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50 Years Ago: A Denunciation of Nationalism

The Indian, M. N. Roy, who was at one time prominent in the Communist International, but later broke away and took a line of his own, recently wrote for the Manchester Guardian (21/6/52) an article “Asian Nationalism. Its Roots in Race Hatred.”

In it he puts the case that the Asiatic nationalist movements are not just movements to secure independence from the foreign governments that kept them in colonial subjection, for even after achieving independence they continue to preach the same anti-foreign doctrines as before. He quotes Mr. Nehru, Prime Minister of India, and advocate of Indian nationalism, as having admitted that he does not know what nationalism is:

“What exactly is nationalism? I do not know, and it is extremely difficult to define. In the case of a country under foreign domination it is easy to define what nationalism is. It is anti-foreign power. But in a free country it is something positive. Even so, I think that a large element of it is negative or anti-, and so sometimes we find that nationalism, which is a healthy force, becomes—maybe after liberation—unhealthy, retrogressive, reactionary, or expansive.”

Yet though Mr. Nehru could not define nationalism he went on to declare that it “warms the heart of every Asian” and that “any other force that may seek to function must define itself in terms of this nationalism.”

Mr. Roy says this is nonsense and that what Mr. Nehru's explanation really means is that nationalism is “race hatred kept alive artificially.”

“Asian nationalism is an unmixed evil. It has not got the saving grace of a cultural and idealist origin as in the case of earlier European nationalism.”

Although Mr. Roy notices that between the wars European nationalism developed into fascism, and quotes the statement of the late Lord Acton that nationality sacrifices everything “to the imperative necessity of making the nation the mould and measure of the State,” he does not appreciate the simple fact that nationalism has been and is everywhere the form in which each capitalist group tries to carve out a place for itself in the world of warring capitalist states. If he did he would not be at all surprised that the politicians who have used nationalism to gain independence from a colonial power need it just as much afterwards in order to persuade the workers to go on fighting capitalism's battles.

If it is an illusion to think that nations can be friendly in a capitalist world provided that they are all “independent” it is equally an illusion on the part of Mr. Roy to think that the Powers, great and small, could dispense with nationalism.

At least one thing Mr. Roy has correctly summed up. Discussing the disappointing results of national independence from the worker's point of view, he says that when India and other countries achieved independence, “absolutely nothing changed except the personnel of the State machinery.”

(From an article by “H”, Socialist Standard, August 1952)