Nation is the name given by their rulers or would-be rulers to a collection of people with a distinct culture usually but not always based on a common language. The geo-political entity of the state and its machinery of government are not necessarily the same as the nation; and this forms the ideological basis for nationalism - the belief that a nation should become a state. Nationalism emphasises the distinctiveness of a nation and usually points to its statehood. Nationalist movements arose with the development of capitalism and the state. In the nineteenth century, Karl Marx supported some nationalist movements because they were historically progressive in that they served the class interests of the rising bourgeoisie in its struggle against the traditional aristocracy. In the twentieth century, nationalism was, and still is, associated with movements for ‘self-determination’. Nationalism, whilst a powerful tool of oppression, was created in part as a defence against imperialism and colonialism, against dominance from outside and in fear of being denied the rights of self-determination. It manifests itself like a sophisticated tribalism, with pride, tradition, attitudes of superiority, enemies real and imagined, and flag-waving. The concept of the nation is very real force in the minds of people today. The outlook of “us and them” is a strong notion in the lives of many people. The idea that the world is naturally divided into nations is widespread.
Socialists do not support movements for national liberation. Certainly socialism will allow the fullest linguistic and cultural diversity, but this cannot be achieved through nationalism. Marxism explains how workers are exploited and unfree, not as particular nationalities, but as members of a class. To be in an ‘oppressed minority’ at all it is usually necessary to first belong to the working class. From this perspective, identifying with the working class provides a rational basis for political action. The objective is a stateless world community of free access. Given that nationalism does nothing to further this understanding, however, it is an obstruction to world socialism. Nationalism is a perversion of a shared identity in the interest of some local elite.
Nations have taken a great deal of building. It wasn't always easy. Historians such as Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm have demonstrated that 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. There is almost no nation-state that has not had its boundaries drawn in blood, its foundations dug out of human flesh. The effort, though, has to be ongoing. States have required the use of an education system, to standardise learning, spread a national history and a sense of shared culture. The capitalist class needed the state, and its legitimising idea of nationalism and the nation. Culture resides in sets of ideas, values and practises that set out a sense of precedent, self and future possibility. By imposing the idea of the nation upon a culture, complete with its inherent notions of territorial ownership and property, the ruling class impose their notions of property on the very self-image of the people within that culture. In school workers are taught the history of the kings and queens, and of the wars in which the ruling class has been involved in over the centuries. The media reinforce this by reporting news from an almost exclusively parochial angle and encourage identification with “the nation” via identification with “our” sports teams and performers.
The most important word in the political vocabulary is “we” since to get someone to use “we” in relation to some group of people is to get them to identify their interest as the interest of that group. Socialists are trying to get all those excluded from ownership and control of means of production to recognise the fact of their common interest as one class within capitalist society, to regard themselves as “we” and to use “our” and “us” only in relation to that class and its interests. Those who do own and control means of production and who derive a privileged income from this, they seek to convince the people they rule over that the “we” they should identify with is “the nation” as the nation part of what they call the “nation-state” they rule. The idea of “we” as collectively joined and looked after by our rulers is the most profound falsehood. The notions of nationality were irrelevant during the time of feudalism, just as they are today where the capitalist class, not the people of “Britain” or "Scotland", privately owns the means for producing wealth. To say “this is our country” implies that we all own it collectively, where we most certainly do not.
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.
So long as people think in terms of the "common good" of the "national economy", in terms of the overall performance of one unit in the world-wide division of peoples, they are, whether consciously or not, serving the interests of the capitalist class. All evaluations, priorities and hierarchies of value within a "national culture" are made from the point of view, from the self-interest, and, indeed, the apprehended self-hood, of the members of the capitalist class. When the economy is "doing well" it is doing so for the capitalists, when the economy is ailing, it is ailing for the capitalists. Workers, of course, do not share a common interest with their masters. It does not follow that if the "national wealth" increases, or if trade increases, or even if profit increases, that higher wages 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 (under the current system) 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.
Without the ideology of nationalism, capitalist states would be unstable since, being based on minority class rule, they need a minimum allegiance from those they rule over. Nationalism serves to achieve this by teaching the ruled to be loyal to "their" so-called "nation-state".
Xenophobia becomes a useful ally in promoting nationalism. Jonathan Swift wrote “the first principle of patriotism is to resent foreigners,” setting one section of population against another, has been used ultra-successfully all around the world – so successfully that great swathes of people can now rouse themselves, with no apparent external cue, against the newest threat, the most recent immigrant group, asylum seekers, anyone who looks or sounds like they may be from a group that’s not their own. Enemies are required by the state elites. Enemies within and without, social, cultural, economic enemies to keep the population vigilant against all possible threats, to keep them fully occupied, suspicious of each other, divided, protecting the national interest against any wayward individual or group – including themselves.
Some socialists thought that nationalist beliefs would fall apart as capitalism covered the globe and the entire planet became based on capitalist values. As nations became dependent on each other and general education increased among the masses, surely people would see that the concept of the nation would be obsolete? The next clear step would be to end the tyranny of the privileged minority that controlled the vast amounts of wealth and property and move towards common ownership. World socialism would be the end result. However, today capitalism is still here, and so is the idea of nationality. Nationality is perhaps more potent then it has ever been. People something to sustain them. They feel lost in this vast meaningless world of capital, just another cog in the machine, and they would be right. Since the working class finds little meaning in its wage labour, a draining process, as the people alienate themselves from their own life activity, they search for meaning in other places. Often they find meaning in religion and/or the idea of the nation, as these notions are clear and often connected, already set out by the ruling class and don't require much thought or struggle.
Tying nationality to sports can also sustain this backward nationalist mindset. People can hate other peoples or nations simply because they compete with them in sports. This can lead to acts of incredibly insane violence, since people, having no meaning in their work life, put great passion and meaning into their enjoyment of sports. Since the sport and the collective meaning and support of the sport tends to become their life, supporters of opposing teams and nations may seem like a threat to all they hold dear. This seeming threat to the very meaning of their lives can cause them to explode into open fighting. With no meaning from work, the sport, and sense of identity that comes with it, becomes their lives, and they defend it accordingly. It is no coincidence that a person with a immensely draining, alienating job and repetitive work, will tend to cling desperately to this collective idea of nationality, as they find meaning and comfort in this idea, since they have no meaning in their work.
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.