Nationalism and War

Nationalism plays an important part in war propaganda and Socialists are often asked to explain their attitude towards it. Some people maintain that nationalism is the cause or main cause of war and this seems to be borne out by the fact that most of the wars in the past 100 years have included so-called national liberation movements or have resulted in the setting up of new nations. At the peace settlement after the first world war the statesmen who recast the frontiers of Europe proclaimed as their guide the principle of making the boundaries of each State coincide with the nationality of the inhabitants so that there would be no more national minorities complaining of oppression by alien rulers. They could not have achieved this result if they had wanted to for in many parts of the world, Eastern Europe in particular, there is such intermingling of language, religion and other familiar marks of nationality that it would be impossible to separate them. Poland, Russia, Rumania, Czechoslovakia and Hungary were some of the countries whose frontiers were subsequently re-drawn because the first attempt had failed.

We need not question the desirability of allowing people freely to preserve whatever way of life suits them and, of course, under Socialism there will be no attempt to impose uniformity. But so-called nationalist movements under Capitalism are both a menace and an illusion. They are a menace because they invariably encourage antagonism towards other groups and thus provide fertile ground for capitalist interests to work up support for war. Nationalism itself is not the cause of war but is exploited to give cover to the naked rivalries of Capitalism.

Nationalism is an illusion because while capitalism lasts, the Powers, great and small, dare not allow themselves to be weakened by giving real freedom of action to any group of citizens. The Governments, in self defence, are all opposed to the development of internationalism among the working class of the world, and equally opposed to so-called national minorities who resist conforming to centralised rule, conscription for the army, etc. Theoretically the minorities are often supposed to enjoy the right to secede, but no ruling class in fact willingly permits third where it conflicts with important economic or strategic considerations. The British Labour Government still affronts nationalist sentiment of the countries concerned by holding on to Gibraltar, and Cyprus, by retaining the colonies in Africa and the east, and by maintaining troops on the Suez Canal. The American war of the eighteen sixties, provoked by clash of economic interests between the slave-owning free-trade Southern State and the industrialised protectionist Northern ones, was fought by the north to prevent the secession of the South. The refusal of the Czechoslovak Government to allow the Sudeten Germans to join Germany is another example. Here the major factor was that it meant the surrender of a relatively strong frontier line and the exposure of the rest of the country to easy invasion from Germany. In Russia there is supposed to be freedom to secede for the many national groups but, in fact, nationalist movements are suppressed and when the population of some regions near the Black sea sided with the German invaders in the second world war they were deprived of their status under the constitution and their populations were forcibly transferred to a distant part of Russia.

"The liquidation of two formerly autonomous republics in South Russia and resettlement of their inhabitants in other regions of the Soviet union because of their war-time treachery of some of their peoples was disclosed officially today. They were the Crimean and Chechen-Ingush autonomous states, now reduced to the status of provinces of the Russian federation".
(Moscow cable from ASSOCIALTED, TIMES, London, June 27th, 1946).

This action of the Russian government was recalled in June, 1950, by the statement made by a sergeant in the Russian army who deserted and sought refuge in the British occupied Sector of Berlin. A newspaper correspondent in Berlin reported as follows:-

"Karatsyev, who is aged 24 and a Caucasian, was home on leave last month. One of the main reasons for his desertion was, according to a British statement, the treatment of national minorities by the soviet regime and specifically the cruelty to the deportations of the Muslims of the autonomous republic of Chechen-Ingush. The deportations took place in 1944 and the republic, ob whose border Karatsyev's home is, was formally abolished in 1946"
. (TIMES, June 10th, 1950).

All of the Colonial Power similarly maintain their colonies without regard to the wishes of their inhabitants.

It was pointed out earlier in this chapter that nationalism is not the cause of war. There are in fact no purely nationalist movements. Invariably the nationalist sentiment is mixed with economic factors and made use of by the class that has an interest to serve by achieving independence; and independence means, not the emancipation of the exploited section of the population, but a mere change of masters.

How secondary is the importance of nationalism is shown by the history of the subject groups that have successfully achieved so-called independence and made good their position in the capitalist world. Given the opportunity they follow the normal expansionism of Capitalism irrespective of the wishes and sentiments of other national groups inside their frontier or outside. Italy, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Germany, Belgium, Holland and India all were at some time subject to another Power and all after achieving alleged independence have either acquired subject colonial peoples or have come into conflict with minority groups incorporated in their territories. In none of them any more than in the rest of the capitalist world have their own exploited class, the workers, secured emancipation.

The twin ideas, nationality as the basis of States and the independence of nations, are impossible of achievement in the world of capitalism. It is difficult to find any country in the world which is not a mixture of language and religious and cultural groups, and in most of them one or other of these minorities is persuaded to feel that they are oppressed. On the other hand the idea of independence is a myth. The capitalist world has reached a stage in which, for economic and military reasons, small countries cannot hold their own, all are being driven into one or other of the big economic and military groups. The small countries that survive without formally belonging to a larger group have only a nominal independence. They are tolerated because it suits the larger Powers and in all important questions they must frame their policies and adapt their industries and trade agreements to the needs of their more powerful neighbours. Swiss neutrality was a mere by-product of the European balance of power and the question has already been asked by a Swiss writer on military affairs, Major Rapp: "Has not the disappearance of the old balance of power in Europe deprived it of its very basis in strategy?" (MANCHESTER GUARDIAN, April 20th 1950). Czechoslovakia is another case in point. They achieved a precarious independence as a result of the first world war, and are being drawn into the threatening third world war as a subordinate semi-colony of expanding Russia.

The above extract comes from the pamphlet The Socialist Party and War published by The Socialist Party of Great Britain in 1950 almost three quarters of a century ago, The dates and places may have changed by the socialist argument against nationalism in all its forms has not. The argument applies particularly to the recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia and the subsequent war in March 2022.

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Object and Declaration of Principles


The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

Declaration of Principles


1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.

2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.

3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.

4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.

5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.

6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.

7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.

8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.