Saturday, November 23, 2013

Nations, the Nation-State, and Socialism

Nationalism is roundly condemned as being a right-wing aberration, however, in the United States this usually refers to the version of it found here, as opposed to that found in Europe. There are actually features of it in the European context, independent of atrocities like those that occurred in the Third Reich and in the former Yugoslavia, that make it not so easy to dismiss as a positive force.

I say that for the following: fundamentally, the nationalism of continental Europe was not based on the nation-state as it existed in France, England, and Spain, but on customs, geography, and language in common, and people who possessed these determining their own destiny without reference to any sort of autocratic monarchy that happened to possess their land.

The nation-state as it's usually referred to in these discourses is a descendent of the absolutist state, where a monarchy unified power in itself, taking it away from the more confederal arrangement of the local aristocracy having regional control. This monarchy then consolidated power and created a state based on this consolidation.

Most nationalisms in Europe originated in the 19th century, in the wake of the French Revolution, and originally had radical roots. Giuseppe Mazzini, the great example of cosmopolitan nationalism, was a socialist as well, and very liberal, and in part due to his influence after the unification of Italy there was a period of agrarian, socialist, reform and redistribution of land. The state that came out of Italian unification was a parliamentary democracy that was part of a constitutional monarchy, that was actually fairly progressive for the context that it existed in, not an absolutist state.

That there were internal differences in Italy and elsewhere that made these communities not homogenous was recognized from the beginning. It's kind of hard not to notice that the local dialect of a region in northern Italy is vastly different from that of Sicily. Yet, the people who pushed for unification in Italy and for self-determination else where believed that despite these differences, the people who lived in these areas had more in common with each other than they had differences. In the case of Italy, these commonalities included being part of the Italian peninsula, and related islands, being part of the Roman Empire, and in general having been part of the Greco-Roman classical world.

Self determination is another way of expressing what the nationalism of continental Europe was about, and is a term that is much nicer to the ears of us United States-ians. It should be, because a lot of what World War I was fought over depended on it. While it may be fashionable to say that the first World War was just fought over money, the dissolution of the German, Austrian, and Russian monarchies, as well as the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, wasn't a trivial matter to the people making up the present Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, Romania, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, and Lithuania. All of these countries only came into real existence as independent countries after the first World War. Before that, they were the property of either Prussia, Russia, the Kingdom of Austria, or the Kingdom of Hungary.  That was how Europe was organized before the first World War: countries of people who had similar languages, customs, religion, and who occupied coherent regions being subsumed under personal monarchies.

Finland as well. Some look at all these countries and dismiss it as all of those Eastern Europeans, countries that because of being absorbed into the Iron Curtain are viewed as more foreign and weird, but even Finland, considered now to be just a part of Scandinavia, was the property of the Russian Empire for a long time, and only got independence during World War I. If the Bolshevik Revolution (which later tried to forcibly incorporate Finland into Bolshevik Russia) hadn't happened, Nokia would be written in Cyrillic.

People generally agree that the independence of countries from servitude is a good thing, but what, then, is the ideology that motivates this drive? Because, by definition, to be an independent nation means to form a nation, nationalism is a very appropriate label for it.

As said before, this does not necessarily mean a quest for purity, either linguistic or otherwise, and does not necessarily mean the great perversion of ethnic nationalism, which imputed linguistic, cultural, and religious commonalities to a genetic or racial basis.

The more perceptive people did see that the borders that demarcated one country from another were vague, and that different peoples lived to a certain extent within several different related areas, including peoples like the Jewish people who otherwise didn't enough concentration anywhere to form a state, and they advocated for respect of their rights.

Which is not to say that things went smoothly. Greece, another country that achieved independence and national self determination in the 19th century, underwent with the Ottoman Empire a series of painful and destructive "Population Exchanges", where Greeks who had lived in present day Turkey for milenia were expelled to live in Greece, while Turkish people who had lived in Greece for several hundred years were likewise expelled back to Turkey.

It should be noted, though, that this and other actions, as painful as they may have been, also had a dimension of conflict between the oppressor and the oppressed, with the oppressor population being asked to leave. The rights regarding that are sensitive, but that dimension of domination and oppression puts into context things like the law that came into place in Latvia that intentionally penalizes speakers whose primary language is Russian. Latvia was not only part of the Iron Curtain but forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union itself, and underwent a good deal of movement of Russians, with higher social status and other benefits, into itself while part of that.

That this also has erupted into out and out genocidal madness is not in question. In fact, the conflict between the Serbs and the Bosnians is a result of this. Serbia was another country that gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, before it was incorporated into Yugoslavia, with Belgrade being picked as the capitol of the new Yugoslavia in deference to this. The Bosnians are simply Serbs who adopted Islam during the Ottoman years, and the war of the Serbs against the Bosnians, done in the name of supposedly 'liberating' Serbian land and of course the rights of Christian Serbs still living in Bosnia, was motivated by revenge against former oppressors.

But this does not have to be the end product of the impulse to self determination. In fact, in the U.S. itself, regionalism, which has quite a lot in common with the more cosmopolitan versions of European nationalism has a lot of support in progressive circles. Not only that, but self determination is compatible with social justice on the whole and socialism in general.  Besides the Italian agrarian reform, to which could be added the agrarian reform following the Mexican Revolution, were the proposals of people like Otto Bauer and the Austro-Socialists, who formed the "2 and a Half International", who advocated for radical social change in the former Austrian territories combined with national self determination.

Even the Soviet Union itself recognized that the two impulses, a socialist sentiment and a national one, were not necessarily enemies, in that all across the Soviet Union were built museums showcasing the local folk traditions of minorities in the regions. That these were somewhat trivialized does not change the fact that national minorities were able to have their own autonomous republics within the Soviet Union, which, not matter how this was undermined in practice, was quite an accomplishment. That the policy was initiated under Stalin himself also mitigates the idea that socialism and some sort of national sentiment are completely opposed.

So what does all of this mean, in the end? I think that socialism should come first, but that nationalism, whether it be expressed as a regional identity, as something based on common language and customs, or on other factors, touches cultural commonalities that go beyond a generic socialist framework and that color our lives in ways that are important to preserve. A multi-cultural society is better than one where there's a generic mono-culture that honors no cultural features whatsoever, and that replaces the diversity and richness of countries with a flat, official, formalism.

*on edit: I should also add as well that Serbia at the end of the 20th century was in a much different position from Serbia in the 19th century. It was a dominant force in Yugoslavia, so that it's claims to 'liberate' oppressed Serbians in Bosnia and Kosovo were the claims of a now dominant power against minority populations that had much less, both economically and socially, although Bosnia was much more developed than Kosovo.

Also, below all of this, there's one thing that unites everyone, and that's our common humanity, which transcends national boundaries, new and old.

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