A survey of European nationalists

Democrats and Demagogues: Nationalism in the Nineties

As economic and ecological problems become global, nationalism grows rampant. Michael Löwy looks at the situation in Europe.

The burning problems of our times - such as the growing gap between the South and the North, the need for general disarmament, recurrent economic crises, the threat of ecological catastrophe - are of an international character. They can hardly be solved only on a local, regional or national scale. Yet at the same time a tide of nationalism is rising in Europe. How can we explain this paradox and how should socialists respond?

It is useful to compare the upsurge of nationalism with the parallel revival of religious feeling. The crisis of existing models of instrumental rationality - both free-market capitalist accumulation and state-led bureaucratic productivism - favours the development of non-rational reactions such as religion and nationalism. Both phenomena can take progressive forms - as in national liberation movements, or in liberation theology - but their intolerant reactionary variants are frequently overpowering. In many countries of the world, religion tends to merge with nationalism, infusing it with greater power of attraction and an aura of ’sacredness’: this is the case with Catholicism in Poland and Croatia, of Christian orthodoxy in Serbia and Russia and of Islam in Azerbaijan.

But nationalism has its own roots and does not depend on religion to expand. You could interpret the nationalist wave as a reaction to the growing internationalisation of the economy and of culture, a struggle against the threat of homogenisation. It could also be understood as a compensatory movement, trying to counter the decline of conomic independence by reinforcing, sometimes to monstrous proportions, the ethical, political and cultural aspects of national identity. A similar but distinct hypothesis was suggested by critical theorist Theodor Adorno in a conference in 1966 on Education after Auschwitz: if nationalism is so aggressive ’it is because in the era of internationalism, communication and supra-national blocs, it cannot believe in itself, and has no choice but to become outrageously excessive, if it wants to persuade itself and others of its substantive character’. The argument applies to a much greater degree to Europe in the 1990s than in the 1960s.

However, such general interpretations cannot quite explain the extraordinary diversity of the phenomenon. In order to be able to understand its moving forces, you have to examine the specific form of nationalism in each of its multiple contexts.

Let us begin with the region where this new nationalist tide is particularly visible: Eastern European politics and the former USSR. There is nothing regressive - on the contrary - when multinational empires, which had become true ’prisons of peoples’, crumble and the oppressed nations recover their liberty. To that extent, there is undeniably a democratic moment in the national revival which has taken place since 1989 in Eastern Europe and the USSR.

Unfortunately the best and the worst are inextricably mixed in these national movements. The best: the democratic awakening of despoiled nations, the discovery of their language and culture, the aspiration for freedom and popular sovereignty. The worst: the awakening of chauvinistic nationalism, expansionism, intolerance, xenophobia; the awakening of old national quarrels; hatred against the ’hereditary enemy’; the growth of authoritarian tendencies, leading to the oppression of national minorities; and finally, in the upsurge of fascist, semi-fascist and racist forms of nationalism as in Russia (Jirinovsky), in Romania, in Slovakia, in Croatia (neo-Ustachi), in Serbia (neo-Chetniks), in the former DDR (neo-Nazis). The eternal scapegoats of the past - Jews and gypsies - are again being selected as responsible for all the evils of society.

Paradoxically, this negative and sinister aspect appeared nowhere in a more brutal and absurd form than in Yugoslavia - the only one of the so-called socialist countries which had been able to escape from the control of Moscow and to establish a relatively egalitarian federation between its component nations. Traditions of anti-fascist solidarity between the various nations, rooted in the communist partisans of the Second World War, have almost left the stage, to be replaced by a murderous brawl between former friends. It is impossible to predict, for the moment, if the ’Yugoslav paradigm’ is going to be followed by other national wars, particularly in the former USSR. One of the most worrying developments is the upsurge in nationalism in the Russian Federation, across the whole political spectrum, from the far right (Jirinovsky’s party) to the left (including the Communist Party), while the so-called democrat Yeltsin waged a brutal war against the Chechen people.

The reasons for this nationalist explosion are:

The rebellion against decades of national discrimination and Great Russian hegemony. This is the most obvious motive behind national movements, both in the former USSR and in its former ’satellites’. The annexation of the Baltic states during the Second World War, or the invasion of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, left a very deep imprint in the national consciousness of these countries. Once the lid of Soviet occupation was lifted, it is understandable that a nationalist upsurge would take place. But this does not apply to Yugoslavia, an independent state which had liberated itself from Soviet hegemony in 1948.

According to the Czech historian Miroslav Hroch, ’Where an old regime disintegrates, where old social relations have become unstable, amidst the rise of general insecurity, belonging to a common language and culture may become the only certainty in society.’

The collapse of the socialist ideas, values and images (including the idea of ’working class internationalism’), discredited by so many years of bureaucratic manipulation, and widely seen as the official doctrine of an ’ancient regime’. Politics, like nature, hates a vacuum. No other rival political ideology had such a powerful tradition and such ancient roots in popular culture as nationalism - often combined, as we saw, with religion. Liberal individualism of the Western kind, while attractive to the intelligentsia and the rising new class of businessmen, has little or no appeal to the broad mass of the population. The electoral difficulties of political parties championing free-market ideas provides evidence of this.

The desire of advanced nations, regions or republics to cut loose from poorer and relatively backward areas, in order to keep their own resources for themselves. This applies particularly to Slovenia and Croatia, to the Baltic republics, and in general to the Western parts of the former USSR, in relation to the Asiatic ones. A similar phenomenon, by the way, can also be found in Italy, with the rise of the Northern League.

To these general explanations, one has to add the manipulation of nationalist feelings by neo-Stalinist or neo-liberal elites trying to keep or win back power: Azerbaijan, Russia, Serbia and Croatia are good examples.

Western European liberals often consider this Eastern nationalist explosion - and its xenophobic manifestations - as the product of ’underdevelopment’. Some even argue that nationalism is only a device for ex- communists, as in Serbia, Bulgaria or Azerbaijan, to keep power. However, nationalist conflicts, feelings and movements are growing in Western Europe too. They basically belong to three different types:

Firstly, the usually - but not invariably - progressive movements for the rights of the national minorities and/or oppressed nations: the Basque and Irish are only the tip of an iceberg which includes Catalans, Scots, Welsh, Corsicans and Greek Cypriots - and others.

Secondly, the opposition to the European Union in the name of national sovereignty. This can be used as the theme of a desperate populism by conservative governments in difficulty - like the present wave of anti-Europeanism and jingoism promoted by John ’Mad Cow’ Major. But it can also be used by some parties of the left to try to harness widespread feeling among the working class that Maastricht neo-liberalism is threatening their rights and public services. During the recent wave of strikes in France (November- December 1995) an anti-Maastricht component was present, but it did not invariably take a nationalist form. While for some sections of the left - such as the French Communist Party or the Citizens’ movement - it did take a nationalistic form, for others, such as the Greens and the far left - as well as the new radical trade-union currents such as the SUD (Solidarity, Unity, Democracy) - the rejection of Maastricht was justified in the name of an alternative, democratic and ecological Europe.

The attempts of the far-right in France to manipulate this anti-Maastricht feeling for its own nationalistic aims failed miserably, and Le Pen bitterly complained that the strike replaced ’the national issue’ by the social issue in the minds of the French people. Eric Hobsbawm is right to point out that in England - but also elsewhere in Europe - conservatives and reactionaries may increasingly raise the banner of nationalism in order to fight against the labour movement. But should the answer of the left be in the name of patriotism, the country or the nation, as he seems to suggest? Socialists in a multinational state such as Britain should think twice before making the (British) national interest part of their identity.

Thirdly, xenophobic and racist nationalism, directed not so much against the old ’enemy from outside’ but against the ’enemy from the inside’: immigrant workers as well as Jewish or gypsy minorities. The political expression of this development is the rise of nationalist parties and movements of quasi-fascist, fascist or even Nazi character - which already represent 7 million voters in the European Union - as well as the murderous aggressions of skinheads and other racist bands. It is true that racism is not identical to nationalism, but as Adorno emphasised in 1966: ’The awakening of nationalism is the most favourable climate for the upsurge of racism and intolerance.’

Mainstream Western European parties of centre left and right refuse to endorse racism, but they share a sort of Western nationalism which leads to the exclusion of immigrant workers from democratic rights (for example, to vote) and to the closure of borders to non-Western immigrants. Could it be that one day the European Union will re-establish the Iron Curtain barriers of electrified barbed wire, this time on the western side of the border? Immigrants are only a pretext: they constitute no more than 2 per cent of the European Union’s population; moreover, they were there 15 or 20 years ago without provoking the same reactions. Why is this xenophobic wave taking place now?

The unemployment and degradation of living conditions in working-class neighbourhoods is certainly one important factor. But there is something deeper taking place in popular political culture. 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 - make room for national racism. From this standpoint, the rise of nationalist values has, in both parts of Europe, common roots. To this one has to add, in the West, the disappointment with the socio-democratic management of the economy, increasingly indistinguishable from the neo-liberal one. The failure of social- democratic governments to confront growing social inequalities, their adoption of monetarist economic orthodoxy and their involvement in chronic corruption have paved the way for all sorts of xenophobic ’populist’ movements.

Thanks to the weakening of socialist culture, capitalism appears more as a ’natural’ system. As a consequence, economic and social problems like unemployment, poverty or urban insecurity are no longer attributed by significant sections of the population to the failures of capitalism, but to the presence of immigrants and other ’foreigners’.

What should be the attitude of socialists to nationalist movements? Socialism is opposed to nationalist ideology, but it does not ignore the importance and legitimacy of democratic national rights. Genuine socialism - as distinct from its bureaucratic counterfeits - is a universalist and critical belief system, in contrast to the passions and intoxications of nationalist mythology. The concept of imperialism provides it with the intellectual means to avoid Eurocentrism, which under the cover of ’civilisation’ has imposed the domination of the modern industrial way of life - market economy, unlimited expansion, productivism, utilitarianism, possessive individualism and instrumental rationality - across the globe. This does not mean that socialists ignore the universal value of certain achievements of European culture since 1789, such as democracy and human rights. It means only that they reject the false choice between ’Western’ values claiming to be universal and the narrow-minded worship of cultural differences.

For socialism, the most important human goal is the liberation of human beings from domination, exploitation and degradation. Only a critical universality of this kind is able to overcome short-sighted nationalisms, narrow culturalisms and ethnocentrisms. But such a general statement of human value needs further development before it can help to find one’s bearings in the present tempest of European national conflicts. First it is vital to distinguish between the nationalism of domineering states and the nationalism of those resisting oppression. Socialism rejects state chauvinism while, at the same time as retaining a critical distance from nationalist ideology, implies support for national liberation movements. This basic framework is clearly insufficient for responding to modern nationalisms. In recent times, oppressed nations, as soon as they are liberated, rush to institute an analogous oppression over their own national minorities. Frequently, during the present inter-ethnic conflicts in Eastern Europe and the former USSR, each side persecutes the minority belonging to the rival nation, while manipulating its own nationals on the other side of the border (Ex- Yugoslavia is a good example in point).

We need a further universal criterion to disentangle the web of mutually exclusive claims. This criterion can only be that - common to socialists and democrats - of the right of self-determination (until separation) of each nation, that is, of each community which democratically decides it is a nation. The advantage of this criterion is that it refers not to ancestral or religious claims over territory but to universal principles of democracy and popular sovereignty. It also allows for a vital distinction between nation and state, recognising that national self-determination could take many different political forms: state separation (independence), federation, confederation, or limited sovereignty or rights in a multinational or multi-ethnic state. Lenin once likened the principle of self-determination to divorce, saying that it did not imply the desirability of separation; in fact couples can only live together harmoniously if they have the right to divorce.

The application of this rule to the present national conflicts is not always easy. In Eastern Europe and the former USSR, the interpenetration of the nationalities is such that any attempt to cut borders into this mosaic is fraught with peril. The dream of national homogeneity inside the state, which haunts almost all nationalisms, is a dangerous perspective. As Eric Hobsbawm soberly observes: ’The logical implication of trying to create a continent neatly divided into coherent territorial states each inhabited by a separate ethnically and linguistically homogenous 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.’

Let us return to our initial paradox: at this nationalist end of the century, the most urgent problems have, more than ever, an international character. Since 1989 we have seen the consequences of neo-liberalism on a global scale: the rich becoming richer, and the poor even poorer.What alternatives exist to challenge the grip of ’really existing’ world capitalism? The old pseudo-internationalism of the Stalinist Comintern, of the followers of various Socialist Fatherlands, is dead and buried. A new internationalist alternative based on principles of democracy, social justice and liberation is badly needed. Such an internationalism is already emerging in practice from connections between the internationalist socialist and democratic traditions of the labour movement and the new universalist culture of social movements like ecology, feminism, anti-racism and Third World solidarity. As yet this practice is precarious and untheorised. But it nevertheless contains the seeds of a different future and the ultimate guarantee against barbarism.


* From Red Pepper archive.

* Michael Löwy is Research Director for the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), Paris. His latest book is “The War of Gods: Religion and Politics in Latin America”.