Oct 16 2017

BEFORE AND AFTER NATIONALISM – A historical perspective

With the emergence of Scottish and Catalan self-determination as major political issues, some on the British Left have reacted against what they dismiss as the rise of nationalism. Ironically they usually completely fail to recognise their own Left unionist British nationalism. Their failure to organise any solidarity with Catalans at the receiving end of  Spanish state repression, shows they do not see the upholding of democracy as important.

Such thinking is widely held by  the supporters of  Jeremy Corbyn. They sometimes argue that  nationalism is an ideological problem which can be overcome with consistent propaganda against nationalism, coupled with prioritising economic and social issues.

The article below, written by Allan Armstrong, looks to the material roots of nationalism, showing that ideological struggle alone will not address the problem. Other articles on this blog have highlighted the importance of the struggle for democracy, including the right of self-determination when opposing the UK state and wider imperialism.



Today, it is often difficult to think outside of a framework of the fetishisation of nationalities, which makes nation-states appear to be the ‘natural order’ of things. However, we can go back to the early days of capitalist development, when nation-states were still far from being the ‘natural order’, and far more people used religious terms to explain and understand the world they lived in. It took several centuries of social and economic change, and of wider social and economic developments, before the one-time, near universal link between religion and the state was broken in enough places to allow constitutionally secular states to emerge. States, which were exclusively linked to a particular religion or denomination, gave way, first to tolerant, and then eventually to secular states. Yet religions still existed and, indeed, proliferated within a new, increasingly secular, public world. Is there a possibility of an analogous development, which could bring about a break in the connection between ethnic group, nation and the state in the future?

What were the social conditions that gave religion such a deep hold over people? Under western European feudalism, the majority of people were linked to the Roman Catholic Church by many ties. The key events in a person’s life were all closely associated with the Church. It was responsible for all its parishioners. It compiled parish registers. It baptised children, conducted marriages and organised funerals. It held regular services in Latin – a non-national language. It arranged visits from the priest as deemed necessary. The Church was heavily involved in alms gathering for the poor and in the care of the sick. It celebrated various holidays, sometimes dedicated to particular saints who were not necessarily of the same ethnic group as a particular state’s subjects. There was also an impressive visual landscape of cathedrals, churches, monasteries, cemeteries and roadside crosses, as well as religious art in the form of statues, sculptures, paintings, stained glass and sacred books. These all formed part of people’s lived environment.

The Church set limits to the allowable beliefs of its adherents, pursuing heretics when they threatened the established hierarchy. The Church was responsible for running the limited number of educational institutions. It also levied tithes to pay for its ‘services’, and sold indulgences as a form of ‘insurance’ for the after-life. Many families would have members working for the Church in some capacity or other. Therefore, there were a great many material factors, as well as the spiritual need to “protest against real distress” which have made religion a deeply rooted phenomenon.

It is easy to see that today’s nationalism is no superficial ideological construct either. From the mid-nineteenth century, right on through the twentieth century, nationalism became the new ‘religion’. Nation-states came to perform a very similar role, in developed capitalist society, to that performed by state-backed religions in feudal society.

The nation-state is responsible for every citizen or subject within its particular boundaries. People are officially registered at birth, marriage and death. The state conducts censuses. It is responsible for most people’s education, health care, social and individual security. It often provides some insurance, e.g. pensions and sickness benefits, to cover both the foreseeable and the unforeseen eventualities of life. There is also the built environment, which includes parliaments, various government buildings, national monuments, schools and universities, clinics and hospitals, often provided by the nation-state. A lot of culture is presented in national terms, whether in galleries, theatres, libraries or other institutions. Much of the media has been organised on a national basis, whilst advertising has made use of national motifs to sell goods and services.

The state sets holidays, usually marked by days of national symbolic importance. It provides money for culture and sport, with the most prestigious awards being held, either at national level, or as inter-national competitions. The state levies taxes for its services. Many people are employed directly, or indirectly by the state. Nationalism has met many people’s strong craving for identity, in an alienating capitalist-dominated world, in a similar manner to religion. So, nationalism too has a ‘spiritual’ aspect, as well as meeting real material needs for those living in nation-states.

The state decides who is a national citizen or subject, and deals with non-nationals, including asylum seekers and migrant workers. Its rulers persecute ‘aliens’ instead of ‘heretics’. They decide what should be the official language/s. They recruit national armies and security forces to protect their perceived interests.

The nation-state displaced the religiously defined state in most parts of the world. Can nation-states be transcended in an analogous manner to religiously defined states (i.e. those with established religions) in the transition from pre-capitalist to capitalist states? Can we move beyond today’s world of UN recognised nation-states to a new international world order, where a person’s nationality is a private matter and not the concern of the state?

This historical comparison of nationalism with religion strongly suggests that a propaganda offensive or coercive laws, directed against nationalist ideology and practice, are unlikely to overcome nationalism. Instead, nationalism, like religion, can only be displaced when the social conditions, which give rise to nation-states, are themselves uprooted.

This situation will certainly not just come about due to ‘objective’ historical forces. It will take the clash of real classes and interests. The various ruling classes in the world today have profited from the existence of particular nation-states, and by invoking particular nationality (‘racial’ or ethnic) solidarities. They cannot be expected to give-up these powerful bastions of support easily. The ‘lower orders’ too, often cling on to national identities, when they still seem to provide some material or spiritual comfort in an insecure world, where alienated social relationships continue to prevail.

Today, of course, there are very real transnational powers, such as the global corporations, which could bring help bring about the downgrading, or possibly even the abolition of certain nation-states. However, all the evidence seems to show that whilst some states are drawn into wider con/federations and economic alliances (e.g. the European Union and North American Free Trade Agreement), these tend to be dominated by particular states (e.g. Germany and France, and the USA respectively). Transnational corporate capital still depends on particular imperial powers, particularly the USA and its allies (especially the UK), to advance and defend its interests.

Major imperial powers and particular corporations are just as likely to promote the further division of existing states, breaking them up into smaller units (e.g. in Iraq and Zaire), or to promote greater ‘balkanisation’ to increase the scope for a competitive ‘race to the bottom’, through the creation of low-tax and deregulated economic zones. Thus, the transnational corporations and their imperialist backers can only bring about even more exploitation, oppression, alienation and environmental degradation in their proposed ‘New World Order’.

The growth of reaction in today’s ‘New World Order’ threatens to take us backwards rather than forwards. This is why the prospect of increasing barbarism is very much present as the current capitalist crisis deepens. ‘History’ appears to be going into reverse gear. National identity is giving way in many areas to religious identities and even to religious supremacism. An example can be found in many parts of the ‘Muslim world’ where imperialism has ensured that capitalism has developed in mainly dependent forms. This has led to relatively weak national identities and ‘brittle’ states. The failures of secular nationalism, and of the Left, have led to the rise of various reinvigorated Muslim identities.

In other nation-states, most obviously the USA, religious identity is often fused with national identity, in a manner many thought was on the way out at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. A poisonous brew of American Christian supremacism has been fuelled by the onslaught of ‘Korporate Amerika’s ‘One Free Market under God’. Israel and India demonstrate the growth of other religious supremacist forces – Jewish and Hindu. Neither is the ‘secular’ UK immune to this fused religio-nationalist ideology, as the rise of Paisleyism from the 1970s in Northern Ireland showed. The UK state still maintains an established religion in England as well as blasphemy laws. New Labour bowed to reactionary pressure through its promotion of more state-backed ‘faith schools’. The Tories have gone into coalition with the DUP, a deeply sectarian party believing in Protestant supremacy in the UK.

So, initially anyway, the struggle for emancipation and liberation begins with the resistance to the current reactionary offensive. However, the defence and advocacy of secularism today, by independent class organisations, needs to be linked to the promotion of a humanised world without nation-states in the future, once people are in a position to bring about a global commune. What is needed is a genuine internationalism, which can challenge both reactionary populist nation-staters and neo-liberal corporate globalisers.

The historical comparison of nationalism with religion strongly suggests that a propaganda offensive or coercive laws, directed against nationalist ideology and practice, is unlikely to overcome nationalism. Instead, nationalism, like religion, can only be displaced when the social conditions, which give rise to nation-states, are themselves uprooted.


This article is from  Internationalism from Below, Part 1: The historical development of nation-states and nationalism up to 1848.


Two other articles from this book have been posted on this blog at:-






Another article on the Left British unionist approach to nationalism can be seen at:-



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