Socialist Worker

Show red card to nationalism

by Paul McGarr
Issue No. 1805

NO ONE can have missed the fact that the World Cup is taking place. The tournament will mean different things to different people. Some will simply enjoy the games as a sporting event. It will be a chance to briefly escape from the normal routines of life. Others, corporations like Nike and Adidas, the businesses who dub themselves 'official World Cup sponsors', and the giant media companies have a very different outlook.

They see the World Cup as a giant marketing exercise, a chance to promote and sell their products and make even greater profits. Few people can have missed another feature of the World Cup. Across England more people than for any sporting event of recent times have embraced 'national' symbols such as the Union Jack or St George's flag.

Behind this is the notion, taken for granted in the media and by many ordinary people, that we should all support 'our' national team, just as people from other countries will support 'their' team. Most of those who are cheering England on, wearing a replica football shirt or flying a St George's flag are not right wing nationalists.

Among those cheering England on will be people who are sickened by all racism, and who will march through London on this Saturday's demonstration in defence of refugees. There are people who see something progressive in the way that the symbols of English nationalism seem no longer to be the preserve of the right wing or racist bigots.

The Times quoted Aggy Akhtar from east London last week saying, 'Racists hijacked the flag, but we have taken it back this year. The flag is about celebrating being English-it's an identity.' Some on the left have echoed such sentiments. Musician Billy Bragg argues, 'It's all about reclaiming the notion of Englishness.' Socialists disagree with this-and oppose all nationalism.

You cannot defeat the nationalism of the Tories, Little England bigots and racists by counterposing to it a more 'fluffy', 'popular' or 'multicultural' nationalism. Some would argue that there is no connection between supporting 'your' national team in sport and political nationalism.

International sporting competitions have in fact always been bound up with political nationalism. They only arose a century ago, at a time of intense rivalry between the world's strongest powers. Ever since then they have been a continuation of national political and economic rivalries.

The first modern Olympics took place in 1896. By 1908 rulers sought to whip up national feeling in the run-up to the First World War by imposing national teams on the games. The Tour de France cycling competition was born in 1903 and its Italian counterpart, the Giro D'Italia, in 1909-and both were soon dominated by 'national' teams.

The FIFA football organisation, which organises the World Cup today, was created in 1904 to organise competition between national teams. The World Cup itself was launched in 1930. Those at the top of society have encouraged nationalism in sport as a means to foster a sense of national unity at home.

This is part of the process through which they want us to forget the real divide in society-class. Ordinary people in England may live on the same piece of land as the rich, but they have nothing else whatever in common.

England is not a single 'nation', but is split from top to bottom by class. Cities like London are today great international cities, with people drawn from all over the world. There are working people in England today who originally came from Senegal, Turkey or Brazil, and many, many more places.

All have more in common with each other and working class people born in Stockport, Tottenham or Bradford than with some rich businessman who was born in England and cheers England in the World Cup. Our rulers may cheer the national flag, and want us to do the same, but they know that class comes before nation.

They flit across the world rubbing shoulders with their fellow rich, and treat their own poor and working class 'nationals' with utter contempt. They move money across the world with not a care for which flag flies wherever it ends up, only how much profit can be made.

Only when their profits or power are threatened by some rival do they suddenly call on workers to fight and die to defend 'their' nation. Some claim that, in opposition to the 'national' traditions that the rich and the right wing want us to celebrate, there is another 'Englishness'. They say it is a tradition of ordinary people struggling for their rights, a tradition of the Chartists, the Suffragettes and others like them. There is nothing 'English' about this tradition.

There are struggles across the world of exploited against exploiter, of oppressed against oppressor, of ruled against ruler. And there are good examples of such struggles throughout history and today in England. But they are part of a global class struggle, not an 'English' tradition.

Most of the flag-waving around the World Cup is unlikely to have much lasting impact. Most people would laugh at any notion that it would be unpatriotic to strike or to demonstrate when we should all be uniting behind the 'national' team. Nationalism, however dressed up, is something which helps obscure the real class divide in society and helps divide us from our fellow workers across the world. That is why socialists should oppose all nationalism, and follow no national flag.

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Sat 22 Jun 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1805
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