Max Compton: We Must Not Be Seduced By Nationalism

Image Credit: Franklin Crawford

In response to the ethno-nationalisms ascendant around the world, many on the left are arguing for ‘reinfusing the left with patriotism’ and pursuing a new ‘civic nationalism’, centred on noble progressive traditions that can unite all citizens. This, to them, marks the path of least resistance to reclaiming lost ground from the right, and in this time of urgent desperation they say we must take it. That argument’s fatal flaw is that nationalism of any kind constitutes a path leading in entirely the wrong direction.

The argument tends to run as follows: the nation state is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Civic nationalism of some kind is the only viable alternative to ethnic-majoritarian nationalism that is available to us. In white, or Hindu, or Turkish or what-have-you majority countries, we are confronted with a choice between racial tribalism and civic tribalism: nothing else has the requisite ‘libidinal pull’. If the left does not define an alternative understanding of national identity, the right will claim it entirely, and the battle will be irretrievably lost.

In the United Kingdom in the wake of Brexit, the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell – and, in the half-hearted, vacillating fashion that has characterised all his positions on Brexit – the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn have attempted to take the tack of advocating a ‘People’s Brexit’, and prognosticating a sunny future for an independent UK. In the United States, Bernie Sanders – both as a candidate for the Democratic nomination and still today – has been willing to buck the standard Democratic Party line in everything except his unquestioned America First-ism, while a staple of his speeches is banging on about jobs lost to China and Mexico, with little indication that he has given any real thought to the positions of Chinese and Mexican workers.

These arguments have some superficial pragmatic appeal. It seems at least distinctly possible, for example, that Sanders would not have achieved even his relative successes had he not taken such an uncritically America First and protectionist stance. But I would like now to dismantle the case for a leftwing nationalism, proceeding from the most fundamental objection.

I believe there is a more basic political axis than those of communism versus libertarian capitalism or anarchism versus totalitarianism. There is the question: should one’s deepest allegiance be to all human beings – and to all sentient life – or should it be exclusively (in every sense of the word) to those with whom one identifies, according to one’s favoured parameters of identification? It is my conviction that the former position is the heart and the soul of progressive politics.

The latter, conversely, is the essence of regressive politics. Nationalism of any and all kinds is a position inherently, by definition, allied with the latter. Nationalism as an ideology and patriotism as a sentiment by their very nature entail the alienation of certain groupings of humanity from others, whether along lines of race or citizenship: an ‘us versus them’ structuring of reality. They are therefore fundamentally, irredeemably and always wrong.

It follows from this that nationalism will forever be a terrain on which the right has the upper hand. Taking the purely ‘pragmatic’ view, now, one may consult one’s Sun Tzu and ask: is it ever a wise idea to fight an enemy on unfavourable terrain? The UK’s Telegraph, of all papers, recently produced a gem of pithy critique [pay wall]: the British Labour Party “have convinced people who are pro-Brexit that Labour are anti-Brexit – and convinced people who are anti-Brexit that Labour are pro-Brexit. Or, to put it another way: they’re alienating both the 52 per cent [who voted for Brexit] and the 48 per cent [who voted against it,] becoming the party of the 0 per cent.”

Furthermore, the terrible irony of the current historical moment is that we are seeing an international wave of ethno-nationalisms. Can that international tide be fought back by taking up against it the arms of any opposed nationalism? Or, as I believe, can that tide only be repelled by an international alliance of those around the world who repudiate this retreat into nationalisms altogether?

The British rapper Akala has recently made a valiant defence of the possibility of defining a patriotism that celebrates radical rather than oppressive traditions. The trouble is: you really can’t pick and choose. If you say the Chartists and the Suffragettes define Britishness, how can one prevent imperialism and aristocracy – and “whiteness” – from also being taken to define Britishness? You cannot claim one history without claiming its counterpart, and so you cannot ever quite unite people in terms of the one without uniting – or disuniting – them also in terms of that counterpart.

And defining a nation in terms of any valorised history suggests, intentionally or not, that there is something essential about the national character that accounts for that great history. There is no avoiding the implication, then, that immigrants from other countries with other histories might somehow dilute that national character, unless perhaps they are able and willing to ‘assimilate’ completely: an unjust, immoral and in any case impossible demand. Even if you define the national character in terms of the contributions of immigrants, past immigration is always conceived of distinctly from present and future immigration, because the former does not inspire fear of change and the unknown.

Another crucial point – one crucial enough all by itself: humanity literally faces extinction within this century as a result of anthropogenic climate change. More than half the planet’s other animal life has already been destroyed in the last four decades. The only thing that could possibly save us is international cooperation and endeavour. It is critical, therefore, that we struggle to swing the focus of global politics away from nationalisms and towards a true internationalism. Even if it were feasible to transition through civic nationalism back to internationalism, we cannot afford a great historical series of political movements before we reach a point at which nations can see far enough beyond their immediate self-interests to begin at last to work together on preserving a future for humanity and the other species with whom we share Earth.

For reasons principled, pragmatic and existential, we must oppose nationalism wholeheartedly. And, however improbable success might seem, we have no choice but to go all in for internationalism – or we consign ourselves to oblivion.

  1. Can we make an indexed repository of writings by historical internationalists on this site? One subject that lends itself to internationalist understanding is science, which is, perhaps uniquely today, more internationalist and collaborative than almost any other human endeavour.

  2. Indeed - and we are seeing the grievous cost to science of these resurgent nationalisms. Vital projects like ITER will wither and die if political internationalism cannot be bolstered. I think the case for internationalism must centrally include a case for international collaboration on scientific/technological projects designed to secure a better and a viable future for all. I don't know about an indexed repository: Wildcat is completely focused on original content for the time being. Something to bear in mind though.

  3. I'm not a nationalist, so while I'm with this in spirit, I can't help but think that this approach might need to address the question of UK politics more directly: what does this approach mean for the politics of Irish Republicanism, Scottish and Welsh nationalism etc .... Or, within the EU, the status of Catalonia in Spain. There's a traditional distinction between oppressor and oppressed nations that recognise that sometimes bourgeois nationalism is a progressive force, but this looks like a very crude distinction with which to face the concrete politics of historically articulated nation state formations. Facing the pressures of global environmentalism and species extinction is clearly a global problem, but is internationalism necessarily about co-operation between nations and in ways that require viable nations as modes of international representation? How is the solidarity of internationalism to be built if not through some new socialist international? Whose going to get the ball rolling on socialist internationalism if they aren't already in some national political party....

  4. Hi Drew – I should perhaps have made clearer that in this article I am targeting first and foremost the idea that the left should embrace nationalism as a reaction or countermeasure to the current wave of rightwing nationalisms. There are other situations of far longer standing in which the question is more fraught, though I personally do not see a conflict between being opposed to nationalism on the one hand, and in favour of nations that are incorporated into larger state formations (viz. Scotland's relation to the UK, Catalonia's to Spain) having the right to break away, and recognising that in some cases they may be well-advised to do so. I am, however, against the arguments for such secessions being formulated in nationalist terms – but there is no necessary reason that they should be. If the argument for Brexit had been, say, 'let's break away from the EU in favour of opening up our borders to the world and forging strong new alliances with the Global South', I would have been considerably better disposed to it. It is a shame that the SNP have that 'N' in their name, given the solid repudiations Sturgeon has issued against the nationalist evils arising elsewhere. But at this point, would it not be fair to say that the motivations of the people of Scotland for wishing to separate from England are less those of Scottish nationalism than those of Scotland being more internationalist in its inclinations than England, and not wanting to be dragged down by the latter into a pit of British nationalism?

    Also: while I am indeed always opposed to nationalism in all its forms, there are of course particular struggles between competing nationalisms in which one has clear moral superiority over the other, and should be supported as such.

    As for the question of whether nations are required as vectors for international cooperation – while I would like to see the end of the nation state altogether eventually, I'm not arguing here against nation states per se: I'm arguing against nationalism. A world of nationalist nation states can become a world of internationalist nation states, which could eventually give way to a post-nation state world in which the term 'internationalism' is redundant. The nation state can function as a locus of administration without conceiving of and propagandising itself as embodying a subset of humanity with a preconceived, shared identity whose collective interests always come before those of all others.

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