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Nationalism and Universalism Again

Daniel Larison's exchange with Richard Spencer which I mentioned earlier has continued here, here, and here.

In his latest, DL argues that, contrary to first appearances, communism was no more "singular and monolithic for the purposes of general discussion and definition" than nationalism. He plays down the unity of communism: "communist movements were not part of an undifferentiated whole, but differed according to national character and reprised old national rivalries among themselves." And he plays up the unity of nationalism: "[o]f course, every nationalism is different in certain ways and bears the characteristics of the people who espouse it, but nationalists tend to have many basic assumptions in common that allows us to describe them as nationalists" - assumptions that he goes on to list.

Trouble is, there's an equivocation here on what sort of unity he has in mind. On the one hand, an historical force can be more or less "singular and monolithic" in the way it acts in the world. On the other hand, it can be more or less conceptually "singular and monolithic."

In the passage just quoted, DL moves too glibly from the one to the other. He points out, quite rightly, that, in practice, communists were not always unified - precisely because of the persistence among them of atavistic national differences and rivalries. Then he observes, again quite rightly, that the word "nationalism" means much the same thing, from case to case.

All true - but so what? Let's compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges. On the one hand, is communism more, or less, "singular and monolithic" than nationalism in the way it acts in the world? On the other hand, is communism more, or less conceptually "singular and monolithic" than nationalism?

The second question is relatively academic, but I'd venture to award the palm for conceptual unity to communism. The kind of communism we're interested in here - the kind that became a historical force - is Marxist communism. And though the various schools of Marxism differed on all sorts of points of detail, Leninists and Trotskyists and Stalinists and Maoists etc. all inherited the same set of defining core beliefs from Marx himself.

Nationalism, on the other hand, is much messier. DL lists various "basic assumptions" that nationalists "tend to have":

"There is first of all a desire for political sovereignty more or less coterminous with the boundaries of one’s people or the historic territories once inhabited or ruled by that people or by their dynastic masters, and then a common exaltation of and identification with the state as the vehicle for national ambitions once that sovereignty has been established. There is also a progressive reading of history in which the slumbering, divided nation awoke to its true purpose and mission, which are usually revealed through wars of liberation or wars of unification in which the recalcitrant members of 'the nation' who did not wish to be united to the new state were subjugated, and their regional and linguistic distinctiveness suppressed as much as possible. Their resistance is typically condemned in terms of being corrupted by foreign influence or as ideological deviationism from the reigning ideology of the nation-state, which in most early nationalist movements was liberalism, in post-WWII nationalist movements was often communism and in most post-1990 nationalist movements is at least lip service to 'liberal democracy.'"

Well. If this is meant as no more than an empirical generalization about characteristics that nationalist movements of the past have tended to share, then I can only defer to the historians. But if it is meant as anything like a definition of nationalism, I find it thoroughly counterintuitive. The only thing on DL's list that particularly tempts me is the first: "a desire for political sovereignty more or less coterminous with the boundaries of one’s people" - and it seems to me that that is, all by iself, enough to make me an American nationalist, even if I reject everything else on the list. I mean, heck - I don't even think that much is necessary to make someone a nationalist, in a minimal sense. All that takes, I think, is simple partiality toward one's own country and its people in preference to others.

But all that is, as I say, relatively academic. The big question here is the first one: "is communism more, or less, 'singular and monolithic' than nationalism in the way it acts in the world?" And here I would say that communism wins hands down. After all: nationalism, even in the minimal sense I've just suggested, is necessarily a force opposed to international unity, because each nation's nationalism absolutely forbids it to submit to the domination of any other nation or of the international community as a whole. Thus the German nationalism exploited by the Nazis was inevitably constrained by the competing nationalisms of England, France, Russia, the U.S., etc.

Soviet communism, by contrast, despite the defections of Yugoslavia and China, led to a relatively long lasting international coalition, extending into our own hemisphere, and backed by a nuclear arsenal that gave it greater potential ability to project its power against us than the Nazis ever dreamed of.

Moreover, the way that communism acts on internal governance was always far more "singular and monolithic" - and far more dire - than in the case of nationalism. Marxism is, to put it mildly, quite interested in internal socio-economic arrangements, and it quite consistently and predictably leads to tyranny and misery wherever it comes to power. By contrast, nationalism, qua nationalism, has very little to say about such things, and is compatible with all sorts of arrangements - including, of course, communism itself.

Finally: DL makes much of the "dependence of universalist ideologies on nationalist enthusiasms to provide the grounding and emotional attachments necessary to give such abstract fictions meaning." But I think this point - fair enough, as far as it goes - needs a couple of correctives. In the first place, I don't think communism was quite as bereft of natural appeal as DL, following Lukacs, suggests. Not all natural attachments and loyalties and resentments are based on commonalities of place. There are also natural commonalities of socioeconomic class. And communism makes a very direct appeal to class attachments and loyalties and, especially, resentments - often with devastating effect. In the second place, instead of saying that the "dependence of universalist ideologies on nationalist enthusiasms" is proof of their weakness, why not say that the adeptness of universalist ideologies at manipulating nationalist enthusiasms is evidence of their strength?

Just as the communist elite learned to exploit the nationalism of the masses to their own ideological ends, so, one might say, the neoconservative elite in Washington before the present war learned to exploit the nationalism of the American public in pursuit of their grand project of universal "democratization." And in each case, the universalist elite were the "who" of Lenin's famous question, and the nationalist masses were the "whom."

Comments (1)

This contrasting of nationalism with internationalism leaves us oddly in the position Stalin and his 1940 ally wanted us in: either 'social fascism' or internationalism. By building up Nationalism as the contender, a dillema gets smuggled into place. The alternatives of national loyalty, principled nationalism and others, are all too conveniently left out of the accounts of what is possible. All this has the effect of averting awareness away from the inescapable facts of the world; that loyalty to nation is the only one which has sovereignty. Sovereignty implies more than one polity in the world. It's about the relation of polities among other things.

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