The worker has no country

As the imperialists prepare to celebrate the slaughter that was World War I, Chris Gray examines the phenomenon of nationalism

Capitalism has no more realised national unity than it has democracy. It has awakened the demand for national unity, but, in itself, it has brought to life tendencies that prevent the realisation of that demand. Meanwhile, the nation is a powerful and extremely persistent factor of human culture. The nation will outlive not only the current war, but also capitalism itself.

In the socialist system too, freed from state-economic dependence, the nation will long remain as the most important seat of spiritual culture, for the nation has at its disposal language, the most significant organ of this culture. The state is another matter.

Leon Trotsky1

I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community - and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.

It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.

Benedict Anderson2

Nationalism is a bourgeois ideology not in the sense that all or even most of its adherents are capitalists, but rather in the sense that it always articulates the interests of an actual or aspirant capitalist class.

Neil Davidson 3


Humans are social animals. A single individual, of whatever sex, is not self-sufficient. Human life is a collective enterprise, even if, anthropologically and historically speaking, there have been several different forms of collective unit, including hunter-forager bands, moieties (intermarrying clans), tribes, tribal alliances, villages, cities, alliances of cities, empires, religious associations, nationalities, kingdoms, ‘nation-states’ and so forth. Hence the stress laid by the great Arab historian and sociologist, Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406CE) on “group feeling”.4


Contrary to the view of a good many nationalists, who seem to think that nations have always existed, being par excellence the natural and inevitable collective unit, nations are in fact relative latecomers in the sequence. This is brought out very well by Ernest Gellner in his authoritative study of the subject, Nationalism. For Gellner


Culture and social organisation are universal and perennial. States and nationalisms are not … Nations and nationalist sentiments are not found universally, whereas cultures and organisation are.5




Nationalism is a political principle, which maintains that similarity of culture is the basic social bond … In its extreme version, similarity of culture becomes both the necessary and the sufficient condition of legitimate membership: only members of the appropriate culture may join the unit in question, and all of them must do so.6


Clearly, similarity of culture, on this reading, while necessary for the emergence of nations and nationalism, is not by itself the origin of these phenomena. There can be populations with a common culture which are nonetheless divided into separate political units; these units may be independent of each other, or subject to neighbouring units, or even part of a political unit controlled by people whose common culture is entirely different.

Such was the condition of large areas of Ireland as late as the 16th century of the Christian era. Historically, Gaelic Ireland was a patchwork of small kingdoms known as tuatha - (the word is connected with an Indo-European root meaning ‘all’ - cf Deutschland, touto in Oscan, tutti in Italian. Original human kinship groups tend to think of themselves as constituting all the humans there are, and this belief tends to persist, whence the name of the Germanic tribe known in Latin as Allemanni - ‘alle Männer’ or ‘everybody’).

But the fact remains that, at the historical juncture portrayed, there was no Irish nation in the full sense of the term; the Irish tuatha were divided among themselves, which was, of course, one of the reasons why the English crown was able to gain power over them. They constituted a potential nation, but only became one over 200 years later (after 1798). England, by contrast, was in a very different condition, being territorially controlled by a powerful dynasty - the Tudors. This dynasty had at its disposal those forces featuring in Marxist theory as the core of the state machine - “special bodies of armed men” - and much else.

As Ernest Gellner says, the nationalist attitude


not only defines the limit of the [political] unit, but it assumes that the unit has an institutional leadership (‘the state’), and its main concern is that the positions in this institutional power centre be manned by members of the ‘national’ culture, the one which defines the unit. To put it in simple language: no foreigners may rule us! This requirement is indeed already implied by the definition of nationalism, but the intensity with which this particular implication is felt must be noted.7

Mode of production

In the world in which nations and nationalism originate, therefore, the state is taken for granted. But an additional factor is the appearance of a mode of production radically different from previous modes, one whose purpose is the maximisation of exchange-value per se, as opposed to accumulation of use-values. Ernest Gellner has some very interesting observations on “agrarian society” - he lumps together slave societies, the high-tribute (or ‘Asiatic’) mode of production and feudalism under this general descriptive phrase:


Agrarian society is a food-producing and storing system; the silos or stores are guarded, and the contents are distributed only in accordance with the enforced entitlements of the members. In north Africa, the local name for the state is or was makhzen, a word with the same root as ‘store’, ‘magazine’. The term is highly suggestive: government is by control of the store; government is the control of the store [cf ancient Egypt - CG].

In this situation, the correct strategy for any individual or group within society is to be intensely concerned with its own position or rank within the social order, and not with the enhancement of output. It is your social standing, your station and its entitlements, which will determine your fate. Extra output is only likely to attract pillage or taxation. It is pointless. Occasionally, extra output may be hidden and used to enhance its owners’ security and prospects. But that is rare. More often, the path leads from power to wealth, rather than from wealth to power. In medieval Spain, a saying affirmed that warfare was a quicker as well as a more honourable route to riches than trade. This point can, all in all, be generalised for most agrarian societies.8


All this has cultural implications:


Agrarian society encourages cultural differentiation within itself. Such differentiation greatly helps it in its daily functioning. Agrarian society depends on the maintenance of a complex system of ranks [the supreme example is the Indian caste system - CG], and it is important that these be both visible and felt, that they be both externalised and internalised. If they are clearly seen in all external aspects of conduct, in dress, commensality, accent, body posture, limits of permissible consumption and so forth, this eliminates ambiguity and thus diminishes friction. If a man’s station and its rights and duties become part of his soul, his pride, this, once again, helps maintain social discipline. That great classic of the social theory of agrarian society, Plato’s Republic, in fact defines morality in these very terms: morality consists of each element in the hierarchical social structure performing its assigned task, and no other.

This leads us to the main generalisation concerning the role of culture in agrarian society: its main function is to reinforce, underwrite, and render visible and authoritative, the hierarchical status system of that social order.9


This system of gradation of ranks militates against the emergence of a culture-bound area counterposing itself to other culture-bound areas, which is what a nation in the modern historical capitalist context amounts to. The culture of ‘agrarian society’ is dead set against such a configuration:


This is the basic reason why nationalism - the view that the legitimate political unit is made up of anonymous members of the same culture - cannot easily operate in an agrarian society. It is deeply antithetical to its main organising principle, status expressed through culture. It is not mobile and anonymous, but holds its members in their ‘places’, and the places are highlighted by cultural nuance. Similarity of culture does not constitute a political bond within it: quite often, differences of culture express social complementarity and interdependence …

The characteristic political unit of the agrarian age is generally either much smaller than the limits of a culture - city-states, village communities, tribal segments - or very much larger: culturally eclectic empires which have no reason whatsoever to limit their expansion when they encounter linguistic or cultural boundaries (of which they may be wholly ignorant, and to which they are indifferent).The most characteristic political unit of the agrarian age tended to make joint use of both these principles: a trans-ethnic empire would be superimposed on sub-ethnic communities, which it used as its local agent, tax-collector and deputy.10


In his mature work on nationalism, Ernest Gellner tends to miss out the role played by an important class present in ‘agrarian society’, whose modus operandi nonetheless looked forward to a social formation of the future - the merchants.

Capitalism in mediaeval Europe begins with the Italian city-states. These highly creative cities were nonetheless unable to generate a social and political order which would presage the arrival of a sustainable capitalist production mode. They developed a nasty habit of fighting among themselves, and on the Italian peninsula there was no state formation that could effectively discipline them. The territory was disputed between the holy Roman empire, on the one hand, and the papacy, on the other. This underlines Gellner’s point about the necessity for the presence of an effective state capable of holding the ring.11 The breakthrough occurred with the successful revolt of the Dutch united provinces from Spain, recognised by the treaty of Westphalia in 1648.


Even so, nations were germinating in western Europe in the late mediaeval period. The word itself is current then, especially in a university context - students being grouped according to nationes, the Latin meaning roughly the equivalent of gens (as in ius gentium - the law of nations) or populus. ‘Nation’ eventually came to denote a people united by tradition, custom, law and descent, and possessed of a language of state (eg, northern French).12 The rising commercial and industrial capitalist classes found such territorial units useful, forming “externally demarcated and internally connected areas of economic activity”.13 Concomitant factors were the adoption of a common language (in England’s case the revival of English at the expense of Norman French14), the emergence of absolutist monarchies15 and ‘national religion’ (usually some form of Protestant Christianity).16

Neil Davidson sees a three-stage process here in the formation of “national consciousness”:


In the first, which I call that of psychological formation (c1450-1688), it emerged unevenly across Europe (and its colonial extensions) among the most advanced economic groups as a response to socioeconomic changes set in train by the transition to capitalism. In the second, which I call that of geographical extension (1688-1789), the success of groups with an emergent national consciousness in the Netherlands [united provinces] and England in elevating this new psychological state into political movements led others (first in North America, Ireland and France, then generally) to acquire national status, even if their level of social development had not previously allowed national consciousness to arise. In the third, which I call that of social diffusion (1789-1848), national consciousness began to emerge in the social classes below the rulers of the new nation-states, partly as the result of deliberate indoctrination, but far more so as the by now inevitable pattern of life experience within societies shaped by the nation-state form.(12).17


Ernest Gellner sets up a straw syllogism, which he attributes to liberals and Marxists. The syllogism runs as follows:


1. Ethnic hostility and separation require cultural differences, for without them how could ethnic groups - ‘nations’ - identify themselves and distinguish themselves from their enemies?

2. Industrial social organisation erodes cultural nuances.

3. Therefore, the advancement of industrialisation erodes the very basis of nationalism.

4. Therefore, the progress of industrialism means the withering away of nationalism.18


Reflection will show that the reasoning is dubious. Proposition 2 (the minor premise) is the weak point. It is true that capital is indifferent to the national status of any particular worker as far as the creation of surplus value is concerned: you can be Albanian or Friesian or even Martian - the question is, can you do the job? However, once outside the confines of the enterprise and back inside the family and society in general, national differences reassert themselves: Albanians remain Albanians, Friesians remain Friesians (even if distributed geographically between the united provinces, Germany and Denmark) and the Martians return to their spaceship. Also it helps capital to control politically if the workforce is ethnically divided - ‘It’s all the fault of those bloody Martians! Who do they think they are, coming in here?’

Needless to say, Ernest Gellner has no difficulty in rubbishing the syllogism. What is interesting, though, is his summary conclusion:


In brief, there are very good reasons, over and above the sheer unevenness of terrain and the survival-inertia of major cultural groups (especially when endowed with their own script and the institutions perpetuating their own high culture), which make for the emergence, with industrialism, not of one all-embracing, universal culture, but of a whole group of them. The emergence of a single universal culture may yet come: only the future will tell. But for the time being, what we see is the replacement of enormous cultural diversity by a limited number of high cultures with political pretensions. That is the age of nationalism. We might not have anticipated it, but, with hindsight, we can understand it.19


Evidently the advantage of this whole discussion, as far as Gellner is concerned, is partly that it gives him a stick to beat the Marxists with; unfortunately, the stick breaks in his hands, as we shall see (see below on Leon Trotsky). His fellow scholar, Roman Szporluk, is a bit more sophisticated - at least, if you compare Gellner’s Nationalism with Szporluk’s Communism and nationalism.


What, then, is a nation? Benedict Anderson is right to describe it as an “imagined community” that is both “limited” and “sovereign”. This has the advantage of providing a distinction (especially pronounced in Slav languages) between ‘narrowness’ (nationality) and ‘narod’ (nation). (The reference language given here is Serbo-Croat). A ‘nationality’ may claim sovereignty over the state, but does not exercise it in practice.

Can we be more specific? Stalin thought so, and volunteered the following definition of a nation:


A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life and psychological make-up, manifested in a common culture.20


Stalin adds:


It must be emphasised that none of the above characteristics taken separately is sufficient to define a nation. More than that, it is sufficient for a single one of these characteristics to be lacking and the nation ceases to be a nation.


Neil Davidson has some relevant observations:


Switzerland fails the Stalinist criteria on at least two counts: those of language (there are five official languages - German, French, Italian and two dialects of Romansch) and religion [psychological make-up] (there are two major religions - Roman Catholicism and Calvinist Protestantism). Yet the territory of Switzerland did not change from 1515 to 1803, and during those three centuries the vast majority spoke dialects of German, only at the latter date incorporating Italian speakers. Only in 1815 did it acquire territories with significant French-speaking populations in Valais, Geneva and Neuchâtel, courtesy of the holy alliance.

The state itself was only established in 1815 and as late as 1848 it was still enforcing religious divisions within the cantons: Protestantism being unlawful in Catholic areas and Catholicism being illegal in Protestant ones. After the revolutions of that year (which actually began in Switzerland), these restrictions were lifted and the territory of the state divided on a linguistic basis instead. It was only in 1891 that the state decided that the 600th anniversary of the original Confederation of Schwyz, Obwalden and Nidwalden in 1291 constituted the origin of the Swiss nation [which is dubious - CG].

It should be clear even from this brief account that the Swiss nation exists in the absence of the elements which are supposed to constitute nationhood, not because of them. It might be protested that Switzerland is an exceptional case [Lenin may have thought so, and another mountainous example, Afghanistan, springs to mind], but … Scotland faced similar (and in some respects even more extreme) difficulties, yet also succeeded in becoming a nation.21


It seems advisable to record a quintessentially Scots verdict on all this - ‘not proven’. There is room for a good deal of further research, and clarification.

Both Gellner and Neil Davidson focus on a key period in the nation-building process in Europe: viz, 1815-48. Gellner in particular emphasises the importance of the Greek war of independence, which began in 1821. Here we can scarcely speak of a pre-existing national bourgeoisie, yet the trajectory of the whole movement was in the direction of the creation of one. Similar stirrings were visible in Ireland: as the Connacht poet, Antoine Ó Reachtabhra - known in English fashion as ‘Raftery’ - wrote (in translation),


The Greek and Turk are hard at work

And shall we boys shirk in the common weal?


(These were the days of the agitation for Catholic emancipation led by Daniel O’Connell).

List and Marx

Yet the arena which seems most illuminating in terms of the emergence of nationalism in Europe at this time would appear to be Germany. Here the period is dominated, in hindsight, by the rival protagonists, Friedrich List (1789-1846) and Karl Heinrich Marx (1818-83).

List is interesting because he highlights the close connection between nationalism and the development of capitalism in Germany.

The French Revolution and its aftermath - especially Napoleon - had a devastating effect on Germany, as it revealed the military weakness of even the strongest German states, Austria and Prussia. Politically a good deal of what Napoleon achieved in Germany was beneficial: perhaps his most notable success was to reduce the number of German states from one of three figures to 38, and his abolition of the holy Roman empire in 1806. Hegel was so impressed that he described Napoleon as “the world spirit on horseback” - the world spirit’s rejoinder is not recorded. But despite Napoleon’s reforms, many of which survived the 1815 restoration settlement approved in Vienna, Germany remained economically backward, with different states operating their own systems of weights and measures and imposing their own customs dues. Road and rail communications between the various states also remained backward. And English goods were everywhere.

List addressed himself to this situation, beginning as a government official in Württemberg and becoming by turns university professor, parliamentarian, political prisoner, émigré, businessman, farmer, editor, lobbyist and diplomat (he lived for a time in the USA and also in France). He wrote two books on political economy, for the second of which, The national system of political economy, published in Stuttgart in 1841, he is best known. In it he advocated the use of protective tariffs where a national economy was underdeveloped. He was also a champion of railway construction. Above all, however, he stressed the importance of the nation as an economic unit. List wrote:


If any nation whatever is qualified for the establishment of a national manufacturing power, it is Germany; by the high rank which she maintains in science and art, in literature and education, in public administration and in institutions of public utility; by her morality and religious character, her industry and domestic economy; by her perseverance and steadfastness in business occupations; as also by her spirit of invention, by the number and vigour of her population; by the extent and nature of her territory, and especially by her highly advanced agriculture, and her physical, social and mental resources.22


List was in favour of a liberal political constitution for a united Germany, but he was far from opposed to the expansion of the German state. He thought it should include Belgium, the Dutch united provinces, Denmark and Switzerland.23 He seems to have thought that these states were too small to survive on their own. Szporluk claims that Friedrich Engels held similar views contemporaneously about the Netherlands (the united provinces) and Belgium.24 List also thought Germany should consider founding colonies in central and South America, including in Texas (which was not then part of the United States)25 and should use the Balkans as an export market and a place to found German agricultural settlements. On a world scale he envisaged an assemblage of competing nations - basically the powers of the temperate zone.

On List’s advocacy of a greater Germany incorporating certain smaller European powers, Szporluk declares: “List’s position is objectionable, not only on moral, but also on directly political, grounds.”26

This can hardly be gainsaid. Further, Szporluk cites the historian, Edmund Silberner, on List’s overall vision:


Silberner rightly concludes that List failed in his intention to synthesise cosmopolitical economy with national economy; in other words, he failed to propose an international system, under which all nations could live in peace. He also failed to show how exactly the raising of large nations to the levels attained by England would help secure peace.27


Szporluk furthermore concludes that “List’s competition among nations was essentially a zero-sum game.” That, of course, is precisely what capitalist competition is.

In spite of all this, List was very much in tune with the times. As Szporluk notes,


… political nationalism in Germany had diverse causes. They included an acute resentment of the French cultural and political domination and a resultant sense of humiliation. Also important was the feeling that the political disunity of the nation - perceived as a negative phenomenon, once ethnic community came to be seen as superior to the existing forms of political organisation - made Germans a weak and contemptible member of the community of nations. Up until that time, a pre-nationalist German did not find cause for anxiety or resentment over the fact that Königsberg, Reutlingen and Lübeck were not governed from the same place.28



Friedrich List seems to enjoy quite a high reputation these days among economists, but Karl Marx, in an unfinished essay written early in 1845, was scathingly dismissive. It would appear that Roman Szporluk is correct in his assessment that:


By the time he first encountered the ideas of List, Marx, like Engels, had concluded that capitalism was a doomed system, deserving of condemnation on moral grounds, and simultaneously destined for an inevitable fall by the development of history itself.29


Engels, who also planned (but did not write) a critique of List, gave it as his opinion that “communism is, if not a historical, at any rate an economic necessity for Germany”.30 That Marx held a similar position is indicated by his assertion in the Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of right’ that “Germany, as the deficiency of present-day politics constituted into a system, will not be able to demolish the specific German barriers without demolishing the general barriers of present-day politics.”31


The “general barriers of present-day politics” is, in fact, another way of saying ‘the social relations of the capitalist mode of production’. (Compare Marx’s writings on the Jewish question, which argue that emancipation from the rule of capital constitutes real, as opposed to formal, emancipation). If we move forward to Marx’s critique of Friedrich List, we find the following statement:


The German bourgeois comes on the scene post festum [after the event] … it is just as impossible for him to advance further the political economy exhaustively developed by the English and French as it would probably be for them to contribute anything new to the development of philosophy in Germany. The German bourgeois can only add his illusions and phrases to the English and French reality. But little possible as it is for him to give a new development to political economy, it is still more impossible for him to achieve in practice a further advance of industry, of the by now almost exhausted development on the present foundations of society.32


As Roman Szporluk observes,


The above passage both denies the possibility that an independent theoretical contribution could be made by German economists adhering to the principle of capitalist political economy and [my emphasis - CG] rejects the prospect that Germany could become a capitalist country.33


Whatever the accuracy of the statement concerning a German bourgeois contribution to political economy, the second sentence penned by Marx is resoundingly wrong, as Marx himself was later forced to recognise.

If the above passage constituted the sum total of Marx’s observations on Friedrich List’s book, one, could justifiably dismiss the essay as an aberration, but there are at least three other passages in this piece of writing that merit attention. First of all, Marx writes:


To hold that every nation goes through this development [of liberation from capitalism - Szporluk] would be as absurd as the idea that every nation is bound to go through the political development of France or the philosophical development of Germany. What the nations have done as nations they have done for human society; their whole value consists only in the fact that each single nation has accomplished for the benefit of other nations one of the main historical aspects (one of the main determinations) in the framework of which mankind has accomplished its development, and therefore after industry in England, politics in France and philosophy in Germany have been developed, they have been developed for the world, and their world-historic significance, as also that of these nations, has thereby come to an end.”34


Szporluk’s take on this is as follows:


Marx did not admit the possibility of a national road to capitalism [for Germany in 1845 - CG], which List was trying to find, and had nothing to say in favour of socialism in one country, because capitalism and communism were worldwide systems and could be treated only in a supra-national setting.35


Szporluk is absolutely right on this latter point. Marx reveals here a breadth of realist internationalism which is consistent with the position later set out in the Communist manifesto.

There is more. In contrast to German nationalists, Marx sees England as the expression of a much more powerful force internationally - something not itself a nation, but a power controlling all nations, just as in our day the European Union represents not so much a foreign entity, but a power standing over itself and the UK (along with other national entities): ie, international capital. Marx writes:


England’s industrial tyranny over the world is the domination of industry [ie, capitalism] over the world. England dominates us because industry dominates us. We can free ourselves from England abroad only if we free ourselves from industry at home. We shall be able to put an end to England’s domination in the sphere of competition only if we overcome competition [ie, capitalism] within our borders. England has power over us because we have made industry into a power over us.36


He goes on to draw the necessary conclusion for the working class:


The nationality of the worker is neither French, nor English, nor German; it is labour, free slavery, self-huckstering. His government is neither French, nor English, nor German; it is capital. His native air is neither French, nor German, nor English; it is factory air. The land belonging to him is neither French, nor English, nor German; it lies a few feet below the ground.37


These lines recall James Connolly later:


Our masters all, a godly crew,

Whose hearts throb for the poor,

Their sympathies assure us, too,

If our demands were fewer.

Most generous souls! But please observe,

What we enjoy from birth

Is all we ever had the nerve

To ask: that is, the earth.


And Billy Bragg:


Theirs is the land of hope and glory,

Mine is the green field and the factory floor.

Theirs are the skies all dark with bombers

And mine is the peace we knew between the wars.



Much the same position recurs in the Communist manifesto. While acknowledging - even celebrating - the bourgeoisie’s role in developing the productive powers of society - (“What earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?”) - Marx emphasises the imperialist thrust of bourgeois rule and the tendency under capitalism for the productive forces to be transformed into destructive ones:


The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them all social relations …

The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.

The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life-and-death question for all civilised nations …38


And again:


Modern bourgeois society …, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells. For many a decade past the history of industry and commerce is but the history of the revolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production, against the property relations that are the conditions for the existence of the bourgeoisie and of its rule. It is enough to mention the commercial crises that by their periodical return put on trial, each time more threateningly, the existence of the entire bourgeois society.

In these crises a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed. In these crises there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity - the epidemic of overproduction. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed. And why? Because there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce.

The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and, so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them.

And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand, by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones.”39


Marx does not elaborate, but it is clear that the “conquest of new markets” is not exhausted by the bringing of pre-capitalist areas of the globe into the system, but by intensified competition between established nationally based enterprises. Thus nationalism, capitalism and imperialism are intertwined.

The Manifesto contains a classic passage attacking nationalism:


The communists are further reproached with desiring to abolish countries and nationality.

The working men [die Arbeiter - ie, potentially both sexes] have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got. Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is, so far, itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word [my emphasis - CG].

National differences and antagonisms between peoples are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to the freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto.

The supremacy of the proletariat will cause them to vanish still faster. United action, of the leading civilised countries at least, is one of the first conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat [again my emphasis].

In proportion as the exploitation of one individual by another is put an end to, the exploitation of one nationality by another will also be put an end to. In proportion as the antagonism between classes within the nation vanishes, the hostility of one nation to another will come to an end.40


In pursuance of the goal of united action by the international working class, the supporters of the Manifesto gave notice of plans for its publication “in the English, French, German, Italian, Flemish and Danish languages”.41

Apart from the overconfident reference to the disappearance of antagonisms between peoples, there is nothing unreasonable in this passage. The key notion is: workers do not control the countries in which they live, hence they are in that sense non-national. The text asserts uncompromisingly the international character of the working class, a class that is only national insofar as it constitutes the majority of the population in each state. Nowhere is it asserted that the proper political unit, the focal point of political allegiance, is the national state: workers must obviously address themselves to political developments in their own state, but they cannot be bound by its dictates (it needs to be remembered that we are in a period in which workers were not allowed to vote for national political representatives). On the contrary, the call is for workers to act against capital on an international scale. The need for international action was first recognised organisationally with the establishment of the First International in 1864: this approach still holds good.

Finally, it is worth noting that in the section on tactics at the end of the document we are told that, in Germany, the communists “fight with the bourgeoisie [ie, fight alongside the same] whenever it acts in a revolutionary way, against the absolute monarchy, the feudal squirearchy and the petty bourgeoisie.”42


Why did Marx and Engels and their followers take such exception to the division of humans into national groupings, and to the demand that people should be loyal to their respective national communities first and foremost? The answer can be found in the history of international affairs in Europe (and further afield) from 1789 onwards.

Anyone who wants to learn what is wrong with nationalism needs only to visit Dublin and read the inscription on the monument to Charles Stewart Parnell, which reproduces the quotation from one of his speeches. No man, it is asserted, has the right to set bounds to the march of a nation (in this case the Irish nation). The problem with that is the existence on the world stage of more than one nation: if all nations have the right to expand indefinitely then we have a recipe for international mayhem.

It is true that each particular nation claims this right exclusively for itself, but in the existing context that is an invitation to other nations to make exactly the same claim: if you say Deutschland über alles - Germany first - you can hardly be surprised if members of other nations object and advance their own rival national slogan. (A certain British trade union leader once said, “If there is to be a free-for-all, then we are part of the ‘all’.”)

Two logical results follow: (1) the emergence of a ‘hegemon’, a top nation - historically, initially, the Dutch united provinces, then Britain, and currently the United States of America; and (2) the creation of various international bodies designed to mitigate international conflict (our recent historical experience is that these institutions end up expressing and enforcing the will of the hegemonic power, which in turn reflects that of big capitalist corporations).

Ernest Gellner was wrong to suggest that Marxists naively think that the expansion of capitalism automatically does away with national differences and antagonisms. The quotation from Leon Trotsky, dating from the period of World War I, shows that this is not the case. Roman Szporluk, who seems better read in Marxist literature than our Ernest, refers to Trotsky’s emphasis on the law of uneven and combined development on pages 271-72 of his book. As Trotsky suggests, nations are not fated to last for ever, but they are going to be around for a very long time - if humanity manages to extricate itself from its current mess. People need a sense of who they are, of their identity,43 which in turn affects their status, and this applies to nations as much as to individuals. Self-image counts. Here Roman Szporluk has some wise words:


… it matters a lot what a nation imagines itself to be: in other words, the significance lies in the content of its nationalist self-image. It matters whether that image defines the nation as naturally peaceful or warrior-like, naturally democratic or authoritarian, sympathetic to new economic methods or traditionally agrarian, open to all who wish to join it or defined by racial (and therefore impenetrable) criteria, and so on.44


But why this tie-up between capitalism and nationalism in the initial stages of development of the mode of production? I cannot help feeling that our late comrade, Al Richardson, would have used one of his favourite expressions here: “The answer is very simple.” Capitalism comes into existence initially as many capitals, and these capitals are geographically dispersed (see the writings of David Harvey). Looking around for state support, the multifarious capitals are instinctively drawn to the state formation under which they arise, and they try to harness it for their own purposes. One of the most effective ways to do so is to appeal to the neighbourhood “group feeling” at state level, or where the said neighbourhood aspires to control the state. This involves the espousal of a ‘national’ language and a ‘national’ culture - either at peasant level or at the level of “high culture” (and, if at the peasant level, this will require the elevation of the peasants’ language to high cultural status - as, for example, in the work of Vuk Karadzic in Serbia). It also involves the recruitment of the subordinate classes for a project of capitalist expansion.

What, then, of the right of nations to self-determination? This topic cannot be given an exhaustive treatment here, but what can be said is that if a nation makes a democratic decision one way or another, that has to be respected, but socialists reserve the right to fight against any adverse or reactionary effects of it.

As far as socialists are concerned, the capitalists have only succeeded in dividing the world up into various competing nations: the point, however, is to organise international action by the working class to overthrow these state powers and begin the true era of international working class cooperation - in the name of the commons l


1. L Trotsky, ‘The nation and the economy’ Nashe Slovo July 3 1915 - quoted in RB Day and D Gaido (eds) Discovering imperialism London 2012, p882.

2. B Anderson Imagined communities London 2006, pp5-6.

3. C Bambery (ed) Scotland: class and nation London 1999, p43.

4. If that is the correct translation of asabiya here: “Leadership over people, therefore, must, of necessity, derive from a group feeling [asabiya] that is superior to each individual group feeling. Each individual group feeling that becomes aware of the superiority of the group feeling of the leader is ready to obey and follow him” (I Khaldun The Muqaddimah: an introduction to history [translator: F Rosenthal] London 1978, p101).

5. E Gellner Nationalism London 1997, p5.

6. Ibid pp3-4.

7. Ibid p6.

8. Ibid p18.

9. Ibid p20.

10. Ibid p21.

11. For the background see Giovanni Arrighi’s The long 20th century London 1994.

12. See N Davidson The origins of Scottish nationhood London 2000, pp24-27.

13. Ibid p28.

14. Ibid pp29-30.

15. Ibid p30-32.

16. Ibid pp32-33.

17. Ibid p28.

18. E Gellner Nationalism London 1997, p32.

19. Ibid p36.

20. JV Stalin, ‘Marxism and the national question’: www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1913/03a.htm.

21. N Davidson The origins of Scottish nationhood London 2000, pp8-9.

22. F List, ‘The national system of political economy”, quoted in R Szporluk Communism and nationalism: Karl Marx versus Friedrich List Oxford 1988, p130.

23. R Szporluk Communism and nationalism: Karl Marx versus Friedrich List Oxford 1988, pp127-28.

24. Ibid p128.

25. Ibid p131.

26. Ibid p128.

27. Ibid p129. See E Silberner The problem of war in 19th century economic thought, translated by A Krappe, Princeton 1946, pp160-62, 170).

28. R Szporluk Communism and nationalism: Karl Marx versus Friedrich List Oxford 1988, p165.

29. Ibid p3.

30. MECW Vol 4, London 1975, p256.

31. F Marx Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of right’ Cambridge 1970, p62.

32. MECW London 1973, Vol 4, p274.

33. R Szporluk Communism and nationalism: Karl Marx versus Friedrich List Oxford 1988, p32.

34. MECW London 1973, Vol 4, p281.

35. R Szporluk Communism and nationalism: Karl Marx versus Friedrich List Oxford 1988, p32.

36. MECW Vol 4, p283.

37. Ibid Vol 4, p280.

38. K Marx and F Engels, Selected works Vol 1, Moscow 1958, p37.

39. Ibid Vol 1, pp39-40.

40. Ibid Vol 1, p51.

41. Ibid Vol 1, p33.

42. Ibid Vol 1, pp64-65.

43. See PE Mayo The roots of identity London 1974.

44. R Szporluk Communism and nationalism: Karl Marx versus Friedrich List Oxford 1988, p164.