“Left-wing nationalism” Ruthless Criticism


“Left-wing nationalism”

[Translated from MSZ 7-1985]

Letter from a reader:

Nationalism, imperialism, colonialism, racism – these are emotive terms, which the progressive left throws together and condemns. And if one looks at nationalism today, then this is not without reason. Since the official concept of the nation that prevails today is designed by states, it therefore represents the rulers’ outspoken nationalism and this is nothing other than the bourgeois triumph in the class struggle which now merges all subjects within one nation, claiming to unite them. This nationalism is indeed reactionary, because it serves the preservation of existing power relations once they have been successfully implemented.

But what about the nationalism of the oppressed peoples, whose oppressors and exploiters mostly come from the outside, namely from the USA and the imperialist states allied with it? What about the nationalism of a people whose nation has been destroyed by another state in order to be able to oppress/exploit it better? Do all your conclusions in the critique expressed in “The Nation and its ‘Cause’” in the MSZ likewise apply to it? Or is there not a qualitative difference between the national liberation of an oppressed people and the nationalism of the oppressors?!

After all, there is an essential difference between the nationalism of Hitler, Reagan, Franco and the ex-Shah of Iran, and the revolutionary patriotism of Fidel Castro, the Vietminh, the Sandinista Front, but also of the PLO, the IRA and other opposition movements fighting for liberation. That’s why I believe that one can’t simply talk about “nationalism.” One must make a distinction between nationalism from above and nationalism from below, from the Right or from the Left, because otherwise one simply equates the right of an oppressed people with the ideology of its enemies.

– H.B., Oberhausen

Answer of the editors:

Nationalism is a mistake: here and elsewhere

Regarding your sympathy for Fidel Castro and the old Vietminh, and your aversion towards Hitler, Reagan and Co.: Of course there is a difference whether imperialists struggle over the partitioning of the world – over a redistribution like Hitler for the German Reich or over its universal exclusive jurisdiction like the USA today – or whether the victims of the imperialist world order take up the fight against the “oppressor” in distant lands. But do you really think that the latter have acted or do act wisely, if they place their resistance first of all in the service of a “national liberation”? Or even before that: do you believe it is correct if they interpret themselves as an “oppressed people”?

The programme of “national liberation” …

Look at it from the simplest aspect, its result – after all we are writing in 1985 and not 1960 anymore. The entire colorful map of Africa and half the map of South Asia is the work of “national liberation movements.” They have realized their program, ousted the colonial powers from the job of “oppression” and given the people their own state power whose staff is being recruited from native citizens. Does this please you? Autonomous politicians entirely dedicated to the national cause have searched their territories from top to bottom and reorganized them in order to produce sources of income, not sparing a single one of their new citizens from their project of a nation that finally shares equal rights with all other nations. Such a project is particularly expensive; also in Africa – or Asia or Latin America – no nation can exist without diplomats and policemen, government officials and civil servants, customs officers and teachers, airfields and ministries, a national budget and the sources of income necessary for it. Old colonial powers, new imperialists and even the “East Bloc” can spend extravagantly, donate a lot to the fledgling nations, open credit lines, and give energetic aid for the squeezing of wealth out of land and people. In doing so, the business world of the West has gotten on the gravy train with its sovereign partners more vigorously than the old colonial powers could ever have dreamed. Moreover, the “oppressor nations” have even saved something in expenses in this way; indeed a business of its own has emerged out of the export of the means of force (tanks, rifles, etc.), which guarantee native heads of government are locally installed.

All this has not taken place as an infringement against the aim of peoples’ liberation by supplying them with a sovereign nation, but conversely: the will to install a free, respected nation that enjoys equality among the other nations has caused the sharp rise in exploitation and impoverishment of the local masses we are witnessing today. “Oppressed people” can no longer be spoken of – unless you use another sense of the word and talk no more about nations, but rather of the utilized or not yet utilized masses in contrast and antagonism to their ruling elite who cooperate brilliantly with the bankers, arms dealers and foreign secretaries of the free world; which includes conflict and blackmail, as is usual among competing businessmen and diplomats. Indeed, if it is the latter you have in mind, then the epithet “national” and the talk about subversive “patriotism” ought to get stuck in your throat. Because these are precisely the viewpoints under which the masses and “their” ruling elite are asked to unify, regardless of their antagonism with each other. This abstraction has its harsh realistic side: the international world of business and politics takes interest in the masses only in so far as they are the maneuverable masses of a local political authority, whose interest with regard to getting ahold of money and exercising power can always be used splendidly and to mutual contentment. The same abstraction has a dishonest moral aspect: governments frequently like to invoke their impoverished subjects as “proof” that they – that is: the ruling masters with their national state – are actually the real victims of the imperialist world order. This is their helpless as well as perfidious moral argument for their desire to be admitted to a more significant role in this world order. The abstraction of “nation” is of dual use: It names both the human material being controlled by the state power, as well as the state power itself, including its agents, as there is a government, members of parliament, commanders of the armed forces, etc. “Nation” makes an equation between the subjects and the power which subjects them. This forced marriage doesn’t really indicate that it was just what these formerly colonialized masses were in need of: First, they were defined as people by foreign oppressors, and then they were blessed with a “free nation” – something similar, but with guaranteed native rulers. The matter doesn’t improve if we consider that it has a third side: of course it’s possible to convince black and yellow-skinned races to also take pride in “their” authority and their territory – and even make them vote – after all, why should they be immune to this achievement of civilization? However, this only proves that national consciousness is stupid wherever it is being cultivated, just as in the case of BMW workers celebrating their local customs or the proletarian Social Democratic Party voters in the Ruhr district.

One must therefore decide whether one wants to help free the foreign victims of imperialism from their situation or wants to advocate that the “oppressed people” should become a “free nation.” The latter is of no benefit to the affected masses, nor does it harm modern imperialism. Under American guidance, the whole UN agreed to grant all former colonies the right to national autonomy – this was and is a guideline and ideology of imperialist utilization of countries and peoples as never before.

Nationalism is not a means against imperialism

You have cited the few exceptions to this world-political rule of the last two and a half decades. First, the most recent movements for the founding of a state, so far unsuccessful – one of them, the PLO, having failed because of the oldest “national liberation movement,” fostered from the very beginning by US imperialism: the successful Zionism. Secondly, three successful revolutionary movements have occurred to you which have not pursued the goal of a “free nation,” and therefore also have not been admitted to the normal imperialist business dealings. The Vietnamese communists, Fidel Castro’s team and also the Sandinistas somewhat have not only imported the nationalist lie into their country, which has remained or turned into the alpha and omega of all other “national liberation movements”: the ideology that the given situation of the masses cannot be changed for better just – and in the very end only – because they are lacking their “own” state power which autonomously and freely dictates its subjects’ conditions of existence. Insofar as the aforementioned three movements have brought about communism, they also still to some extent depend on the material application of the seized state power for the welfare of the people, not only on its costly sovereignty; on an application which not only gets rid of the colonialist “oppression,” but also the “helpful” (for the state coffers) access of imperialistic interested parties to the nationally emancipated land and people – or at least hinders it, if it cannot completely do away with it.

For this reservation towards pure nationalism, the Vietnamese are punished with a war, the Cubans are fought, the Nicaraguans are placed under a very real threat of war: in this way, the imperialistic opponent identifies people with state power; it lets the masses atone for the fact that their state does not use them up purely for national ambition, which in all three cases would have been easier to satisfy in cooperation with the USA. In other words, with the questions in your letter: what actually distinguishes Fidel Castro from the revolutionary patriotism of a Shah of Iran? Perhaps the “dream” of an equal and recognized nation?!

In short: nationalism is nowhere and in no form a means against imperialism, much less a recipe for the well-being of the masses, which nowhere in the world can be in accord with the well-being of the nation!

Distinctions in nationalism

which you remind us of – without saying what they are supposed to consist in – are incidentally quite noteworthy. Finally, a few remarks concerning this matter:

a) Nationalism from above is the calculatingly used ideal legitimate claim of the state leadership to the absolute allegiance of its citizens; a loyalty to the actual government policy, in the name of a higher “general loyalty,” beyond all political differences. Its counterpart from below consists in a belief in such an absolute duty; a belief which is thought to be elevated over the particular purpose of a specific leadership and which nevertheless has no other content than the actual and real concerns of the state.

b) Right-wing nationalism regards the human material of a state power first of all as its weapon against internal and external enemies. In this fight for national self-assertion, it sees the basis for the right to exist and the viability of the thus committed people – the “national identity.” Its left-wing counterpart considers the commitment of all social classes towards a unifying state power as the primary means of livelihood, overarching life-purpose and highest honor of all citizens. Even the otherwise “humiliated and downtrodden” must not be deprived of this honor. It considers a social peace of a united people beyond all class antagonisms as the best possible guarantee for the continuance of the nation, especially in the most severe international competition.

c) “Mature” nationalism is to be found in the modern bourgeois democratic states. It is the elementary ideology for a people made up of politically and economically comprehensively used citizens, who want to find their livelihood by participating in it – and who act out of their own free will as self-conscious agents of the class society established by their state. For states which aren’t so lucky, this well-ordered relation between state authority and human material is an ideal, and at best a hopeful project. In these states, the ideology of national unity of state leadership with its followers, as well as the idea of a national right – as expressed in a constitution – that is binding for both sides, remains incomplete (as a monarch or dictator personalizes power and therefore lacks the distance that only democratic rule can create between state power and people).

d) The case of “a people whose nation has been destroyed by another state in order to be able to oppress/exploit it better” occurs to you. What do you think about it? Where in modern times has a national authority, the subsumption of society to a nation state, been a protective shield against violence and exploitation? Exactly the opposite comes to mind for us: that Adolf Hitler described the situation in Germany under the “Treaty of Versailles” exactly this way. He referred to his war against the more successful imperialist nations as well as against the Soviet Union, which he regarded as an object of prey, as the “struggle for the liberation of Greater Germany.” And quite rightly so: that’s exactly what it is all about if a government sets out to liberate its people from national oppression.

– MSZ Editors