Re-Evaluating Nationalism After Charlottesville – by Stephan Hammel

  • E-Mail
  • Facebook
  • Twitter

Summary: A new wave of Far Right activism has gripped the nation and confounded common preconceptions of American political life. In facing the challenge of white nationalism, it is incumbent upon the Left to re-evaluate its relationship to nationalism as such. – Stephan Hammel

In Charlottesville, VA, only weeks ago, a woman was murdered at a gathering of American fascists. It is easy to lose one’s grip on optimism in the wake of what occurred, but the Left might still choose to interpret the event as a turning point. The only alternative is to imagine that the militant Right will grow and its victims multiply. Neither the apparatuses of the Deep State, nor the public faces of the ruling party have taken a stand against such organized white nationalism. No hearings are scheduled in Congress. And hours after the largest demonstration of racism and xenophobia in recent memory, the Attorney General of the United States finds himself holding press events to excoriate the mayors of so-called Sanctuary Cities with language heavy with the suggestion of an existential threat emanating from the foreign born. Whether or not Charlottesville turns out to be a turning point for the Right, it ought to be one for a newly resurgent, incompletely organized Left.

There has been an inspiring and spontaneous response from the grassroots to confront American fascism’s recent boldness. The Left has outnumbered the Right at rally after rally across the country since Heather Heyer’s death. This is a manifest good. As the Administration and Congress have both signaled their disengagement with the challenge of right-wing populism, the Left has seized this moment of urgency. The Left would do well to use this moment to take stock of its relationship to nationalism more broadly.

There is a long and storied history of Left thinking on the topic of nationalism. The issue is most often understood to be part of a larger question about Left strategy. So it is that Luxemburg could disagree with both Lenin and (the long dead) Marx about the possibility of engaging Polish nationalism as a progressive force. That the goal of such a force was the overcoming of archaic and oppressive social relations and the abolition of the relevant form of coerced labor, was never questioned. As Marx himself makes clear when addressing the questions of Irish and Polish independence, there are tectonic political changes that are at once social revolutions, and those which are not.

Nowhere in Marx can one find the suggestion that national liberation is an end in itself. Indeed, he denies this. A Polish peasant who produces a surplus for a feudal lord who is themselves, in turn, a servant of a Russian master, is not freed with the removal of the top layer of this autocratic pile. The social conditions of feudalism persist. Similarly, the abolition of colonialism without a structural change in the relations of ownership that persisted under colonialism would accomplish nothing in terms of social emancipation. The wrong of colonialism, imperialism, and national oppression is not the abuse done to a principle of national self-identity and sovereignty. In fact, the nation as such is not a technical term for historical materialism. It fails to reference an objective fact about the relations the individuals of society are driven into by virtue of society’s organization.

The relationship of nationalism to revolution is historical rather than logical. Marx and the mainstream of Marxism at least through to 1917 understood that certain struggles for national self-determination would inevitably come down to struggles over the political organization of property and classes. In the context of the predominance of capitalist social relations, then, the criteria for the emancipatory potential of national movements is the coincidence of their political demands with those of the organized working class. It follows that a lack of coincidence prevents Marxists from regarding nationalist movements as progressive and participating in them, no matter how strongly identified with among the masses of a given state. The popularity of a struggle is not the measure of its social significance.

The kind of orthodoxy just described suffers from an uneven reputation on the broader Left. One often hears that this interpretation of the relationship between nationalism and revolution is reductive. This is to say that it compares the concrete circumstances of a given movement with ideas drawn from an abstract historical model, and faults history for failing to conform to the model. The struggle of, say, the North Korea regime against the very real threat of U.S. aggression is a real world fact, so this criticism goes, the meaning of which cannot be reduced to the labor question. The charge of reductiveness is certainly warranted in the case of historical materialism and the labor movement. Picking out the structural from the arbitrary and modeling general, as against restricted, determinations in the social fabric is the very process of establishing a social science. Identifying the relations that, in fact, ground the organization of reproducing society’s institutions necessarily involves reduction.

Armed with the weapon of reduction, Marxists—apart from any moral pleading—may ardently oppose white nationalism, while electively supporting, say, the sovereignty of indigenous nations in the Americas. The question of the abstract legitimacy of nations per se need never arise. Further, what lends emancipatory potential to a movement is its alignment with the demands of labor organizations and parties inasmuch as these latter are consistent and self-conscious about their social role. Disorganization and inconsistency in the labor movement can lead to a reversal of roles. The labor movement can come to depend on appeals to the principle of national self-determination, as opposed to the self-determination of human beings as human beings, to prove its emancipatory potential, rather than the other way around. I take it that this confusion is what leads anti-imperialists on the labor Left to defend, or at least deflect condemnation from, autocratic, labor suppressing states on national sovereignty grounds.



This brings us to the imperative of opposing regressive nationalist movements. It is this imperative that the chilling events in Charlottesville makes impossible to ignore. The grounds for opposition, however, are themselves a key feature of Left struggle. The right grounds are indispensable to success. Indeed, they structure the methods and priorities of organizing. Understanding white nationalism to be generated by structural features of the relationship between state and civil society in the present day United States would prevent an anti-fascist from suggesting, for example, an armed solution to the problem. The phenomenon of white nationalism is not coterminous with its adherents. The ideology is proper to the social reality to which it is relevant.

As Marx pointed out in his essay on the Jewish question, the state that the Jacobin revolutions of the eighteenth century ushered in was one which guaranteed the rights of Man (we would better say, human being) over the privileges of feudal lords and guilds. The state was erected above civil society, analogously to how the kingdom of heaven was imagined to be built above the rule of worldly monarchs. The individual, treated separately from their concrete reality, embedded as it is in the social network that reproduces their life, reigns democratically with their fellows in a realm somewhere beyond the everyday world of work. The cooperation and codependence that forms the concrete world of the citizen is, of course, very different from their celestial life in the realm of civil rights. The gap between the political form of internal dependence and the emancipation of the individual embodied in the law and upheld by state institutions itself generates the space for nationalism. For the Young Hegelians of the first half of the nineteenth century, the relevant contradiction was that between religion and the state. The modern Christian state could not be fully Christian while remaining a state and, in turn, the state could not fulfill its function of liberating the only contingently social individual without breaking its link to religion. Marx noted that the failure of the post-French Revolutionary state to make religion irrelevant to modern life was due to the incompleteness of its emancipatory project. A fully social human being, one who works with and relies on others, can only be concretely free if a full participant in society’s self-organized reproduction. A similar contradiction persists between the social form of life and the current institution of liberty. The nation plays the role of ideal mediator between the one and the many in a democracy in much the same way the Christian church did (and in many states, continues to do) for constitutional monarchy.

Individual liberty will remain the horizon of freedom for us as long as the primary social relation into which the vast majority of citizens is forced is one of exchange. Overcoming chauvinism and nativism, and instituting meaningful internationalism, must therefore involve abolishing the wage relation. These grounds for opposing white nationalism and neo-Nazism allows anti-racism and anti-fascism, doubtless important forces, to be substantive. Keeping white supremacists from having a platform (an effort I feel is worthwhile) is not a permanent solution, nor does it imply a political constituency for its movement. In the wake of Charlottesville, and under an administration that appears intent on mobilizing political racism in a desperate attempt to keep hold of power, it is important that the Left not lose sight of its ultimate goals while adopting the posture of resistance.


One comment


    September 16, 2017

    Thanks for raising important, complicated and very current issues and confusions surrounding them.

    Raya always stressed the unity of form and content. If we take Nationalism as form, then an alternative to a status- quo-capitalist, given, form of nationalism, unthought and not containing the labour of the self-determining opposition, it seems that it’s this Leftist content, self-organised, working in negation to what is, that is our guide, pull and aim.

    In Raya’s analysis of state capitalism, she countered one-sided, crude anti-American imperialism, with rivalry between different imperialist forces for world domination, on the solid ground of her work in studying Russia’s own production records, which revealed their class nature ie a transition from worker control in factories, back to elite well paid and corrupt managers with a huge disparity of income for the much much lower paid working masses.

    The immediacy of appearance, both colour and gender, hides a class duality. Experience teaches me that still too many tail end Russia as an alternative, using superficial nationalist anti-Americanism to attract support while dismissing sexism – slaves of slaves since time began – intellectually, financially, physically – as a means of control and demonstrations of power to crush dissent.

    In my naiive opinion, it seems that the Rightist side of all nationalisms and feminisms, are not aired enough leaving ambiguities that can turn off more genuine support.

    In 1914, Army officers in Northern Ireland rebelled against the democratic vote for Irish National self-determination against British Rightist domination. James Joyce wrote Ulysses and in WW2 went to live in unoccupied France. Connolly led the Easter rebellion – mass slaughter in the trenches – East and West – if your gonna die – why not for what you really think is true and just? What happened in the French ruled Caribbean islands in WW2?

    Where macho gangs rule, use of crude nationalism and abstract labourism, tied with rampant bullying and intimidation of women and the crushing of critical attitudes only reveals not a real alternative of a classless world of freely associated labour of the self ruled lovers of wisdom, but a crude desire to replace the current scientific wage slavers with a new rainbow elite of masters.

Leave a comment


Email(will not be published)


Your comment