by Karyn Pomerantz,  April 12, 2018 


Nationalism, also known as patriotism, is a widespread concept promoted by capitalists to attain the loyalty of workers of a given country to their own ruling class. Those in power rely on this ideology to win workers to die in their wars or sacrifice wages and benefits so that the rulers can afford to maximize profits and live well and, in the case of imperialist nations, continue to plunder the wealth and cheap labor from smaller nations. Flag waving, parades, national holidays, sporting events like the Olympics and an endless barrage of media and educational input re-enforce this view. Racism plays an important role in depicting “enemies” as subhuman, such as labeling Vietnamese fighters as “gooks” or Muslims as “ragheads” or terrorists.

Similarly, “identity politics” calls on people to unite based on personal characteristics such as religion, skin color, gender, or sexual orientation rather than social class. Racism is also a particularly virulent tool to divide workers within single countries, such as anti-black and anti-immigrant racism in the US. All these divisions hinder workers from recognizing our shared humanity and interests and from organizing together to fight for our needs or take power in order to reorganize society on an egalitarian basis.

Rise of Empires and Revolts

From the 1600s to the early 1900s, imperialists from England, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and Belgium took over countries militarily and ran them brutally in order to extract raw materials like rubber and gold and many more precious resources. From the Americas to Africa and Asia, millions of indigenous and imported poor workers and slaves lived and died in barbaric conditions to harvest agricultural products like tobacco, cotton and tea and valuable minerals. All the while, the imperialists reaped the profits and ran the governments in their own interests through military coercion. When workers rebelled, the colonialists suppressed them mercilessly with torture and murder.

The Global South Responds:

20th Century Anticolonial Revolts and Strategies

Widespread revolNationalism Algerian Revolnts against colonialism erupted during the 1960s, involving the colonies of Algeria, Belgian Congo, Vietnam, Ghana, Kenya, and India, among others. The new leaders of these liberation victories in Asia, Africa and Latin America (the global south), Nehru, Nkrumah, Tito, Sukarno, Castro and Nasser, formed the Third World project to unite the newly independent countries to demand economic and social equality for workers.  Their goals were peace, economic development and independence.  They envisioned the United Nations (UN) as the platform to advocate for their agenda and convinced the UN to establish new departments for disarmament, fair trade and economic development.  They operated by holding a series of conferences and writing numerous reports on how to organize their societies, relate to their former local rulers, and use the United Nations to press their demands.

The liberation leaders also decided whether they should join with the Soviet Union’s alliance of pro-Soviet countries or remain unaligned.  In 1961, 77 countries (the G77) formed the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) to advocate for fair trade, respect and recognition from other countries, and social development, primarily through the UN. There were many reasons to remain unaffiliated. The Soviet Union, driven by a Cold War strategy, was more interested in supporting any entities that would oppose the US than in promoting anti-capitalist struggles.

Unity of All Classes OR Working Class Solidarity

The Third World Project and NAM accepted nationalism, the unity of all classes within a country and did not aim to establish socialism. In 1955, 29 post-colonial countries met in Bandung, Indonesia and asserted their goals for economic development and world peace through disarmament.  Their aspirations known as the “Bandung Spirit” emphasized an end to imperialist and cultural oppression (racism).  Conference chair and Indonesian President Sukarno addressed the group:

“Hurricanes of national awakening and reawakening have swept over the land, shaking it, changing it, changing it for the better.” The Darker Nations, page 33)

Eventually the local capitalist ruling classes took total power in most of the formerly colonized countries and oppressed the working class. Dominated by the US, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund established structural adjustment policies requiring countries to pay exorbitant interest rates and abolish funding of schools, health care and other social programs.  They threatened to withhold aid if they were not paid and refused to share new technologies and other forms of intellectual property.  By the 1970s, most countries in NAM were dependent on capitalist aid.  Corrupt rulers, such as Mobutu in the Congo, stole billions of dollars in oil, cash and mineral resources that they spent on themselves while the working class lived in poverty without health care, schools, clean water, food and decent housing.

 The Defeat of Working Class Movements

 The leaders of the newly independent countries united people of different social and economic classes within their countries rather than organizing workers to oppose capitalist oppression by local or foreign exploiters or unite with workers in other nations.  Thus workers living in the poorer southern nations remained divided from each other as well as from workers in the north. This split the global working class living in the poorer southern nations among itself as well as from workers in North America and Europe, who also suffer high unemployment rates and withered wages although to a lesser degree. Uniting with the elites makes it impossible to threaten capitalism.  Instead many leaders in the wealthier southern countries limited their demands on the US and its financial institutions to democratizing the United Nations, demanding fairer trading agreements, protecting intellectual property, and removing social adjustment policies that required the elimination of social services in exchange for aid. Some (India) established industrialization and consumerism as drivers of economic growth while others (Tanzania, Cuba) prioritized policies to increase social equity.

 Some Examples

Indonesia under Sukarno

Sukarno helped found the NAM and supported membership for countries that were pro-US.  Principles of unity in NAM included peace, anti-colonialism and anti-racism, allowing many conservatives and leftists to form a united front.  Sukarno formed the Partai Nasional Indonesia (PNI) which included all social classes. In 1948 the PNI and the Dutch government, the former colonial rulers of Indonesia, attacked a communist rebellion in Madiun arresting 15,000 members from the PKI, Indonesia’s communist party.  In 1975 the US, opposed to the militancy and size (10,000,000 members) of the PKI and Sukarno’s anti-American, pro-socialist positions led a coup that terminated Sukarno’s rule and supported the new president, Suharto, as he slaughtered millions, including residents of East Timor.

Egypt under Nasser

In 1952 Nasser and other military officers overthrew the monarchy and established the Free Officers Movement that included the military, communists, aristocrats, traditional political parties, and the Muslim Brotherhood.  Yet, five years after the coup, the government jailed the Egyptian communists while forging economic relationships with the USSR to secure aid. Third World Project members, Iraq, Pakistan, and Sudan, also attacked their communist parties.

Egyptian women played major roles in rebellion against old rules and customs.  They advocated for reforms in education, domestic life and income.  Women fought for rights to union membership, lower consumer taxes, and family planning.  (Relationships in the family, however, remained more conservative).

One national liberation leader wrote:

“… Women must fight together with men against colonialism and all forms of exploitation… she must understand that the fundamental problem is not the contradiction between women and men, but it is the system in which we are living.”  (The Darker Nations, page 61)

Jamaica under Manley

The IMF imposed neoliberal trade practices in Jamaica that undercut their production of milk in order to force them to buy from the US. In 1993 Jamaica had to dump millions of dollars of unpasteurized local milk, slaughter 700 cows and close down several dairy farms. The industry has sized down nearly 60% and continues to decline.  Workers found jobs in Free Zones where foreign garment companies paid low rents, maintained poor working conditions, and used 10,000 women to produce clothing at a minimum wage of $30 US per week without the right to unionize.  Under former President Clinton, Haiti was forced to stop producing its rice crop and buy from the US.  This drove farmers into the cities with no income while forests were purposely destroyed for firewood, making the land more vulnerable to erosion and mudslides.

Neoliberalism under Reagan and Secretary of State Kissinger

Under the policartoon for Nationalim articlecy of neoliberalism beginning in the 1980s, the US and the IMF pressured the southern countries to pay back their debt (in some cases over 30% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product,(GDP)) or lose aid.  Some NAM members favored industrialization, as did the IMF, to encourage economic growth.  Others, like Nyere of Tanzania, preferred to build equity, community participation, and social development.  Even the wealthiest Third World Project members, such as India and Brazil, could not resist the economic demands of the imperialists for debt repayment and structural adjustment programs that required taking money from social programs for debt service and trade accommodations.

The southern countries used moral arguments to plead for debt relief.  The UN and finance groups like the G7, seven of the wealthiest countries, ignored these demands and threatened punitive actions including military force.  These powerful countries required the UN Security Council, instead of all UN members, to approve resolutions, isolating the global south from any decision making.  The working class around the world rose up in national liberation struggles in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.  The US sent in troops and created death squads to repress these uprisings in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Chile, as they had earlier in Vietnam.  Any Third World Project goals died as well

The Perils of Nationalism and the Unity of Social Classes:

More Exploitation

All of the formerly colonized nations included the powerful and wealthy members of the local ruling classes in their meetings and governments.  This limited their ability to improve the lives of workers.  As Prasad writes in The Darker Nations:

“The fight against the colonial and imperial forces enforced a unity … across social classes…. The working class and peasantry … acceded to an alliance with the landlords and emergent industrial elites…. Rather than provide the means to create an entirely new society, these regimes protected the elites among the old social classes .. Once in power, the old social classes exerted themselves…” (pages xvi-xvii)

Eventually the leaders of Tanzania, India, Algeria and others created the Southern Commission in the 1980s to appeal to the major imperialist countries, primarily the US, for respect and justice.  In a series of conferences and reports as in earlier times, the Commission used moral and ethical arguments to appeal to the imagined consciences of these ruling classes.

With advice from Kissinger, countries were played off against each other based on their affiliations with the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and NAM or on their economic status.  Well-resourced countries with highly desired exports like oil or minerals (Venezuela) were able to compete and threaten the US with embargoes, such as the OPEC oil embargo in 1973-74.  Others were totally drained, committing exorbitant amounts of their GDP to interest payments.

In conclusion

After independence, the former colonial masters didn’t run governments directly but maintained control via financial loans and debt through international corporations and agencies like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  These institutions, dominated by the US, offered foreign aid and grants to the former colonies as long as the governments paid back this aid by enacting trade policies favorable to the former colonialists and cutting the budget for social services, such as health care, water, food, sanitation, transportation and education.

Between the World Bank, IMF, and the now local capitalist rulers of the government and business, newly “liberated” peoples have never benefited from their countries’ rich resources. Billions of dollars have been pumped out of Sierra Leone, the Congo, Kenya, South Africa and others to enrich the rulers in the US and Europe and, to a far lesser extent, the local rulers of the neo-colonial countries. This is money that could have paid for HIV medications, clinics, schools, and many other essential services. Instead, under pressure from these financial institutions, the governments have fired healthcare workers and teachers.

 Today, the now most powerful imperialists, the US, Russia, and China compete to control African resources, from gold in South Africa to oil in Libya and Nigeria. Various opposition groups call for loyalty to one superpower or another, their own national capitalists, or to ally with religious entities like Islamic fundamentalists. Local and cross-border Islamic organizations, looking to replace the foreign exploiters, spread more deadly and destructive wars in the region. Many so-called left organizations, both local and international, choose sides with either foreign or local rulers rather than call for all workers to unite against capitalist exploiters of any stripe.

Nationalist ideas promote segregating workers from each other based on the country of their birth rather than their class position in society, and racism further divides workers within and between nations. It is easy to understand that black workers would not want to ally with white workers, some of whom, deceived by the capitalist ideology of racism, treat them as subservient. What must be stressed is that racist oppression stems from the rulers of imperialist nations, who have been predominantly white (although we must now include the Chinese and formerly the Japanese), and that workers in imperialist nations are also oppressed, divided by racism and oppressed by capitalism. It is our job to unite all workers around the world, emphasize common needs and aspirations, and question capitalism as the source of our misery. Making deals to improve our conditions under capitalism through such demands as minimum wage or sick leave are only temporary improvements at best. As long as business controls governments, governments will ignore workers’ interests.  Fighting nationalism and racism is a critical strategy to strengthen our class. Even if the struggle is around temporary reforms such as higher wages, against police brutality, for affordable housing, HIV care, sick leave, or immigrant rights, we learn to unite and rely on each other.

Lessons Learned

  • Unify workers with common interests and desires regardless of nationality, religion, gender, “race” and other characteristics across countries instead of uniting all classes within a country
  • Strive for social development goals versus materialism, industrialization and consumerism that the ruling classes promotes
  • The enemies of my enemies are not my allies (Assad, Clinton, Hamas, Sanders)
  • Recognize the power dynamics between the ruling class and workers, and use direct action, not moral arguments, reports, conferences
  • Involve the workers with real popular participation
  • Win hearts and minds to new ideas and practices, don’t dictate policy from above
  • Don’t rely on capitalist organizations, such as the IMF or UN, for social justice when the US and other imperialists control them
  • Don’t rely on NGOs that constrain social action and serve the system
  • Don’t rely on reports and speeches to convince the opposition, no “speaking truth to power” illusions when the speakers have no power

“As the national liberation state removes itself from popular mobilization, begins to cultivate domestic elites in the name of national development, and perhaps opens itself to intervention by imperialism … the military … cuts down on the ability of social movements to move the historical process in a progressive direction.”  (The Darker Nations, page 149)

Sources and Readings

The Looting of Africa, the Economics of Exploitation (2006) by Patrick Bond gives a detailed account of the theft of resources by national governments and Western imperialists.

The Darker Nations (2008) by Vijay Prashad covers the anticolonial period of the 1960s and 1970s.

The Poorer Nations (2014) by Vijay Prashad covers the postcolonial period after the 1980s.

In Love and Debt (DVD, 2001) by Stephanie Black describes IMF policies in Jamaica. (

The Travesty of Haiti (2008) by Timothy Schwartz reveals the corruption of aid organizations in Haiti.

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