As historical materialists, Marx & Engels considered that the nation had not existed throughout all of human history, but was rather a product of socio-economic evolution and revolution which took shape during the Capitalist epoch, as production expanded from local to national level. It is a community composed of classes, dominated by a privileged exploiting class. This community has a unifying territorial and economic basis, a common language(s) and culture and a common history (real and/or mythical).
On the basis of these, a common national character has developed, with the political consequence that the nation has established, or aspires to establish, some state form for itself. The bourgeoisie is a national class; although it struggles against regionalism and localism it is limited to national boundaries. This is one of the reasons why Marx and Engels recognised that as capitalism expanded it would become a fetter on the productive capacity of humanity.
The bourgeoisie acquired their power through revolutions made by the exploited classes. They cannot claim to derive their power from God, or through royal descent, and therefore they recognise that in truth their political power derives from the nations which they lead. The bourgeoisie’s purpose in building nation states was the formation of a uniform national market. They use national armies to defend the country’s trade and investments abroad as part of the “national interest” rather than that of particular merchants or manufacturers.
A viable state needs a material economic basis which can guarantee a degree of internal stability and capacity to hold rival states at bay. It has to be able to provide the oppressed classes with a sufficient standard of living to justify their exploitation by the bourgeoisie. Economic collapse threatens class war, revolution, internal fracture and breakup. This economic reality means there is a pressure on the bourgeoisie of a given nation to conduct national wars to secure larger external markets and extract resources from other countries to ensure the long-term economic health of their own nation.
How powerful is nationalism?
In contrast to the bourgeoisie, the proletariat “has no country” and is therefore able to transcend national limitations. Reformists have dismissed this, arguing that it has been invalidated by improvements in living standards and political rights in “Western” democracies. Anti-marxists have used this concept to “prove” that Marx and Engels failed to appreciate the reality of national consciousness within the working class.
However, this formulation was neither intended as a criticism, nor a claim that the proletarian class is immune from nationalist ideology. It is rather an objective statement of the proletariat’s historic interest, one which it must become conscious of if it is to ever cease its exploitation by the bourgeoisie. Put simply, the proletariat must become consciously internationalist if it is ever to liberate itself from the yoke of bourgeois oppression.
Nationalism is a broad and deep ideological current in the bourgeois epoch, and has the power to mobilise millions against their own individual and class interests. However, the fact that national consciousness has triumphed over class consciousness during a series of reactionary imperialist and national wars and populist movements does not prove that class consciousness is incapable of transcending national consciousness.
Marxists must understand the profound hold national consciousness has without falling victim to its mystique or failing to recognize the material contradictions which make it possible for proletarian internationalism to vanquish it.
Capitalists argue that nations are the highest possible stage of the human community. However, recent history has not seen a stable pattern of nation building on the Western European model.
The demand to be allowed to form a nation state has been used both to fight against the oppression of the imperialist epoch, as well as to exploit or to oppress others. The relative instability and vulnerability to fragmentation typical of many nations, and rivalry between nations, demonstrates that a long and stable epoch of nation states is as unlikely as the eternity of capitalism.
Socialism in one country?
The nation cannot be abolished in the same way and at the same time as the means of productions are seized by the proletariat. During the initial revolutionary phase, the proletariat raises itself to the role of the leading class of the nation. Revisionists have interpreted this to mean that there can be a whole period following the seizure of power where the proletariat can be justifiably nationalist. This is not a Marxist view but fits more into the Stalinist mode of thought.
The proletariat does not struggle to establish its dictatorship in order to build a socialist nation or to construct socialism in one country, but to initiate the world revolution. It obliterates all remnants of national oppression and seeks to internationalise its rule. This will naturally lead to the withering away of national identity, and the fusing of national culture into a common human culture.