A century after the Bolshevik revolution: Can there be a left-wing nationalism?


By Daniele Conversi¹.

In The Communist Manifesto (1848), Marx and Engels famously consider: The Communists are further reproached with desiring to abolish countries and nationality. The working men have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got. There is an immanent truth in this prescription: if nations are identified as bourgeois constructs, then their ideology nationalism can only be a tool for advancing the interests of the bourgeoisie. Such a recommendation, however, had to be compromised by realpolitik. After the triumph of the post-1918 Wilsonian Leninist world order based on national self-determination, national identity remained the hidden face behind Soviet institutional internationalism (Connor 1984).

As we know, the Bolshevik revolution couched itself in internationalist terms, but never renounced nationalism in its daily practices. Indeed, the very term self-determination was emblazoned in the Soviet constitutional make-up. In contrast to Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) frontally attacked the bourgeois  principle of self-determination since it gives no practical guidelines for the day to day  politics of the proletariat, nor any practical solution of nationality problems (Luxemburg 1908: 109). The duty to resist all forms of national oppression does not include any explanation of what conditions and political forms the class-conscious proletariat in Russia at the present time should recommend as a solution for the nationality  problems of Poland, Latvia, the Jews, etc., or what program it should present to match the various programs of the bourgeois, nationalist, and pseudosocialist  parties in the present class struggle. In a word, the formula, the right of nations to self-determination, is essentially not a political and problematic guideline in the nationality question, but only a means of avoiding that question (Luxemburg 1908: 110). Significantly, Luxemburg was jailed for having opposed World War I, and then executed. She remained among a few within the Left who did not pander to the seduction of nationalism. As demonstrated by the post-Soviet nationalities literature, the Left tends to lose out to nationalism in the event of a competition between the two. Attempts to explain this change of tack often links it to the Janus-faced character of nationalism as the dominant ideology of the modern age, consistently associated with the broader ideological framework of political modernism (Conversi 2012).

Since the end of the Cold War, a political earthquake has shaken the previous LeftRight distinction to the core. After a brief interlude in the 1980s and early 1990s in which part of the European Left, notably the French Socialist Party, contributed a rich debate in search of a new pluralist vision of national identity (Martigny 2016), the mainstream Left capitulated to the seductions of neoliberal globalization.

The Third Way adopted by European leading Left parties allegedly aimed to reconcile capitalism with socialism. In the process, incumbent labour, socialist, and social-democratic governments adopted both laissez faire capitalism and forms of banal nationalism (Billig 1995) grounded in practices of everyday life (Certeau 1984) and  perceptions of everyday nationhood (Fox and Miller-Idriss 2008) which, in the case of Britains New Labour, moved into new and not-so-subtle forms of imperialism. These trends have served to reassert the importance of nationalism and nationhood in the global arena. However, they also posed a crucial question: How can these governments and parties still be perceived as pertaining to the Left, with and despite their nationalism, imperialism and pandering to the obscure forces of global capital? The distinction between Left and Right has, it seems, tended to evaporate both theoretically and in popular perception. Traditional Left-wing supporters have thus felt defrauded and have increasingly turned to the nationalist Right. Such a legitimacy crisis has ushered in what I have called demo-skepticism, a general discontent and grand disillusion with the very notion of liberal democracy (Conversi 2006). The ClintonBlair embrace of extreme neoliberalism left the door open for the Right to fill the subsequent legitimacy vacuum and the loss of state representativeness, often stemming from the negative impact of neoliberal policies.


Can there be a left-wing nationalism?

Scholars of nationalism have long argued about whether nationalism still makes sense in the contemporary world or whether we live in a post-ethnic (Martiniello 2001) or post-national era (Delanty 2006; both cited in Edwards 2009: 177; Hobsbawn 2006). As the late Anthony D. Smith has taught us, these visions did not take into account the way ethnic myths, narratives, beliefs and symbols often predate the modern advent of nationalism and therefore can hardly disappear overnight (Smith 1996; 1998; 1999). In fact, nationalism shows no sign of declining in the near future and its prevaricating  prominence has indeed been reinforced in the age of globalization (Conversi 2009; Nairn and James 2005).

At the same time, an ominous decline in public discourse and political legitimacy points to the possible advent of a new age of conflict in which, in a re-run of 100 years ago, history risks spinning out of control (Ghosh 2016; Gray 2008; Mishra 2017): According to Harry Leslie Smith, neoliberalism has brought us into an illusory cul-de-sac in which international war is more likely now than in 1914 or 1939 (Smith 2017). And, of course, it may be a nuclear or biological war, therefore incalculably more destructive Ð while neoliberal pundits never grow tired of arguing to the contrary.

However, even if war and terrorism do not spin out of control, the clearest evidence of a radical, profound, perhaps irreversible, crisis of capitalism comes from the hard sciences the social sciences still being ill-equipped for such a gigantic task. When over 97 per cent of cross-disciplinary scientific research agrees about the anthropogenic causation of climate change (Cook et al . 2013), one should be astute enough to read between the lines and grasp a radical indictment of the viability of the capitalist system as we know it.

Has the Left renounced nationalism forever after the two world wars? Has it thus consigned the most powerful ideology of the modern age to the Right? There has been no shortage of attempts to combine the Left with nationalism. Most prominently, in France the Left attempted not just to reinvent itself but also French national identity. It did so by responding to the challenges and vagaries brought about by incipient globalization and, along the way, rediscovered and reconceptualised the identit(ies) of France (Martigny 2016). However, the pervasiveness of globalization froze these discussions and blocked their implementation in widely agreed public policies.

Globalization has led to wide-ranging changes in the relationship between place and  power and, over the years, both nationalism/patriotism and the Left-Right dichotomy have been profoundly altered. The ensuing unprecedented, abrupt socioeconomic changes point towards a new and unforeseeable liquid scenario (Bauman 2007) in an age that has the potential to be the terminal age for humankind.

The question is whether, under such historical conditions, there can be a consistent form of Leftist nationalism as is developing among several nations without a state and indigenous peoples across the world. This wouldnt be anything exceedingly new: since the heyday of anti-colonialism, nationalism has reacquired a leftist image Ð and, as we have seen, nationalism was originally associated with liberalism and democracy. However, the relations of power are not the same today as they were at the time of the end of absolutism. As Piketty has shown with a wealth of data, the contemporary  predicament is much more similar to that of the Belle époque preceding World War I. Hence, a nationalism of the Left would be at least as equally suicidal today as it was 100 years ago Ð without considering the range of formidable new threats confronting humankind. On the other hand, to renounce nationalism in the name of cosmopolitan  principles, although placing oneself on morally higher ground, would mean offering the Right a monopoly of the most potent contemporary ideology of mass mobilization Ð and one without which neoliberalism would probably be doomed. This is one of the major dilemmas political elites face today.

¹ Daniele Conversi. University of the Basque Country/ Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea (EHU/UPV), Basque Foundation for Science.


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