2000s >> 2003 >> no-1185-may-2003

The meaning of nationalism

The concept of the nation is very real force in the minds of people today. The outlook of “us and them” is a strong notion in the lives of many people. The idea that the world is naturally divided into nations is widespread. This can be partly explained by the propaganda of nationalist groups, but there are other reasons too.

Why have the ideas of national differences taken a firm root in so many of the minds of the ordinary people? It was not always so. As late as the 19th century in Russia, a typical peasant would usually identify himself by his religion and home region or village. With the onset of the First World War, many of these peasant conscripts were unable to understand the idea of two nations at war. They saw themselves as tied to their village commune first, and Russia second. They were right in wondering “what has this war got to do with us?” Yet, as usual, the simple logic of such a question was swallowed up in the insane slaughter for resources and profit for the capitalist classes.

Russia was a backward nation in terms of the West and modern capitalism, but the bourgeois revolution of 1905 helped to “modernise” the nation to a certain degree. With the advance of schooling and technology, the folk culture of the village tended to be replaced with a “national culture”, as literacy, schooling and effective communication between regions became more widespread.

Centralising the population in towns and cities added to this “nationalising” effect. This was in place in Europe before it was in Russia, and, as we know, Marx based much of his ideas on European capitalism. From some of Marx’s writings in the Communist Manifesto it would seem he thought “national one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness” were becoming less entrenched as modern capitalism caused inter-dependency between nations and communication and transport technology improved. This would of course allow ideas to circulate much more quickly across the globe. It was assumed that this would lead to backward cultures and petty nationalism to be wiped out, but as we see today, it has not happened.

The world of nationalism is full of contradictions, odd ideas and illogical notions. The idea that a line of a map, a so-called “national border”, should actually mean something concrete to the workers is laughable. Let’s imagine that a human, born in the area of land known as France, is standing two feet from the “border” with the piece of land known as Germany. Another human is facing them from across this line, a so-called “German”. Are these two people utterly alien to each other? They may speak differently and have differing customs perhaps, but that is all due to material conditions and the ideology of the ruling group (which will be capitalism dressed up as a benevolent democracy). Both people have to sell their labour power for wages, and are manipulated and exploited by a capitalist class. A typical nationalist or “patriot” would argue that they are alien because all French people are a certain way and all Germans are a certain differing way. But any differences that do exist are minor.

Why nationalism survived
As mentioned, some socialists in the 19th century seemed to think that nationalist beliefs would fall apart as capitalism covered the globe and the entire planet became based on capitalist values. As nations became dependent on each other and general education increased among the masses, surely people would see that the concept of the nation would be obsolete? The next clear step would be to end the tyranny of the privileged minority that controlled the vast amounts of wealth and property and move towards common ownership. World socialism would be the end result. However, today capitalism is still here, and so is the idea of nationality. In today’s society of wage labour, where we are required to sell our labour power for wages, nationality is perhaps more potent then it has ever been. Since the working class finds little meaning in its wage labour, a draining process, as the people alienate themselves from their own life activity, they search for meaning in other places.

In the World Cup, the Japanese fans often wore the national colours of the opponents, showing that nationalism often, literally, runs skin deep

People are not machines; they need something else, something to sustain them. By no means do they get this at work, they feel lost in this vast meaningless world of capital, just another cog in the machine, and they would be right. So naturally they seek meaning. Little meaning for life can be found in the system of alienated labour, where your life activity is spent in the interest of somebody else’s drive for greater profit. Often they find meaning in religion and/or the idea of the nation, as these notions are clear and often connected, already set out by the ruling class and don’t require much thought or struggle.

Tying nationality to sports can also sustain this backward nationalist mindset. People can hate other peoples or nations simply because they compete with them in sports. This can lead to acts of incredibly insane violence, since people, having no meaning in their work life, put great passion and meaning into their enjoyment of sports. Since the sport and the collective meaning and support of the sport tends to become their life, supporters of opposing teams and nations may seem like a threat to all they hold dear. This seeming threat to the very meaning of their lives can cause them to explode into open fighting. With no meaning from work, the sport, and sense of identity that comes with it, becomes their lives, and they defend it accordingly.

Often I have thought about these so-called “football hooligans” and their insane rage and passion, and just wondered why can’t they be passionate about something that really matters? But to them it does matter. With no meaning in the world of modern capitalism for them, they find meaning in other things. This search for meaning and identity can often be found in the notions of “us and them” even though this is profoundly illogical. It is no coincidence that a person with a immensely draining and alienating job, say repetitive work, will tend to cling desperately to this collective idea of nationality, as they find meaning and comfort in this idea, since they have no meaning in their work.

All this of course benefits the ruling class. If the workers were ever to put their passion into something like socialism, then it would be the end of the ruling class. It benefits them to see the workers placing meaning and identity in things that are irrelevant and mythical to the truth of class struggle. Keeping the workers off balance and totally afraid and unable to see the true state of affairs in the world works to the ruling class’s advantage.

The idea of “we” as in the people who live on this island called Britain, are collectively joined and looked after by our rulers is the most profound falsehood. The notions of nationality were irrelevant during the time of feudalism, just as they are today where the capitalist class, not the people of “France”, “Britain” etc, privately owns the means for producing wealth. To say “this is our country” implies that we all own it collectively, where we most certainly do not.

Class existed before the nation state. Throughout history one ruling class or another has attempted to impose its view on those they ruled over, manipulating their passions and pretending that its interests and their interests were the same. So, in another of life’s ironies, the masses waste their energy fighting amongst themselves, believing their interests and the interests of their rulers are linked.

To sum it up, the illusions of nationality are yet another tool of the ruling class, intended to trick workers into thinking that this really is some kind of collective society, and to misplace their passions that could otherwise be directed into the class struggle. It’s interesting that in a way people admit the logic of common ownership when they refer to “our country” as if it really does belong to all of us. It’s this inescapable logic that will one day become clear in the minds of the workers, as they find all the meaning they need in socialism, and put an end to class tyranny once and for all.

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