28 Σεπτεμβρίου 2014

Elie Kedourie on Nationalism. Left or Right?


It is, then, a misunderstanding to ask whether nationalism is politics of the right or of the left. It is neither. Left and right are concepts which arose in the course of struggle between aristocracy, middle class and working class in European countries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and are unintelligible apart from this particular history. In the nineteenth century, it was usual to consider nationalism a progressive, democratic, leftist movement. The nationalists of 1848 were considered men of the left, Mazzini was a highly venerated figure among English Liberals and Radicals, as was Kossuth, the Hungarian nationalist, to support nationalist movements in Europe and elsewhere was considered the duty of every true Liberal and humanitarian. This conjunction is, as will be seen, a fortuitous accident, but the habits of mind it established have lasted into the twentieth century, when Liberals and Socialists think that their principles require them to support nationalist movements, particularly in Asia and Africa. But it is also significant that nationalists who, at one stage, were considered men of the left were, at a later stage, firmly denounced as men of the right: Pilsudski, Mussolini, Chiang Kai-shek, all began their careers as men of the left, and all, in time, were removed to the right. Hitler, it may be added, could also be considered as a man of the left, for he was the leader of a National Socialist German Workers Party, yet he is now firmly and universally classified as a man of the right.
These confusions are significant. What they indicate is that the categories of one ideology are used to test and classify the tenets of a completely different ideology. Liberals measure political progress by the diminution of social and political privileges, and for Socialists the touchstone of progress is the reduction of economic inequality. To nationalists, such aims are incidental and secondary. Their own aim is national self-determination, and the lasting fulfilment which comes to man when he lives as a member of a sovereign nation.
But this confusion, whether nationalism is a right-wing or a left-wing movement, has become greatly prevalent owing to the triumph of Bolshevism in Russia, and the wide popularity and respect which the writings of its leaders, Lenin and Stalin, have attained. Now the attitude of the Bolshevik leaders towards national problems was a strict and subordinate corollary of their Marxism, and of the struggle for revolutionary socialism which engaged all their energies. In their theory, national movements could be both progressive and retrogressive, depending on the stage of economic development at which they occurred. In their progressive phase, they were an expression of the struggle of bourgeois capitalism against social and political domination which had outlived its economic justification. Nationalism was a progressive movement so long as the capitalist struggle against feudalism had not been won, it was a progressive movement in the colonial and semi-colonial world, when it embodied the struggle of a national bourgeoisie against imperialism — itself, in the tide of Lenin's pamphlet of 1916, the highest stage of capitalism. But nationalism became retrogressive when it threw up obstacles to the advance of socialism, when it was the ideology of bankrupt capitalist expropriators, unjustly resisting their own expropriation. Again, in their polemical writings which sometimes approved, and sometimes disapproved, of nationalist movements in Tsarist Russia, Lenin's and Stalin's criterion was whether such movements advanced or retarded the cause of revolution. Thus, Lenin was opposed to the claims of the Jewish working-class party, the Bund, for Jewish autonomy in Eastern Europe, because such a claim weakened and divided the leadership of the socialist movement, but he also criticized the socialist Rosa Luxemburg for neglecting and belittling Polish nationalism, as a weapon with which to undermine the Tsarist autocracy. Such a line of reasoning makes it easy to understand why to Bolsheviks nationalism is a right-wing movement in contemporary Europe, and a left-wing movement in Asia and Africa. But it ought also to become clear that the wide acceptance of such classifications depends on a tacit, uncritical acquiescence in the Marxist interpretation of history.
Elie Kedourie

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