Anarchism and nationalism

Most people have, to a greater or lesser extent, a nationalistic view of the world. They see the world as being divided up into a number of different nations. These nations are distinct from each other, and divided on the basis of their different histories, traditions, cultures and languages. It is commonly assumed that nations occur naturally, stretching back into the depths of history.

However, almost all of our present nations, and the very idea of the modern nation itself, are relatively modern inventions. With the rise of the bourgeois state in the nineteenth century, ruling classes needed an ideology to make their subjects identify with the state in which they lived. To replace the divine right of the kings who they supplanted, they set about manufacturing nations by imposing uniform standards of language, religion, culture and traditions upon their subjects. These were far from naturally occurring divisions and almost every modern nation state was, at its inception, made up of a mosaic of different cultures, the product of countless waves of migrations and interactions between neighboring people. The new rulers of the nation states bulldozed these minority cultures, suppressed regional diversity and in many cases invented a purely fictional national history to bind their subjects to the idea of 'their' nation state. At the time of Italy's unification in the 1862 only 2.5% of the population spoke Italian for everyday purposes [1]. The modern Italian national identity was imposed after the formation of the Italian State.

Although the very idea of the nation may be entirely imaginary, the effects of nationalism are very real. The 20th century has seen untold millions slaughter each other in wars between nations, based purely upon the fact that their rulers were quarrelling. It is the concept of nationalism which allows a soldier to march happily into war, thinking that he is defending his nation, when in fact all he is doing is murdering strangers at the behest of his real enemies: his generals, bosses and rulers.

A narrow, fixed conception of national identity has long been useful to ruling classes wishing to divide their subjects in order to better rule them. There scarcely exists a state in the world that does not exercise some form of oppression against the members of minority 'nations' within it. Where there is substantial resistance to this national oppression, such as in Northern Ireland or Palestine, the state quickly resorts to violence and heightened repression to impose their will.

Anarchists are internationalists, we reject the very notion of nationalism. We believe that there is no overriding common interest between the people of a particular nation. The world is divided into two great classes, the workers and the bosses, their common class interests are so great that their cultural differences are irrelevant. We believe that human culture is much too dynamic and varied to be neatly parceled up into any number of national identities. We propose a sense of identity that embraces diversity and acknowledges the right of all to choose their own culture, language and beliefs. We believe that this can only be achieved by ending the fundamental division of our society, the class division.

In response to national oppression, anarchists seek to build movements that, not only resist all oppression based upon nationality, but actually challenge the very idea of the division of people into nations by concentrating on the common class interests that unite workers across national divides.

We oppose absolutely all national oppression and acknowledge the right of oppressed people to resist, yet we think that a nationalist response can never address the real problems. Although oppressed nationalities can succeed in gaining a share of power or even their own state, as long as they remain divided into classes, the fundamental problems return. Although Northern Ireland may get a police force that won't discriminate against Catholics, it'll still have a police force that will happily baton-charge strikers. Palestine may get its own state but the majority of the population will continue to be little more than slaves to the big capitalists of the region, and although it might be nicer to be ordered around by Arafat's stooges than by the Israeli army, it's still just taking orders.

Chekov Feeney

1E J Hobsbawm, Nations & Nationalism since 1780. P80. Cambridge University Press 1990.

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This edition is No70 published in June 2002

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