1990s >> 1991 >> no-1043-july-1991

Nationalism—a dangerous illusion

Nationalism is at the top of the list of political illusions used to blind capitalism’s victims. As Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto in 1848, “the communists are reproached with desiring to abolish countries and nationality. The working class have no country. We can not take from them what they have not got”.

From Cairo to the Cape there is hardly any sign of liberty, not even the capitalist brand such as exists in places like Britain where the working class is at least able to organise itself into trade unions and political parties. This kind of liberty in the West is interpreted by the newly emerged tin-pot dictators as “bourgeois democracy”. For centuries the African continent was carved up among the powers of Europe, mainly England, France and Portugal as well as Belgium. Italy and pre-1914 Germany. Now most African countries have gained their independence, but you can hardly see any difference except the colour of the flag. There is no remedy for the oppressed class simply by changing white masters to black dictators.

So national liberation is an illusion for liberty and freedom. Religion and tribalism, sown by the former colonialists, cause wholesale bloodshed and killing. Consequently many people hate the system of oppression operated by their own governments (the tin-pot dictators) and have had to flee to save their own lives. That’s why you can see today many refugees from Africa and throughout the world. These refugees are treated badly wherever they go and are classified as stateless. Therefore to “have a country or to belong to a nation” is absolutely meaningless.

In the struggle to win the minds of the working class socialists have to confront the strongest sacred belief, and one of the biggest obstacles to the establishment of socialism: nationalism—the loyalty felt by many members of the working class to “their country”, the political unit in which they happen to be born and live.

Feelings of loyalty to a nation-state are purely subjective, having no basis in reality. The working class in Britain has more in common with the workers in other countries than it has with the Duke of Westminster. Nationalist ideologies and movements represent the interests of the capitalist class.

Politically, nationalism is ambiguous, in that it can take on a “right-wing” or “left-wing” form. This depends on the position of the capitalist class at a particular time and place. If political power is held by the aristocracy or nobility, and the capitalist class is struggling to assert itself, then nationalism will have left-wing connotations. This was the case in Europe until 1848. when nationalism was a romantic revolutionary force against the traditional ruling class. However, once the bourgeoisie has captured and consolidated its power, then nationalism becomes a conservative and “right-wing” force.

In the advanced part of the world—UK, USA and Western Europe—nationalism is conservative, while in the Third World countries nationalists who are engaged in struggles against a foreign ruling class or home-made dictator are “left-wing”. The World Socialist Movement opposes all nationalist movements recognising that the working class “has no country”.

Modern capitalism raised the setting up of nation-states to a fine art. As the first capitalist states expanded into other continents, they became accustomed to defining frontiers with a paper and pencil, as they did the map of Africa, which provided the borders for the new states they eventually set up. The motive for nationalism is to protect the interests of the dominant class in a nation state. But, because nationalism is important to the interests of a ruling class, there are problems when within a nation-state there is a minority group which fosters its own identity and traditions and which therefore may be perceived to owe its loyalty or at least a greater loyalty to the group rather than the state.

In Britain today, in a pub or social club at the weekend, we can hear all kinds of ideas being expressed, many of them picked up from the newspapers like the Sun, Mirror and Express or television. We hear the nationalist who announces that he is proud to be British. Yet 80 percent of the people in Britain own less shares between them than the richest 1 percent. Those who speak of “our country” usually have little more than a rent book, a mortgage or a UB40 card to show for it.

Then we can listen to the racists who will blame problems on blacks. Jews or Irish. Their racism arises from fear that someone else is competing with them for council houses and on the wage-slave market (labour exchange). Workers who are patriotic will readily sacrifice themselves when called upon to do so, either by allowing themselves to be exploited more intensely at work or by participating in a war against a group of foreign exploiters or dictators. The Gulf War is a classic example of this. So workers should reject the nonsense idea of nationalism and should unite for their common good to abolish capitalism and nationalism and work for socialism.

Michael Ghebre