A nation is not a natural community that existed before the state, but that it’s the other way round: the state existed first and then proceeded to impose on those it ruled over the idea that they formed a “nation”. States pre-existed and in a very real sense created nations. Nations are groups of people ruled by a state or a would-be state. The Polish nationalist Pilsudski observed that “It is the state that makes the nation, not the nation the state.”
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 being, born in the area of land known as India, is standing two feet from the “border” with the piece of land known as Pakistan. Another human is facing them from across this line, a so-called “Pakistani”. 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. Both people have to sell their labour power for wages, and are manipulated and exploited by a capitalist class. A typical nationalist would argue that they are alien because all Indian people are a certain way and all Pakistanis are another way. But any differences that do exist are minor and just as many variations exist within the respective populations. Despite communication or cultural barriers this does not alter the fact that they are all part of one globalised exploited mass with more in common with each other than with their indigenous bosses.
Workers do not share a common interest with their bosses. It does not follow that if the “national wealth” increases, or if trade increases, or even if profit increases, that higher wages and better conditions will be gained by workers. In fact capitalists can only make a profit by appropriating the wealth produced by the workers to themselves; but in the topsy-turvy world of ideology, it seems that workers will only have good pay and wealth when the capitalists are doing well. So it appears that workers and capitalists share a common interest. In fact, the interest of workers is conditioned by the interest of the capitalist, in exactly the same manner as hostages held by a kidnapper: unless the kidnapper-capitalists’s demands are met, they will not allow the hostage-workers to have what they need to live. There is a well-documented effect of hostage situations, called “The Stockholm Syndrome” in which hostages under duress began to identify with their kidnappers, and believe in their cause. Nationalism works in much the same way. It is the Stockholm Syndrome on a grand scale. The working class who are dependent on the capitalists, to whom they are bonded by state-boundaries across which they are not permitted to escape, begin to believe that they share an identity with them.
What is a nation? It is simply the people and the territory which have been appropriated by a class of robbers at some point in history. It has less to do with a common language, religion, race, culture, and all the other things which nationalists imagine or pretend are essential ingredients in the making of nations. Nevertheless, the concept of the nation is very real force in the minds of people today. 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. People are not automatons; 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. Once it was in religion, now they find meaning in the idea of the nation. It is no coincidence that a person with a dreary, alienating job of repetitive drudgery, will tend to cling desperately to this collective idea of nationality, as they find comfort in this idea, since they have no meaning in their work.
The only way to define national identity is to define it in terms of what and who it is not, i.e. negatively. Thus nationalism sets itself as being against other countries, striving to define a uniqueness of national culture so as to set its country apart from others, to know itself by what is un-like it. At one extreme this can include myths about race and blood, trying to attach the national abstraction to some trait of genetics. Since people have a strong desire to retain their own perceived identity, and to have a good opinion of themselves, often the ideology based on such identities function in a highly irrational, and ultimately, defensive way.
All this of course benefits the ruling class. It is usually a sign of desperation and of an incapacity to formulate a coherent argument when our masters resort to playing the nationalist card. 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 unable to see the true state of affairs in the world works to the ruling class advantage. 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. Nationalism has always been one of the biggest poisons for the working class. It has served to divide workers into different nation-states not only literally but ideologically. Today it is probably fair to say that a majority of workers—to one extent or another—align themselves to their domestic ruling class. Historically, nationalism and national feeling have been the tool of the capitalist class for both winning and retaining power. The ruling class have cultivated such ideas as nationalism, propagating the illusion that we live in a society with a collective social interest. The more enlightened capitalists probably saw the effects of separating and alienating people from each other and their labour, and so stepped up the spreading of beliefs like nationalism in order to try and convince people that they were not so exploited as they really were, and that everyone had a common interest. Nationalism is a relatively new concept for social control, (religion was once the principle method of control over the majority.)
To socialists, class-consciousness is the breaking-down of all barriers to understanding. The conflict between the classes is more than a struggle for each to gain from the other: it is the division which reaches across all others. Class-conscious workers knows where they stand in society. Their interests are opposed at every point to those of the capitalist class. Nationalism is not their interest but their rulers’. The presence of nationalist ideas is an indication that some groups in society feel its real material interests are being frustrated by forces outside or even inside the nation. But the desire to achieve their aims is never expressed in terms of their own needs only. In order to enlist the necessary mass support such arguments as “justice”, “freedom”, and “the nation” are used to justify the real bone of contention and to give it an aura of sanctity.The concept of nationality, the idea that an area dominated by a privileged class which thrives on the enforced poverty of that region’s productive class, should grant to the latter the right to live there providing its members accept their wage-slave status and endorse the right of the privileged to live on their backs is offensive to any intelligent person. Those who promote such nonsense are enemies of our class.
One misconception that also requires to be laid to rest is the Leninist-inspired distinction between the nationalism of the oppressors (which is always bad) and the nationalism of the oppressed (allegedly always worth supporting, even if critically). This even though that oppressed nations, once “free”, can easily become oppressors in turn. Oppression, however, has to be seen in class, not national terms. Both so-called oppressor and oppressed nations consist of oppressor and oppressed classes, and “national liberation” enables an oppressor class to consolidate and expand its power, rather than freeing all the people of a formerly oppressed nation. The absurdity of Lenin’s theory can be proved by a living example from the life of a worker in the Indian subcontinent. Suppose he is a citizen of Bangladesh. He was a subject of Pakistan and before that of the British Empire. According to Lenin’s theory, he was subjugated by “British imperialists” up to 1947, then by “Pakistani imperialists” up to 1972. Yet all through these years he remained a wage slave, not free, though his masters and nationality changed. Lenin’s theory of imperialism made the most significant struggle at world level not the class struggle but the struggle between states, between so-called anti-imperialist and progressive states and so-called imperialist and reactionary states. This was a dangerous diversion from the class struggle and led to workers supporting the killing in wars of other workers in the interest of one or other state and its ruling class. What a ridiculous proposition is Lenin’s theory!
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. Nationalism is the ideology which seeks to justify the capitalist division of the world into separate “nation-states”. We should utterly reject this view of the way humanity should organise itself. We condemn all nationalisms equally. When countries achieved independence little changes except the personnel of the state apparatus.
As socialists we should be re-affirming that all peoples should seek their emancipation, not as members of nations or religions or ethnic groups, but as homo sapiens, as members of the human race. They should unite to abolish the division of the world into so-called nation-states and to establish a world cooperative commonwealth of which we will all be free and equal members – citizens of the world, not subjects of nation-states. The goal of the socialist movement is not to assist in the creation of even more states but to establish a real world community without frontiers where all states as they currently exist will be destroyed. In a socialist society communities, towns and cities will have the opportunity to thrive – and people will no doubt feel an attachment to places that are real and tangible – but the nation states will be consigned to the history books where they belong.
If the workers were ever to put their misplaced passion for “their” nation into socialism, then it would be the end of the ruling class.
* “We’re A’ Jock Tamson’s Bairns” is a saying in Scotland and the north of England used to mean “we’re all the same under the skin”. A “bairn” is a child; the A’ is an abbreviation for All. Jock Tamson (John Thompson) is a generic name, equivalent to such names as “John Doe” or “Joe Bloggs”. It is a reminder that despite the fact we live in a capitalist society we are still all kin.