Movements for national rights can strike blows against oppression. But they can also be used as tools of imperialism, writes Anindya Bhattacharyya The recent war in the Caucasus between Russia and Georgia has highlighted once again the complex question of national rights. National antagonisms and nationalism are often put forward as explanations for war. Nationality and nations are portrayed as age-old. But you would be hard pressed to find anything resembling a nation state before capitalism started to take hold in Europe from the 16th century onwards.
Nations and nationalism are relatively recent inventions that are thoroughly bound up with the rise of capitalism. Prior to the emergence of capitalism, states operated differently. The regions under a particular state's control were not necessarily characterised by a common language or culture.
All of this began to transform in the 16th century as the rising merchant classes began to challenge the old feudal lords for domination. These new capitalist ruling classes had very different requirements for the state. They needed a unified market and a homogenous labour force – both of which fuelled the need for a common "national" language and culture. As capitalism spread to other areas of Europe, more conscious national movements also began to emerge. So the revolutionaries who overthrew the feudal order in France in the late 18th century developed a sophisticated ideology of the nation, citizenship and the rights that went with it. A similar process took place in Italy some 60 years later.
The success of these national movements was intimately connected to the triumph of capitalism over the old ways of life. With the development of imperialist competition between states for control of markets, the ideology of the nation state soon began to spread to all corners of the globe. But there was a contradiction in all of this. Although the nation state was put forward as the best way to organise society, certain groups were actively held back from setting up their own nations by the stronger imperialist states. Oppression These groups organised themselves into national movements of their own in response. Ordinary people fighting back against oppression and poverty rallied to these new national movements and became their rank and file. But they were often led by the developing capitalist class, who had very different interests in fighting for "national" rights. Nationalism tries to bind together different classes in a common struggle. However national movements can play a progressive role in certain circumstances. Nationalism, as a dominant ideology thrown up by capitalism, can act as the "natural" form of all kinds of liberation movements.
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