A young comrade after reading the UK State, Britishness and the ‘Racialised’, ‘Ethnicised’ and ‘National’ Outsiders (http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2016/03/02/britishness-the-uk-state-unionism-scotland-and-the-national-outsider/) has asked Allan Armstrong to clarify the differences between Nationalities, Nations and Nation States. Here is a section of Allan’s book, Internationalism from Below, volume 1, which explores these concepts.




Nationality, nation, nation-state, nationalism and nationalist are five words that can provoke very different responses on the Left. In a world of officially recognised nation-states and national movements seeking UN approval, both nationalities and nations are often seen to have collective personalities. When asked to describe a particular nationality or nation, the response can be enthusiastic – “I support the Palestinians”; or hostile – “I oppose the Americans”. There is another response, the loftily aloof – “I’m above such petty nationalist concerns”. This view appears to rise above the fetishisation of national identity. Yet those who adopt this distanced attitude usually find others very easily give them a national identity, usually by virtue of the language, dialect, or even the accent they use.

It is very difficult for most people today to step outside of the national identity given to them by the state. Naturalisation of ‘aliens’ by states is often a long and difficult process, with differential obstacles placed in the way, according to a person’s class, national or religious origins. Many, who do ‘escape’ their original state-given identity, do so involuntarily – as refugees. They then become ‘non-persons’, facing very uncertain lives, either in temporary accommodation, awaiting the police and immigration officers and a smashed-in door; being held in detention centres such as Belmarsh in Thamesmead and Dungavel in Ayrshire; and then deportation. Others, without citizen rights, live a life of persecution like that depicted in Rabbit Proof Fence (1). This film shows the harrowing exploits of young Australian Aborigine girls torn away from their families by the state authorities.

Before accounting for the wide divisions that exist amongst Socialists and Communists over the issues of nationality, nation, nation-state, nationalism and nationalists, it is necessary to come to some understanding of what these words mean. Different schools of thought use these terms to describe different phenomena. Depending on a person’s politics, they can be viewed positively or negatively. Furthermore, these categories have changed their meaning and significance over time.

There is a large body of theoretical and historical work concerning the origins of nationalities and nations. There are major disagreements over how far back in history, or even prehistory, the origins of these can be found. This contibution is primarily concerned with the development of nations, nation-states, nationalism and nationalists. These are more recent phenomena, so the wider debate over the origins of nationalities has largely been set aside.

Marx and Engels often used the term ‘nation/s’ very much in the sense that we would use the word ‘people/s’ today, without specific differentiation according to the historical period. However, Marx’s strictures with regard to the economic category of ‘rent’ apply with as much force to that of political term, ‘nation’. Among the “errors to be avoided in studying ground rent, and which obscure its analysis… {is} confusing various forms of rent pertaining to different stages of the social development process” (2). Similarly, the meanings of the terms ‘nation’ and ‘nationality’ have undergone historical changes. Some of these changes will be explored in this contribution. Therefore, the following definitions are offered provisionally.

It is useful to use the term people, rather than ‘nation’, as a trans-historic general term. Various forms of pre-nation groups were found amongst the peoples of the pre-capitalist world. In the past, kinship, caste, religious and other identities often commanded a person’s loyalty rather than wider ethnic or nation identities. This does not mean that all pre-nation groups have now disappeared; just that their relationship with wider society has been transformed by changes in the modes of production from ancient, tributary (including Asiatic and feudal), and on to capitalist (first mercantile, then industrial) societies.

The term nationality can be defined today as membership of a cultural group, but ‘racial’ (biological) definitions were widely used in the past. One key cultural feature is a shared language. Because of the ambiguous use of the word nationality in the English language, so that it can cover citizenship of a particular state, e.g. British in the UK (although in this case subjecthood is a more accurate description); membership of a particular nation, e.g. of England  or Scotland; or of a particular cultural group, e.g. English or Scots, the term ethnic group will be used henceforth in preference to nationality. (The term national will be retained to cover ethnic and nation identities as required.)

Many of those pursuing identity politics have increasingly resorted to the terms ‘ethnic group’ or ‘ethnicity’. This is used in place of the use of the older, now widely discredited term ‘race’. However, many ‘ethnicists’ still try to retain the racists’ notion of their chosen group having fixed, deep-seated social and individual characteristics.

Therefore an important qualification, when using the term ‘ethnic group’, is recognising that particular ethnic groups can be created or transformed into others as historical circumstances change. Ethnic groups are not fixed social categories. Sometimes, a dominant ethnic group imposes a particular ethnic categorisation on people, who would not use it to describe themselves.   Members of particular ethnic groups have often changed their language use and their self-descriptions. Some have assimilated to new ethnic groups voluntarily, or after initial resistance have become absorbed into other ethnic groups. Furthermore, ethnic identifications are often given an all-determining social role, which fails to recognise the significance of other social distinctions such as class.

In this contribution, nations are not equated with particular ethnic groups. Nations  are seen to be the product of class societies, which have developed through the historical mixing and merging of more than one ethnic group. Nations also have a more definite link with particular territories than ethnic groups. The capacity to integrate different ethnic groups is an important feature of a nation. Whilst many pre-nation groups, including ethnic groups, have assimilated others, nations have done this on a much more extensive scale, and have broken with the notion of shared kinship that unites some ethnic groups.

The methods used to integrate ethnic groups into a nation are very important when it comes to making any political assessment. Many nations, in the process of their development, have gone through phases when they rejected the assimilation or integration, either fully or partially of certain classes, or of people belonging to particular religions. Women and subordinate classes were often given second-class national status, either as the property or the dependents of those declaring themselves to be the ‘nation’.

When it comes to modern state formation, the failure of particular ‘nation’-states to provide incoming residents from other nations and ethnic or religious groups with the means to integrate (e.g. naturalisation procedures), and to enjoy equality under the law, or even just toleration, is an indication of a democratic deficit. This situation often leads to the open promotion of ethnic oppression by the state, and encourages racist/chauvinist organisations to mobilise, intimidate and coerce ‘outsiders’. Such democratic deficits show a failure to create a fully developed nation-state. However there is no predetermined reason why an ideal nation-state should necessarily come about under capitalist conditions.

Nation states differ from earlier states that also invoked their sovereignty over a particular territory. In nation-states, sovereignty is said to lie in the ‘people’/‘nation’, not a particular ruler, dynasty, or exclusive class assembly. Governments in nation-states claim to rule on behalf of the whole people of a nation. In the earlier phase of nation-state development, the extent of the ‘people’ might be quite limited, excluding from any political representation those without enough property, as well as women. Women were then ‘represented’ in the nation by their masters – fathers, brothers or husbands.

Sometimes a particular ethnic group within the state was also privileged when the term ‘nation’ was invoked. ‘Nation’-states, where full citizenship is permanently reserved for a particular ethnic group, would be better termed ethnic states, or ethnocracies (3), e.g. Israel and former apartheid South Africa. There are also multi-nation imperial states, e.g. the United Kingdom. The UK, while providing its subjects with an official British unionist state identity, encompasses specific and politically recognised English, Scottish and Welsh nations, as well as the more ambiguous Northern Irish, the majority of whom currently consider themselves to be Ulster-British (4) (the minority think of themselves as Irish). Until the 1960s there was also a shared British citizenship of the UK and its Colonies. Thus there have been various hybrid British identities. Therefore the UK could be more fully described as a multi-national unionist and imperial state. However, since the initial anti-immigration Acts of 1962 and 1971, and particularly since 1981, it has become much more difficult for non-white people from British colonies or former colonies to achieve full UK citizenship.

Sovereign ‘nation’-states are now recognised internationally by the United Nations (UN). Despite the existence of a UN Charter, advocating the right of national self-determination and the protection of ethnic minorities, the UN still recognises parliamentary democracies, one-party states, military and personal dictatorships, where such rights are regularly abused or denied. Providing that an existing state fulfils its essential function of assisting capitalist exploitation on behalf of the global corporations and their main imperial state backers, any deficiencies in these regards can be set aside. The UN Security Council, dominated by the imperialist powers, particularly the USA, has established the real rules for such state recognition.

Political nationalism is an ideology associated with the modern period. When the idea of ‘nation’ had been invoked in earlier periods, it had been confined to the ruling class and a privileged minority. However, as the recognised social base of territorial states widened, then the existing ruling class,  or other classes challenging them, resorted to nationalism to promote their interests. This nationalism could draw upon and modify earlier royal, aristocratic, religious or other traditions. This was particularly the case when existing ruling classes tried to hold on to power in a rapidly changing world, and needed to find new sources of non-elite support. Those challenging the older ruling class produced more popular versions of nationalism. Thus, there were often competing nationalisms within a state, reflecting different class interests.

Nationalism has no particular definable ideological content, and makes use of both pre-existing and newer elements. As the world became increasingly divided up into officially recognised ‘nation’-states, then nationalism, in some form or other, became essential both for the existing ruling classes and for  non-dominant national classes challenging them for power without changing the wider social system. Thus, as well as the classic revolutionary nationalism of the Jacobins in France, other forms of nationalism developed. The already existing, but expanding British ruling class in the UK made use of ideological forms, which had served a different purpose in earlier periods. Monarchism and Protestantism had their earlier meanings transformed to create a suitable form of nationalism for the new world of ‘nation’-states.

Where ‘nation’-state status has already been attained, then the dominant nationalism promotes the interests of its ruling class and those supporting the existing state. In the case of stateless nations and ethnic groups, nationalism is used to actively promote the interests of those who wish to enhance their political power, often with the aim of setting up of a new ‘nation’-state within the wider world of officially recognised ‘nation’-states.

Nationalists seek to unite different classes from their own nations or ethnic groups behind particular class leaderships. They often invoke a common national identity in order to strengthen their cultural, economic and political position within existing nation-states, or during the struggle for, and the formation of, new nation-states. Depending upon whether they represent existing or would-be ruling classes, nationalists defend already established ‘nation’-states; seek cultural and/or political autonomy, a federal or confederal political relationship for their nation within existing states; or full state independence for currently stateless nations and ethnic groups. Nationalists believe that nation-states are the highest achievable form of political organisation.

Nationalists take the view that the continued existence of nations and ethnic groups is a necessary social and political feature of human existence. Liberal nationalists may conceive of a world divided into equal, sovereign nation-states, but many nationalists (including many Liberals) harbour suspicions about the nationalism of other nations (or their ‘nation’-states), worrying about their revanchist or imperial claims; and of other ethnic groups – ‘foreigners’ or ‘aliens’ – who could weaken the social cohesiveness, which they desire.

This is because nationalists often hold either to a Social Darwinian view of the world, or see no possible alternative to market-based economics. Following such ways of thinking, they see human society as inherently competitive. They point to the many ethnic groups, which have become extinct, either physically, through genocide, e.g. massacres or externally induced epidemics; or culturally, through ethnocide, e.g. by bowing before more assertive nations or ethnic groups, and losing their former ethnic identities and languages. Therefore, in this dog-eat-dog world, nationalists believe that every successful nation or ethnic group needs to create its own nation-state to protect its perceived interests.

Nationalists are often very deterministic in their thinking, seeing the development of their particular ethnic group, nation, or their nation-state, as an almost inevitable, if sometimes chequered, historical process. Nationalists often try to link together very disparate elements, from very different periods of time, as they construct their national histories. These can include ancient and medieval struggles of particular chieftains, nobles or kings. Yet, such leaders tended to invoke kinship loyalty or feudal fealty, rather than seeking to create a territorial nation-state, uniting the whole of a particular ethnic group or nation. Such leaders usually made little attempt to offer new freedoms to the ‘lower orders’. They were fighting as existing or would-be ruling classes over the right to exploit either already subjected or newly conquered peoples. The states they created offered little or no representation for most people living within their boundaries.

Many of those earlier struggles, seen by nationalists to have contributed to their continuous national histories, could have ended up with very different socio-political and territorial outcomes. There was nothing inevitable about the coming together of the various territorial fragments, which nationalists often retrospectively bring together, to produce the ideal boundaries of their chosen nation-state. Nationalists often gloss over very different types of historical societies, because they tend to see nationality (whether defined ‘racially’, ethnically, or by nation) as the most fundamental feature that relates an individual or family to wider society and the state.

Therefore, any attempt to deal with the categories, ethnic group, nation, nation-state, nationalism and nationalist needs to recognise their ambiguous legacy. The best way to do this is to adopt a historical method to show there were other possibilities, both more progressive and more regressive, than today’s world of UN-recognised nation-states. If nations, nation-states, nationalism and nationalists have not always existed in the past, this raises the possibility that they may disappear in the future too.




(1)       see Rabbit Proof Fence, film directed by Philip Noyce (Miramax, 2002, Australia)

(2)       Karl Marx, Capital, Book 3, The Process of Capitalist Production as a Whole, pp. 633-4 (Lawrence & Wishart, 1971, London)

(3)       see Shlomo Sand, The Invention of the Jewish People, pp. 305-7 (Verso, 2020, London)

(4)       The inverted commas around ‘Ulster’ highlight that it was not only Ireland as a whole, which was partitioned into 26 and 6 counties. The original 9 county province of Ulster, was also partitioned into and 6 and 3 counties, under the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.



For two related articles see:-



Exploitation, Oppression And Alienation: Emancipation, Liberation And Self-Determination

The Making And The Breaking Of The UK State

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