Consider the Nation & Other Sacred Cows of the Left

Article excerpt

Montreal Reader's letter to Canadian Dimension (Jan./Feb. 1993) shows the kind of unexamined nationalism that has made adequate discussions of Quebec almost impossible for the Canadian Left.

The Left has treated nationalism largely as axiomatic rather than a subject of political debate. In all the years I've heard people talking about "the nation," I've never come across a definition that is useful in trying to imagine a truly just society. This, however, has not stopped nationalism from being central to much left politics in Canada. Yet without understanding what the nation is we can scarcely talk meaningfully about rights or self-determination. It's clearly time to reconsider the nation.


Montreal Reader's letter includes a familiar litany of unquestioned nationalism: "Quebec's right to self-determination," Quebec's existence as a nation and its subsequent rights," and Quebec which " NOT even a 'special' or 'distinct' province -- but ... Quebec people have national rights. . ."

What distresses our comrade in Montreal is that Dimension has seemed a tiny bit critical of these axioms. A mere hint of less-than-orthodoxy about Quebec's nationhood is enough to make MR withdraw support from the magazine.

Yet Dimension hasn't really questioned Quebec's nationhood. Like most of the Canadian Left, Dimension takes nationalist ideas for granted -- that there is such a thing as a nation, that nations have rights, and that among these rights is something called "self-determination."

It's just that Dimension can't help wondering about what's going on in Quebec; even the code phrase, "national self-determination," can't blind us completely to some of the less pleasant aspects of the attitudes of the Quebec government and the Parti Quebecois towards minorities, environmental issues, and so on. Dimension's analysis of these, however, has been limited by its generally uncritical use of concepts of "nation" and "nationalism."


Perhaps in raising questions about the nation I'm stepping over some invisible boundary marking what is acceptable in Canadian progressive politics, but I really would like to know the meaning of many of the ideas that the Left takes for granted. What, for example, are these national rights that Montreal Reader talks about so easily, and what political/ social factors are they subsequent upon? What is self-determination -- who constitutes the "self," and what does this "self" determine, and how? The phrases are great, but what do they mean in practice?

There are other questions that come to mind, at least to mine, once I start thinking about the nation critically rather than axiomatically. How many people does it take to make a nation, and how do they do it? Is a nation an objective reality or a matter of subjective identity, or both, or neither? Is it a matter of culture, of blood, of experience? Must one be born to a nation? Is it possible to leave one?

These are not just the questions of a nitpicking social theorist looking for scientifically acceptable analytical categories. We don't have to look beyond the front pages of the daily newspapers to see the terrible consequences of "the nation" as a political force.

Nationalist political discourse and action reflect an assumption that nations are things rather than elements of political discourse. But by treating particular combinations of elements of culture -- language, religion, and so on -- as fixed entities, nationalists fetishize them and make the idea of the nation more rigid than the social reality it purports to express.

What is a nation?

What, then, is a nation? The idea seems to draw on some notion of an historically constituted group of people, bigger than a town, smaller than the world, who have some kind of ethnic/cultural identity in common. But how big? What kind of culture? What degree of similarity? …