Socialist Worker

How ‘age-old’ national identities were invented

The ideas of nationalism and borders have only developed with the growth of capitalism in the past 400 years, writes Dave Sherry

Issue No. 2466

The notion of British identity grew through wars with France

The notion of British identity grew through wars with France

Humans have been around a long time—but the growth of nationalism and the obsession with borders are relatively new. 

They came with the rise of capitalism, which first emerged on the western fringes of Europe just 400 years ago.

In feudal Europe before capitalism emerged, the majority of the population were peasants who never travelled more than a few miles from their home village. Many were serfs who were forbidden to leave. 

Peasants were forced to work for the feudal lords, who were supposed to protect them in return. These lords served a king. They had no concept of nation. 

The world view spread by lords and priests was of a fixed hierarchical order where everyone knew their position. 

Most people spoke local dialects which could be incomprehensible to others living 40 miles away. For much of the feudal period in England the aristocracy spoke another language and priests a third.

But the emergence of capitalism depended on the formation of a large domestic market for goods produced by the new entrepreneurs. 

It needed political unification of a large economic zone where people, commodities and money could move freely.

And across Europe rulers became more worried about the boundaries of the territories they controlled, where their unified taxes and laws were obeyed.

Capitalism was fuelled by the military struggle between the European powers. Overseas expansion of the British state created markets and investment opportunities for its capitalists.

Intense competition between states encouraged rulers to appeal to their subjects as members of a national community in struggle with their foreign rivals. 

Thus British national identity was forged during the wars with France between 1689 and 1815.


Stereotypes developed of Protestant Britain contrasted with Catholic France. Historian Krishan Kumar writes of how people were encouraged to see themselves. “Protestant nations were free, independent, tolerant and prosperous, friendly to and thriving on commerce and constitutional liberties. 

“Catholic nations were sunk in despotism, dogma and poverty, the prey of power-hungry monarchs and superstitious priests.” 

But there was nothing “natural” about the nations that emerged. National identity was created by forced incorporation and assimilation. 

Other languages and cultures were left to wither or were suppressed. 

As one historian quipped, “A language is a dialect with an army and navy”.

The first capitalist powers, concentrated in Western Europe and North America came to dominate. Most of the rest of the world became engulfed in colonial empires. 

This control has continued despite decolonisation. The major capitalist states impose their will on the smaller powers.  

Migrant workers and refugees who come to Britain are not the enemy. They are the victims of capitalism. Trade unionists and socialists must defend them. 

Nationalism is an ideology which enables the ruling class to control the people they exploit—there are only class interests. 

Workers in different countries have the same interests as each other—and opposing interests to the rulers of their own country.

This is what workers need to act on to free themselves and the rest of humanity.

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