become a communist country. Ask anyone who’s ever lived in one.
This article should have been titled “The Main Reason Wales won’t Achieve her Freedom” This is another classic Marxian game of “let’s take definitions because they have a degree of popularity and actually mean something else”. Nationalism is to believe in the concept of the nation state and to prefer the interests of one’s own nation in her governance – to claim that Marx, Engles or even the more insular forms of Marxists like Stalin and Mao were ‘nationalists’ is, at best, ignorant and at worst, another favourite game played by Marxists – avoid responsibility for our many failures. All… Read more »
You have to be a nationalist to be an internationalist. Internationalism is the interaction of nationalists. Many on the left, who bang on about hating nationalism, do not realise this, or ignore it.