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What is a Nation? Show more Show less

Are nations ancient or modern? Are they natural or artificial? Are they a tool of liberation or coercion? Despite many predicting globalisation would make them obsolete, nations are now back in fashion in a world where leaders tout America First, the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese People, and Hindutva. Understanding the nation now seems more important than ever.

Nations mean coercion Show more Show less

Nations are a tool for elites to control the population.
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The working men have no country

Key Marxist thinkers argue class experience and interests transcend national boundaries, and belief in national differences distracts the working class from their real interests.

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marxism socialism working class communism


In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels declared "the working men have no country". Believing in the inevitability of a worker's revolution that would end capitalism, they maintained national divisions were just another shackle preventing the working class from realising their common interests. Many other Marxist thinkers, especially in the West, have since taken a similar position.

The Argument

Marx argued that the key organising principle of history was a class struggle over control of the means of production. In the modern era, the struggle is between the bourgeoisie (middle class) who controlled the means of production and the proletarians (working class), who did the vast majority of the actual work for which they were not fairly compensated. Across the world, industrial workers shared common work patterns and the common experience of alienation i.e. they are reduced to mechanical instruments in the production system, unable to make their own decisions, pursue their own interests, and build meaningful lives. As workers have a common experience and common grievances rooted in the material reality of their lives, it is in their interests unite across national boundaries to overthrow the bourgeoisie and capitalism and claim the means of production for themselves. As class unity is in the objective interest of proletarians, other political loyalties are a distraction which prevent them from realising this. As such the ruling classes have a direct interest in promoting nationalism, alongside other beliefs like religion. Workers who accept the ideology of the ruling class and its legitimacy suffer from false consciousness that prevents them from realising what their true interests are.

Counter arguments

Many would say it is by no means obvious that class interests are the same across nations. In many cases, workers in one nation seem to benefit from the impoverishment of workers in another. Looking at the British Empire, the destruction of Indian cloth production allowed British cloth producers to dominate the market. This let Britain grow rich and gave British workers jobs. Today many blame the decline of the American working class on the outsourcing the jobs to other nations like China. Still others might respond with counter-counter arguments saying that while competition benefits some workers temporarily, cooperation best serves their long term interests. Equally, they might argue many industrial jobs do not benefit the workers due to the terrible conditions involved. Others attack the idea of unified class interests by arguing that national loyalties are simply more important. This can be rooted in claims which see nations as preserving an innately valuable human cultural difference. Alternatively, some argue it is your duty to be loyal to your nation which has shaped your identity and provided you with a home and place in the world. While most people making these arguments tend to see the nation as long-existing natural communities, a few don't. Even though many Marxist theorists are keen to suggest class interests trump any supposed national interests, this doesn't provide a definition of what a nation is. Marxists also had to contend with the fact that many people did feel a strong sense of attachment to "national" communities. In the Austro-Hungarian territories, Marxist parties established separate national wings for the various ethnic groups within the empire to accommodate feelings of cultural difference and argued for cultural autonomy within the movement. Even other Marxists who criticised this stance, fearing it would fracture the communist movement, did not entirely reject nations as a tool of capitalist control. Vladimir Lenin supported some form of national self-determination as a component of communism. Similarly, in 1913 in 'Marxism and the National Question' Joseph Stalin wrote: "A nation is 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." Later Stalin promoted Russian nationalism, though many anti-Bolshevik communists saw this as a betrayal. Furthermore, outside of the West many Marxist and Marxist inspired leaders like Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh combined nationalism and communism, securing power by merging proletarian and anti-imperial revolutions. Some Indonesian communists even argued that in colonised nations the entire population was "proletarianised".


[P1] Class interests and identity are the same across different nations. [P2] National divisions distract the working class from their real interests.

Rejecting the premises

[P1] Class interests and identity are not the same across different nations. [P2] National interests are more important than class interests.


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This page was last edited on Friday, 17 Jan 2020 at 11:06 UTC