The human drama, whether played out in history books or headlines, is often not just a confusing spectacle but a spectacle about confusion. The big question these days is, which political force will prevail, those stitching nations together or those tearing them apart?
All countries are basically social arrangements, accommodations to circumstances. No matter how permanent and even sacred they may seem at any one time, they are all artificial and temporary. Through the ages there has been a trend toward larger units claiming sovereignty and, paradoxically, a gradual diminution of how much true sovereignty any one country actually has. Today fewer than 10 percent of the 186 countries on Earth are culturally or linguistically homogeneous. The rest are multinational states. The main goal driving the process of political expansion and consolidation was conquest. The big absorbed the small, the strong the weak. National might made international right. Such a world is in a more-or-less constant state of preparation for war.
From time to time many thinkers have questioned whether this was a sensible way to run a planet; perhaps national sovereignty was not such a great idea after all. In the 18th century, the Enlightenment gave rise to the idea that all human beings are born equal and should as citizens enjoy certain basic liberties and rights, including that of choosing their leaders. Once this had been achieved, the argument went, it was more reasonable to imagine a treaty regulating nations’ behaviour toward one another. In 1795 Kant was advocating a "peaceful league of democracies".
With the advent of modern technology the world has become smaller than ever, its nations more interdependent and conflicts bloodier. The price of settling international disputes by force was rapidly becoming too high for the victors, not to mention the vanquished.
Once again, people like Gandhi, Toynbee and Camus all favoured giving primacy to interests higher than those of the nation. Each world war inspired the creation of an international organization, the League of Nations in the 1920s and the United Nations in the 1940s.
Despite this, during most of our century, large areas of the world have been in a continual state of warfare. Many of these conflicts had taken place since the end of the Second World War. Most of the nations directly or indirectly involved in all of these wars were members of the "United Nations" which was set up as an instrument to prevent wars, especially between its members.
The very designation "united", when applied to nations, is a contradiction in terms, because a union among rival states is not practical and only possible in the instance of the temporary alliance of one group to wage war on another, whether military or trade warfare.
Despite the globalization of capitalism there are still plenty of emergent nationalist forces which are busily inventing histories in order to justify their own petty territorial claims. The romance of an idealized national story of the past is the stuff which gets people to enter the killing fields. The bullets follow the flag-waving rituals and they in return follow the legendary histories which inspired a false consciousness of pride in their state.
In the powerful nations history becomes a means of winning popular emotions to the cause of stability. An influential and well-funded nostalgia industry has long been used in these nations to persuade workers that there is something great about being the Nation’s subjects.
Many of the 'national liberation" movements have been mere pawns in the hands of rival imperialisms even before they have won. Where they have won, independence has benefitted neither the colonial peoples nor the workers of the former colony-holding countries. For it is not the workers who are liberated but only a minority who impose their rule and take over from the foreign governments the role of exploiters. Once in power this minority finds sooner or later that its independence too is illusory; it is forced to compromise with one or other of the imperialist powers, even the one they fought against.
What is a nation anyway? Is it an area in which resides a population with a common so-called racial or ethnical background? Is it an area in which resides a population with a common language?
Common religion? Common economic interest? It is none of these.
The only valid definition of a modern nation is a geographical and political area in which goods and services are produced for the sale on the market with a view to profit and with a general class division of ruling and ruled. And the fact that the majority of the population owns little but its ability to work is evidence that the working class has no common interest with the minority capitalist or ruling class. Furthermore, the fact that nations are, in effect, businesses and engaged in the normal business transactions of buying and selling in competition with one another in the markets of the world, certainly prevents such a thing as a genuine "league of nations’. It has always been apparent with the member-states of the "United Nations" that sovereign national interests come first.
Modern warfare is inextricably bound up with the capitalist mode of production — the production of goods and services for sale on market with a view to profit. Regardless of artificially-created hostility among the varied ethnic and religious groupings, war breaks out only when governments representing rival ruling classes wish it to break out.
The causes of war are found not in animosities between different groups, or in so-called aggressive instincts of humans, but in the quest by ruling classes for markets, sources of raw materials and strategic military bases to protect trade.
Remove capitalism from the world and you remove the cause of the conflicts between nation states that lead to wars.
In a socialist society there will be no attempt to impose uniformity, but so-called nationalist movements under capitalism are both a menace and an illusion. They are a menace because they enable an interested ruling class to use them to provoke antagonism towards other groups and thus provide fertile ground for capitalist interests to work up support for war.
Separatist nationalism is an illusion because, while capitalism lasts, the powers, great and small, dare not allow themselves to be weakened by giving real freedom of action to any group of citizens. Governments, in defending capitalist interests, are all opposed to the development of internationalism among the working class of the world, and equally opposed to so-called national minorities which resist conforming to centralized rule and conscription for the armed forces.
There are in fact no purely nationalist movements. Invariably the nationalist sentiment is mixed with economic factors and made use of by the class that has an interest to serve by achieving independence; and independence means not the emancipation of the exploited section of the population but a mere change of masters.