Löwy - Fatherland or Mother Earth
Nationalism and Internationalism
Over 200 years after the call for a universal brotherhood of all humankind issued by the great French Revolution
and 80 years after the foundation of the Communist International,
what remains of the great dream of internationalist solidarity of the oppressed?
Hasn’t nationalism always been the main moving force of world politics?
And how should socialists relate to it?
The contradictory role of nationalism is one of the great paradoxes in the history of the twentieth century.
At the service of the state and of reactionary forces, the ideology of nationalism fostered and legitimised
some of the worst crimes of the century: two world wars, the genocide of Armenians, Jews and Gypsies,
colonialist wars, the rise of fascism and military dictatorship, the brutal repression of progressive
or revolutionary movements from China in the 1920s to Indonesia in the 1960s and Argentina in the 1970s.
On the other hand, in the name of national liberation, colonised peoples gained their independence
and some of the most important and radical revolutionary socialist movements were able to win popular support and triumph:
in Yugoslavia, China, Indochina, Cuba and Nicaragua.
Another puzzling paradox: although nationalism has been the dominant factor in shaping twentieth-century politics,
the greatest revolution of our times, October 1917, owed nothing to nationalism and was explicitly
directed against the ‘national defence of the fatherland’ in the war with imperial Germany.
Moreover, there has never been in the history of the labour and socialist movement a mass world organisation
so thoroughly committed to internationalism as in the twentieth century:the Third International ( at least during its first years of existence).
How should we understand these paradoxes? Can Marxism furnish the theoretical tools for such an understanding?
Do the workers and the exploited really have no fatherland, as Marx thought in 1848?
How far can Mother Earth become the concrete horizon for social liberation?
And what are the perspectives for nationalism and internationalism in the twenty-first century?
Any attempt to answer these questions has to start with a dialectical approach to the problem:
the national question is contradictory, and its contradictions are not the expression
of some eternal trait of human nature, but of concrete historical conditions.
It is important to distinguish very carefully between the feeling of national identity,
the attachment to a national culture, the consciousness of belonging to a national community with its own historical past — and nationalism.
Nationalism as an ideology is composed of all these elements but also of something else,
which is its decisive ingredient: the choice of the nation as the primary,
fundamental and most important social and political value, to which all others are — in one way or another — subordinated.
Hans Kohn, the well-known historian of modern nationalism, defined it as ‘a state of mind,
in which the supreme loyalty of the individual is felt to be due to the nation-state’.
This is a quite adequate definition — if one includes in it also the struggle for the establishment of the nation-state — even if
one has to admit that there exist at least some (moderate) nationalist movements who aim only at cultural or territorial autonomy.
It is not easy to find out exactly how and when nationalism was born.
Some authors see it as contemporary with the emergence of the modern nation-state in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (Machiavelli!).
Others, like Kohn, relate it to the first great bourgeois revolutions:
in England in the seventeenth century and France in 1789 for the first time the state ‘ceased to be the king’s state:
it became the people’s state, a national state, a fatherland’.
More recently Tom Nairn tried to prove that nationalism emerged in the nineteenth century (as a result of the uneven development of capitalism)
in the peripheral countries (Germany, Italy and Japan) and only later reached the ‘core areas’ (England and France) ;~
but this strange chronology is too arbitrary and seems to ignore
such well known historical facts as the patriotic dimension of the French Revolution and of the Napoleonic wars.
In any case there is no doubt that for many centuries
the political ideal was not the nation or the nation-state, but other forms of social and political organisation:
the clan, the city-state, the feudal lord, the church, the dynastic kingdom and the multi-national empire.
And although some precedents can be found in the past (the ancient Hebrews or the ancient Greeks),
they are of a quite different nature and substance from modem nationalism.
First of all because it refuses to see the nation as an undifferentiated bloc:
all nations are divided into different social classes, with different interests and different conceptions of national identity.
But above all it rejects the nationalist ideology and its scale of values because its supreme loyalty
is not to any nation, but to an international historical subject (the proletariat) and to an international historical aim:
the socialist transformation of the world. It is internationalist both for ethical and for material reasons.
The ethical motives are important: for the Marxist world view, materialist and atheistic,
the only value which can be considered ‘sacred’ — absolute — is humanity itself (of which the exploited and the oppressed are the emancipatory force)
In this sense, the motto ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ is not only a practical proposal for action,
but also the socialist ethical response to the ‘sacred love of country’ of nationalist ideology.
Socialism is therefore an internationalist movement by virtue of the universalist and humanist character
of its values and aims. Without this ethical appeal it is impossible to understand the total commitment and sacrifice
of many generations of activists from the labour movements of many countries to international socialism (or communism).
As the Old Bolshevik Adolf Yoffe wrote in his last letter to Trotsky in 1927 (before committing suicide):
‘Human life has no meaning unless it is at the service of an infinite, which for us is humanity’.
However, if internationalism were only a moral principle, a categorical imperative, it would be easy
to dismiss it as a beautiful utopia. If this is not the case, it is because proletarian internationalism draws its political force from objective,
concrete and material conditions, already analysed by Marx in the Manifesto:
the economic unification of the world by the capitalist system.
Like any dialectical totality, world capitalism is not the sum total of its parts, the national economies;
nor is the international class struggle the sum total of national struggles.
They constitute an organic whole, with its own forms of motion, distinct from the peculiarities of its component elements.
Georg Lukacs insisted in History and Class Consciousness that the category of totality was,
on the methodological level, the carrier of the revolutionary principle. From the dialectical standpoint of totality, no local or national situation
can be grasped in theory or transformed in practice if one ignores its links with the whole: with the world economic, social and political movement.
As a matter of fact, far from being anachronistic, Marx’s analysis in the Manifesto
is much more adequate in our times than in 1848.
Imperialism has imposed on the world capitalist system a much higher degree of integration,
the control of the market by multinational monopolies is incomparably greater; in short,
the unification of the planet by the capitalist mode of production has achieved today a qualitatively higher level than in 1848.
And this economic unity also has a political and military expression in Western Atlanticism, US interventionism, etc.
This means that internationalism has its roots in the structure of the world economy and world politics.
Socialist internationalism is also the consciousness of this objective reality.
‘What is the decisive factor in class struggle: national or international conditions?
Should one privilege the importance of the world process or, as Mao once wrote, the internal factors and the national (endogenous) causes?
In this problematic, the question itself is misleading.
It supposes an abstract, metaphysical and static separation between the national and the international, the ‘internal’ and the ‘external’, the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’.
The dialectical stand point is precisely based on the understanding of the contradictory unity between the national economy and world market,
national and international class struggle — unity which is visible already in the fact that (economic and social) national specificity
is the product of the unequal development of international capitalism.
What is wrong in the Manifesto and others of Marx’s writings is the idea that modem industrial capitalism
is essentially a homogenising force, creating identical conditions of life and struggle among the exploited of all countries.
His statement in 1845 that ‘the nationality of the worker is neither French, nor English, nor German, it is labour, free slavery, self-huckstering’ has a large share of truth;
but it ignores not only the cultural specificities of each nation (which capitalism does not abolish at all) but also socioeconomic differences
between proletarians of different nations, which result from the uneven and combined development of the world capitalist system.
Moreover, one cannot neglect the importance of national peculiarities for the ‘making of the working class’
in each country and for the development of its own tradition of anti-capitalist resistance and struggle.
In other words, although capitalism creates both in the industrial metropolis and in the dominated countries
a modern proletariat which fights against the same enemy and has the same objective historical interests,
this does not mean at all that its material and social conditions of life (not to mention its national cultures) are identical.
As Leon Trotsky once wrote: ‘If we take Britain and India as polarised varieties of the capitalist type,
then we are obliged to say that the inter nationalism of the British and Indian proletariats does not at all rest
on an identity of conditions, tasks and methods, but on their indivisible interdependence.’
5 World capitalism creates incredible inequalities and brutal differences in life conditions between the centre and periphery of the system: only the complementarity, the reciprocal relation
of the struggles in the different countries can generate internationalist solidarity.
Thus the anti-war movements in France in the 1950s and in the US in the 1960s and 1970s were a powerful contribution
to the struggle of the Algerians and of the Indochinese people — and vice versa:
these colonial struggles helped to ignite radical contestation in the metropolitan centres.
To sum up, internationalism is not the expression of the identity in life conditions of the exploited and oppressed of all countries,
but of a dialectical relationship of complementarity between at least three very different kinds of struggles:
the socialist labour movement in advanced capitalist societies;
social and national liberation movements in dependent (or colonial) capitalist countries;
and movements for democracy and against market ‘reforms’ in the former East Bloc countries.
The Many Roots of Nationalism
Marxists have often underestimated the importance of the national question,
the decisive significance of national liberation for the dominated peoples.
This is part of a general pattern of blindness, neglect or at least insufficient attention to non-class forms of oppression: national, racial or sexual.
It is not that Marxism as such is unable to take into account these dimensions, but the economistic approach which dominated much of
Marxist thinking (and also some of Marx’s own writings) led to a tendency to disregard them.
Marxists have also very frequently underestimated the power of nationalism.
A peculiar combination of economism and illusions of linear progress (inherited from the Enlightenment)
led to the wrong belief that nationalism would inevitably and quickly decline.
The Second International in particular believed that nationalism belonged to the past,
and Karl Kautsky dreamed of a socialist future without nations and with one single language:
‘In a painless way, the nations will fuse with each other, more or less in the same fashion as the Romansh inhabitants of the Grisons canton in Switzerland,
who, insensibly and without resistance, are slowly germanising themselves as they discover that it is more advantageous to speak a language
that everybody understands in a vast area rather than a language that is only spoken in a few valleys.’
Obviously, equipped with such ideas, Marxists were little prepared to confront the fantastic upsurge of nationalism after August 1914,
which took over the labour movement and led to ‘Sacred Unity in Defence of the Fatherland’
— and to the mutual slaughter of the workers of all countries.
Kautsky himself rallied to the ‘national defence’ of imperial Germany,
arguing that the Socialist International was an instrument suited only for peacetime and had to be put gently aside during the war.
The first condition for an effective confrontation with nationalism is therefore to give up illusions about linear progress,
that is, naive expectations of peaceful evolution and of a gradual ‘withering way’ of nationalism and national wars,
thanks to the modernisation and democratisation of industrial societies, the internationalisation of productive forces, etc.
How can one explain the incredible force of nationalism in the course of twentieth-century history?
A first answer would be the classic Marxist argument: nationalism is a bourgeois ideology and its power over the popular masses
is one of the main forms taken by the ideological domination of the bourgeoisie in capitalist societies.
This analysis is not wrong, but insufficient to explain the power of attraction of nationalism,
sometimes over significant sections of the labour movement.
Other causes have to be taken into consideration.
First, concrete material and economic conditions: competition among workers of different nations (or states),
resulting from the very nature of capitalism. It is a question of short term interests
— for instance, to prevent the entrance of foreign commodities which can provoke unemployment —
but their real weight can blind competing workers to their common historical interest in abolishing exploitation.
This, incidentally, also happens inside one single nation, when unemployed workers volunteer to replace striking ones.
Marx himself recognised in the Manifesto that the competition among workers constantly threatens to divide and destroy their common organisation.
Second, irrational tendencies, similar in chauvinist nationalism, religious fanaticism, racism and fascism:
a complex psychic phenomenon, which still has to be studied.
Wilhelm Reich’s work on the mass psychology of fascism, Erich Fromm’s on ‘escape from freedom’
and Theodor Adorno’s on the authoritarian personality are among the first important contributions to an explanation.
Nationalism is by its very nature an irrationalist ideology: it cannot legitimate the privilege of one nation
over the others with any rational criteria — since substantive (that is, not purely instrumental) rationality is always tendentially universal.
It must therefore appeal to non-rational myths like the divine mission attributed to the nation,
the innate and eternal superiority of a people, the to occupy a larger geographical Lebensraum, etc.
However, it may also make use of pseudo-rational and pseudo-scientific forms of legitimation,
such as geopolitics or racial anthropology. Often it does not correspond to any deep historical and cultural unity,
being just the official ideology of more or less artificial states, whose borders
are the accidental product of colonisation and/or decolonisation (in Africa and Latin America for instance).
But there is another reason for the upsurge of nationalism,
which has to be taken very seriously by Marxists and socialists:
the struggle for liberation of oppressed or colonised nations.
Although Marxism is as such opposed to nationalist ideology, it must very clearly distinguish between
the nationalism of the oppressors and the nationalism of the oppressed.
It has to support all struggles for national liberation or for oppressed nations’ right to self-determination,
even if their ideology (or the ideology of their leaders) is nationalist.
Of course, Marxist internationalists taking part in a movement for national liberation should keep their independence
and try to persuade the exploited popular masses of the need to develop the struggle (in an uninterrupted way)
beyond national aims, towards a revolutionary socialist transformation.
But they cannot ignore or underrate the significance of the popular demand for national self-determination.
The reason for this is not only that socialists are opposed to all forms of oppression (national, racial, sexual or class)
but also because there is a dialectical relationship between internationalism and national rights.
Socialist internationalism cannot develop without recognition by the socialist movement of the equal rights of all nations.
In the same way as the unity and solidarity of the workers of one and the same nation cannot be established except
on an egalitarian basis — without any distinctions or privileges based on occupation, religion, race, sex or branch of production —
internationalist unity of the exploited can only be built on the recognition of
the national rights and in particular the right to self-determination for all people.
When Lenin insisted that the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party should recognise Poland’s right to self-determination
— the right of the Polish people to decide for themselves if they wanted to establish a separate state or not —
he did it not only because the struggle of the Polish nation against tsarism was historically progressive
(the argument used by Marx and Engels) but above all because it was a pre-condition for
the establishment of an internationalist alliance between Russian and Polish workers.
Recognition of national rights is an essential condition for international solidarity, in so far as it permits the dissolution of suspicions,
hatreds and fears which set nations against each other and nourish chauvinism.
As Lenin wrote, without the right to divorce — to have a separate state — there can be no truly free marriage — unity or federation among nations.
Unfortunately, the policy of the Bolshevik government (including Lenin) after October 1917 did not always
correspond to this principle: for example, witness the invasion of Poland in 1920 and the occupation of Georgia in 1921.
By making the capital distinction between nationalism of the oppressed and of the oppressor,
socialist internationalists do not have to adhere to the former. But they perceive its contradictory nature:
its emancipatory dimension as a rebellion against unjust oppression and its limits as a particularistic ideology.
It is therefore logical that all truly social revolutionary movements in an oppressed nation necessarily put national liberation
at the centre of their struggle, while linking it to the social emancipation from capitalist exploitation
— Nicaragua is a major recent example — while in the imperialist metropolis it is the rejection of nationalism
which is at the heart of all radical confrontation with the established order,
from the anti-war movement in the US to the French in May 1968
(whose main slogan was ‘les frontieres on s’en fout!’ — ‘Frontiers, the hell with them!’).
This being said, it should be stressed that the distinction between the two kinds of nationalism is a relative and not an absolute one.
First, because yesterday’s oppressed very easily become today’s oppressors: there is no lack of historical evidence for this in our own times.
Second, because the nationalist ideology (or movement) of oppressed nations has often a double cutting edge: liberating against their oppressors, but oppressive towards their own national minorities.
And third, because one can find in both forms of nationalism elements of chauvinism, global rejection of the ‘other’ and (sometimes) racism.
Lenin was probably the ‘classic’ Marxist thinker who best understood the dialectics between internationalism and national rights.
However, in certain passages of his writings he presents the democratic rights of the nations as a part
which has to be subordinated to the whole which is the world democratic and socialist movement.
This formulation seems to me dangerous and somewhat mechanistic.
If socialist revolution is the self-emancipation of the proletariat — in alliance with all the other exploited and oppressed social groups —
it is intimately linked with the democratic self-determination of the nation.
A people on whom ‘socialism’ was imposed from outside, against its will, would only know a caricature of socialism, inevitably doomed to bureaucratic degeneration.
(Many Eastern European countries illustrate this rule!) In my opinion it would be more adequate
— and corresponding better to the spirit of most of Lenin’s writings on the national question —
to conceive the socialist revolution and the international fraternity of the proletariat as Marxists’ aim
and national self-determination as a necessary means for implementing it.
Means and ends are dialectically linked, in such a way that the subordination of the national dimension
to internationalism excludes the possibility of ‘sacrificing’ the former to the latter.
If socialist internationalism is opposed to nationalist ideology,
this does not at all mean that it rejects nations’ historical and cultural traditions.
In the same way as internationalist movements in each country have to speak the national language,
they have also to speak the language of national history and culture;
particularly, of course, when this culture is being oppressed.
As Lenin acknowledged, each culture and each national history contain democratic, progressive, revolutionary elements
which have to be incorporated by the socialist culture of the labour movement,
and reactionary, chauvinistic and obscurantist elements which have to be uncompromisingly fought.
Internationalists’ task is to fuse the historical and cultural heritage of the world socialist movement
with the culture and the tradition of their people, in its radical and subversive dimension
— often deformed by bourgeois ideology or hidden and buried by the official culture of the ruling classes.
In the same way as Marxists must take into consideration, in their revolutionary struggle,
the decisive importance of the national specificity of their social formation,
in their ideological struggle they cannot ignore the national peculiarity of their own culture and history.
This is what the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN) did in Nicaragua,
linking Marxism with Sandino’s heritage, a radical tradition alive in the collective memory of the Nicaraguan people.
A similar process took place in Cuba with the democratic and anti-imperialist tradition
represented by Jose Marti and in South America with the Indian rebellious past embodied by Tupac-Amaru.
If socialism, in the Marxian sense — a classless and stateless society — can exist only on a world scale, what would be the place of nations in a future ‘Socialist Mother Earth’? This is not a purely utopian and irrelevant question, since the internationalist nature of the ultimate revolutionary socialist aim
should inspire, to a certain extent at least, present forms of struggle.
For historical materialism, the nation-state is not an eternal category: it is not the result of ‘human nature’
nor of any biological law of nature (a thesis advocated by certain ultra-reactionary ‘sociobiologists’
who pretend to deduce the nation from the ‘territorial principle’ of certain animal species).
It did not always exist in the past and nothing forces one to believe that it will always exist in the future.
In short, it is a historical product and can be historically superseded.
The necessity of some form of structured (or ‘institutional’) organisation is a universal need of all civilised human societies.
This organisation can just as well take national forms as infra national (clans, tribes) or supranational ones (religious civilisations).
Medieval Europe was a characteristic example of a social and political organisation combining local structures which were ‘pre-national’ (fiefs, principalities, etc.)
and universalistic structures which were ‘trans-national’ (the Holy Roman Empire, the Church).
The modern nation-state emerged in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries
— with the rise of capitalism and the formation of the national market — precisely through the destruction/decomposition of these two non-national structures.
There is therefore no a priori reason to deny the possibility in the future of a new
supranational organisation of human society, a World Socialist Republic, which, unifying economically and politically
the human species, would reduce the nation essentially to its cultural dimension.
The universal culture which would arise in such a framework would peace fully co-exist with the rich multiplicity of the national cultures.
This issue has been quite controversial in twentieth-century Marxism. One can find basically two tendencies:
1. Those who favoured (or considered inevitable) the future assimilation of all nations
in a universal common socialist culture: Kautsky, Lenin, Stalin, Pannekoek, Strasser.
Kautsky’s theory of the single international language is a coherent expression of this position.
2. Those who believed in the free development of all national cultures in an integrated universal community:
Bauer, Trotsky and Luxemburg. For instance, Trotsky wrote in a 1915 essay: ‘The nation is an active and permanent factor
of human culture. And in a socialist regime the nation, liberated from the chains of political and economic dependence,
will be called to play a fundamental role in historical development.
3. A third position, ‘national neutrality’, is implicitly sketched by Vladimir Medem, the leader of the Jewish Bund:
it is impossible to predict whether future historical development will or not lead to the assimilation of the Jewish nation.
In any case, Marxists should neither prevent nor stimulate this process of assimilation, but remain neutral.
If one generalises this position to all national cultures (which Medem did not) one would have an original and new conception of the problem.
4. In any case, the most important, from a socialist, revolutionary and democratic viewpoint,
is that no internationalist politics can be based on the denial,
repression, neglect or limitation of the national right to self-determination and self-development.