The shocking scenes of poor people violently attacking each other in the Xinjiang region in the west of China will surely have added to the feeling that there is something inexplicable about national and ethnic tensions.
It is common for the media to present such conflicts as if they are the result of a dark cloud of national communal hatred just waiting to land somewhere in the world – Northern Ireland, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, and now China.
Conflicts within or between nations are usually presented as timeless. Yet the modern nation state is relatively recent invention, and one that is thoroughly bound up with the rise of capitalism.
From the time of their birth in Europe from the 16th century until the present day, nation states have seen battles over what constitutes their territory, and which people come under their control.
The newly emerging capitalist class, which saw itself as the rightful ruler of the new states, needed a set of ideas to justify its rule. 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.
But there was a contradiction in their thinking. The nation state was put forward as the best way to organise society. However certain groups were actively held back from setting up their own nations by the stronger states. These were generally incorporated into the dominant power.
Attempts by the powerful states to play divide and rule by dividing people along national, ethnic or sectarian lines are a tactic as old as empire building.
It is no accident that many countries that today suffer from inter-ethnic or nationalist oppression are those which been subject to imperial domination.
The British in India followed a deliberate policy of dividing Hindus and Muslims in an effort to undermine a burgeoning anti-colonial movement. When their policy led to a wave of communal rioting, the British held up their hands in mock horror.
Such policies are not reserved for empire – the ruling class has also found them useful at home.
As society enters into crisis, governments almost always urge some form of scapegoating. When the going gets tough, they attempt to divert people’s legitimate anger onto a weaker group.
The growth of the European empires through 19th century advanced modern nationalism still further. The British establishment started a new celebration of their “great nation” through a state-run educational system that indoctrinated children in the glories of British history.
For the British middle classes identification with “nation” contained crude material incentives. The bureaucracy that administered the empire overseas was English speaking. And the careers in it were open to middle class English or Scots in a way in which they were not to the Irish Catholic, still less to Indian or African people.
It was also useful for Britain’s rulers to encourage chauvinism against Irish immigrants in that hope that a divided working class would be incapable of effective struggle.
The great revolutionary Frederick Engels noted in the late 19th century that the media went to great lengths to suggest that the newly arrived Irish workers were the main threat to pay and conditions.
Engels said that the ruling class wanted British workers to feel superiority over the Irish, and the Irish to feel that the British workers were bought off.
Our rulers will exploit divisions to hold down all workers and not just those in an oppressed group. More often than not those pulled into an ideology of discrimination gain little.
Poor whites of the Southern states of the US gained nothing from racism under segregation in the 20th century, despite the enthusiastic way that many of them took up their rulers’ prejudices.
Protestant workers in Northern Ireland were “tuppence ha’penny looking down on tuppence”. They were poor people looking down on even poorer people – despite their feelings of privilege over their “Catholic enemies”.
But even the most oppressive empires have found that it takes effort to make nationalist ideas stick in the long term.
People often reject chauvinistic and racist ideas in the process of struggling to defend their livelihoods. And in the most extreme situations there are some who will stand up against those who wish to divide them.
Nearly every history of vicious persecution includes the stories of those who took in their neighbours to protect them against violent mobs and state terror. Nationalism is clearly a useful tool of the oppressor. However, it can also be a means by which the oppressed attempt to hit back.
Oppression can take the form of discrimination against those of a particular linguistic or religious group. These groups can find they are treated as second class citizens every time they come into contact with the state, and as a consequence seek to organise themselves along national lines.
When oppressed groups protest at the discrimination against them, the state regards them as disloyal. So often the ruling class encourages further discrimination against them, and thus heightens their feeling of alienation from it.
So what begins as mild protests aimed at securing a better place within the existing state can often end up as irreconcilable demands for secession. Such movements are in general led by the middle classes as they feel most disenfranchised by the withholding of political power, jobs and higher education.
But in order to achieve their dreams of running their own state, the middle classes must form a mass movement that includes the poor. Socialists should always support the oppressed and give their backing to all genuine national liberation movements.
The workers’ movement has nothing to gain from discrimination and everything to gain from solidarity with movements against oppression across the globe.
But we should be clear that oppression can lead to explosive struggles that are themselves divisive and make the prospect of winning working class unity more difficult.
In such circumstances the responsibility for any bloodshed lies with the oppressor state. Socialists have an important responsibility to intervene in such movements to argue against seeing other workers as the enemy of the oppressed.
National liberation movements should be judged on whether their success would advance the interests of the working class or whether it would benefit the imperialists.
The Indian independence movement, the Vietnamese struggle against the US and the Palestinian resistance to Israeli apartheid are all clear examples of national liberation movements that the left should support. They both further democracy and their success is a blow to imperialism.
Supporting the right to national self-determination does not necessarily mean calling for the actual secession of smaller nations at all times regardless of the concrete circumstances.
As an aside, national independence movements can also become the pawns of rival imperial powers. This was the case when Poland’s national movement allied with German imperialism during the First World War. It was also true during the 1990s when Kosovo’s leaders made an alliance with the US and the West against Serbia.
The other factor in the domination of nationalism is the frequent use of reactionary nationalism combined with the deliberate exploitation of linguistic and religious differences to weaken liberation movements.
The Orange Order in Ireland was consciously established by the British state around the slogan of Protestant supremacy to help smash the Irish national movement in the late 1790s. It has been revived repeatedly for the same purpose.
Within the working class there is a constant war against chauvinism. On one hand there are divisive ideas that tie us to our rulers and leave us feeling weak, hopeless and afraid. On the other are ideas of solidarity and hope for change.
The extent to which the backward ideas dominate is dependent on the level of collective struggle, and the degree to which socialist organisations are prepared to take up political arguments.
That means putting ourselves firmly against oppression. But it also means looking for politics based on the potential unity of the working class as the route to liberation.