Nationalism at the End-of-Century

Against the Current, No. 38, May/June 1992

Michael Lowy

THIS IS A strange end-of-century. At the moment when capitalism seems able, at last, to impose its rule on a world scale; when the economy has been internationalized to an unprecedented degree; when the multinational enterprises reign over the world market; when a transnational committee of bankers (the IMF) dictates its social and economic policies to two-thirds of humanity; when Europe moves rapidly towards supranational unity<197>at this same moment nationalism makes a spectacular return to the forefront, becoming in many countries (particularly in Europe) the only political movement able to mobilize the crowds and the only political value acceptable to a large part of the population.

There is no easy explanation for this upsurge, but it could be helpful to compare it with the parallel revival of religious feelings. The crisis of both capitalist accumulation and bureaucratic productivism–the existing models of (instrumental) rationality–favors the development of such non-rational, sometimes irrational, reactions as religion and nationalism.

Of course both phenomena can also take progressive forms–as in national liberation movements, or in liberation theology–but the regressive tendencies, nationalist and/or religious intolerance, are quite formidable. We can cite the political triumph of Islamic fundamentalism, which was poised to come to power through electoral means in Algeria precisely because of the failures of Arab national liberation currents in general and the decay of the nationalist FLN regime in particular. In Poland, where nationalism and religion are
so intimately linked in their development, the consequences for women’s rights are particularly negative.

Forward to the Past?

The new nationalist wave is particularly visible in Eastern Europe and the ex-USSR. An intelligent observer of Eastern European politics has summarized remarkably well the events in this part of the world:

“The last remnants of solidarity between the nonemancipated nationalities in the ‘belt of mixed populations’ evaporated with the disappearance of a central despotic bureaucracy which had also served to gather together and divert from each other the different hatreds and conflicting national claims. Now everybody was against everybody else, and most of all against his closest neighbors–the Slovaks against the Czechs, the Croats against the Serbs, the Ukrainians against the Poles.”

The most astonishing thing about this analysis is that it was not written a few weeks ago. It’s a passage from the well-known book of Hannah Arendt on the origins of totalitarianism–published in 1951. Arendt describes the “atmosphere of disintegration” in Eastern Europe during the 1920s, after the liquidation of the pre-World War I Austro-Hungarian monarchy and the Tsarist empire, the two “despotic bureaucracies” to which she refers. [Arendt, The Burden of Our Time (London: Secker and Warburg, 1951) 267]

In other words, we have been drawn, in a large part of Europe, seventy years back. To a certain extent one could almost say we have been thrown a hundred years back, to another end of century. Today, as in 1892, the triumph of capitalism seems to be universal, the revolutions defeated, the bourgeois world stable and secure, the labor and socialist movement weak–and nationalism is undoubtedly the dominant ideology.

Let there be no misunderstanding. There is nothing regressive–quite the contrary–when (today, as in 1920) multinational empires, which had become true “prisons of peoples,” crumble down and the oppressed nations recover their liberty. To that extent, there is undeniably a democratic movement in the national revival that has taken place since 1989 in Eastern Europe and the ex-USSR. Socialists and democrats cannot but rejoice when the Soviet tanks leave East Germany, Poland and Hungary, and the troops of the KGB quit the Baltic countries, leaving peoples to decide by themselves their future, to freely choose unity, separation or federation.

Unfortunately not everything is so pleasant in this picture. The best and the worst are inseparably mixed in these national movements. The best: the democratic awakening of despoiled nations, the rediscovery of their language and culture, the aspiration for freedom and popular sovereignty.

The worst: the awakening of chauvinistic nationalisms, of expansionisms, intolerances, xenophobias; the awakening of old national quarrels, of hatred against the “hereditary enemy;” the growth of hegemonist tendencies, leading to the oppression of one’s own national minorities; and finally the upsurge of fascist, semi- fascist and racist forms of nationalism in Russia (“Pamiat”), in Romania, in Slovakia, in Croatia (neo-ustashis), in Serbia (neo-chetniks), in former East Germany (neo-nazi skinheads) and elsewhere. The eternal scapegoats of the past–Jews and Gypsies–are again being selected as responsible for all the evils of society.

Nationalism Fills the Vacuum

The reasons for this nationalist explosion, which runs through the whole former Eastern bloc, are obvious: on one hand, the rebellion against national discrimination and “Great-Russian” domination; on the other, the crisis and disintegration of “class” ideologies, cultures and values. Politics, like nature, hates vacuum. In a situation when all socialist values have been discredited by half a century of bureaucratic manipulation, people look for other forms of political culture, not compromised with the authoritarian regime. These are religion and above all nationalism.

Western European liberals often consider this Eastern nationalist wave–and its xenophobic manifestations–as the product of “underdevelopment,” of primitive semi-agrarian societies, of populations having lived too long under “Communism” and lacking democratic experience. Some even pretend that nationalism is only a plot of ex-Communists (as in Serbia, Bulgaria or Azerbaijan) to keep power.

Western Europe is presented as a harmonious world, long past such irrational passions. The reconciled nations of this democratic and modern part of the continent are quickly moving towards their integration in a modern united European Community. This mystified image does not quite correspond to reality; national movements exist also in Western Europe, and they are growing. They belong basically to two different species:

1) The movements for the rights of oppressed nations in the Western European area. These are usually progressive movements, though certainly not homogenous. The Basques and the Irish are only the visible (and explosive) tip of an iceberg, which includes Catalans and Galicians, Scotts and Welsh, Corsicans and Greek Cypriots–and several others.

2) Xenophobic and racist nationalism, directed not so much against the old “enemy from outside” (other European nations) but against the <169>enemy from inside,” the immigrant workers of Arab, African, Turkish, Kurd or Eastern European (as well as, often, the Jewish minority). The political expression of this development is the surprising rise of nationalist parties and movements of semi-fascist, fascist or even nazi character in France, Austria, Belgium, Germany–representing already seven million voters in the European Community!–as well as the murderous aggressions of skinheads and other racist bands.

Last year, in Germany alone there were more than 1200 aggressions by racist thugs against foreign immigrants, compared to 270 incidents in 1990. (Bild am Sontag, January 26, 1992)

The main targets of Western European xenophobic nationalism were up to now the immigrants from the “South,” particularly Africa and Asia. The next victims will be–or are already, mainly in Germany–the unfortunate immigrants from Eastern Europe, expelled from their countries by national conflicts or by the economic catastrophe resulting from the brutal introduction of a market economy.

After the Arab, the African or the Turk, it is now the turn of the Pole, the Croatian or the Albanian to become the scapegoat for Western racist/nationalists. Perhaps one day the European Community will rebuild the Berlin Wall a little further to the East, and re-establish the barriers of electrified barbed wire of the old Iron Curtain, this time on the Western side of the border.

Decline of Socialist Class Values

In fact the presence of immigrants is only a pretext. They constitute no more than two percent of the European Community’s population; moreover, they were already there fifteen or twenty years ago, without provoking the same reactions. Why precisely now has the xenophobic wave taken place?

The economic crisis, the unemployment and degradation of living conditions in the popular neighborhoods are certainly among the main factors. But something deeper is taking place in the political culture of some popular layers–as in Eastern Europe, but in a different way, the decline of socialist and class values, so long identified with the USSR and the Communist Parties, makes room for nationalism/racism. From this standpoint the rise of nationalist values have, in both parts of Europe, common roots.

To this one must add, in the West, the disappointment with the social-democratic management of the crisis, increasingly indistinguishable with the exception of a few sympathetic details from the neo-liberal one.

Nationalism and the Periphery’s Crisis

Progressive and reactionary forms of nationalism can also be found in the so-called Third World (a term which has lost any meaning since there is no more any “Second World”), i.e. in the dependent periphery of the imperialist world system.

The most remarkable and progressive movements of national liberation in Africa, Asia and the Middle East–in Kurdistan, Eritrea, South Africa, Palestine, Timor, Sudan–are directly confronting not Western imperialism as such, but local forms of national oppression. With the exception of the great wave of popular protest against the imperialist aggression on Iraq, anti-colonial and anti-imperialist nationalism seems to have lost much of its influence, to the profit of basically reactionary movements like Islamic fundamentalism, ethnic-linguistic communalism (India, Sri Lanka) and tribalism.

In most dependent countries but particularly in Latin America, the fight against the foreign debt and IMF policies has been the main focus of national feelings and anti-imperialist mobilizations, taking the form of meetings, strikes, protests and even mass riots. These movements have simultaneously a national dimension and an “anti-systemic” one, by their opposition to the logic of world capitalist finance. They have also a “class” component, by their struggle against the local rulers, who consider it their most urgent task to implement all the instructions of the IMF and foreign banks.

It is not surprising that in such countries as Brazil or Bolivia, it is the labor movement, the unions and workers’ parties that lead the fight against payment of the foreign debt. National and social consciousness are intimately linked in the consciousness of the most active sections of the movement. Illusions of a “national,” “democratic,” “progressive” and “independent” capitalist road for the dependent countries–actively fostered by the Stalinists for decades–have lost much of their appeal.

How far can a single country–even a powerful one like Brazil or Mexico–refuse the totalitarian dictatorship of the World Bank and break the yoke of imperialist domination? Can Latin American unity, under popular leadership, constitute an alternative to the United States’ plans of economic integration?

How can national and social liberation in an underdeveloped country be achieved without the economic or military support of an industrial power like the former USSR? How important are the contradictions among Europe, Japan and the United States, and could these be exploited by liberated peripheral countries?

These and similar questions–which cannot be easily answered–are being debated among progressive, socialist and anti-imperialist forces in Latin America and elsewhere in the ex-Third World. They show that national liberation is still a key issue at the periphery of the system, but also that the need for an internationalist strategy is perhaps better perceived now than in the past.

Standing With the Oppressed

What should be the attitude of Marxists in relation to national conflicts? Marxism is opposed to the nationalist ideology, but does not ignore the importance and legitimacy of national rights.

This is why, during conflicts between Western imperial powers and dependent countries of Asia, Africa or Latin America, Marxists should take sides with the peripheral nations, and struggle against all forms of imperial aggression whatever their “democratic” or “juridical” cover–but this does not mean that they should support reactionary military, religious or nationalist dictators like General Videla [former military ruler of Argentina–ed.], Ayatollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein or General Noriega.

The problem is more complex in the context of European conflicts, or Third World communal strife. As an internationalist world view, Marxism–to be distinguished from its many national-bureaucratic counterfeits–has the advantage of a universalist, rational and critical position, in contrast to the passions and intoxications of nationalist mythology. This is true only on the condition, however, that this universalism does not remain abstract, grounded on the simple negation of national particularity, but becomes a true “concrete universal” in Hegel’s sense, able to dialectically incorporate all the richnesses of the particular.

First of all Marxism proposes a capital distinction between the nationalisms of the oppressors and of the oppressed. Without adhering to any nationalist ideology, Marxist socialism supports unreservedly the national movement of the dominated and rejects without hesitation the “Great Power chauvinism” of the ruling nation. This distinction is more than ever justified and operates like a precious compass to find one’s bearings in the present tempest.

But the use of this compass is made difficult by a well-known characteristic of modern nationalisms: Each oppressed nation, as soon as liberated or even before, considers its most urgent task to exercise an analogous oppression over its own national minorities. Frequently during the present interethnic conflicts, each side persecutes the minority belonging to the rival nation, while manipulating its own nationals on the other side of the border. Yugoslavia (the Serb-Croat war) is a case in point.

We need, therefore, a criterion in order to disentangle the web of the opposed and mutually exclusive claims. This criterion can only be that of the right to self-determination, even the right of separation, of each nation, that is, of each community which considers itself such. Indifferent to the myths of blood and soil, and not recognizing any purely religious or historical claim over a given territory, this criterion has the immense advantage of referring to the universal principles of democracy and popular sovereignty, and of taking into consideration only the demographic realities of any inhabited space.

This rule, incorporated by Lenin into the Marxist vocabulary, is more than ever necessary. But again, its application to the present national conflicts–particularly in Eastern Europe and the ex-USSR–is not always easy. In many cases the interpenetration of the nationalities is such that any attempt to cut borders into this mosaic is fraught with perils.

The dream of national homogeneity inside the state, which haunts almost all nationalisms, is a most dangerous perspective. As Eric Hobsbawm observes in a sober historical reminder: “The logical implication of trying to create a continent neatly divided into coherent territorial states, each inhabited by a separate ethnically and linguistically homogeneous population, was the mass expulsion and extermination of minorities. Such was and is the murderous reductio ad absurdum of nationalism in its territorial version, although this was not fully demonstrated until the 1940s” [Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Program, Myth, Reality. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990) 133].

Towards a Liberating Internationalism

Let us return to our initial paradox: At this strange nationalist end of century, the most urgent problems have more than ever an international character. The search for a way out of the economic crisis of the ex-“socialist bloc,” the question of the Third World’s debt and the imminent ecological catastrophe–to mention only three major examples–require planetary solutions.

The solutions of capital are well known and perfectly organized on a world scale, under the leadership of a sort of international capitalist Polituro: the IMF, whose dictatorial powers are without precedent in history. These “solutions” have inevitably, in whatever place they have been implemented, the same double result: to make the rich richer and the poor even poorer.

What are the chances for an internationalist alternative of the oppressed and exploited? The old pseudo-internationalism of the Stalinist Comintern, of the followers of various “Socialist Fatherlands” or of the “Friends of the USSR” (or China) is dead and buried. There exist however the seeds of a new internationalism, the internationalism of the twenty-first century.

Among these seeds is the authentic internationalist tradition of the socialist labor movement, independent from any state or military bloc; it remains, after all, lively among many class-conscious trade unionists, left socialists, dissident communists as well as among anarchists, Trotskyists and other radicals. It can under certain circumstances exercise mass influence, as in the Brazilian Workers Party. But there exist also new internationalist tendencies, which grow inside certain worldwide social movements–feminism and ecology–inside the European and American antiracist and solidarity movements, and inside certain Christian or secular nongovernmental organizations, such as Amnesty International.

It is from the fusion between the proletarian, socialist and anti-imperialist tradition of the first and the new humanist, democratic and ecological cultures of the second that the internationalism of tomorrow may arise.

May-June 1992, ATC 38