what do socialists say?

The alternative to nationalism

FROM THE Balkans to South Asia, nationalism seems to grip the world. At times it can seem as though there is no alternative to nationalism, and that workers are always destined to identify with national boundaries and their native ruling classes. Those who support NATO's war in the Balkans have played on this idea to demonise the entire Serbian people as naturally aggressive nationalists. Daniel Goldhagen, for instance, describes the Serbian population as "individuals with damaged faculties of moral judgement, sunk into a moral abyss from which it is unlikely, any time soon, to emerge unaided".

This idea that certain people are somehow genetically "evil" only serves to reinforce nationalism. It also hides an important truth. Ordinary people from the different ethnic groupings that make up the Balkan countries have for long periods of time this century lived side by side in peace. For example under Tito during the 1940s and 1950s Yugoslavia was regarded as an model of how ethnically diverse populations could coexist within national boundaries. Places such as Belgrade and Sarajevo were praised as "cosmopolitan" cities where people lived together seeing no need to reveal their ethnic backgrounds or to identify themselves as Croat, Serb, Hungarian, Albanian or Muslim. Similarly in many cities in Britain black and white people live alongside each other. Also in towns like Southall in London people who originally come from different sides of the bloody 1947 partition of India now live peacefully side by side.

Given this, why is it that nationalism so shapes the modern world? Firstly, in every country across the globe, the idea of nationhood and national identity is presented as "common sense". Every day our rulers and the media reinforce nationalist ideas in a million ways. We are told that we are "British", that others are "foreigners", that we have a common national heritage that embraces both the rich and poor. We are encouraged to support "our nation" in all its enterprises, including the national sports teams.

On a more serious level we are told that to die for one's country is the most noble sacrifice that a person can make. In this way workers of one country are sent to kill workers of another country. But nationalism is not just a "mind trick" to bind the working class to the priorities of our rulers. It reflects the whole way in which human society is organised.

We live in a world divided into nations. Our ruling classes are organised on a national basis, and industries, even multinationals, are based in a particular country and rely on their "native" state to protect their interests. However, this is only one side of the picture. We also live in a world which grows "smaller" every day. Workers move across the world on a scale never seen before. The result has been a rich mixing of peoples within national boundaries. For example, in some schools in London there are children who share 100 or more languages between them.

Telecommunications mean that we can see into other parts of the world as never before. We can see that workers everywhere face the same problems. We even look similiar, wearing the same brand name clothes and listening to the same music. In the same way the world's ruling class tend to look the same, with their expensive cars, suits and parasitic lifestyles. So in workers' heads there are two distinct pulls. On the one hand there is pressure to conform to nationalist ideas, and on the other a tendency to identify with workers everywhere. Workers can have these two ideas in their heads at the same time-in what Marxists call a contradictory consciousness. This is not static. Workers can be pulled in either direction.

In the former Yugoslavia it took the collapse of the economies destroying people's lives, and politicians like Milosevic, Tudjman and Izetbegovic to pull workers in a nationalistic direction. There were groups who stood out against these divisions. Unfortunately, many combined their opposition to nationalism with support for the free market of the West. So they were left disorientated and unable to argue for a credible alternative when the ravages of that free market hit in the early 1990s. But that does not mean there is not an alternative to nationalism in the Balkans or elsewhere.

There is no doubt that in the future workers will again begin to fight for their own interests. In that fight ordinary people from different ethnic groupings begin to find common identity and purpose, and in that unity is the positive alternative to nationalism.