Throughout history nationalism has undergone many phases from that defined by Absolutism where the Monarch was the nation-state, the entire population identified with the nation-state, a certain class–workers or peasants–are identified with the nation-state, a certain ethnicity or race identified with the nation-state. Nationalism, therefore, is an umbrella under which variety of ideologies have found shelter and it remains so to the present.
Resistance movements against foreign domination in the 19th and 20th centuries invariably assumed the form of nationalism, which transcends political labels and appeals to peoples’ sense of patriotism. The catalyst to the success of all mass revolutions–Russia, China, Vietnam, Cuba, etc.–was not Marxism but nationalism. Moreover, the leaders who led such movements, Lenin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Castro, were well aware of the appeal of nationalism to the masses and used it to secure popular support that brought them to power and allowed them to retain it. If Marxist-influenced rebel leaders used national identity, not class struggle, as the driving force behind their movements, then what followed as regimes was an even greater commitment to nationalism as a useful tool to maintaining popularity.
Many scholars of 20th century revolutions have debated whether Marxism as an ideology was opportunistically subordinated to nationalism as a practical and unavoidable route to mobilizing popular support in order to achieve the goal of removing the colonial presence and securing power. As committed as V. I. Lenin was to internationalism, did he not succumb to the practical reality of national interest after the Civil War and wound up supporting not the Chinese Communist Party, but the Kuomintang (KMT) led by nationalist Dr. Sun Yat-sen, succeeded by Chiang Kai-shek in 1925? And did he not do the same with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, whom Lenin did not consider a Socialist but a nationalist struggling against western imperialism? Lenin’s foreign policy was designed to serve Russian national interests, much to the dismay of Leon Trotsky, who pushed for world revolution.
Once the uprisings failed in Germany, Poland, and other Eastern European countries, Lenin turned to a foreign policy of backing anti-colonial struggles, that is supporting nationalists in India, China, Africa. While USSR economic and trade policy were also modified to meet the realities of the situation at home and the global market economy, USSR foreign policy was also modified to reflect a nationalist character. By the time Stalin took over, Soviet Communism, itself an expression of nationalist aspirations against foreign dependence and exploitation, and a promise that a strong state structure would better manage the economy and uplift society to realize its potential, had sharply deviated from Marxism-Leninism.
Stalin, Russia’s 20th-century Ivan the Terrible, was more nationalistic than the Czars, especially in foreign affairs, despite the crude propagandist anti-Western rhetoric. Stalin-style Communism was immersed in extreme nationalism, demanding sacrifice of Marxists and Communist parties around the world for “Mother Russia,” a policy that filtered through international labor and political organizations that only hurt the cause of revolutionary movements in other countries.
Nationalism was the driving force behind Stalin’s strategy to help Chiang’s nationalists as part of a deal with the US, instead of helping Mao’s revolution. After all, a strong China was not in USSR geopolitical interest and Mao knew it–one reason he requested rapprochement with the US during the Revolution, one reason Mao launched the Cultural Revolution, one reason Mao supported non-aligned nations. But was Mao any less nationalist than Stalin, given that nationalism helped bring him to power during the war and Civil War, given that he remained lukewarm at best about Ho Chi Minh, who was trying to create a strong sovereign nation-state free of foreign dependence and exploitation?
Did Mao want a powerful Vietnam, any more than Russia want a powerful China? The nationalist bug also influenced Castro, who realized during the Cuban Missile Crisis that Moscow used Cuba in a reckless foreign policy game with Washington. Nationalism behind Marxist revolutions in the 20th century was much more powerful than the non-expert realizes, and nationalism remains far more powerful today regardless of political ideology.
Amid the lingering global recession, nationalism is the driving force behind opposition to domestic and foreign obstacles to economic growth an upward social mobility. Nationalism is an integral part of protests against lower wages and benefits, job losses, lack of opportunities for the future. Pessimism, fear, frustration and anger that pervades among workers and the middle class are all assuaged by the individual’s identity with the nation-state as well as with the expectations of the nation-state as part of social contract that has gone unfulfilled for the masses.
Because nationalism finds expression among right, center and left elements, it is difficult for those focused solely on the ideological and political aspects to miss the strong nationalist tendency that all have in common and that may be driving them into action. This is the case in the weaker EU members (Ireland, Portugal, Greece, and Spain), where millions of people identify the strong G-7 economies, the IMF, and foreign and domestic banks as the enemy of the nation with which they equate the people.
This is indeed a concept of nationalism rooted in Abbe Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyes’s What is the Third Estate? which identified all people except the privileged estates (nobility and clergy) as the nation-state. Although the economy is driving the social dynamics, nationalism remains the constant force behind assumptions many people entertain on “what is best for the nation”–and how one defines “nation” is based on ideology.