Nation-state and nationalism

Communists strive for the equality of nations, writes Mike Macnair in the second of a series of articles

In the first of these articles I argued the case for the equality of nationalities within the state as a democratic demand, and concluded with the point that ‘assimilationism’ grew out of the search for democracy, and ‘the self-determination of nations’ - ie, the right of nations to a state - grew out of the logic of assimilationism. But then, I said, to assert a right to the self-determination of nations poses the question: what is a nation? The necessary starting point is Stalin’s definition - not because it is ‘right’, but because Stalin’s Marxism and the national question (1913) offered theoretical underpinning to the Bolsheviks’ self-determination policy.

In Marxism and the national question Stalin defines a nation as “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”.

The “psychological make-up” which is fairly clearly drawn from early 20th century pop-psychology, can be got rid of without damaging the definition.

The requirement of a common language is problematic from the case of modern Switzerland, which is bilingual using French and German, and Belgium, which is bilingual using Flemish and Walloon; there is, nonetheless, a Swiss ‘national culture’, though the Belgian case is more problematic. The requirement also precludes the identification of nations as existing at any date before 19th century mass state education marginalised the minor languages within the major states (Occitan, Breton, Welsh, Cornish, Ladin, Romansch, and so on). It is thus stipulative: that is, it defines down the thing to be explained into modern/19th century national identification, thus simplifying the problem of explanation - arguably unduly.

“Stable community” is somewhat question-begging. But it can be taken together with the requirements of historical constitution and a common culture, as indicating in a loose way that to call a group of people a nation implies some historical existence and common culture extending over more than a generation or two.

The requirement of a common territory is also stipulative, but in a different way. It is grounded on some evidence: viz the propositions that (1) England, Ireland and the US are different nations, though they have a common language, and (2) Denmark and Norway are different nations, though they have a common language. In fact, these results could be reached without the use of the territory criterion by the use of the historical constitution and common culture criteria. The stipulative aspect of it is this. Stalin does not want to call a social group a nation unless it could at least potentially be a nation-state. Thus the Jews are in some sense a national group, but not a nation. This is also reflected in the requirement of a common economy. Thus Stalin comments of his native Georgia:

The Georgians before the reform inhabited a common territory and spoke one language. Nevertheless, they did not, strictly speaking, constitute one nation, for, being split up into a number of disconnected principalities, they could not share a common economic life; for centuries they waged war against each other and pillaged each other, each inciting the Persians and Turks against the other. The ephemeral and casual union of the principalities which some successful king sometimes managed to bring about embraced at best a superficial administrative sphere, and rapidly disintegrated, owing to the caprices of the princes and the indifference of the peasants.

Nor could it be otherwise in economically disunited Georgia ... Georgia came on the scene as a nation only in the latter half of the 19th century, when the fall of serfdom and the growth of the economic life of the country, the development of means of communication and the rise of capitalism, introduced division of labour between the various districts of Georgia, completely shattered the economic isolation of the principalities and bound them together into a single whole.

The paradox of this description is that very much the same could be said of Wales before the English conquest ... and of the consequences of that conquest, which for the first time created Wales as an entity. But this was a feudal, not a bourgeois, conquest and the history of Wales in the two centuries between the early Norman incursions and the final conquest in the 1280s displayed classic symptoms of ‘nation-building’ activities by the Princes of Gwynedd.

Stalin’s definition is not merely stipulative. It is solidly theoretically grounded - on the proposition that the creation of nation-states is a task of the bourgeoisie. But if that proposition does not stand without Stalin’s definition of the nation, the entire argument becomes viciously circular. The stipulative aspects of Stalin’s definition serve to preclude there being anything which could be evidence against the doctrine that the bourgeoisie creates the nation-state.

Yet the aspect of Stalin’s definition of the nation which requires the possibility of the nation-state corresponds to something real about nations. That is, that the existence of self-identified nation-states comes before mass national self-identification both in history and in recent times for the larger part of the world’s population.

Nation-state revisited

In my 2003 review of Patrick J Geary’s The myth of nations I argued that the nation-state is best seen, for the purposes of general historical-materialist analysis, as emerging in the transition from slavery to feudalism, not the transition from feudalism to capitalism.1 I do not propose to repeat the argument here, except to point out that medieval historians have found literally masses of evidence of state self-identification as national, and considerable evidence of national self-identification among wider layers.2 Now, of course, as Benedict Anderson and others have argued, academic historians have gone looking for evidence of nationalism because they are nationalists. But the point (made by Geary among others) is that, if historians look for such evidence before the end of the Roman empire, they do not find it, and their ‘nationalist’ constructions become violently artificial. In relation to the feudal Middle Ages there is no such artificiality.

The critical points are two. The first is that - as should already have been clear from my discussion of the difficulties of Stalin’s definition - the nation is not a pre-political entity. The origin of the concept of the nation is in the ancient Greeks’ and Romans’ ‘ethnography’ of the ‘barbarian’ peoples, who have ethnicities, as opposed to the civilised people, who are defined by the possession of (city or imperial) states. But the ‘ethnicities’ of stateless peoples are loose, floating and indeterminate, and the need to define one’s social relations - one’s ‘community’ - by something broader than family and clan is already a response to existing states.

The state, as I have already said, is a territorial entity. This leads into the second point. We should identify the nation-state as coming into existence not when there is mass national self-identification, but when states identify themselves as attached to a particular nation: the Kingdom of the English, and so on. ‘Nation’ here means people with a common language and culture, identified as such by the state. And this moment is the moment of the beginning of feudalism: the European early Middle Ages, the emergence of the Kamakura Bakufu in Japan.

It is intimately linked to two recognitions. The first is recognition of foreigners who have a different language (and state), but in other respects share a common culture (in early medieval Europe, other Christians; in Japan, the big neighbour, China, and the smaller neighbour, Korea). The second is recognition of the primary producers as members of the society: the transition from slave to serf. State formation under feudalism then produces national self-identification in broader layers.

The difficulty in perceiving the feudal shift to the idea of the nation-state stems from three phenomena. The first is that medieval European culture is still also overlaid with the idea of the Roman empire as a nostalgic image of the ideal past. In Italy and Germany the strength of this ‘imperialism’ combined with the struggle between church and state to prevent full state-formation.

The second is that there were also in feudal society political orders of, and self-identification as members of, sub-national communities, like cities, regions and indeed villages.3 But the common idea that this is counterposed to national self-identification is a false generalisation from cases of weak central states (Germany, Italy) connected to the imperialist ideology (above). Such local political orders and local self-identifications are found just as much in modern capitalist societies: the United States provides striking examples.

The third is that medieval kings are not only the heads of nation-states, but also feudal family dynasts, who seek to add territory to their family holdings. The result is the creation of unstable agglomerations of nation-states and sub-national holdings, like the late 12th century ‘Angevin empire’ of Henry II and his sons and - the biggest of the lot - the 16th century Habsburg ‘empire’ of Charles V, comprising the titular Holy Roman Empire of Germany-Austria and the Netherlands; the three kingdoms of Spain; and Naples-Sicily.

But these agglomerations are, precisely, unstable. They continue to be governed through the national or sub-national institutions of their components, and they tend to break up. They are, in the late medieval period, agglomerations of nation-states. In some of them, as in the accretions of Brittany to France and of Scotland and Wales to England, the state in the modern period promotes a larger national identification. But this does not mean that the smaller components were not self-identified and identified by the broader culture as nations before; and this identification has tended to re-emerge in the 20th century.

Was the formation of nation-states ‘historically progressive’? The answer on this analysis must be clearly ‘yes’ both (a) as against prior state forms (city-states, tributary empires) and (b) as against forms of statelessness which involve routine cattle- and slave-raiding against neighbouring tribes, etc (pre-Roman Gaul; early medieval Wales and Ireland; the Pakhtun parts of Afghanistan; etc). They are ‘historically progressive’ in the teleological sense that feudalism tends to improve the forces of production relative to pre-feudal forms, and that capitalism emerges out of feudalism, and in turn creates the possibility of socialism. But they are also ‘historically progressive’ in the immediate sense that it is blindingly obviously better to be a serf than to be a chattel slave, and better to live under a national-feudal judicial system than to live in constant fear of slave-raiding and head-hunting by the guys who live on the next hill.

Nation-states, capitalism and modern nationalism

Capitalism is from the outset an international economic, social and political phenomenon. But, in order to overthrow the feudal state and take political power, capital needs the support of the petty proprietors and the embryo working class. In addition, the feudal states are weakened in their response to the capitalist movement by their national and dynastic divisions. Capitalism therefore breaks through to political power at the nation-state level.

The first wave of what can best be called a proto-capitalist struggle for power is the international commune movement of the 12th and 13th centuries. In most countries this achieved partial autonomy for cities and towns within the existing feudal state. In northern Italy, however, the exceptional weakness of the feudal state allowed fully independent city-states to emerge. Most of these were recaptured by the feudalism of the surrounding countryside, becoming signorie; Venice and Genoa survived until the French revolution, and Venice at least showed its class character by exporting capitalist production relations into the agriculture of its immediate terrafirma hinterland. By 1200 the commune movement was beginning to ebb, but it left behind aftershocks. In the mid-13th century the two most nationally centralised feudal states of the period, England and Naples-Sicily, saw members of the landlord class combining with the towns to create ‘national communes’, which, however, rapidly fell apart. At the end of the century commune ideas combined with a peasant movement to create the beginnings of Switzerland as a confederation of communes.

Even the strongest of these developments were not strong enough to give effective state expression to capital as an international phenomenon. The breakthrough came in the late 16th century with the emergence of the Dutch Republic. Here the struggle for Protestantism and the Kingdom of God coalesced with a national struggle against Spanish Habsburg domination of the Low Countries. The movement enabled the creation of a capitalist state which was more than a city-state, though it did not succeed in capturing more than a part of the Dutch-speaking ‘national’ territory, or that of historical Flanders, let alone the whole territory occupied by speakers of variants of German; but it also provided an international centre of capital.

More clearly, when in the 17th century the English capitalist class took political power, they created first a ‘Great Britain’ dominated by England, and then, rapidly, a British world-empire. By taking the English nation-state they broke beyond its confines to create a British state, and make it into a highly effective instrument of international capital. The international character is reflected in the Huguenot-French, Dutch, German, Italian, etc names of many of the commercial operators in the 18th century London markets.

The late-feudal English state was a nation-state; the ‘three kingdoms’ of the Stuart monarchy (England-Wales, Scotland, Ireland) were a late-feudal agglomeration. The British state, created in practice from 1688, was a multinational political state and, immediately, the centre of a world empire, rapidly understood as such. Allegiance to it was grounded on the common politics of ‘English’ - later ‘British’ - ‘liberties’: it was an allegiance primarily to the constitution and only secondarily to the nation as such. It nonetheless retained the English nation-state at its core.

The British state operated on a world scale. As a result, it came into repeated conflicts between 1688 and 1789 with the leading surviving feudal-absolutist power, France. In these conflicts the French were repeatedly defeated. In 1776-83, they were finally successful in inflicting a partial defeat on the British by allying with the colonist rebels who formed the USA and with the Dutch. But the effort bankrupted, and, after a few years’ delay, brought down the French state.

When the French revolutionaries were debating what was to replace the fallen monarchy, they started to a considerable extent from the need to adopt/adapt what were perceived as being Anglo-American forms of government. Hence a national assembly; hence a (temporary) adoption of trial by jury; hence the effort to create what was perceived as being a feature of the English state: a centralised single legal system.4 On this basis they embarked on a campaign of ‘national’ centralism against the patries (fatherlands, meaning provinces) of the French ancien régime, and for a French-wide patrie to back their modernising reconstruction of the French state.

Then in the 1790s the British state orchestrated intervention against the revolution. The campaign for a French-wide patrie now became an instrument of mobilisation against the international counterrevolution. Under this banner the French under Napoleon went on to conquer much of Europe. Before he turned to empire, French arms carried with them the abolition of old particular jurisdictions and the creation of new centralised ‘nation-states’ in the Low Countries, Switzerland, Italy, Spain ... What became, after the reaction of 1815, 19th century European liberalism, the movement against the ancien régime, was thus committed to the French image of the nation-state.

After Napoleon’s turn to empire, it was the turn of the British to play on nationalism, and counter-enlightenment conservative nationalism emerged as a mobilising force in Germany and Spain in the years around 1810.

The two nationalisms - liberal-imitative and counter-enlightenment reactionary - went on to shape 19th century European politics. From there they spread into the wider world colonised by the European empires. But they are both results not of deep-rooted national unities, but of specific and contingent responses to the global and ‘globalising’ power of the British capitalist state. The British came first, and they were never ‘nationalists’ in the continental sense (and still are not). But British capitalists did use their state, which had originated in the English nation-state, as an instrument to defend their interests against potential competition. The creation of ‘nation-states’ in the 19th century sense was a way of responding to British domination.

The French showed in the 1790s and 1800s that any imitative response would inevitably, because of the military-economic needs created by British world power, have to go well beyond the simple creation of a nation-state, have to struggle for power on a world scale; the Spanish and the Germans at the same period showed that one could be, for example, ‘German nationalist’ in the interests of ... British capital. Nation-states and nationalisms in the modern world are thus inherently located in an antagonistic way within, for and against, a global hierarchy. Until the 1940s this global hierarchy had the British international capitalist state at its head; since then, it has had the USA.

‘Historically progressive’?

Was the modern formation of nation-states ‘historically progressive’? Here we are no longer engaged with a largely abstract historical question, as we were when considering the original emergence of nation-states. In the modern world nationalism and the creation of nation-states is an ideological form - and not by any means always an ideological form of the rise of capitalism.

French and liberal nationalism and nation-state construction certainly was an ideological form of the overthrow of pre-capitalist state forms and, to the limited extent that they survived, pre-capitalist social relations.

In contrast, the Spanish nationalism of the guerrilleros of the 1800s and the German nationalism fostered by the Prussian state in its fight against the French was based on pre-capitalist state and social forms and reactionary in its concrete political and social content. It was also actually dependent on and upheld the existing system of world hierarchy, the British world hegemony. Another very transparent example of this is the effort of the US slaveholders to construct a ‘southern nation’-state, the Confederacy: if this effort, grounded on reactionary politics, had succeeded, it would merely have enabled the British world-empire to impose its will on both USA and the Confederacy. Katanga, Biafra ... there are plenty of examples in the modern world of the use by the imperialist powers of attempts to set up nation-states as an instrument to maintain their global rule over nationally subordinated peoples.

From this point of view ‘liberal’ nationalism, to the extent that it represents the overthrow of pre-capitalist states and social forms, is ‘historically progressive’. This is not the same thing as necessarily being democratic or immediately good for the working class. It means simply that resistance to the creation of a new nation-state is likely to be utopian-reactionary in its political character and more hostile to the working class than the ‘liberal’ nationalists. ‘Counter-enlightenment’ nationalism tends to be utopian-reactionary in its political content: it appeals to the imagined past. But it is not doomed to defeat; rather, it can usually only succeed where it has the backing of the current world hegemon.

At a more concrete level the question for the working class is: is it better to live under a new nation-state or under the alternative? In the case of ‘liberal’ nationalism, ‘the alternative’ is likely to be either (a) a pre-capitalist regime or (b) direct domination by a power higher up the global hierarchy. In addition, liberalism as an ideology carries with it some pro-democratic liberties. The prima facie answer is therefore likely to be that the immediate interest of the working class is in the creation of a new state. In contrast, in the case of ‘counter-enlightenment’ nationalism ‘the alternative’ is likely to be a ‘liberal’ nationalist state, which is acting in ways Britain (before the 1940s) or the US (after the 1940s) does not like.

Both of these questions, of course, are related to the lesser evil. But what is the positive interest of the working class? The answer has to start from its underlying interests in (1) its own unity as a class, (2) political democracy and (3) overcoming the rule of capital. From all three points of view, the interest of the working class is in creating a global democratic political order; and, to the extent that this is not possible, creating the largest possible multi-national democratic political order. This point is not original. It forms the basis of the half of Lenin’s policy which only the CPGB, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and a few others have preserved. This is that communists (insofar as they are members of nations which do not have their own states) should in general oppose the secession of national groups from larger states, even if these states are nationally oppressive, but instead fight for forms which make possible the equality of nations within a common state.

The ‘right’ to ‘national self-determination’

The self-determination of nations means that nations get to decide collectively whether or not to secede from larger states and form their own - and its corollary: whether or not to join larger states. To say that there is a right of self-determination is to claim that there is such a ‘right’ in the law of a particular state which includes minority nations, in ‘public international law’, or in natural law.

I argued in the first article that to say that there is a ‘right’ to some thing or power (self-determination is a power of decision) is to claim it as quasi-private property. It is also to say that the use of force to defend it is justified - whether the force in question is state force (bailiffs and police, etc), private vengeance or forcible self-help, war or insurgency. For a nation to have the right to self-determination is to have the collective right to decide whether that nation is to have a state it controls; and to be entitled, if it decides to have its own separate state, to use force to achieve it. “Between equal rights,” said Marx, “force decides.”5 This is not generally true, but in the context of the claim to national self-determination the conclusion is unavoidable.

But a state is a coercive-bureaucratic organisation which controls a definite territory. The right of national self-determination is thus a claim on the part of a national group to own and control territory. Remember that a national group consists of users of a common language and culture, with a certain historical unity, and (adding Stalin’s stipulative element, which is necessary to make sense of ‘self-determination’) historical geographical concentration.

The claim to a right to self-determination thus inherently entails either ethnic cleansing or the creation of a subordinated national minority within the territory. It is thus not obviously reconcilable with the general principle of democracy, that those who inhabit a territory should be entitled to participate in the government of that territory.

Rights-talk in this context is also counterposed to the practical compromises which are, in fact, necessary to democratic political life or even to peace. Thus in the AWL’s arguments the right of Israel to exist as an Israeli-Jewish state is counterposed to the right of the Palestinian refugees to return. Within the framework of rights-talk the AWL is correct. Rights are not to be compromised without unanimous consent: if they were, they would not be rights.

The right of self-determination of nations is thus, other things being equal, not a democratic - ie, a pro-democratic - right. Rather, being a claim to control territory, the right of self-determination is in effect a distributivist land policy. Nations, as collective groups, are to acquire an international law, or a natural law, title to bodies of land; just as under distributivist land policy the village acquires a collective right to its land against outsiders.

The character of self-determination as a distributivist land policy is reflected at the hard edges of ‘national questions’: in Balkan ethnic cleansing, in the struggle over Jewish settlements and water rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, and in the struggles over control of particular streets and roads which have marked loyalist mobilisations in the Six Counties under the ‘peace process’.


The capitalist world order involves the existence of a hierarchy of nation-states. Capitalism in itself tends to generate inequality: this is the natural and inherent result of its market-competitive structure.6 This general tendency towards inequality takes the form of inequality between nations, however, not because this is inherent to the capitalist market order considered in abstract, but because capitalism in historical fact initially achieved a sufficient political basis for its world order on the basis of the pre-existing (English) nation-state, for the reasons given above.

The fact that capitalism involves the existence of a hierarchy of nation-states inevitably has the consequence of producing both liberal-imitative and counter-enlightenment-reactionary nationalism. In their deep roots, both forms of nationalism appeal to the resistance to the concrete inequality of nations (British world dominance; French conquest; and so on) and, in that negative sense, express an aspiration to the equality of nations which communists share.

However, in so far as nationalists genuinely seek the independence of the nation - a self-contained nation-state without dependence on external contacts - their ideas are reactionary-utopian. The existence of the inequality of nations in capitalism reflects the dynamics of the world market. The existence and dynamics of the world market also imply that retreat into national autarky is disastrous: this is one of the fundamental lessons of Stalinism.

To the extent that they claim the right to have ‘a state for our nation’, without seeking to retreat into autarky, nationalists are not seeking to overcome the inequality of nations in the global hierarchy. They are seeking merely to improve the standing of their nation within this hierarchy. Hence the immediate transition from French Revolution to a French career of European conquest, from German unification to German military aggression and the struggle for a ‘place in the sun’/Lebensraum, and various other examples.

Here again nationalism parallels the demand for the redistribution of the land. When peasants demand the redistribution of the land, they are not demanding universal equality. On the contrary, they expect outsiders to keep out of their ‘village community’, and within it they expect to exploit their wives and children. Their ideas may be reactionary-utopian. This is the dream of a society without non-peasants, which will nonetheless somehow magically produce billets of iron for the manufacture of tools (and other products which cannot in fact be produced without a division of labour extending well beyond the village) without feeding miners and artisans, and which will similarly magically produce protection from bands of robbers, cattle-nomad raiders, etc, without feeding soldiers. Or else they are seeking to improve their own relative position on the assumption that social inequality and hierarchy is to continue.

Line of least resistance

As a response to the capitalist hierarchy of nation-states and national inequalities, the nationalism of subordinated national groups is, as István Mészáros argued in Beyond capital, a “line of least resistance”.

On the one hand, the idea of the equality of nations within the state carries with it ideas of general human equality, which are counterposed to the interest of the petty proprietors in the exploitation of their wives and children (and on a slightly smaller scale of day-labourers) and very fundamentally opposed to the interests of both class and clerical elites. The equality of nations is therefore a hard position to fight for.

On the other, nationalism is legitimated within the capitalist hierarchy both by the feudal past of the nation-state and by the ‘national’ character of the world hegemon state (Britain, US) and other successful states. It is thus easier to set up national claims than to demand political democracy and equality.

We can see this role of nationalism as a “line of least resistance” in the immediate experience of the British workers’ movement. The partial nationalist turns of Scottish and Welsh Labour allow the leaderships of these groups to differ from the Blairite leadership without directly confronting it. Even more clearly, the nationalist turn of Scottish Militant Labour-Scottish Socialist Alliance-Scottish Socialist Party allowed the leadership of this trend to make a partial (and temporary) break from the sectarianism of the British far left without directly confronting the leadership of the sects; and to find a way to be openly opposed to the British state without directly confronting its class character.

Because nationalism is a line of least resistance, it is natural that, where states are beginning to lose their legitimacy, there will be a rise of forms of minority nationalism seeking to escape from subordinate status within the state by taking this line. Communists know that this line of least resistance is a dead end. The problem this poses is what tactics to adopt towards the nationalism of subordinated national groups.


  1. ‘Nation-state and feudal revolution’ Weekly Worker February 13 2003.↩︎

  2. Eg, S Reynolds Kingdoms and communities in western Europe 900-1300 Oxford 1997; MT Clanchy England and its rulers 1066-1272 London 1972, chapter 10; GG Coulton, ‘Nationalism in the Middle Ages’ Cambridge Historical Journal 1935 Vol 5, No1, pp15-40.↩︎

  3. Reynolds (see note 2) has a good deal of detail.↩︎

  4. Perceived because in 1789, and long after, local and particular jurisdictions and laws were almost as extensive in England as in pre-revolutionary France, and in the US they remain as extensive or more so.↩︎

  5. K Marx Capital Vol 1, chapter 10, section 1.↩︎

  6. Well explained by Alan Freeman, ‘Crisis and the poverty of nations’ Historical Materialism 2000, Vol 5, No1, pp29-75.↩︎