Nationalism and the Left

Liberation, not supremacy

The Left cannot be both Nationalist and Socialist at the same time. And yet national identity is a large part of liberation movements from the SNP to the FLN. There is an apparent contradiction in terms, if the Left wants to grip nationalism. In this article, Professor Roy Casagranda argues that a Nationalist Socialism based on national liberation rather than national supremacy is possible. Therefore, national identity can be an essential part of a liberatory socialist movement.


I’m going to start this conversation by making a seemingly contradictory statement. You cannot be a nationalist and a socialist, but Socialist Nationalism (a.k.a. Nationalist Socialism (not National Socialism)) is a legitimate form of socialism. For any conversation about that statement to be meaningful, we probably need to make sure we are using our language in the same way. Orwell’s warning about the decay of the English language came true, only the mechanism was not the one described in 1984. We disassembled the English language, especially in the US, using the thesaurus instead of the Newspeak Dictionary. Almost every word stands for a unique concept. If I can get you to believe that 5 words mean the same thing, I have destroyed 4 concepts or at least rendered having a conversation about them difficult if not impossible. One of the ways that this is manifest is the interchangeable usage of the terms: “country” and “nation” (especially in the US). The tragedy is that what is meant most of the time is a third term “state.” Neither country nor nation resembles state in any meaningful way.

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A state is a fully sovereign government that controls a discreetly defined territory. A province is a semi-sovereign government that is part of a state and has a discreetly defined territory. A country is a vague region that has a name and is widely believed to exist but rarely corresponds to any political entity. Where one country ends and another begins is usually in dispute. Countries can overlap, both in friendly and hostile ways, and they can be born and die (fade from memory). A nation is a group of people with a common identity, usually with a common language, and then with some mixture of common traditions, common history, and common DNA. The US is a state, the State of Texas is a province, Texas is a country, and the Comanche, Tonkawa, Karankawa, Spanish, and Germans are examples of three native and two colonizer nations that ended up in Texas.

A core principle of socialism is that all humans, ALL, have equal worth. No person’s life is more precious than anyone else’s. Therefore classism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, ableism, ageism, fundamentalism, racism, and nationalism are anathema to socialism. Each of those reduces some group of people to a second class or subhuman status.

Any ideology that says that some people have more worth than another group of people is by definition not socialist. Nationalism is the belief that one nation (probably yours) is superior to all others. Nationalism is to a nation as fundamentalism is to a religion. If someone says, “I’m a German nationalist,” they are saying that they believe that Germans are superior to all others. If that is true, then all non-Germans are inferior to Germans. Just like a fundamentalist believes that only their fellow co-religionists have the answer to salvation and therefore all other people are doomed to eternal damnation. Just like a misogynist or a sexist believes that women are inferior to men. Therefore, all socialists are internationalists by definition. An internationalist believes that all nations have equal worth and that regardless of a person’s nation of origin that every human has equal value. An ideology that justifies the conquest of another nation for any reason, by definition cannot be a socialist ideology.


Socialist Nationalism or Nationalist Socialism is not a form of nationalism, but rather a form of national liberation


So then how can my original statement hold true?

The answer is nested in the reality of imperialism and conquest. A nation can be oppressed, for example, the Scottish, Irish, Navajos, or Blacks in the US or Apartheid South Africa. A movement to liberate a nation is often incorrectly referred to as a “nationalist” movement. If a person says, “My nation is superior to all others,” then they are a nationalist. If a person says, “My nation isn’t superior to any other nation, but I do believe that my nation deserves to be liberated from oppression,” that is not nationalism. They might make a rallying call around the liberation of the nation, but that does not mean that they necessarily think that all other nations are inferior. Whether because of the failure of language, the attempt by the liberators to capture the nationalist spirit, or because the oppressor attempts to cast the oppressed as the villains, we sloppily call attempts to liberate nations “nationalist movements.” Algeria’s Front de libération nationale (FLN) made a direct appeal to Algerian national loyalty, even using the term “nationale” in its name. The reason for this is pretty simple. On the one hand, Algerians were in a violent struggle against French imperialism in order to free Algeria (not to free France or its imperial territories). On the other hand, nationalism is a very powerful tool.

Socialist Nationalism or Nationalist Socialism is not a form of nationalism, but rather a form of national liberation. So, to clear up the confusion, I would like to propose the usage of National Liberation Socialism. However, national liberation socialism is very dangerous. We have a tendency in our species to become fanatic the longer we struggle. That is to say, defeat hardens our minds and pushes us to seek more and more extreme beliefs. Whether this reactionary tendency is just built into human psychology or it is a necessary adaptation to find a path to victory is irrelevant. The problem is persistent.

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While it is true that socialists must reject nationalism. It is undeniable that it is a powerful mobilizing force. It was a lesson that the German liberation movements in 1848 and the USSR in WWII learned. In the case of the former, in the wake of the Napoleonic wars and then the revolutions of 1848, the German population found itself expressing a form of nationalism that we all know eventually led to the creation of the German state in 1871 and ultimately turned into a toxic force in the aftermath of WWI. German nationalism, the ultimate form of nationalism, once unleashed, eventually led to a catastrophic end for both the German state and the victims of Nationalsozialismus (National Socialism).

The problem that the USSR faced was that their core ideology, the communist version of socialism, was at the end of the day, a rational appeal. It is very difficult to get voters motivated to vote using reason. Imagine trying to convince soldiers to willingly die using a rational argument. On the other hand, nothing brings voters out to the polls like fear and hatred. Fear and hatred are two of the core emotions in nationalism. If you can fill a person with enough fear and hatred, you can get them to vote against their own self-interests and turn them into such fanatics that they will serve as fearless soldiers in a cruel genocidal war.


The danger to all national liberation socialist movements is that the nationalism will take hold and turn the movement into a reactionary one


For the USSR the problem was that the Russians and the national minorities of the USSR never had full buy into communism. This proved catastrophic as the Wehrmacht shredded the Soviet Army from June 1941 to October 1942. The USSR needed some mechanism to inspire their soldiers to fight harder (to be willing to die in battle). Having commissars follow the army espousing the Communist Party line and shooting deserters proved to be counterproductive. So, leaders like Nikita Khrushchev pushed for some measure of nationalistic inspiration to motivate the Soviet Army. They transformed WWII into the Great Patriotic War. They even went so far as to dump “The Internationale” as the Soviet anthem and replaced it in 1944 with the current anthem of the Russian Federation, but the Internacionalom is mentioned in the new anthem.

In light of the wholesale genocide that the USSR was facing, I doubt that there are too many people who believe Khrushchev and his supporters were wrong to do it. After all, what is the point of having ideological purity if your people have been genocided? I mean compared to the gulags and the general cruelty of the Soviet state, invoking nationalism to win WWII seems like the least of the USSR’s sins. Having said that, there might actually be a long lasting consequence for the USSR’s invocation of Russian nationalism to win/survive WWII. Russian nationalism never got put back into the bottle. It is possible that the national chauvinism that Christian Russians in the USSR showed to the ethnic and religious minorities after WWII might have been partially fueled by the nationalism invoked in WWII. And it is the history of nationalism that when you are the victim of it, you will react by becoming more nationalistic. Violence begets violence, nationalism begets nationalism. So, in a way the nationalism invoked in WWII may have contributed, even if only in a small amount, to the breakup of the USSR (obviously Chernobyl, Afghanistan, and the economy-sapping nuclear arms race had more to do with it). And then there is today. Russian nationalism has only increased and in the process become so toxic that it has resulted in a 9 year-long war against Ukraine. The danger to all national liberation socialist movements is that the nationalism will take hold and turn the movement into a reactionary one.

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To bring this more current let’s briefly talk about the Scottish National Party. Scots have endured centuries of cruelty at the hands of the English. Even if you argue that the relentless cruelty of past decades has diminished, there is nonetheless a legacy that has yet to heal and there is ideological oppression. The Scottish are overwhelmingly socialist and left-leaning, 70.8% (Scots voted SNP: 36.9%, Labour: 27.1%, and Lib Dems 6.8% in 2019), but England is strongly conservative. As long as the Scots are 8.2% in the UK, they have no path to express any leftist ideology. As long as Scotland remains in the UK, it will continue to endure some measure of oppression. Moreover, when Scotland voted to remain in its independence referendum in 2014, it actually voted not to leave the EU more than to stay in the UK. In effect, Brexit broke Scotland’s 2014 result. So as long as the Scottish don’t allow their national liberation socialist movement to turn into a nationalist movement, I believe that pursuing independence is justified and consistent with socialism.

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