Skip to Content

National nonsense

Nationalism is utterly opposed to socialism. Socialists therefore oppose nationalism in all its forms.

It might be supposed that people who profess an interest in the doings of human beings—such as, say, journalists—might well consider a solid and determined strike by nurses over pay to be a worthwhile subject for their notice. This should be especially so when such a strike is going on within but a few hundred miles of their offices, as happened when in October the nurses of Ireland voted by an overwhelming majority (90 percent for) to go on indefinite strike over their shoddy pay. Devoted consumers of the British media, however, would have found nary a whisper on the subject. Clearly, a story of dedicated health care professionals—usually referred to as "angels" by our sharp-eyed reporters—feeling so ill-used and battered by the system that they decided to take action for themselves, is not of interest to human beings on the other side of a small stretch of water. Instead we were treated to facile dissertations upon the constitutional significance of Prince Charles skipping dinner with the Chinese president.

The story is ever the same. Events that occur outside of Britain's boundaries are of no concern to our intrepid observers of humanity, unless they somehow have a "British interest". We are not meant to be interested in the affairs of humans generally, but instead to be concerned with "the British" first and foremost. Indeed, when BBC journalist Kate Adie reported on the Dunblane massacre, using exactly the same style and technique as she would have reported a massacre in some far-flung war-torn region, she was execrated for her insensitivity. The deaths of British children are clearly more important than children dead in war.

Tool of rising capitalist class
Historically, nationalism and national feeling have been the tool of the capitalist class for both winning and retaining power. England, for example, can be seen as having developed through the growth of the economic power and influence of London. As London grew, and began to dictate the economic priorities of the surrounding regions, so to it began to need to control them politically, and socially, in order to protect its own interests. Up until the reign of Henry VIII the feudal barons had lived in almost total autonomy, specifically the far-flung magnates like the Percies of Northumbria. Most regions, villages even, maintained a distinctive identity, set of values and traditions. As their influence grew, it became incumbent upon the London capitalists to try and tailor these values and traditions to win over more support for themselves, or at least to ensure an absence of conflict.

In order to achieve this they adapted the traditions they found among the subjected communities, or even made them up when none suitable existed. A classic example was the myth of the Norman Yoke—that Saxon England had been a bastion of Freedom and Democracy, but that William the Conqueror had imported the tyrannical monarchy and feudalism with him. The historical record shows that the Saxons had extensive feudal structures of their own. Of course, that was irrelevant to the myth-makers. They had a tradition to invent, specifically, one which would unite people behind them against their feudal opponents.

The aristocracy itself maintained a preference of looking towards the complex familial power structures across Europe, rather than to a feeling of community with people of their own domain. Title, land and religion were the factors that mattered to them, not nation. They were more concerned with status among their peers. It didn't matter what language the people who lived on their lands spoke. Further, avowal of the doctrine of the nation was seen as placing an ideological category above the monarch; where before the monarch was the state, now the monarch was to be subordinated to the state.

Making (up) a nation
As the power of the proponents of these ideas grew, so pronouncing an adherence to their ideas became a swift and secure way to win preferment. Hence the power of their ideas grew too, to become the dominant, ruling ideas. There was a further practical impetus for cultural standardisation: the extension of state and bureaucratic power further into life, in order to more efficiently control the economy and delineate property. Coupled with the increased capacity and need for rapid communication, this meant that standardised linguistic practices were needed. Language became a factor in establishing state power, and thus it became a factor in determining a "nation". It's no coincidence that the rise of the nation-state coincides with the invention of the dictionary and the encyclopaedia. It's no coincidence that nationalism is accompanied by a mania for classifying, delineating and defining people into categories. These practical considerations were made explicit by the Polish nationalist Pilsudski, who observed that "It is the state that makes the nation, not the nation the state."

Nations have taken a great deal of building. There is almost no nation-state that has not had its boundaries drawn in blood, its foundations dug out of human flesh. England was nationalised by Cromwell with the deaths of the Cornish and the Irish. France was nationalised by bloody wars between the monarchy and local lords and interests (not to mention the interminable wars with the Germanic states to set the exact boundary between the two "nations"). America was built on the bodies of the native population. It is a process that continues today in the form nation-building, which has taken in Yugoslavia and Central Africa.

The effort, though, has to be ongoing. States have required the use of an education system, to standardise learning, spread a national history and a sense of shared culture. An example of this can be seen in the Thatcher government's enforcement of the intellectually bankrupt notion of a Literary Canon in the National Curriculum: a gallery of literary luminaries, led by Shakespeare, that bored, uninterested children are told are great and something for them to be proud of. On the continent, it was the task of "turning peasants into Frenchmen" that the Republic set itself. Nations are made, not born.

In order to enforce the new system of property over the whole range of its influence, the capitalist class needed the state, and its legitimising idea of nationalism and the nation. Culture resides in sets of ideas, values and practises that set out a sense of precedent, self and future possibility. By imposing the idea of the nation upon a culture, complete with its inherent notions of territorial ownership and property, the ruling class impose their notions of property on the very self-image of the people within that culture.

All possibilities and plans are circumscribed by, or at least must be made in relation to, this logic. So long as people think in terms of the "common good" of the "national economy", in terms of the overall performance of one unit in the world-wide division of peoples, they are, whether consciously or not, serving the interests of the capitalist class. All evaluations, priorities and hierarchies of value within a "national culture" are made from the point of view, from the self-interest, and, indeed, the apprehended self-hood, of the members of the capitalist class. When the economy is "doing well" it is doing so for the capitalists, when the economy is ailing, it is ailing for the capitalists. Their interest and feeling is the condition for action and evaluation of a national culture.

The idea of "the nation", then, functions as a supreme good, beyond the physical and mechanical functionings of the state, to which any cause may appeal. Thus, both Blair and Hague are claiming that their position on the Euro is the true "patriotic cause". Put another way, it is a fantasy, a dream, which can be used to cover up for problems and contradictions in the practice of the state's daily life. Its function is to legitimise both the state and class rule, and sustain a large quantity of support, through workers who identify with the ideals of nationhood and believe themselves to be the same as, and have the same interests as, their masters.

No common interest
Workers, of course, do not share a common interest with their masters. It does not follow that if the "national wealth" increases, or if trade increases, or even if profit increases, that higher wages will be gained by workers. In fact capitalists can only make a profit by appropriating the wealth produced by the workers to themselves; but in the topsy-turvy world of ideology, it seems that workers will only have good pay and wealth when the capitalists are doing well. So it appears that workers and capitalists share a common interest. In fact, the interest of workers is conditioned by the interest of the capitalist, in exactly the same manner as hostages held by a kidnapper: unless the kidnapper-capitalists's demands are met, they will not allow the hostage-workers to have what they need to live.

There is a well-documented effect of hostage situations, called "The Stockholm Syndrome" in which hostages under duress began to identify with their kidnappers, and believe in their cause. Nationalism works in much the same way. It is the Stockholm Syndrome on a grand scale. The working class who are dependent (under the current system) on the capitalists, to whom they are bonded by state-boundaries across which they are not permitted to escape, begin to believe that they share an identity with them. Hence the ridiculous comments we've all heard from people flipping burgers in McDonalds, insisting blindly that they don't like socialism because they're capitalists. Hence further, the ridiculous spectacle of people wittering on about the Union Flag being on British Airways' planes, as if BA were anything more than a vehicle for enriching share-holders.

 

Workers have no country

The only way to define such national identity is to define it in terms of what (who) it is not, i.e. negatively. Thus nationalism sets itself as being against other countries, striving to define a uniqueness of national cultureso as to once and for all set its country apart from others, to know itself by what is un-like it. At one extreme this can include myths about race and blood, trying to attach the national abstraction to some trait of genetics or similar such nonsense. Since people have a strong desire to retain their own perceived identity, and to have a good opinion of themselves, often the creeds based on such identities function in a highly irrational, and ultimately, defensive way. Thus it is usually a sign of desperation and of an incapacity to formulate a coherent argument when our masters resort to playing the nationalist card.

It is clear, then, that socialists must oppose nationalism in all its forms: not just refusing to espouse their creed, but defying the rituals, the anthem signing, flag saluting and other expressions of craven loyalty to the nation-state, that help enforce the idea of nation in our minds. There is no national interest for workers, and any attempt to reform capitalism must be based on a national interest and thus be opposed to socialism. Self-determination for "nations" just equates with freedom and self-determination for a ruling class. It must be opposed in favour of self determination for people, concretely and actually in their own lives. It must be opposed with socialism.

PIK SMEET