Nationalism Ruthless Criticism
MSZ (January 1983)


Enlightened people know that they must interpret nationalism in their own way before they are allowed to put forward their reservations. They define it as a

“desire for power arising from the overconfidence of the nation and the national state, which disturbs international peace by its boundless national individualism.”

The fact that force is used in the dealings between peoples when national confidence exceeds the proper degree, occurs to the authors of a political lexicon because they have no objections either to national force or to national confidence – although it cannot be overlooked that both must certainly be taken into consideration as the source of war. Taking refuge in the “-ism” to refer to a perversion of an honorable cause due to its exaggeration saves the state from being suspected of being the sole originator of the “desire for power,” and warns the political rulers in a certain sense of the effects of an attitude which relates to nothing but the success of the nation.

The daily papers are full of what this success is all about, what the aims of modern states are, as well as all the dealings of states when expertly carrying out their “tasks.” One cannot overlook the objectives of a nation, as defined and put into practice by its responsible politicians in accordance with the particular situation, i.e. the available means and the existing obstacles; nor can one overlook the form assumed by its imperatives which “persuade” by the use of force: and the results of nationalism put into practice are no secret whatsoever. However, things can be looked at differently, and this is especially the case in the leading nations.

Nationalism is by definition something reprehensible, but on the other hand it only comes about very late – when the “self-confidence” of a nation does not keep within its “limits.” Up to then, the attitude – in particularly at home – is a most welcome “patriotism.” And for the deeds of a state, they are divided into precisely two departments. Its dealings with the people subjected to it consist in the government sovereignty attempting to “solve problems,” especially “social” ones. None of the relevant “problems” are seen by expert observers as having anything to do with the state power applying order – the “problems” are just there. Its dealings with its equals, with foreign sovereigns, also fail to have anything to do with that well defined “excess.” In this area it is a matter of “our interests” which are very “legitimate” – the moment they are formulated.

As one sees, if things are looked at properly, with a consistently national attitude, the reprehensible “ism” takes care of itself. However, if one does not pay tribute to a basically meaningless suffix as being a moral element of word formation which also serves an ideological purpose in other matters – an “ism” also transforms the best things in the world into terribly damaging affairs in the case of “capital,” “ego,” “social,” and “ideal” if one instead goes along with the ancient Greeks in doubting that an action noun spoils all the action, then nationalism does not exist after all. It exists everywhere and every time a state makes use of its force.

Nationalism = The Material Interests of the State Power

The assertion of these interests is taken care of by politicians, people who want “the best for us” and cannot imagine any other way of achieving this than assuming as high an office in the state as possible. They find it boring to tell other people where its at – they want to make their contemporaries aware of their interests much more emphatically: by setting up rules concerning what is allowed and what is prohibited. These rules, which are called laws, are obeyed because they have a strange persuasive power, namely force – whoever does not obey them is prosecuted – and for this purpose a considerable number of state officials are standing by. The whole thing is called “order” and has led many a critical mind to regard repression, which is otherwise a nasty business without any particular substance, as being the main interest of the state and its especially vigorous and powerful departments. The representatives of order refute this view not so much by protesting that the individual is in the center of their efforts, but by the result of their legal action as defined and desired by them: “economic growth” which the citizens are so dependent upon and the state also requires to perform its “tasks.”

In this way, the representatives of state violence like to pose as observers of an economic life whose results they count over and convey to society so that the latter knows what it has achieved and how much wealth there is to distribute. As long as bourgeois society has existed, economic experts have confronted their contemporaries with the exciting question of whether the state should only watch over “the economy” or whether it should “intervene.” And along the way the truth is always mentioned that the stupid vote for “keeping out of the economy” is based on the state decision in favor of a “market economy” – that the nation’s advocates are not simply confronted with people who work, exchange, consume, have apartments and take the train, whom they are to help in their efforts to produce and distribute wealth by keeping books and directing traffic. The state power proves to be the basis for business in a very different way: by guaranteeing private property and money as its standard of measurement, it enforces the form of wealth whose growth it is so interested in. The freedom of the market, which basically knows no limits and extends just as far as the availability of money or property measured in money, is ensured by the state – which can then itself act as an “external instance” which likes nothing better than the growth of “wealth” in “society.”

Supposedly being such an instance, the state is then “confronted” with “necessities” of a class society in which it is very important, due to everyone’s being subjected to the imperative of money, to work – but in a cost-saving manner for the profitability of capital. That is privately possessed wealth intended to increase in accordance with liberty – and the happy minority it belongs to is then called “the economy,” upon the welfare of which everything depends – especially those people who are presented with being profitably used as their condition for existence without their service being profitable for them, or even being guaranteed at all.

There is no doubt that the state represents the whole society when it supervises the separation between property and labor and works towards the accumulation of capital with thousands of laws and whole economy programs. After all, everyone has been made to be “dependent” upon it, and especially the majority who must rely on wage labor are made to feel how much they must prove themselves in a forced community, at the mercy of the calculations of the business world. The organization of this forced community and of the fruits peculiar to it is practical nationalism. To the degree that the state succeeds at this, it procures itself its means, with the aim of increasing the returns in the future.

Nationalism = The Idealism of Successful Politics

Personalities who want to bear “responsibility” and become politicians with the aim of exerting governmental power are nationalists: they advocate all the necessities which result from the forced community called into being and violently supervised by the state. In the conflicts of this community – and these people too know very well who must suffer the consequences – they always see the state’s duty to prevent disturbances. For them it is not cynical, but rather proof of their sense of responsibility, to regard millions of unemployed not as people faced with the hardship which is part of the market economy, but as a “problem” – i.e. the problem of “maintaining social peace.” When capital has got itself into a crisis and no longer finds a way to invest the vast masses of accumulated wealth at a profit, these people do not consider the standard of private profit to be a restriction on the production of all sorts of useful goods, but instead turn to the “problem” of influencing the conditions for business. From the point of view of the state, someone and something is constantly “endangering” its success; but politics always gets active in only one sense: using its economic means – its sovereign administration of the money and credit system – it insists on promoting the accumulation of wealth in the only form it knows and accepts. And the use of violence allows it to “control” the real or feared disturbances in the process. The forced community, the conflicts and victims of which constantly appear to the statesman as an obstacle to his political work, provides him with more and more “evidence” for his responsibility.

Without any pedantic reflections about whether the “problems to be mastered” are maybe the product of the very “order” created and maintained by the state, they stick most “realistically” to this fact – that the basis for business for “the economy” and “society” is the force of the state. They present themselves as being the administrators of the conditions for the pursuits of all interests, whether realized or thwarted, which they perceive in social life. They measure the deeds and misdeeds of the citizens, their accomplishments as well as their failure, against the effects on the success of the state. And this point of view makes the majority of their subjects into human material which, when working, buying, saving, having kids, consuming, going on holiday and watching TV, must put up with the question of whether it is behaving irresponsibly with regard to the community. In addition to the objective conditions of dependency, the economic “necessities” which the state calls into being and which cause people so many problems, politics establishes a scale of rights and duties, partly by law and partly by moral agitation. And by laying down the relationship to it as a separate assignment for the people, it demonstrates most evidently how unconditionally it intends to prove itself as the guarantor of the whole society. It will not be jeopardized by a lack of its success – thriving business life – and even less by the failure of the governed majority. The argument presented by politicians for their unconditional success is simply that everything depends on their accomplishments in providing for order. The argument persuades by virtue of the violence it rests on – and which regards every objection as violence which the law, the constitution, “our” state must be protected against.

This idealism of successful politics always regards its accomplishments as preconditions for the economically profitable treatment of the classes of society – even when national wealth does not come about, this idealism is cultivated most enthusiastically. However, it is not only the practiced faith of Third World countries that the sovereign power over a land and a people must lead to the accumulation of abstract wealth separated from the subjects. Many a “economic program” in a leading industrial country, which is very much on a par with the fascist techniques of dealing with capital and labor, turns the relationship between business and violence upside down just as successfully – just as if political rule were not only the guarantee for the capitalistic mode of production, but also a “productive resource” itself and a substitute for business conditions

Nationalism = The Successful Subordination of Interests to the Purpose of the State

“The point is rather that private interest itself is a socially determined interest, and can only be realized within the conditions set by the society and with the means available to it; it is thus bound to the reproduction of these conditions and means.” (Marx, Grundrisse)

A modern nation uses its power to make its land and its people into a source of wealth. The relationship of rights and duties which the state forces on its subjects does not stand only for obedience, although obedience is certainly demanded – in addition to the economic services required, during them and in spite of the hardship they involve. The public power causes these services to be performed in the model democracies of capitalism by separating political rule from economic exploitation. When politicians daily cite “necessities” which supposedly exist quite independently of them, they present the ideological affirmation of criteria which the state enforces in the form of private property, the protected and desired form of society’s wealth, but which are applied by free entrepreneurs. Conversely, the state subjects the majority of its citizens to the free market, making their existence into a matter of supply and demand for labor power to be made use of profitably. The “difference” between the classes, between those who have means, and those who are means and even as such are made to experience the business calculations and ups and downs of the other side as a threat to their existence, this opposition is taken care of by the state by recognizing both sides: politicians constantly appear as the advocates of the wage laborers by promoting capital – and this ideology, too, affirms a condition set by the state: serving foreign property is the only chance the highest authority of the society grants to wage laborers.

Thus most free citizens are confronted with “objectified” conditions for their income and livelihood, which they take up in the program of their interests. The unemployed need – jobs, and jobs are not available due to the sacred calculations of the employers. Households harmed by inflation need – more earnings, but these are detrimental to the economy. These objective conflicts – they are all a matter of the price of labor, the relationship between wages and profitable work – are dealt with very consistently by the state: it has set up compulsory insurance for the “socially disadvantaged” to cope with the negative effects of wage labor, and this insurance itself is a further condition for the lifetime program of wage labor according to ability and demand, which does not tolerate any opposition and leaves the compensation for damages suffered – which is very different from their avoidance – to the calculations of the state. Finally, the prices for an apartment and state “services” add to the effects of the usual free market and produce one “social interest” for a great number of people: working – buying – saving …

Nationalism = Positive and Negative Internationalism

Being the advocate of national business success, every modern state notices how limited the services of “its” people and the natural resources available in its territory are. The state thus becomes an international “partner” and makes an effort to make use of the wealth produced elsewhere. It agrees with its fellow states on the actual use of everything which is subordinate to a sovereign power. Its power makes it into an interesting partner to talk to, and the offers made by its business world make the state’s interests attractive for others. The world market becomes the lever for economic success – as well as a source of danger for the realization of state plans; and the more deals and “relations” are going on, the more interests of “our country” must be protected and enforced.

For profitable dealings with partners, who are also competitors, the state demands from its capital competitiveness, which it promotes as best it can, insofar as the partners allow – but which is basically dependent upon the “high–class workmanship” of the workers – precisely when the state protects and subsidizes industry. Therefore, a nation active on the world market presents its people every day with new conditions, as far as the prices of the goods it buys are concerned, as well as the work required from it to make domestic articles successful. A state with international commitments subjects its citizens to the comparison which it is interested in – that of solvency and the productivity of labor – and has this comparison answer for success and failure in equal measure.

And that is not all. The competition between the states and their coalitions is one big “security matter.” It costs money anyway – and this money must be produced and saved for the armed forces by those who enjoy the protection of national interests. They are made familiar with the fact that they have enemies alongside their friends – in other countries, far away. The military, the indispensable guarantor of “our” interests and liberty, has a claim on a considerable portion of the wealth of society, as a condition for national success. It serves peace – which cannot be kept or broken by any employee of a company, but by a state with its means of violence – and deserves not only sacrifices but also respect. It is absurd to ask whether arms are “worth the money,” because this sort of thing is not subject to profit calculations but is rather a question of the nation’s survival … It is thus a question of liberty, which is in a position to create the above question.

Nationalism = The Most Stable Ideology in the World

… as long as the practice of nations is considered necessary, plausible and good. As long as criticism of this practice applies the standard of successful politics. As long as the victims of the nation search for “dubious characters” among each other, including Mexicans and Pakistanis, and advise the state to be terribly just. As long as the Japanese are held responsible for unemployment, and the Russians for the sacrifices inflicted upon the people by their own native country.