Nationalism’s Limitations in Light of Its (Dark) Dreams. (archives 2012)

“Let us consider the case of a country composed of several national groups, e.g. Poles, Lithuanians and Jews. Each national group would create a separate movement. All citizens belonging to a given national group would join a special organisation that would hold cultural assemblies in each region and a general cultural assembly for the whole country. The assemblies would be given financial powers of their own: either each national group would be entitled to raise taxes on its members, or the state would allocate a proportion of its overall budget to each of them. Every citizen of the state would belong to one of the national groups, but the question of which national movement to join would be a matter of personal choice and no authority would have any control over his decision. The national movements would be subject to the general legislation of the state, but in their own areas of responsibility they would be autonomous and none of them would have the right to interfere in the affairs of the others”. – Vladimir Medem, Social democracy and the national question, 1904.

The question of nations is about the locus of conflict and the basis of community. The nation, which was always an imagined community, was rooted in something very real, almost organic: kinship, family, language, and history.  Indeed, nation had the appeal of both the mythic and biologic: it was the perfect subject for an ideology.  I still see strong evidence that some form of social homogeneity is necessary as the experiences of Korea, Japan, and the Northern European social democracies  as well as the research of Robert Putnam on many matters, but I have a hard time calling the kind of socialism I advocate a “national” socialism.  In fact, it is kind of Hegelian communitarianism in a communist form.  I, unlike many libertarian communists, refuse to condemn left nationalism outright as inherently “class collaboration” but I admit that it has had a strong historical linkage to  fascism.   Indeed, Ze’ev Sternhall is the clearest on this:  the nationalist impulses of fascism are rooted in left nationalism as much as right anti-Enlightenment thought, although that is definitely present.   In almost every case, the left fascists, national syndicalists, and national anarchists are marginalized and the nations are cop-oped in the name of the state. Indeed, in our contemporary parlance, the idea of nation (which is now typically called ethnicity) is utterly mixed up with the nation-state, which now should more probably just be called the state as single nation states within “capitalism” do exist exist in relatively small and remote places mostly in South and East Asia.

But it’s important to remember why the locus of nationalism as a site of resistence was important, and its locus was within the sovereign nation state. As Benedict Anderson says in Imagined Communities:

[T]he concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm. Coming to maturity at a stage of human history when even the most devout adherents of any universal religion were inescapably confronted with the living pluralism of such religions, and the allomorphism [direct relationship] between each faith’s ontological claims and territorial stretch, nations dream of being free, and, if under God, directly so. The gage and emblem of this freedom is the sovereign state. (pp. 6-7)

Yet, as Anderson points out, even the nation is not a family or a tribe, and its history is not entirely biologic. Nations are imagined communities:

“is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”

What one sees in Medem’s notions in light of the Bund sound very close to those articulated by Troy Southgate on the right, New Resistance in the far “middle,” but also dreams of intentional communities of the left and syndicates of the Republican Spanish revolution.  Internationalism was the idea that within a totality, in classical Marxism still involving the state after the the fall of Paris Commune, nations would be respected. Like the Soviets and the pluralities within Lenin’s early political development.  This came out of two reasons: one) It became obvious that no nation could stand up to zeitgeist produced by a capitalist mode of production and from a liberal hegemony on culture,  and two) productions modes required for the populations of nations already required resources beyond the scope of most national groups.

Now in the advanced states of this current zeitgeist in both in cultural and social industries, which have merged the “economicism” of the old left analysis and the “culturalism” in a new left analysis, because even culture has become a consumer product.  Perhaps, THE consumer product as it is no longer limited by a commodity fetish, but just a substitute for the intentional community.Nationalism seems like a necessary and understandable response, but not enough of one.  What one needs is something more total in scope and closer to Dunbar’s number in practice.  Nothing the “new” left produced, or tried to go back to be it the Paris Commune, has   been able to handle that dialectic.  Nor have a seen nationalists really posit answers to that other that: Collapse!

Collapse happens in complex systems, so it’s not something to completely rule out.  But like the Immerisation thesis attributed to Marx by the early social Democrats, there is nothing automatic about any of it.   Yet, there is a logic, as Tainter indicated in his Collapse of Complex societies, which can be paraphrased as such: complex societies break down when increasing complexity results in negative marginal returns.  The zeitgeist has its limits. Then again, one must be honest: nationalism is itself a product of the zeitgeist and has its own mythic qualities just like the teleology of Stalinist determinism or the obvious myth of the divine right of Kings.  So even this may not be an out.

As Adorno has said: Identity is the Ur-form of ideology.   Yet, we have found no entirely unmitigated and unideological means of being. In fact, it is ideological relationships, and symbolic orders that can give on the social stability hoped for in the nation.  But nations themselves grow more complex, and their contradictions become obvious. Take the historical example of the Jewish people:  we now know that the genetics and archaeology give us no evidence that the Jews were anything other than Canaanites. The same as the ancients of Palestinians. Furthermore, tensions within Temple Jewish society led both to the creation of Pharisaic Judaism and the creation of Gnostic forms and Apocalyptic forms of Judaism which became Christianity, which had its internal contradictions.  Hegel’s idealism allows us to see this as a pattern.  Badiou picks up on that pattern. We can see it through out time.

We all fear the Endstaat that we hope for, but the contradictions can give rise to a freedom and a less alienated way of being. Liberal modernity producing lack of the confidence in the elected official of most nation states or empires more properly understood, producing irrationalism that mirror rationalism not the traditionalism before, etc all make it look like if liberal modernity is the Endstaat, it is a grime one indeed.

To fight out way out of this dialectic will lead us to a new one, but totalities can implode from their own weight. Productions can exhaust themselves, and instead of sublating into in a new form, the structures of social organization (and that of the thoughts produced in them) can shatter.

Nationalism, honestly, doesn’t answer this.  It’s neither a small enough nor a large enough dream NOW, in our history, and in our time.  This is the point where Hegel and Nietzsche may indeed look into the other’s monster and see themselves.

So I don’t condemn left nationalism anymore than I would condemn any movement in history against the regressive and destructive nature of the current, but I must say honestly, I don’t think it is the answer.


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