Sunday, July 01, 2007

Bragging Rights

Book Review from the July 2007 Socialist Standard.

The Progressive Patriot by Billy Bragg

Singer and songwriter Billy Bragg has produced an engaging and enjoyable read, in an attempt to search for a meaning to his working class upbringing and his relationship to the place he was born, Barking in Essex.

This is a romp through political and economic history as well as a look at popular music and culture as Bragg experienced it growing up in the 60s and 70s. The chapters that work best are those where Bragg examines his family origins in East London, analysing key historical events from a family perspective and using the historical artefacts they left behind to do it, from pictures of dockland trade union struggles to wartime diaries and gas masks. As might be expected, the chapters focusing on Bragg’s formative musical influences are good too, and he has an ability to set them in a social and political setting in a way that links his personal development to wider developments: most notably the vestiges of the hippy era, punk rock and ‘Rock Against Racism’.

His ultimate aim though is to ‘reclaim the flag’, finding a meaning and purpose in Englishness that transcends and even nullifies the Little Englander nationalism of the Euro-sceptics and the outright racism of the BNP. This is a more difficult task and one that is inherently problematic. For while having pride in tangible places that have meaning to those who live there (in Bragg’s case, Barking) is one thing, having patriotic pride in entirely artificial constructs such as nations is another thing altogether.

In effect Bragg tries to create a left-wing English nationalism that rivals the leftism of the nationalist parties in Wales and Scotland, as if Welsh and Scottish nationalism had somehow been a force for radical politics (rather than another nationalist dead-end) that England can emulate in some way. He writes intelligently about England and the Empire, and the methods through which it came about, yet can still find time to bemoan the fact that England was the only country in the last World Cup without its own parliament, passport and national anthem.

If Bragg’s anti-racism and pride in his class is highly commendable, then this experimental flirting with nationalism (whether English, British, or any other) is as dangerous and misplaced as his long-documented support for the Labour Party. While the book is entertaining and worth reading, it suggests that his ‘search for belonging’ that is the book’s subtitle, still has some way to go.



Jools said...

Good review. This attempt to create a 'progressive' civic nationalism seems all the rage these days (for example see some of Andy's posts over on the Socialist Unity blog. I don't buy it, but then again I'm not sure that I buy the idea that nations are entirely artificial constructs either (any more so than pride in the local area you were brought up in). Either way, the task of replacing nationalism ('progressive' or otherwise) with a progressive internationalism is a difficult, if worthwhile, one.

Charlie Marks said...

I am rather tired of Billy Bragg exhorting me to vote Labour, but I must defend him on civic nationalism.

If a progressive perspective on nationalism is not put forward by socialists then the definition of national identity is left to right-wingers, and Anglo-Saxon politics is bereft of an alternative to the "Anglo-Saxon" economic model and English nationalism becomes a backward ethnic chauvinism, a bastard child of the imperialist outlook of British nationalism.

I've always felt the SPGB lacked an anti-imperialist perspective (Socialist Party of *Great Britain*?) but saying that the Welsh and Scottish nationalisms are a dead-end seems unreasoned: in the process of political decolonisation, economic decolonisation might well be possible, and although reforms do not destroy capitalism, they do strenghten the working class.

There is a strong anti-imperialist and anti-racist quality to the civic nationalisms in the celtic nations, in contrast to the Labour movement in the 20th century which at best equivocated and at worst endorsed imperialism.

This progressive civic nationalism needs to be imported to England. Perhaps the SPGB doesn't see the need to break-up britain, thus weakening US imperialism because there is a lack of understanding of imperialism.

hallblithe said...

Thanks for your comments.

Neither nationalism nor anti-imperialism! Here is a useful reply to a recent enquirer on the first topic:

"On the question of nationalism and national identity we should point out that “the nation” is an instrument of political manipulation and as such is a very recent historical development. It is also a much debated one. If you are interested in the historical emergence and development of nationalism we recommend you read Nations and Nationalism by Ernest Gellner.

Many of today’s nations did not exist even two hundred years ago. Germany and Italy for example only came into existence in the Nineteenth Century. Many of the nations of Africa are post-colonial political entities that cut across the boundaries of language and ethnicity that are theoretically supposed to make up a ‘nation’.

In other words ‘nations’ are artificial political constructions that appear at a certain stage in historical development. They have to be made. As one Nineteenth Century Italian put it “We have made Italy . Now we must make Italians.”

To bolster the idea of ‘nationhood’ its supporters use all manner of bogus arguments and arbitrary and/or invented traditions. And it is an unfortunate fact that nationalism is a politically divisive force not an inclusive one. It asks us to support the supposed “us” against the supposed “them”. And just who the “us” and the “them” are is decided for us of course.

Nations will not exist in Socialism – only humanity will.

This is not to say that people will cease to have warmer feelings to certain parts of the world than others, will probably have preferences among the range of human artistic, musical and other intellectual achievements. But pride in ones nation will surely be seen as much a piece of nonsense as pride in ones “race” [another artificial construct that does not exist in nature]. One cannot be proud over something over which one had no control. None of us can choose in advance the nation into which one is born."

With regard to imperialism, anti-or otherwise, the following extract from a reply to an African-based writer states clearly the Socialist Party's position:

"... we don’t accept Lenin's theory of imperialism (which sees the struggle at world level as being between imperialist and anti-imperialist forces) with its implication that "imperialism" is something different and worse than capitalism. World capitalism, not the "imperialism" of particular capitalist powers, is the cause of the problems workers all over the world suffer from, and the solution to the problems of workers in Africa lies not in kicking American imperialism out of Africa but in uniting with workers in the rest of the world to replace the world capitalist system by world socialism. This is the aim of the World Socialist Movement"

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