Editorial from the September 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard
When the Second International of Social Democratic and Labour parties collapsed under the impact of the First World War, open supporters of the capitalist status quo were jubilant. Marx was wrong, they proclaimed; workers had responded more massively to the call of national consciousness than to the socialist appeal to class consciousness. In place of the socialist slogan: "workers of the world unite", they offered their own" "the right of nations to self-determination".
This was the banner under which President Woodrow Wilson took American into the war in 1917 to defend its business interests. After the war, Wilson insisted that this principle be applied when breaking up the European possessions of the former German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires.
This assumed that each supposed nation occupied its own territory, an assumption belied by the facts of the situation in central Europe and the Balkans, In these circumstances the "nation-states" that were created all contained large minorities speaking some other language that that of the "nation" whose state it was supposed to be.
This recreated the same problem which had existed within the Empires that had been defeated in the War and broken up: the oppression of minorities. Inevitably, in terms of the theory of national self-determination which gave legitimacy to the new "nation-states", any "non-national" minority presented a problem, indeed a threat to the state, since they could not be expected to be as loyal subjects as the members of the majority population; in fact where one existed they could be more reasonably assumed to owe a loyalty to their "national state" across the frontier.
So they were discriminated against. Attempts were made to make them disappear, either by enforced assimilation or by an exchange of populations or by expulsion. Needless to say, this caused—and is still causing—immense and quite unnecessary suffering.
But this represents the ultimate logic of the theory of the nation-state. It now has a name that well exposes the depravity of the alternative that the supporters of capitalism offered to the socialist appeal of "workers of the world, unite". That name is "ethnic cleansing", the treatment of the non-nationals as an alien, polluting element that has to be eliminated by expulsion, if not by massacre.
Nationalism has indeed proved to be a more potent political force this sad century than class consciousness. But, in face of its results, we re-assert the original socialist position that workers ought to act as a world-wide class with a common interest in working to establish a single world community without frontiers based on the world's resources being the common heritage of all humanity.