Nationalism: deadly enemy of socialism

To many workers nationalism, like some other prejudices, is just another weird idea left over from the past. However, too many others still identify with countries and nations. Nationalism therefore still plays a large part in keeping workers divided.

Some try to make a distinction between patriotism and nationalism: with patriots identifying with their own imagined country without harbouring any ill-will towards people of other countries and nationalists who, as well as having special affection for their own imagined country, are also more xenophobic.

These concepts are so entangled that it makes no sense trying to disentangle them: it is the unsound nature of these notions which bothers us.

To the nationalists, whether Scottish or English, British, German, Russian, Chinese, American or whatever, the concept of the nation is a very important matter. For some it is the most important matter. Nationalists adhere to the strange notion that the nation, or nation-state, is an entity to which we should have automatic allegiance.

But why should we have such allegiance? And what exactly is a nation, and in whose interests does a nation-state operate?

Until the eighteenth century local feeling was much more important than national feeling. The pre- eighteenth-century community-spirit sense of nationality considered a nation to be composed of people living in a particular area with a common language, culture and history; but not necessarily ruled by the same state.

During the eighteenth century some new countries and nations were created. Great Britain, for example was a nation-state created by a merger between England & Scotland in 1707. This was not a ‘hostile takeover’ of Scotland by England, but a deal done between the ruling class of England and their counterparts in Scotland. Needless to say neither the working class in England nor the workers in Scotland were consulted.

Certain gentlemen in what was then the North American colonies became rather disgruntled over trade and taxation and their lack of representation in the British parliament. These grievances between the gentleman rulers on either side of the Atlantic eventually led to the American War of Independence. The British gentlemen on the American side of the ocean foreswore their allegiance to the King and declared independence from Great Britain. In their Declaration of Independence in 1776 they called the new country the United States of America.

The French Revolution in 1789 and its aftermath gave impetus to the further development of liberalism and nationalism throughout Europe and by the nineteenth century nationalism had become more important and much more assertive than the hitherto existing sense of nationality.

The new nationalism intertwined with liberalism was really part of the ideology of the rising bourgeoisie.

Eastern Europe was relatively backward but north-west Europe had reached an advanced stage of industrial and trade development. Industrialisation and increased commercial development spread from west to east along with the political ideas of the rising bourgeoisie.

The new nationalism was essentially the idea that the nation, whatever it was conceived to be, is the most important unit of organisation in society and should therefore be equivalent to the state: it was the concept of the nation-state.

Nationalism and liberalism posed a threat to the cohesion of states like the Habsburg Empire which contained Germans, Hungarians, Italians, Czechs, Poles, Croats and Serbs within its boundaries. On the other hand, new states could be established if the idea of nationalism captured the minds of Germans and Italians whose nations were both divided into various separate states. So, sometimes nationalism united territories into new countries and sometimes it tended to disrupt and divide existing countries.

In 1861 Italy went from being a ‘geographical expression’ to unification. There was at that time a number of competing notions about what a united Germany might be. The so-called Holy Roman Empire had been dissolved in 1806 leaving a collection of petty states which organised themselves during the course of the 19th century into a number of configurations and confederations which eventually led to unification in 1871.

The old absolutist system of government was diametrically opposed to the needs of a developing and dynamic capitalist economy and it was this antagonism of interests which gave rise to the attack by the middle class against absolutism and the feudal rights of the aristocracy.

Liberalism required the unity, inherent in nationalism, of nationhood in society to ensure the satisfactory operation of a liberal constitution. So bourgeois liberals promoted nationalism to further their own ends. But the acquiescence at least of workers and peasants was essential in achieving national unity and independence.

To maintain national cohesion, nationalist ideology is required. Various paraphernalia like flags and national songs/anthems are used to help indoctrinate the subjects of a nation with the myths and fantasies of nationhood. History books with a twisted account of how the nation arose and how it has done great things are also very useful.

A measure of how successful this indoctrination is can be seen at international sports events, where the participants go into a trance-like state as they sing the national anthems of what they have been trained to believe are ‘their’ countries and many are overcome with emotion.

William Wallace

‘Scots Wha Hæ’

The Braveheart Legend today owes much to the eighteenth century romanticised view of the Wars for Scottish Independence of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century, which culminated in the Battle of Bannockburn in June 1314.

These wars were really struggles amongst the aristocracy, who had lands in both England and Scotland, for political power commensurate with their landholdings and their own perceived greatness.

The song Scots Wha Hæ, by Robert Burns, was ostensibly based on Robert Bruce’s speech to his troops before the Battle of Bannockburn, but Burns was influenced just as much by contemporary struggles in Europe and elsewhere when he wrote this song. He also knew that to openly write such a song about the ‘radical’ struggles of his own time, whether in Britain or abroad, could expose him to prosecution for sedition.

In more recent times the rise of the SNP as a political force results largely from the perceived failures of decades of Labour and Tory governments. It could be said, particularly from the 1970s onwards, that the misanthropic projects of Labour and Tory governments led to growing support for nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales.

To the Scottish National Party the nation is the most important thing. The essence of its argument is that the interests of the ‘people of Scotland’, whoever they might be, can be served best by a government in Edinburgh rather than one in London.

They claim nowadays that nationality can be defined in such a way as to include everyone who lives in Scotland. A bit like the USA, where you can become an American or a hyphenated one for a generation or two; or perhaps forever.

It sounds much ‘nicer’ than some of the more virulent and nasty types of nationalism. But unfortunately, many of the SNP’s supporters continue to be the more old-fashioned and nasty type of nationalist.

Change of rulers

Since the collapse of the British Empire after World War II, many nations have gained independence from British rule. None of this has led to any lasting benefit to the workers in these countries. As in the rest of the world the populations of these countries are divided into employers and their wage-slaves.

So, although the nation-state may be a convenient vehicle by means of which a local (national) capitalist class can exploit the workers within its boundaries, it brings no benefit to the workers.

Nationality is therefore something imposed upon the worker. In fact, the workers of the world have no country and therefore should not have any allegiance to this or any other country. Instead of worrying about the interests of the country or the nation to which they belong, their allegiance should be to their own class interests.

Our use of the possessive pronoun with respect to the employers and their wage-slaves was no accident: the countries are theirs – ie, the capitalists – as are we their wage-slaves. But the countries are not ours! We do not own enough of this or any other country to fill a flower pot.

Instead of worrying about the interests of the country to which they belong and its independence or lack thereof, workers should seek independence for themselves: independence from the tyranny of capital and silly flag-waving nations. Nationalism – like sexism, racism, and religious superstition – is anathema to socialists. We can have nothing but antipathy to it. It is totally incompatible with working class interests and the struggle for socialism.

The Scottish National Party argues that social problems in Scotland are caused by London government and that with an independent government in Edinburgh a start could be made in solving these problems.

The Socialist Party argument is that social problems in Scotland are not caused by government from England but, as elsewhere, by capitalism. Re-arranging frontiers or constructing a new state is no more a solution to working class problems than electing a new government of capitalism or changing the Prime Minister.

Such political changes, are irrelevant to the working class, since they leave the economic basis of society – the class monopoly of the means of production – unchanged; and it is precisely this that is the root cause of their problems.

Against all nationalisms

The Socialist Party opposes Scottish nationalism just as it does British nationalism which, of course, is supported by the Tories, Labour and the Liberals. We are opposed to all nationalism and insist that the solution to our problems lies in the establishment of socialism throughout the world.

The First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, has recently proposed holding another referendum on whether or not Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom. She claims that she has a mandate to conduct one. The SNP together with the Scottish Greens, who have turned tartan in the last few years, constitute a pro-independence majority in Holyrood. Although this majority of nearly 56 percent in the Scottish Parliament is based on only 49.2 percent of the popular vote, it is a greater ‘mandate’ than Boris Johnson’s 43.6 percent of the popular vote which gave him 365 seats out of 650 in the House of Commons and control of the British state.

The question of whether or not the Scottish Parliament has the authority to conduct a referendum has been referred to the Supreme Court. Should the Supreme Court rule that the matter is reserved to the authority of Westminster and if whoever replaces Johnson still refuses to grant Sturgeon permission to conduct a referendum, the SNP will fight the next UK general election solely on one issue: separation. This would, they say, be a de facto referendum on independence.

Therefore the proposed referendum in October 2023 or the next general election in 2024, like past elections, gives us a ‘choice’: vote yes, get capitalism; vote no, get capitalism! It is like being asked if migraine is better than diarrhoea. Capitalism offers us innumerable such ‘choices’, in an attempt to pretend we are being consulted.

To borrow some of Burns’s words: ‘Now is the day, and now is the hour’, but not for supporting some madcap scheme to create a new nation, or restore an old one. It is time to get up off our knees and face the future: not a fairy-tale future promised by politicians but the future that we will make. Not Scotland for the Scottish, England for the English, Wales for the Welsh, or any other nationalist fantasy world.

A long time ago in the aftermath of a bloody war we claimed the world for the workers and called upon you, our fellow workers, to fight for socialism. Over a hundred years later our claim and demand is the same. By overthrowing capitalism and taking the world for the workers, we will have one world for one people. To do anything else is, just like the proposed referendum, an exercise in futility.


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