What is nationalism?

By Allen Myers

Nationalism is the belief that the members of a nation share common interests that are different from the interests of other nations and different from the interests of the human race as a whole. Furthermore, it is usually thought by nationalists that these national interests are more significant than the competing interests that may exist between different members or groups who belong to the nation.

Nations themselves are historical creations of capitalism. It was the rising bourgeoisie whose interests demanded the overturning of feudal or other pre-capitalist parochialism and the creation of a single market, single government and single language over a large territory. Creating the conditions for capitalists to prosper created nations. It should therefore not be surprising that nationalist ideology is a form of capitalist (bourgeois) ideology.

National interest

In a capitalist country, it is capitalists who own most of the wealth, who hold the power and who are accepted as spokespeople of the national interest. So when the specifics of any claimed national interest are looked at, it turns out that those specifics are the interests either of particular capitalists or of the capitalist class as a whole.

If our entire nation has common interests different from those of other nations, then it must make sense to buy products being sold by our nation’s capitalists rather than by capitalists from other nations, even if the latter’s products happen to be better or cheaper than those produced by our nation. And then it must be in workers’ longer term self-interest to accept lower wages so that the products from our nation can undersell those from other nations.

If national interest is more important than gender interest, then women should be willing to give birth to as many children as the nation requires, and take the burden of raising them and ensuring that they are good patriots, ready to kill for their country if necessary. They should be willing to enter or leave the workforce as the national interest demands.

If national interests are more important than human interests, then our nation should do as little as possible to stop climate change, and demand that others do more and do it first. (And if climate change makes our nation’s territory uninhabitable, at least the bearers of the national interest will have enough money to move elsewhere.)

During the time when capitalism still played a progressive historical role by overcoming feudalism, nationalism was capable of inspiring people to struggle against tyrannical monarchs, theocracy and superstition. But as capitalism increasingly turned into an obstacle to human progress, its ideology necessarily became reactionary as well.

National oppression

One of the ugliest features of nationalism is its use to justify the oppression or exploitation of other nations or nationalities. It is typical that the most vociferous nationalists in Australia are the hoons who attack migrants whom they consider insufficiently “Aussie”.

The historical process of forming nation-states resulted in many states including national minorities. Often, these minorities suffer discrimination or other disadvantage on the basis of their language or other distinct national features. Marxists distinguish between the nationalism of an oppressed nation and “ordinary” nationalism. As the Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin put it, “The bourgeois nationalism of any oppressed nation has a general democratic content that is directed against oppression, and it is this content that we unconditionally support”.

Imperialism has created and maintained another form of national oppression. This is the sustained division of the world into economically developed and underdeveloped countries, and the former’s systematic exploitation of the latter. The rebellion of Third World peoples against their oppression and exploitation not only has a general democratic content that should be supported. A determined struggle against imperialism also necessarily challenges the exploitative relations it maintains, including exploitation by the local capitalist class, which is dependent upon imperialism. This is why anti-imperialist struggles can lead to socialist revolution, as in Vietnam and Cuba.