1970s >> 1977 >> no-873-may-1977

Nationalism—an enemy of the workers

The nation state was created as the political unit for capitalism in a series of changes which began four or five hundred years ago. It was accompanied by the growth of national consciousness. People were half encouraged and half forced to identify themselves with the countries they lived in, not simply in a territorial sense but as “subjects”. The national myths appeared — Saint George and his ilk, the idea of special traditions and virtues which other countries did not have. In a remarkably short space of time each nation produced its exclusive dedication to “my country, right or wrong”, and has sustained it as an active force into the present day.The overt symbols of nationalism — flags, slogans and silly songs — are by no means the only ones. Because it is made a general outlook, it intrudes in almost all fields and pervades the upbringing of the young. At random from boyhood can be recalled the cigarette cards which showed British wild flowers, birds and butterflies (as if foreigners were, rightly, denied such beauties); the Scout game called “British Bulldog” in which the players battered one another in increasing numbers (native durability and grit); the depiction in comic-books and school-books alike of other nations as “types” comic or villainous, or both. And the casual pejoratives incorporated in everyday speech—“double Dutch” for incomprehensibility, “French” for whatever smacked of indecency, “Chinese torture” for diabolical and unjustly-inflicted suffering.

If none of these is very sinister in itself, all produce a condition of mind. Moreover, the other nations all have their own equivalent versions. Each country has its popular account of history which would be startling to people who have learned the rival views: transposing victories and defeats and presenting saintly heroes as infamous rogues. A recent German work showed Queen Victoria not as a dotty old lady, which is sentimentality tolerable in Britain, but as a drunkard. The nearest thing to a foreign account of history that can be read in English is a Roman Catholic textbook, where a good many episodes appear altogether different.

The fiercest jingo nationalism today is to be seen in the new nations. In crude militaristic and patriotic preaching the Tory Party in Britain is almost outclassed by the Russian and Chinese governments; and their language is echoed in turn by the leaders of the “third world” countries. Clamouring for a place in the capitalist world, these new ruling classes vie for whatever gives prestige and is good for business. At the same time, they have to impress the natives with the importance of nationality: history is rewritten, “alien” defined and condemned.

The Social System
Before the nation-state, partisanship was related to small-scale economic interests. Wars were fought between cities, tribes and the proprietors of rival domains. The peasant population took part only to the extent that it was tempted or compelled to. The armies and mailed knights of the Middle Ages were mostly mercenaries — an outstanding example was the Janissaries of the Turkish Sultans: as youthful captives from Christian provinces they had no attachments to the Muslim empire, but they nevertheless provided its military strength for several centuries.

Capitalism has existed as a fully-developed system for two hundred years. Before that, for another two hundred years, the growing capitalist class struggled — consciously — towards political power. Commodity production forced the nation-state into being, on the lines of good-sized geographical units in which the powers of government were to legalize private ownership and ensure the freedom of the commodity. Capitalism means the ownership by a single class of all the means of producing and distributing wealth, and the directing of all activity to the single end of sale at a profit.

This was the end of barons, domain-holders and twopenny princes (though, development being uneven, some of them held on until the 1914-18 war). But the rise of capitalism meant also the creation of a vast single class of non-owners: the “free” working class, with its own commodity labour-power to sell, and indeed unable to survive as persons in any other way. On one hand the working class was (and remains) doomed to insecurity and varying degrees of poverty by the economic laws of capitalism. On the other, production for market in a world of nation-states has led inexorably to national and international crises and to wars on a different scale from any in previous history.

It is a world-wide system into which more and more regions and peoples have been drawn swiftly throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. In each one, that class division and the associated problems have been reproduced because they make the organic structure of capitalism. This is the fundamental issue in modern society — yet it is obscured by the banners of nationalism. It can be seen as a test for those who say they believe in Socialism. When the choice has to be made, do they declare for the working class or “the nation”? In all the wars of this century the world’s social democrats and “radicals” have chosen the latter without hesitation. In the present economic crisis they are all talking about getting “the country” out of trouble. It is logical, because they support capitalism.

Frauds of Nationalism
The Germans were hated and caricatured in Britain before 1914 because they were rivals in trade. Through nationalist eyes all other nations are different from “us” and actual or potential rivals. Every event is in some sense a contest, demonstrating that one’s own side is better than some or all of its rivals. “Our” country is superior to all the others in art, literature, sports, military power, inventiveness, the character and physical beauty of its inhabitants, climate, scenery and cooking—and must remain so. Plenty of working people hold this belief; “my country, right or wrong” was parodied by G. K. Chesterton as “my mother, drunk or sober”.

The political claims of nationalism build on this. They argue that the problems of workers in a given country will be solved, and a golden age for them begin, by recovering or enlarging the country’s supremacy. This is the promise of nationalist leaders in new countries, and is also being made by the Scots Nationalists with reference to the oilfields off the Scottish coast.

Unfortunately there is not a shred of evidence that this could be or has ever been so. In The Other America, published in Britain as a Penguin Special in 1963, Michael Harrington investigated the assumptions of Galbraith’s The Affluent Society. Using figures from the Bureau of Labour Statistics, he estimated that the poor—families with “inadequate housing, medicine, food and opportunity”—numbered between forty and fifty millions, or between 20 and 25 per cent of the population of the United States. “As technology has boomed, their share in prosperity has decreased.” The period when Britain was industrially and commercially supreme was also the time of Marx’s indictment of capitalism, of Engels’ Condition of the Working Class, of horrifying reports by reformers like Chadwick and Booth.

Nationality is an accident, and national causes are frequently accidents too. In February this year The Guardian published reports on a possible “trade war” between the EEC and Japan. On 8th February it said the Japanese Prime Minister was “strongly inclined to draw parallels” with the 1930s, and went on: “Last week he gave warning that efforts to restrict Japan’s export flow could create the same chaotic conditions that led to World War Two. If there was a ‘trade war’, as he predicted, the blame would be with Britain and every other country contemplating limits on Japanese imports.” It must have been surprising to many to learn that, if war with Germany had not broken out in 1939, war with Japan was on the cards.

A further example is Namibia, which is due to become an independent state in 1978. The present collection of tribes and ethnic groups are about to become Namibians; they will have a flag and a national anthem, and the nationalist “ours” will centre on diamonds—it is one of the richest parts of Africa in minerals.

Whose ?
“Ours” is the deceitful word in nationalist propaganda the world over. In a newly developed country, nationalism is the demand of native capitalists to exploit the workers and peasants lest somebody else should do it and have the profits. What kind of “ours” is being talked about? In Britain and other industrialized countries workers talk about “our” trade, “our” reserves, “our” jobs allegedly taken by immigrants. They are not. They are all at the disposal of those who own the means of living. The worker has no claim on them: he owns nothing but his labour-power.

The working class have no country. By persuading workers that they have a stake in “the nation”, capitalism obtains their support at critical times. What they should bear in mind is that the nation-state is the political institution of the capitalist system: its raison d’être is to keep the working class propertyless. Nationalism can do nothing for the workers except confirm or worsen their position. Pleasure in a locality or its culture has nothing to do with the matter; it is a reasonable sentiment on which nationalist fraud builds, but which capitalism will destroy without compunction.

There is a different affinity to recognize. This is the identity of interest of all those who live by selling their labour-power. The working class is worldwide, and as members of it become conscious of the nature of capitalist society and their position in it, they open the way to a different social organization based on common ownership. Just as capitalism has produced a world of nations in conflict, Socialism will mean the end of nationalities and frontiers—and classes. What will bring it into being is you thinking for yourself instead of letting them think for you.

Robert Barltop