We feel it is necessary, once again, to make an attempt to understand the continuing appeal of nationalismi, and to seek its origins as they are inferred in the disciplines of group theory and anthropology.
Regrettably, and in counterpoint to Marx’s romantic vision of ‘primitive communism’ as a form of social organisation that could be both realised and transcended in the age of the ‘Last International’, the anthropological record suggests that ‘pre-feudal’ii, small-scale societies often define their identity in terms of characteristics shared only within the given collective, ie, distinct from those identified as prevailing in other cultures.iii
In many languages, the name of the tribe translates as ‘the people’, which although in some cases may simply reflect an almost invariably now-historical geographical isolation from other tribes, can also serve as a means of asserting primacy by abrogating a name that implies the social world begins and ends with each or any group thus named. Group theory, when examining the ‘forming’ phase of the collective, asserts also that a strong group is one whose identity is defined in [sometimes sharp] distinction to those of other groups.
While we do not ascribe an essential nature to any aspect of human behaviour [not even the young Marx’s variant, as cooperation being the authentic form of human ‘species-being’], both these findings present a problem that communists need to consider. Why do people support political programmes that will inevitably oppress them in class terms, on the simple basis of shared cultural or ethnic attributes?
One reason may be that concrete results can be ascribed to the actions of nationalist movements – expulsion of the colonial power, regional devolution within a national structure, and the apparent relative ease in finding ‘friends’ everywhere, which, for example, seems to have been a positive outcome of Malcolm X’s move beyond the separatist Nation of Islam towards a non-ethnic, international community of Islam. In contrast, the achievements of the revolutionary project – transitory, often fragmentary, scantily recorded, and crushed with cruelty both by ruling and ‘oppositional’ nationalists, appear as mirages of liberation.
Equally, when the ‘national’ culture called into question has been so long identified with the spurious community of interest between proletarians and a nationalist ruling class or proto-ruling class, its interrogation causes a fundamental reappraisal of one’s own identity and aspirations. For obvious reasons, this is profoundly troubling and challenging, both at the individual psychic level and the social one.
Capitalism atomises as it unites. In the end, perhaps all we can rely on to form the basis of total community,is the commonality of our interest and experience as the ‘subaltern’ class, leavened by mutual love and recognition. All of this should be facilitated, albeit too rarely realised, in a world where, however imperfectly [and often brutally], the free global movement of goods and services is resourced by a freedom of labour, ie human mobility.
We look forward to a time when humans can debate freely the value of overcoming destructive and artificial differences in the context of retaining and enriching the nuances of distinct languages and self-generated forms of cultural expression, in, eg, art and music. Equally, there will be a role for new Esperantos and Swahilis in facilitating the fulfilment of our practical needs, such as the global allocation and distribution of goods. However, that does not mean we need to sacrifice, for example, the music of the binary tongue-clicking of the !Kung [San] language of Southern Africa in expressing our ludic, intellectual, and sensuous selves.
i With the use of the catch-all term “nationalism and its variants” we include both pan-national phenomena, such as Arab nationalism or Islamism, and also intra-national formations, based on clan, ethnicity, or tribe. This is a twin acknowledgement of the ‘forced marriages’ represented by many modern nation-states and of the conflicting and supranational demands of ethnic, religious, and tribal identities.
ii We are not entirely comfortable with the linearity and inevitability implied by this term.
iii We are aware that assumptions drawn from the behaviour of existing social groups with a non- surplus economy, which are faced with the resource stress and threat of extinction caused by capitalism, cannot be automatically read across as a template for all hunter/gatherer cultures in earlier historical epochs. However, it is the best we have to hand as the basis for our speculations.