Nationalism and the Nation State

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Joined: 22-12-10
Sep 19 2019 23:13
Nationalism and the Nation State

This is an amended version of a presentation given to a Birmingham RAG meeting and I thought it would be relevant for discussion in light of the threats in the Middle East of another imperialist war.

Convention would suggest people have always been the same, there have always been wars, nations have always existed, nationalism is normal and society is becoming more civilised. For me the strength of Marx’s view of historical materialism is that it rejects this rubbish and puts social behaviour in the context of the contemporary economic and class structures and ultimately makes a coherent explanation of how social economic and politics functions in context of whatever period is being analysed.

To start, I’m afraid I can’t help but take a step backwards and look briefly at feudalism and at what capitalism was in the 19th century to put today’s capitalist state and nationalism in context.

Its very easy to believe that nations have always existed especially for us in Britain living as we do in an island. So I want to start by stressing that this is just not true!! Feudalism was a society where an individual’s status was fixed by birth and by law; workers could not escape their position in society because all the land and tools they worked with as well as part of the products they made was owned by feudal lords and ultimately the king. There were no nations just kingdoms whose boundaries varied depending on the whims and conflicts of those kings/leaders and the whole population owed obedience to whichever king’s land they lived on no matter how often that changed.

Its only in the early 1800s, ie when capitalism was really starting to get going and major social and political changes became evident, that saw the construction of nation states to support capitalist dominance in society and took on a form that facilitated the functioning of capitalist economy. It was through the liberal reforms of the 19th Century for example that the state established within national boundaries, the economic political and legal systems that facilitated the functioning of the capitalist economy (eg technical standards & measurements, national currencies, standardised times and legal protections). These measures requires and broad about the core structural basis of the centralising nation state ie a bureaucracy, parliament and an executive. To support this process, it was then that the ideas of nationality as a way of building social unity which had emerged at the start of the 1800s began to dominate although clearly it varies in exact form from one country to another. Feudalism just didn’t need these structures or controls, the king owned everything and local lords managed and controlled everything in their name. The feudal state was basically just that hierarchy of royalty and aristocracy and their armies.

The nation state was still generally a small organisation during this early period of capitalism up to end of the 1800s and it remained a system enforced and socially controlled by private capitalism not by the state. Remember at this time large firms had their own armies and police forces to manage workers and local populations. The wars fought at this stage were primarily wars for creation of nations and eventually became wars for the ownership of colonies across the globe.

However from WW1 period onwards the role of state grows enormously. It manages international relations, set controls for the operation of the national economy, undertakes the social control of the population implements passport controls and border restrictions. The bureaucracy grows enormously as does its promotion of ideology to control population. Freedom, Democracy, voting system, individual rights, human rights, socialism. Communism, fascism and anti-fascism and nationalism all are terms used by bourgeois regimes to justify, indeed mystify, the current system as it is today and to maintain influence over each nation’s population.

At the start of the 19th Century, the UK state only had 1500 civilian employees. ( I presume that means non army or aristocracy) and the army remained the largest part of the state until WW1. It was estimated that in 1910 Britain had 73 state employees for every 10000 pop in a total of 40million inhabitants. About the same time, the number state employees in Russia was approx 0.5m, in France approx 1m and in Germany approx 1.2million.

In the early part of the 21st century, the UK state is over 10 times greater with nearly 800 employees per 10000 in a total pop of just over 60 million and overall in OECD countries the state accounts for approx 20% of the employed workforce although individual countries can display a broad range eg china 50%, and USA 16%.

The size of the national states today reflects their increased role in the management of each nation socially economically and politically and corresponds to the decline of domination by private capitalism. This is clearly linked to increased problems that capitalism has faced over this last century (economic crises, social unrest, international competition, regional and international wars). As a result we should no longer be talking about capitalism being a system dependent on private enterprise. State capitalism is the order of the day. The state sets the framework as national states mobilise themselves to compete on the capitalist world market and mobilise their respective populations in support of that.

Wars in the 20th and 21st centuries have become wars of attrition rather than wars creating new nations. They are either global wars between power blocs, regional proxy wars and wars of national liberation and all reflect the fact that capital has become a world system and the relationship between all nations large or small is imperialistic. Not the imperialism of the past based created by Emperors and run by military strength, but the economic imperialism based on financial empires backed up by political and military power.

So what am I saying about nationalism today? I want to emphasise then that all nations today are capitalist whatever the specific internal political structure – this clearly varies a lot across the globe. Whether its Saudi Arabia with a autocratic regime based on a royal family, Iran with a clerical regime, China with an autocratic political regime or the European Countries with so-called democracies, and even the old USSR with its autarkic political regime, all nations today are function on a version of a monetary, market economy and compete in a world market – they are all capitalist!. Both nation states and the nationalism they produce are specifically products of bourgeois society. They support capitalism and cannot be used against it – despite the anti imperialist rhetoric of the left.

One of the key features of state capitalism worldwide is the capacity and need to mystify bourgeois rule; to suggest it is no longer a system to benefit private capitalists but a social system that looks after everyone within each state. It is easy for us to say this is bullshit but it has a strong hold on people. This ideology presents the state as democratic, anti fascist, socialist and defender of the nation and its peoples and even dictatorships maintain themselves by ideologies that function like this eg communism & national socialism

It is this appeal to nationalism today that is still used to dragoon workers into the armed forces and of to fight wars to protect the nation whether that is Britain or Germany, USA or Iraq, Russia or Ukraine, India or Pakistan. During WW1 revolutionaries were clear in saying ‘the main enemy is at home’ but the use of nationalist ideology been strengthened immensely since and is supported by both left and right wings of capital through versions of socialism in one country slogans as much as by the right wing nationalism. You only have to look at the impact it has had on the EU/Brexit debate to see how nationalism can still be used today to manipulate the population. Without at all defending the EU as somehow a positive step, it is clear that for decades there has been a nationalist campaign (by those of the ruling class wishing to see power returned to their base in London) criticising the EU for anything and everything included substantial made up lies about it. Nationalism manipulates people, don’t look to blame those who vote for or talk nationalism as the source of the problem

However this applies not just to war but to class struggle too. In recent years its true that they no longer use so much of the notion of ‘buy british’ in the UK (too much manufacturing has gone abroad) , but nationalism is clearly at root of the calls to stop workers struggling through major campaigns spreading the idea that such actions hurts other workers and damages the british economy. Patriotism has become a key slogan in defence of the national economy whether that is used against workers, benefit recipients or immigration let alone EU regulations.

Nationalism has also been used in the wars that brought an end to colonial control. But the so-called wars of national liberation were being nothing but imperialist conflicts generally between USA and USSR over the exploitation of weaker countries. Who nowadays can suggest that Iran, Zimbabwe, Morocco, India, Pakistan, Mozambique, Australia, Canada - indeed all the other ex colonies of the early superpowers - have become anything other than capitalist nations. Mugabe’s obituaries lauded a freedom fighter who turned into a dictator, but he was always a bourgeois nationalist who advanced a state capitalist regirme. This happened because of rather than despite the pleas of the trotskyists during these wars about the progressive results of supporting weaker nations in anti imperialist struggles. Nowadays national independence is mainstream capitalist ideology and even Theresa May managed to call upon the right of nations to self determination to defend the UK against the EU.

The nationalism of the left is also evident in their support for state capitalism and nationalisation of national economies. The left wing of capitalism presents state capitalism as something positive and thereby supports nationalist policies.

In Venezuela for example, Chavez and Maduro have been lauded by the left and supported by Russia and China. But really what system do they run? There is wage labour, capital accumulation and a ruling elite that controls the nation to the benefit of the elite and to the detriment of the working population. They are dictators operating a brutal state capitalist regime that uses the language of socialist planning to control and exploit workers. Worse still, they have not even been able to manage a state capitalist economy well so despite oil wealth, Maduro now closes borders to prevent aid arriving with free food and pharmaceuticals for his starving population and cannot even provide a fundamental energy source - electricity. So yes, Gauido is a puppet of American imperialism but Chavez and Maduro were left wing imperialists and used their brand of nationalism to maintain his position of power in the country. Russia & China supports him to try to extend their influence in the world. Neither side deserves workers support because neither side offers a route to a classless world of equality run by the people themselves.

Cuba is a more well-established and dare I say successful regime (ie its survived a long time in its current form). The Cuban regime established in 1959 was not the product of workers struggling independently against capitalism however. It was the product of a civil war between a harsh and corrupt right wing regime and a left wing nationalist guerrilla army. From 1959, Cuba quickly gained support from USSR and has been run by Castro and the CPC as a nationalised economy, all of which is sufficient for the left wing of capital to laud it as a socialist economy What happens in reality though. Cuba uses socialist language and calls itself a workers state, but most workers were employed by the state and paid subsistence wages, the state owns the product of their labour, workers spend their wages on their subsistence in shops and markets. The Cuban state economy trades on the world markets buying capital and welfare goods its cannot produce itself and sells and earns money from the world market by selling products such as nickel cobalt, oil, coffee, sugar, tobacco amongst various other items. It has a monetary economy operating a conventional accounting system. It is a capitalist system managed by the state which, ok, gives workers various social benefits but still retains the bulk of wealth to itself.

Rojava, like Cuba, was clearly not a product of independent working class struggle. It is a regime that talks of libertarian democracy and council management but is run by a CP party using socialist, workerist language. What is unusual here for a leftist regime is that it has been supported by the USA and sides with it in imperialist conflict.

Anti-fascist ideology also drives a significant element of leftist support for regimes based on arguments that they are a lesser evil in contrast to against right wing regimes. But all this does is draw radicals into support for capitalist regimes which even though they use leftist language still operate a capitilast economy and indeed strengthen them. They totally ignore the fact WW2 was a war between 2 imperialist blocs as though fascism is something other capitalism at its most brutal, as though Stalin was so much better than Hitler. The Left and the Right nationalism are both capitalist and we need to get rid of them all.

So one brief point to end with. It is worth noting the various brands of the radical leftism and anarchism who so readily condemn outright the Bolsheviks and Lenin and the idea of a vanguard party etc are the ones who so easily fall into the trap of supporting brutal nationalist groups because they fight against USA and the west but who clearly have nothing to do with workers control. The idea of supporting the lesser evil, the weaker or more liberal country against the large imperialisms for ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’ is just a con. It is simply another way of getting drawn in by nationalism. It is not and should not be a problem for those want to eliminate capitalism to condemn all sides and all nationalisms in such wars.

No War but the Class War.

Joined: 20-02-19
Jan 28 2020 23:01

This is an interesting read. Thank you very much! I'll be passing it along.