Sunday, February 21, 2021

Nationalist Myths (1992)

Book Review from the February 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

National Identity By Anthony D Smith. Penguin. £5.99.

This book begins by defining a nation as “a named human population sharing an historic territory, common myths and historical memories, a mass, public culture, a common economy and common legal rights and duties for all members”. Smiths view that nations are based on “common myths" is something that socialists can certainly go along with, one of the most common myths of all being that a nation is a homogenous unit whose members share a "common economy" or have a fundamental identity of interests.

Unfortunately. Smith has little conception of the antagonistic class interests masked by the division of the world into nation-stales and comments that “nationalism provides the sole vision and rationale of political solidarity today . . . all other visions, all other rationales, appear wan and shadowy by comparison". In recognizing that nationalism has some negative as well as positive aspects for the capitalist world order. Smiths preference rests on a vague hope for a developing pan-nationalism in Europe Arabia and other parts of the globe that could provide a form of "collective identity" while serving to diminish social and political instability caused by national conflicts.

But what this shows is that Smith has failed to comprehend the role of nationalism—not as some autonomous or independent source of instability—but as a product of the competition and rivalry inherent to the capitalist system itself. It was as such that modern nationalism developed in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century as a challenge to the decaying old feudal empires. Then it was part of a progressive movement, a movement towards independent liberal-democratic capitalist states at the expense of feudalism and absolutist government. Indeed at that time some early socialists like Marx and Engels did support some movements for “national independence" and "self-determination for nations" as a way of hastening the development of capitalism and so providing the economic preconditions for socialism.

In the twentieth century the situation has been vastly different. Capitalism succeeded long ago in sweeping away the old feudal restrictions and has now become a world system with a global market for commodities and an international division of labour. All of the world’s nation-states are capitalist and all seek to defend the interests of the sections of the capitalist class operating from within their borders, whipping up nationalist fervour one minute while trampling on local cultures and traditions the next, and periodically sending their wage slaves in uniform to die in bloody battle on the capitalists' behalf. Nationalism and "national liberation", as ideologies serving the interests of differing sections of the ruling class, now stand as barriers in the way of the progressive movement which seeks to establish a real world human community without class division and national frontiers on the basis of the potential economic abundance made possible by capitalism. That movement of course, is the movement for world socialism, and Anthony Smith might have done well to acquaint himself with it before writing this book.
Dave Perrin

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