The Left and Nationalism in Eastern Europe

By Zuzowski, Robert | East European Quarterly, January 2008 | Go to article overview
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The Left and Nationalism in Eastern Europe


Zuzowski, Robert, East European Quarterly


Nationalism, as we know, may express itself through other and varied ideologies: democracy, fascism or communism. This paper analyses the impact of nationalism on communism in Eastern Europe. It argues that the communist idea, by itself, is too narrow, weak and ambiguous to succeed in real life. Left to itself, communism cannot generate a vigorous, effective political system. But, coupled with the simple, encompassing idea of nationalism, comprehensible and convincing to everybody, communism can become an efficacious political force for a while. On the other hand, when nationalism clashes with communism, political tension results that weakens and/or destroys the latter ideology. Nationalism is an abstraction with a specific historical content, derived from specific social conditions. Linked closely with national consciousness and the rise of the Western European nation-state, it is best understood in relation to the developments that produced, and were symbolised by, the French Revolution of 1789.

From at least the time of John Locke, many of the educated elite in the West had argued that power lies with the people, not with kings. The corollary of this idea was that loyalty should be to the state, because people are organised in and governed through social unites called 'states'. They further argued that political divisions should by and large coincide with national divisions (Minogue, 1967, p. 12; Shafer, 1984, pp. 1-19; Kohn, 1965; Seton-Watson, 1964). (1) Until the early modem period, a state had often been a conglomerate of several nations living under a common dynastic sovereign. Subjects were obliged to express loyalty to this ruler, not to the state. When one kingdom transferred territory to another, its inhabitants were expected to shift their loyalty from the previous ruler to the new one. The idea of nationalism defied this convention by demanding contiguity of state and nation, and loyalty to the nation-state, not to the dynastic ruler.

This discussion uses nationalism in the sense of a political movement or creed which claims that the only natural, desirable political system is one based upon the concept of the nation-state. (2) What is natural is good, and hence worth possessing or struggling for. Therefore, national self-government is a prerequisite of the legitimate state (Kohn, 1967, pp. 3-24). However, the second half of the nineteenth century produced an antithetical current. Communists argued that the division of the world into nations would rapidly disappear once the economic basis of that division was removed under a global communist order. Virtually all nineteenth-century communists, including Karl Marx, shared such beliefs. These were not, in their views, utopian fancies, but arguments based on historical analysis and extrapolation of apparent trends in human nature. Marx, for example, asserted that the proletariat lacked a fatherland. The bourgeoisie might be said to lack one also, because capital has no national identity and capitalists are not concerned about national loyalties although they might exploit national boundaries for pragmatic reasons. For Marx, communism meant abolishing the division of labour and those alienating formations which it had produced: private property, the state, political institutions, money and religion. Bourgeois society was already in the process of destroying these forms. The ultimate proletarian revolution would complete this destruction, The Second International, following Marx's purely theoretical guidelines on nationalism, rejected it entirely with deep contempt.

But while Marx, on the theoretical level, opposed the idea of nationalism, he supported some nationalistic movements for tactical reasons. The 1848 revolutions had taught Marx the explosive potential inherent in nationalism. It had originated as a revolutionary political movement to overthrow traditional legitimate governments basing their authority on divine or hereditary right.

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