Nationalism and Planetary Revolution
BY BILL DUNNE
I appreciate 4strugglemag editor Jaan Laaman’s willingness to print my article, Sri Lanka: The Lessons of Others, which included some controversial conclusions about nationalism and nationalist struggle. I also appreciate his willingness to begin some debate on certain practical and theoretical points I raised and argued. Our side of the barricade needs this discussion as living standards fall and discontent and consciousness rise, driven by the ruling class rapacity in plundering the economy into deep recession. Rising discontent and consciousness is a recipe for a resurgent revolutionary movement and action. As we accelerate down the road to revolution, however, we must be sure we have chosen the correct road and the action we lay down is the most effective possible. The ruling class has learned from the last three score and ten years of struggle against it and developed new strategies of exploitation and oppression to maintain its hegemony. We, the people, must also adopt new strategies of struggle or our new wave of resistance will merely break on a rocky shore and recede.
In “Sri Lanka: The Lessons of Others,” I asked the rhetorical question, “What are revolutionaries talking about when they talk about nations?” Jaan responded that the revolutionary as well as the modern scientific definition is a people with: 1) common history/language/culture; 2) common economic relationships; 3) a common or shared land mass. Such a succinct and objective definition leaves a lot of room for interpretation and question.
How common a history is necessary for, or demands, nationhood? All humanity as well as various subdivisions thereof share a history. Italians, for example, share a history, but Italy was preceded by independent nation states whose citizens considered themselves Genoans, Venetians, etc. A generation from now, Italians may consider themselves Europeans if and as a European Union identification supplants an Italian identity, much as the Italian one supplanted the Genoan, etc. Indians are already farther down that road, having integrated many languages, cultures, and histories into one nation. Indeed, all humanity shares a common history, culture (all except a few fringers listen to music, love their children, enjoy the company of others, and grow and cook food, etc), and language (virtually all humans converse and do it in similar ways – subject, verb, object, etc). So which aspects of history/culture/language are more important, more likely to result in the anti-imperial capital revolution we all need, the smaller, more exclusive interpretations that divide us, or the larger, more inclusive interpretations that unite us?
Regarding the second part of the nation definition, common economic relationship, again, how common is necessary to constitute or demand a nation? When speculators gambling on Wall Street can crash “national” economies on the other side of the world, or food on my prison tray in eastern Kentucky comes from India, there are pretty serious economic relationships common to virtually everyone. When even the most robust economies grow at far lower percentages than the percentage of their domestic product dependent on exports, the common relationship is extensive for everyone. And when quality of life in so many places is dependent on materials or products that cannot be produced there, the relationship is at least important to everyone involved in making that quality what it is. Conversely, competitive relations exist between nations that damage at least one side in ways that do not occur within nations. Such relationships allow nationals of one nation to accede to the exploitation and oppression of class brethren and sistren across artificial boundaries. So what about economic relationships determines where and how national lines are drawn – or even that they should be drawn?
With respect to common land mass, one more time, how common is necessary for, or demands, a nation? If there is a minority of different language/culture/history/economics sharing the same area, do its members constitute a nation? Or is the common nation different than the nations of the people who cohabit it? How is who “belongs” where determined, given human mobility? Humans today can be traced back to the Rift Valley in Africa. What does or should that say about who is entitled to be in what land nowadays? How long must people be in a place for national tenure to vest? If members of a nation leave a common area for places occupied by or claimed by (an)other nation(s), are they still the same nation – or any nation? What about the receiving nation(s)? Does “nation” mean that someone(s) born elsewhere cannot become a national of geography (and/or culture, economy, whatever) s/he prefers? Can s/he be banished for not having been born there? How about his or her children or their children? The most progressive answers to these questions require elimination of national borders for people.
These and other questions – and some of their answers playing out in the here and now – illustrate that saying what revolutionaries are talking about when talking about nations is not as easy as merely stating an objective definition. They also illustrate that we can just as easily define a human nation and a broad movement to liberate it as we can, say, a Chadian, Chinese, Canadian, etc. nation. Doing that would not require anyone to surrender his or her “national” identity, just assume a larger identity, the same as say, a German identity does not make one less a Bavarian or North-Rhine-Westphalian – or prevent the German from assuming a European identity as a member of the European Union. What defining a human nation also does is put our overwhelming commonality as humans ahead of minor differences circumstances have engendered to distinguish us. In turn, that allows us to unify the class we share on the basis of that commonality to overthrow the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie that afflicts us. That dictatorship already recognizes no national boundaries for its interests and uses them as instruments of divide and rule and to keep us penned in and pitted against each other. Attempts to organize on the basis of ethnic, racial, geographic, economic, whatever differences play into those uses whereas organizing for and on the basis of common vision thwarts them.
Jaan takes a moment to talk about the history and origin of nation states and how they grew in the last few hundred years out of feudalism, which, in turn, grew out of tribal relationships. People came to see themselves as members of these nation states much as they had previously seen themselves as belonging to various tribes and kingdoms and even empires. This was social evolution. Where tribal relations could no longer manage the relations of larger and more complex society, feudal relations emerged to supplant them. Testament to feudalism’s efficacy at doing so in feudalism’s conditions, time and place is the extent to which feudalism replaced tribalism. Many tribal people fought courageously to preserve the way of life to which they were committed and felt they could not be whole without, but tribalism did not give them the tools to win. Society continued to expand and develop and become more sophisticated under feudalism in ways to which feudalism could not adapt. Hence, bourgois nation states based on industry and money that would manage the development pushed feudalism aside. Many knights in shining armor and loyal subjects of the realm leapt valiantly into the breach for kind and country and a way of life they thought preserved the world from darkness and chaos. But feudalism could not compete against the legions of proletarian conscripts armed with mass-produced rifles by bourgeois fat-cats with no titles or nobility but plenty of money and factories.
The fat-cats took over the nation states and manipulated their political, social, and physical boundaries through politics, economics, war, and imperialism in their own interests – not the interests of the subjects, now citizens – of the nations. The fat-cats sold the people that within those boundaries of the nation they were somehow inherently different, better, and in competition with the people without the borders. Through nation-building and maintenance, elites got people to identify with the elites and their definition of a nation’s culture rather than their class sistren and brethren and their own material interests. As Jaan notes, the level of exploitation and oppression inflicted by the generally small elites that controlled – and control – virtually all of these nations varied – and varies – greatly. The ruling class in some of these nations used the identification it built with itself and the nation not only to suppress class consciousness at home, but to wage wars of aggression abroad and make themselves empires.
Colonial “subjects” naturally and rightly rebelled against imperial masters, especially when they were exploited and oppressed and relegated to permanent second class status. Colonial masters had to maintain the mythology of imperial country superiority to get their own proletarian common fodder to do the exploiting and oppressing. But what model did the victims of colonialism have around which to organize their resistance? Nationalism! To some extent the choice was imposed on them: the conditions for anti-colonial revolution did not emerge at the same time in all colonies. So national liberation was built as the primary path to a revolutionary social change; it was more or less progressive to the extent that most of the struggles included class and socialist consciousness, and it did change the societies the imperialists had presided over in fundamental ways. Untold numbers of committed people fought and died heroically in national liberation struggles to bring self-determination and the attendant freedom to the people of the nation. Indeed, we look to many of those heroes and heroines as examples of dedication and committed praxis as we strive to put in our own work toward a revolutionary vision.
But nationalism has brought the benefits of revolutionary struggle to precious few and has not ushered in an age of proletarian solidarity. Verily, the last 65 years of national liberation have shown that nationalism is now at the spot feudalism was at the advent of the modern nation state: incapable of changing fast enough to keep up with the development of human society, and ready to give way to the next big thing. Nor does that apply only to nations that emerged through anti-colonial national struggles in recent times. Financial, industrial, and energy instability and upheaval shows social development is outstripping the system of nation states’ ability to manage.
So, yes, nations have characterized the last few hundred years of human history. And, yes, the world is currently characterized by nation states. Finally, yes, people have been taught to identify with these nations as if they did not belong to the same species or class (in the political, not taxonomic, sense), as if we, the people, were not all humans, as if the real contradictions were not between two classes to each of which belong members of every nationality, as if the vision of a revolutionary, socialist, planetary, human nation were not possible.
But so what? All that does not mean we are stuck with nations and nationalism any more than the tribalists were stuck with tribalism or feudal subjects with feudalism. And just like the tribalists and feudalists lost through reliance on strategies whose time was past, if the revolutionary movement sticks to national liberation as its primary strategy, it is likely to lose, too.
That nationalism is obsolescent as a revolutionary strategy is thus manifest. Where has it resulted in revolutionary socialist government with the exception of Cuba and, possibly, Vietnam? Those two are beleaguered by capitalism and have not been able to advance the struggle. Some countries may call themselves communist or socialist, but their economies are unduly influenced or characterized by capitalism. Most “liberated” nations are strong-man or otherwise autocratic regimes, and some have even backslid into hereditary dictatorships. Some look more fascistic than progressive communist/socialist. Moreover, capitalism has learned how to penetrate “independent” nations with a neoimperialism that uses local elites instead of garrisons to administer colonial economies in its image and likeness – which is all the imperial capitalists really care about. Those local elites have an incentive to magnify and aggravate national consciousness because that makes them valuable to the neoimperialists who hold the purse strings.
Encouraging people to view their identity as something narrow and exclusive (national) first and foremost, and revolutionary only second, sets up the conditions in which we can be picked off one by one. All the nations prioritizing their own national liberation will not chisel away at imperial capital’s hegemony; the global ruling class will just sit back and wait to coopt the new bosses – or isolate them into ineffectiveness if they are sufficiently tractable – one at a time. Only occasionally will they have to send the gunboats – and they can usually do that longer and better than isolated national liberation struggles can resist. More necessary as a revolutionary strategy is a political praxis that integrates rather than segregates.
We, the people, working on proletarian revolution wherever we can most effectively do so across the globe, the same struggle in many places, is what will do the deed. Nationalism and national liberation will still have their uses. That is why I described them as obsolescent – on their way to becoming obsolete. In trying to build revolutionary consciousness, we have to start where the people are. And sometimes given conditions, time, and place will make a national liberation struggle a good tactic (as opposed to strategy). While they thus might have an occasional role, it would only incidentally be with the end of a country’s liberation and sovereignty. It will be more as part of a process in which a planetary revolutionary movement protests a G20 summit here, creates increasingly free zones of collective living and working endeavors that replace bourgeois economic relations with popular institutions there, publishes a newspaper or broadcasts elsewhere, supports militant labor struggles in another place, and, yes, liberates the territory of a nation (and maybe several) where that is the most effective and possible action for those conditions, and that time, and that place. All the elements of this movement will be there for all the others; they will not merely be a conglomerate of fellow travelers or only allies or less. But as a main thrust or strategy, nationalism’s time is done. It’s time for a planetary, socialist, democratic, popular revolution.
I heartily agree with Jaan that “[t]he struggle for the future is certainly a struggle for the working class of all nations to get rid of their own capitalist misleaders – rulers, and to establish the democratic rule of the working class and majority of people for their own common interests, in line with the similar majority common interests of people in other countries. In order for the world to survive and thrive, this has to be our future.” I do not think, however, that the new culture of struggle where all the world’s people see themselves as class sistren and brethren with whom to relate on the basis of socialist, democratic mutual aid (as opposed to locked in cutthroat competition with other nations from which the “national” elites benefit) and in which countries are mere administrative provinces to ensure devolved power in a planetary human nation will evolve out of internally focused, separatist national struggles. History supports this conclusion: nowhere have liberated nations successfully merged into an enduring proletarian republic capable of defending itself and supporting class struggle everywhere.
Yes, people and nations must come together, but saying they first must separate and distinguish themselves into nominally equal entities is more likely to impede that coming together. If people can’t come together as proletarians, why would they as different nationalities? That is like saying there are intrinsic differences among humans that cannot be bridged and there can’t be a true coming together as a class. I reject that notion. We will certainly have caucuses, organizations, and groups within the movement to insure no individual or identifiable group is disenfranchised in the normal ebb and flow of our interactions. But to say this demonstrates inherent separateness and inability to avoid oppressive behavior is to deny the possibility of revolution.
Yes, nationalism could be a lot of things. The fact, though, is it tends to be an impediment to the unity we, the people, need. Many wars that are not for liberation or self-determination have been fought in the name of nationalism. And nowadays, the global ruling class uses nations to keep people corralled, to better exploit them and play them against the prisoners of other nations. Capital and trade derived from the working class’ labor and expropriated by the ruling class is free to move around the world virtually unimpeded, but labor – our class’ trade good and capital – is hemmed in by borders. Jaan is correct in saying that many people still identify with these nations despite the liabilities and that the world is still characterized by them. But that doesn’t make them worthy of preservation, just as feudalism and fascism are not. Revolution is about overthrowing oppressive relations, not seeking to work within them.
The dichotomy is thus: Is a revolutionary strategy – THE revolutionary strategy – diving into nationalism, and fomenting and intensifying and encouraging everyone to assume national identity as their primary identity, so the resulting many nations can then each break with imperialism and then, perhaps, capitalism as each is able? Or do we unite all the victims of imperial capital into a powerful, internationalist, proletarian, revolutionary movement that can and will abolish imperial capital and divisive nationalism in favor of a new planetary paradigm? I think the answer is apparent.