Volume 5, No. 12, December 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
It is only in the last quarter of the 20th century that Marxist intellectuals began to address the issue of nationalism with the seriousness it deserved. Before that, the Marxist legacy of thought on this issue dating from the work of Marx and Engels themselves was incomplete, contradictory and ambiguous. Common to all the different currents within this tradition — Marx and Engels, the Austro-Marxists like Otto Bauer and Karl Renner, then Luxemburg, Lenin and Stalin — was that the ‘national question’ (as it was called) properly belonged to the period of the transition to capitalism and of its further development till that stage was transcended with the coming of the socialist revolution and its subsequent spread internationally. On the one hand classical Marxism held that capitalism needed, and would in many cases get, the politically unified and solidified national territories it required for the free movement of goods, capital and labour for large-scale production and mass distribution of commodities. On the other hand, in capitalism, “All that is solid melts into the air”, meaning that powerful processes would be unleashed that would erode national boundaries and cultures. The latter was more likely not only or merely because of capitalism’s internal dynamic but because the rising power of the working class in bourgeois states meant the strong likelihood (though not certainty) of successful proletarian revolutions that would lead to territorial, cultural, political, economic cosmopolitanism.35 This confidence about reaching the desired goal was widely shared even as different currents within classical Marxism did subscribe to different time-scales for eventually reaching this end, and even about how the national question might be resolved, whether under bourgeois or working class leadership.
Marx and Engels, the Austro-Marxists
Marx and Engels believed in sharp binaries. Nationalisms were good or bad; there were “historic” and “non-historic” peoples, “developed” nations and “undeveloped” nations, “live” and “dying” nationalities, “revolutionary” and “non-revolutionary” peoples, “broken” and “unbroken” nations.36 Everything was to be judged according to the criteria of whether or not they constituted progressive peoples and struggles, where progressive struggles meant these had to be either against feudal absolutisms (accordingly Marx and Engels supported the Poles) or against capitalism where it had entrenched itself (in Britain; here Marx and Engels supported the Irish).37 That is to say, one needed to support the struggles of the progressive bourgeoisie to create the conditions for capitalist development where this was required, and for weakening capitalist dominance where this was possible. In the first case, which then were the terrains and peoples that had the capacity to so develop? Here Marx and Engels distinguished between large and small nations, between those peoples that had a larger or more recent or more continuous history of statehood and therefore higher potential to develop along properly capitalist lines than other ‘backward’ ones that would have to be absorbed by their more ‘civilised’ neighbours. Germany, Poland, Hungary, Italy had states — they were historic nations. Serbs, Croats, Basques, Czechs, Slovaks were non-historic peoples.
Given this one-sidedness in their understanding of nationalism it is hardly surprising that the Marx of The Communist Manifesto would declare that the advanced capitalist countries were showing the “mirror of the future” to the colonised countries.38 Yet in the Manifesto Marx also declared that the “working men have no country” but (the working class) “must constitute itself as the nation” to achieve “political supremacy”. Subsequent writing made it clear that by this he meant that proletarians in France must be prepared to wage a war of national defence against the Holy Alliance (Prussia, the Austrian and Russian empires, later joined by monarchical France) while revolutionary democrats in Germany should wage a similar defensive “revolutionary nationalism” against foreign intervention. In both cases the precondition for success was an alliance with the peasantry and middle classes. In the justified criticisms of Marx and Engels on nationalism and their dismissal of the peasantry as something of a doomed class, this insight is often forgotten.39
Austro-Marxists like Otto Bauer and Karl Renner in their understanding of how nations and nationalities were formed gave more importance than other Marxists of their time (and Marx and Engels) to matters of culture and community, going beyond the common recognition of the importance of language or of the level of economic development. Bauer, the most representative figure of the Austro-Marxists, took the view that corresponding to a given mode of production would be a specific mental culture that along with heredity created common traits passed on by law and custom. This tendency to tie nationalism to personality simply as a matter of culture is best resisted. But his emphasis on the cultural dimension had the real merit of recognising, more than his contemporaries, the significant power of the nationalist appeal. Bauer believed capitalism produces a nationally conscious working class and not only a class conscious one. In fact the nation’s shared history and culture could make that more powerful than class bonds. It followed that one would have to deal with the fact of there being a “national character” and not just a class character to nationalism.40 Nor did the Austro-Marxists think that the overthrow of capitalism would lead to an easy cosmopolitanism. Yes, capitalism restricted the cultural development and flourishing of the working class and of all the people. The working class had to take the lead in overcoming capitalism since changes in the mode of production would be a crucial input into transforming the existing common culture, and for this Bauer believed a “socialist federation of nationalities” would be required.
If Bauer also accepted that there were “non-historic” peoples, he did at least allow for them to be reawakened by capitalism. His emphasis on “cultural-national autonomy”, with its implied recognition of the equality of all cultures, was certainly welcome but the main problem with the Austro-Marxists was that the political perspective they offered was quite inadequate for their times. In the context of the existing Tsarist Empire, Bauer called for civil equality and federation within the Empire rather than calling for the overthrow of Tsarist rule. This had organisational implications. In contrast to Lenin’s effort to build a more centralised party structure as a fighting instrument (whether operating underground or openly), Bauer’s perspective called for a federated structure much more loosely bound since overthrowing the Tsarist state was not supposed to be on the current agenda. Nor was cultural-national autonomy a substitute for the much more democratic call for respecting the “right to self-determination” that Lenin would put forward.
Luxemburg and Lenin
Even though Rosa Luxemburg opposed national oppression she rejected the idea that there could be the “right to self-determination”. Like Bauer she preferred to endorse autonomy and federalism. She denied that nations or peoples can have the right to self-determination believing that this would play into the hands of the ruling class. Moreover, like most classical Marxists she thought small nations would be unviable and in any case promoting national unity and nation-state formation belonged to the era of the rising bourgeoisie, not now. For Lenin the national state was the norm under capitalism and such states could be big or small. He also preferred big units but recognised that these should come about voluntarily and believed that smaller nations would eventually integrate either as a consequence of capitalist compulsions or through socialist internationalism. The multinational state under capitalism (like Tsarist Russia) would be backward or reactionary but even here he allowed for an exception — Greater Austria, which was stable and capitalist though encompassing Germans, Hungarians and Slavs. Luxemburg, believing that in many cases the struggle for national independence was a diversion from class struggle, would assign the “right to self-determination” only to the working class, not to the “people” as a whole. Furthermore, she believed there could be no such thing as absolute rights since rights were always contextual. So certainly support freedom from oppression — national or otherwise — but what sense did it make to say there is a “right” to freedom from oppression.41
Later Marxists including Lenin had to address nationalist upsurges in Eastern Europe, Tsarist Russia, and anti-colonial struggles. Lenin was not looking to develop any theory of nationalism but seeking a practical political perspective and guideline for advancing the socialist cause, which he believed also meant advancing democracy since there could in his eyes be no contradiction between the two.42 If in western Europe he saw the “national question” as settled, this was not so in Persia, Turkey, Russia, China and the Balkans, where bourgeois democratic national movements had emerged. Lenin also for the first time took up the colonial question and allied national liberation movements, where they were developing, to the socialist cause. After 1914 and the outbreak of the inter-imperialist war, he saw these anti-imperialist struggles along with class struggles as central to socialist internationalism.
From his writings after 1914 we can see the evolution of his thinking and to this day (though it is by no means a magic wand to be waved in all cases) his formulae for respecting the “right to self-determination” of an oppressed nation or nationality, for the stands to be taken by revolutionaries in the oppressor and oppressed nations, for prioritising the interests of proletarian internationalism, remain amongst the most important and treasured legacies of the socialist tradition for dealing with the ‘national question’, itself extended in what it is meant to refer to, and cover.43 Lenin’s key points were as follows: (i) distinguish between the interests of oppressed classes and the notion of “national interests”. (ii) Distinguish between “oppressed, dependent and subject nations and the oppressing, exploiting and sovereign nations”.44 (iii) Communist parties must aid revolutionary movements among dependent and “underprivileged nations” (American Negroes were seen as an underprivileged nation), and in the colonies. (iv) Proletarian struggle within a country should be subordinated to the interests of proletarian struggle internationally.45 (v) On the colonial question Lenin’s views were modulated by the influence of M N Roy’s warnings about the duplicities of the indigenous bourgeoisie, which could well collaborate with the imperialist bourgeoisie against the revolutionary classes. So Lenin, while arguing that Communist parties should have a temporary alliance with the bourgeois-led national liberation movement, made this conditional on being able to retain its organisational independence and having the freedom to propagate its ideology. (vi) Lenin emphasised the danger of, and therefore opposition to, big nation chauvinism vis-à-vis smaller and weaker nationalities. Indeed, true equality among nationalities to be more than just formal would require the big nation to have greater sensitivity and to “bend over backwards” in unequally giving favours without return to smaller nations/nationalities.
Three guiding principles thereby emerged. There should be a unity of the working class across all nations. Recognise the equality of all nations and cultures, for which an important degree of autonomy within a state is required.46 It is necessary to raise the slogan of respecting the “right to self-determination”, provided there was a national movement taking place among that nation/nationality, which was also an oppressed one. After Lenin, what Marxists had called the National Question that now needed to be resolved in a just manner that would advance the democratic and socialist cause, was extended beyond the issue of national unity and consolidation for capitalist functionality to a) the legitimacy or otherwise of annexations by one state of another; b) dealing with the issue of secessionist pressures; c) matters concerning national minorities within a state; d) matters regarding support to anti-colonial struggles.
On the issue of supporting the right to self-determination up to and including secession, two normative questions arise. Should a minority community wishing to be politically distinct from a majority community have the democratic right to do so? Are nationalist forms of autonomy or separation politically desirable? Liberals would use as their guideline the principle that the “right has priority over the good”. Liberal Communitarians and Republicans, Marxists and Anarchists believing in the need for establishing a “common and collective good” would more strongly emphasise the importance of the latter. Without addressing the normative issues directly, Lenin’s formula is still the best thing going politically, seeking to respect and combine the pursuit of both. A socialist inspired territorial unity in which the working classes and revolutionaries of both the oppressor and oppressed nations come together to overthrow the state rule of their common oppressors would be ideal, but any such territorial unity must be voluntary. Revolutionaries in the oppressor nationality must therefore criticise that national oppression and uphold the banner of respecting the right to self-determination for the oppressed nationality, while revolutionaries in the oppressed nationality should emphasise the value of a collective and united socialist struggle to overthrow common class oppressors. One side emphasises the “right to secede”, the other side the “right to unite”. This remains the best political way to deal with the tension between democratic right and common good.
Stalin and the subsequent Soviet experience47
One year before Lenin’s 1914 article on The Right to Self-Determination, Stalin had written his Marxism and the National Question, which had been praised by many including Lenin. In this tract Stalin presented a strict objective definition of the nation or nationality. For Stalin, a “nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.”48 So, multi-lingual entities were not to be seen as nations. Switzerland was a state, not a nation. Going by Stalin’s definition a national minority was a non-nation, which could not grow into becoming a nation and would be assimilated by the process of capitalist internationalisation. He talked of national minorities or non-nations being absorbed in the “melting pot” of the host nationality. National cultural autonomy was not something to admire or endorse. Only later did Stalin come around to accepting that such minorities could get partial autonomy. Similarly, though in his tract he made no distinction between oppressor and oppressed nationalities, he would come around later to a formal acceptance of Lenin’s distinction, though in letter and spirit as his subsequent record would show, he diverged fundamentally from the perspectives Lenin held.49
In 1913 Lenin had argued for a centralised socialist regime but by 1918 he came to accept the principle of national republics. “The Soviet Russian Republic is established on the basis of a free union of free nations as a federation of Soviet national republics.”50 In fact, the Russian Revolution of 1917 was remarkable not just for being the first ‘revolution against capital’ but it was also a ‘revolution against the order of nations’. To this day, the only country whose very name bore no reference to a people or a territory was that of the USSR — the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics! Insofar as the Soviet Constitution would carry this commitment to Lenin’s self-determination principle, this was both a time-bomb and a pragmatic way of maintaining cohesion. Everything would of course depend on actual Soviet practice.51 That experience turned out to be very mixed.
The democratic revolution of February 1917 caused a considerable disintegration of the Empire and an upsurge in nationalist movements in the border areas. After the October revolution of that year and in the following year the independence of Finland and of the Baltic Republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were recognised and accepted.52 Non-Russian peoples in the Tsarist periphery were generally sympathetic to the Bolshevik government but Georgia, Armenia and Ukraine had national movements that required careful handling (in Ukraine public influence was divided between the larger nationalists and the Ukraine Communists); elsewhere absent such movements, autonomy rather than separation was on the agenda. How the Bolsheviks would handle the situation would decide the balance between persuasion and force in establishing the Soviet Union. Thus in the Central Asian republics, early and promising prospects of working with Muslim communists led by Sultan Galiev, who wanted to establish a larger Muslim-dominated republic within the USSR, motivated partly by his concern about Great Russian chauvinism, foundered on the rocks of mutual distrust between himself and Stalin and other Bolshevik leaders. He fell prey to Stalin’s purge in 1928, being sentenced to death, then exiled, then arrested again in 1937 and finally shot in 1940.
The fact is that the establishment of the USSR was not based only on voluntary union. Force was also used in many cases, often as a short-cut rather than working patiently to win over local populations to the merits of a unity that would also respect the principle of an internal equality between all nationalities, which above all meant making sure that there would be no excuse for any complaints about Great Russian chauvinism. Lenin’s last battles against Stalin and others who supported him within the party was precisely his anger at such chauvinist behaviour and centralising excesses in the cases of Ukraine and Georgia. Certainly there was a qualitative difference between Lenin and Stalin in their respective understandings of the national question, their political sensitivities and therefore in their policy perspectives and behaviour. But even for Lenin there was a fundamental dilemma he could not overcome. He had thought that there would be no serious tension or contradiction between the pursuit of socialist unity (all the more necessary in a context where internal and external forces had sought to crush the new Soviet regime) and the defence of democratic rights and principles. But there was this tension! And it pushed the Bolshevik leadership as a whole to prioritise the principle of unity. The “right to unite” would increasingly override the “right to secede”.
Under Stalin’s rule, 15 Union Republics were established that were nominally equal but much greater power was given to the federal government to ensure a centralised structure of power. Some 16 autonomous republics, nine autonomous regions, and 10 autonomous units were established. Great Russians made up 55 percent of the population, Ukrainians 18 percent and Belorussians four percent — all Eastern Slavs. Given the weight of Russians in the overall population, it is not surprising that Stalin would push a ‘Great Russian Patriotism’ to act as some kind of social glue, even rehabilitating Ivan the Terrible and glorifying an older history of Russian expansionism. In his great purge of 1937-38, Stalin liquidated in part or whole the governments of 30 republics for ‘nationalist deviation’ while in WWII he exiled whole populations — Crimean Tartars, Volga Germans, Kalmyks, Chechens and other Caucasian peoples for fear of their possible disloyalty to Russian-dominated Moscow.53 Yet these contingent acts were one part of the bigger story.
Article 17 of the Soviet Constitution gave the right to secede to every Union Republic but the final decision would still lie in the hands of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), which itself was monolithic, with no ‘national federated’ and ‘autonomous’ units. But proportionality in filling up local party and administrative positions was seriously pursued. Thus a “whole stratum was built up of minor officials who had a stake in the regime…”54 Stalin’s rule also promoted ethnic and national consciousness in the non-Russian republics through recognising cultures and languages. Though there was a disproportionate influence of Russians at the Centre, this was ameliorated by propping up non-Russian elites whose access to power relied not just on their alignment to this Centre but in their being seen as genuine representatives of specific ethnicities. So during Stalin’s time and in the post-war decades after, ethnic identity, ironically, was made more important than class identity while the ruling bureaucracy and the Nomenklatura were made more stable for being ethnically diversified. If the flow of resources from the Centre to the non-Russian republics further helped to stabilise the rule of the Communist party throughout the USSR, it is also true that in civil society in the various republics, a nationalist rather than socialist idiom would become more dominant.55
With the arrival of Gorbachev’s glasnost or democratisation efforts, nationalist stirrings would grow in some cases, e.g. in the Baltic Republics and to a lesser extent in Georgia and Armenia. But most others would have preferred to stay together in a more truncated Union if a genuine federalism could emerge with restored rights for the smaller oppressed minorities such Tartars, Ingush, Chechens, Kalmyks, etc. Perestroika’s shift to marketisation worsened matters economically for the majority of people, creating stronger centrifugal pressures for a more substantial break-up than might otherwise have taken place.56 However, to make the nationalities issue central to explaining the break-up of the Soviet Union would be a serious error. This was more the result of the break-up than the cause. Despite growing disillusionment with the Soviet experiment because of the democratic unhappiness with one-party rule and the widespread public sense of economic failures associated with the top-down command system of organising development, no previous ‘empire’ ever collapsed so quickly, so comprehensively, and, relatively speaking, with so little bloodshed — only around 3,000 died. The USSR had covered one-third of the world’s surface, had 300 million people and contained some 40 significant nationalities or national minorities. It was not rebellion from below but disillusionment at the top that paved the way for the break-up. Those who most benefited from the earlier system had themselves lost hope and belief in the system and thought to better advance their own interests through a break-up. Boris Yeltsin’s own ambitions and the role he played in discarding any effort to retain even a truncated USSR rather than a Russian Federation of which he would be the first President, was basically a reflection of the wider and deeper interplay of power between Russian nationalists out to secure their rule at the expense of the conservative old-timer Communists of the former Soviet Nomenklatura.
Today’s World: Capitalism and the Nation-State System
Historically, Marxists were among those who believed that the nation-state would soon enough turn out to be an anachronism buffeted by two forces, first by capitalist expansionism, and then by the advance of the socialist revolution. Worldwide developments since the late 1970s have forced a re-evaluation of this early optimism, more so with regard to the prospects of socialism, partially so with respect to the issue of nationalism. If future prospects for the nation-state system are considered to be not that bright, responsibility for this is now sought to be laid at the door of capitalism in its latest phase of ‘globalisation’ and with the growing power and importance of transnational corporations (TNCs) as economic actors. In some sections of the Left this has given rise to talk of both the decline of the nation-state and the emergence of a “transnational capitalist class”.57
This is not the perspective upheld here. In fact, in the very period when global movements of capital, money, goods and services have become greater than ever before while movement of labour across borders has also been considerable, the number of nation-states has actually increased. This reality could be dismissed as the contingent result of the break-ups of the former USSR and Yugoslavia, but elsewhere in one or other part of the world there continue to be nationalist tensions carrying popular aspirations to possible separate nationhood in Spain (Basque region and Catalonia), UK (Scotland and the Irish question), Canada (Quebec), South Asia (Kashmir), the Middle East (Palestine and Kurdistan), China (Xinjiang and Taiwan), Russia (Chechnya) while the Republic of South Sudan and Kosovo are recent newcomers to the comity of nations. There are, in short, no signs that might justify prognostications of the steady decay in the medium, let alone short term, of the nation-state system. The question raised on the Left then, is whether we need to assess once more, the nature of the relationship between the capitalism of our times and the nation-state system.58
Since for Marxists the nation-state (not the state in general) owes its emergence to the rise of capitalist modernity, what reason is there to think that the nation-state will disappear short of the disappearance of capitalism? Indeed, the trans-nationalisation of social relations and the consolidation and juridical sharpening of territorialised sovereignty went together.59 For the foreseeable future we will see both the continuing logic of capitalist accumulation on a world scale and a multiple nation-states system. The two have now co-existed and connected for a sufficiently long period of time that we must accept that there exists a strong functional relationship between capitalism and the nation-states system. But how powerful a factor is this in maintaining this “duality within a totality”? Since capitalism was born in an already existing multiple states system, could this multiplicity have imposed its logic on capitalism and therefore been a key factor in securing the contemporary order?
One view is that had capitalism been born in a context where there existed a world empire, there is no reason to think that the logic of capitalist accumulation would have required a territorial break-up of this “inheritance”. That is to say, capitalist competition or the fact of “many capitals” does not promote, nor in itself require that there be “many states”. There is no strong functionalism between the two contemporary realities.60 More persuasive is the contrasting view of those who insist on an important functionalism and also on the fact that the separation of the economic and political in the capitalist mode of production does create a practical dynamic in favour of there being many states which (for reasons already enunciated in the first part of this text) are nation states legitimised in the name of nationalism.61 Capitalism’s intrinsic nature only requires trans-nationalisation of economic relations plus a mechanism for global stabilisation for capital accumulation, which can be provided in flexible ways in a capitalist inter-state system. Moreover, the separation of the economic and political creates a ‘privatised’ sphere of surplus value accumulation and extraction, and another sphere of the exercise of political power by a ‘public’ authority. There are now capitalists and state managers, each having different functions, interests and motivations. Given this separation of functions, capitalists do not have the time, compulsion or interest in organising the political terrain even at the level of the domestic, let alone at the international level. Competition between capitalists means the class as a whole cannot be the governing category. In fact, the capitalist ruling class is the first such class that does not itself rule!62
This governing group (state managers) of course must be connected to and structurally biased towards capitalists and capitalism but must also supply mechanisms for cooperation between capitals, provide rules and norms for stable competition, and arbitrate in intra-capitalist conflicts. This is the first of the internal functions of the state. The second is that the state must control class conflict in favour of the capitalist class as a whole, which may well require it from time to time to act against this or that section of capitalists depending on the strength of resistance from below. A third function is the role of the state in dealing with crisis situations both economic (through Keynesian-type measures and bailouts of those firms that are ‘too big to fail’ as in the recent 2007/8-2012 Great Recession) and socio-political.
Then there is the external function. All capitals benefit from an expansion of space in which they can operate to secure more profits. But the world is too large a space to ensure the broad regularity and predictability that capital needs for its dynamic and constant pursuit of expanded reproduction. Furthermore, competition between capitals on this expanded scale means there will always be losers as well as winners and the former, especially when they are sizeable TNCs, will not simply sit back and quietly accept this.63 They often look for and get ‘protection’ from their home state. Nor is it a surprise that the shifting geography of the competition for surplus value will often bring into play ‘conflicts of interest’ between states themselves.
Intrinsic to capital is the principle of competition. The market is supposed to embody the principle of coordination — the broom of efficiency — that determines the distribution of success and failure. However, these very market operations also cause tensions and instabilities between capitals, which to some degree or the other do transmute into tensions between states, tensions that are quite separate from and in addition to other historically constituted geo-political problems that may exist among states. But the principle that is external to both capital and the market and yet is necessary for capital to function properly is the mechanism for providing global stabilisation. If the individual nation-state seeks to provide this stability at the domestic level, and the nation-states system tries to do the same at the global level, who or what will stabilise the nation-states system?
This is where thought-frames within Marxism and within the Liberal Realist tradition of thinking on international relations tend to converge. If the latter will talk of the “international public good” that is provided by “hegemonic stability”, the former will point to a sub-set of the most powerful imperialist powers who must take up this stabilising role to guarantee the continuity of capitalist exploitation and oppression on a world scale. And does this sub-set itself need a key coordinator-stabiliser to handle tensions within? Here is where there is again something of a Marxist replay of the issue whether we should nonetheless be highlighting the importance of a single hegemon or can this stabilisation, in our current post-Communist times, become the shared responsibility of a small collective of Great Powers, all capitalist? This is where the questions concerning the status of US power, relative and absolute, come centre-stage. Could the establishment of this current phase of neoliberal capitalist globalisation that emerged from the late 1970s onwards have even taken place without the crucial exercise of US power at various levels? What will happen now with the rise of China and other emergent or emerging capitalist powers? Can there be a substitute, single or collective, for the global role hitherto played by the US? What are the implications of failure in this regard? How will the future “dialectic between the national and the international” unfold?64
These are large questions that cannot be addressed here. But there is an additional argument provided for why a multiple states system has so far endured. This has to do with the character of the state rather than with capitalism. Simon Bromley says that while mainstream International Relations focuses on the consequences of a multiple inter-state system, and Marxists on the relationship between the states system and societies (capitalist or otherwise), but neither, says Bromley, pay proper attention to the issue of politics and the political order where the question of the “use of force” comes in.65 Politics can be understood as that dimension of the social life concerned with arriving at and giving effect to collectively binding decisions and rules. People are social beings whose agency can be erased by force, hence the need for individual and collective security, which has to be a key aspect of installing public order. For there to be such order there have to be rules and institutions but given conflicts of interest between individuals and groups, the possibility of coercion exercised by a public authority is unavoidable. But while there are different forms of coercion that can restrict or curtail the free exercise of agency, force is still different from coercion in that it attacks agency itself.66 For the exercise of force there has to be what Bromley calls “physical co-presence”, which in turn requires “territorial proximity”. Political order then for him can only be for a segment of the human population and for a segment of the planet’s territorial space. Political life means there will be “insiders’ and “outsiders”. Or as Bromley puts it, “We live together politically if we live under a political order at all, in a qualitatively different way to the ways in which we might live together economically or culturally. The corollary of this is that we also live apart politically in ways that are different to our economic and cultural differences.”67
The transcendence of capitalism on a world scale may or may not eradicate an inter-state system completely. But it is only conceivable on the basis of a much deeper and widespread understanding and acceptance of an internationalism that by its very nature replaces the pull of nationalism even if for part of the journey an increasingly progressive internationalism will have to go along with the pursuit of more progressive nationalisms. But given that we are now faced for the first time in human history with three great and universal evils that are intimately connected to a globalising capitalism, the need for transcending it should be deemed incontestable. The human species itself is threatened by possible mass devastation through dangers humanly created. Now more than ever is there a need for a response that subordinates our national differences to what we collectively share as global dilemmas. 1) Even as there is the most obscene and historically unmatched levels of wealth concentration and inequality, ‘Basic Needs’ (which now go well beyond the eradication of malnutrition to include health, education, leisure, respect and personal dignity, freedom from fear) for so much of the world’s population are and will remain unmet. This is not because of scarcity of resources but in spite of the fact that for some time now the age of such scarcity globally is finally over! 2) Ecological limits of various kinds are in the process of being crossed with profound negative consequences for the delicate metabolism that connects humans with nature. 3) The cloud of a nuclear conflagration and nuclear winter looms constantly over us even as it shifts its geographical positioning.
The Imperialism of Human Rights
In the post-Cold War era it bears reminding ourselves that in contrast to the sacralised and personalised states of the pre-modern past, the advent of nationalism and of the nation-state was an important democratic advance because of the principle inherent in it of popular sovereignty, i.e. rule in the name of the collective interest of the ‘people’ constituted as the nation. Moreover, if one were asked to identify what on the world scale constituted the single greatest democratic advance in the second half of the 20th century, the answer should be both obvious and incontestable. It was decolonisation, even where a local dictatorship replaced foreign colonial rule. One of the crucial background conditions, objectively speaking, that greatly facilitated rapid decolonisation was the presence of a socialist bloc of countries that supported decolonisation and in opposition to western powers provided (however selective and half-hearted at times) material and political-diplomatic support to anti-colonial movements and struggles, and vied with the west for influence in these newly independent countries. The legal-political reflection of the reality of decolonisation at the international level was the institutionalisation of the principle of formal equality and national self-determination of all nation-states. Thus the supremacy of state sovereignty was declared in Article 2(1) in the UN Charter; that of non-interference and the ban on armed force from outside is embodied in Article 2(7) of the UN Charter with the only exception allowed being the “right to self-defence” in Article 2(4) of the same Charter. Chapter VII of the Charter says that if a state threatens a “breach of international peace”, then as a last resort measure (when all other steps have been tried and failed) armed action can be sanctioned by the Security Council (SC) against that state.68
It is not a coincidence that with the collapse of the socialist bloc of countries, the UN has been much more easily suborned by the US and that external military intervention in the name of ‘humanitarian intervention’ and ‘regime change in the name of democracy’ became the new ideological banners in which the west led by the US dramatically escalated their selective interventions in the developing world. Selective in that this is not directed against allies no matter how authoritarian they are or when they carry out a “breach of the international peace” by their illegal military acts, e.g. those by Israel over the years both inside and outside the Occupied Territories, and by Saudi Arabia more recently in Bahrain and Yemen.69 This has rightly been called the “imperialism of human rights” and is invariably justified in the name of national interest(s) by the external intervening power(s). Never absent though are claims about the more universal or international political-cum-normative virtues of taking such a course. It is this political-cum-normative claim that needs to be investigated here.
The issue is not external intervention per se but about forcible, i.e. military intervention for humanitarian reasons, which is a category of action qualitatively distinct from the application of international sanctions against the government in question and even from external supply of arms to a particular combatant in an internal civil war situation. There are three stances or positions one can take. The first is to rule out all and any exceptions to what is already laid down in international law and the UN Charter. The five main arguments for why an unqualified rejection of any such military intervention taking place are as follows. 1) Do not ignore the issue of the motives of the intervener(s). States don’t intervene for humanitarian but for politically self-interested reasons and purposes. 2) State sovereignty is supreme. Citizens are the exclusive responsibility of their state and their state is entirely their business. 3) Don’t promote the further possibility and likelihood of abuse by adding another ‘exception’ in the name of human rights to what already exists by way of exception in the UN Charter. 4) There will always be selective application of the principle of forcible humanitarian intervention. Therefore, there will always be inconsistency in this policy. 5) There is no agreed consensus among the states of the world on what should be the principles on which forcible humanitarian intervention would be justified. It is better for the world that the order currently provided by upholding the principle of non-intervention that already legally exists (and is near universally accepted), be reaffirmed than to allow the internal disorder that would result from accepting periodic violations of this principle in the name of human rights.
The second stance is to insist on forcible humanitarian intervention. Here the basic arguments are as follows. 1) Promotion of human rights is at least as important, if not more so, than international peace and security. Articles 1(3), 55 and 56 of the UN are, or should be, as or more important than the exception provided by 2(4).70 2) Legally these articles cannot be said to override the existing injunctions concerning external military intervention. But it is argued that whatever the legal position, this is not the same as the moral position. Morality may require in certain cases forcible humanitarian intervention to end slaughter. The existence of a legal right enables action but does not determine it. 3) It is outcomes not motives that are paramount. Also outcomes are both short-term/immediate and longer-term. The short-term considerations are met by intervention to stop the human suffering. But there are also longer-term considerations to be met so intervention can and should in certain cases be prolonged to ensure proper economic, social, political reconstruction. How long will be the period of ‘prolonged’ intervention will of course be decided by the intervener.71
There is a third ‘qualified intervention’ position to which I subscribe. This is closer to the first than to the second stance. It states that for the most part forcible humanitarian intervention is not justified because one must respect the right of a people to overthrow their own tyrant. That is to say, the suffering people must themselves be seen as the primary agency of their own future. This is a normative stance of respecting a collective’s ‘freedom of agency’, which cannot be substituted for by an external agency. So a colonial oppressor and the end of colonial rule must be carried out by the colonised themselves with whatever help (including military) from outside, but it cannot be delivered by an external military intervention. The same applied to the case of the South African apartheid regime and, for another example, the overthrow of the Shah of Iran. The only qualifications to this principle when one would support an external forcible intervention is first when one side in a domestic conflict or civil war situation calls for, and gets, external military intervention on its side. Then the other side could be justified in calling and getting the same. This is what happened in southern Africa in the cases of Angola and Namibia in the 1970s/80s when South African forces under an apartheid government intervened and were countered and defeated by invited Cuban troops.
The second case would be when the situation is so grave that the very existence of a ‘people’ in substantial part or whole is threatened. Here outcomes, not motives, do become more important. After all, respect for the right of a people to overthrow their own tyrant must presume the existence of the people. Ethnic cleansing, i.e. expulsion but not massacre of a very substantial section of the population would not justify forcible intervention for they still exist. There is, however, an unavoidable ambiguity in this respect. There can be no definitive answer to the question of how large-scale a massacre would have to take place or is likely to take place in order for one to arrive at a judgement that a people’s existence is being threatened and therefore the necessity of carrying out an immediate intervention since this judgement is also connected to the absolute size of the overall population. Thus, on the one hand, the massacre of around 500,000 civilians during Bangladesh’s war of liberation — given the overall size of the population and the fact that the Mukti Bahini actually fighting the armed struggle within Bangladesh (for all their appreciation of Indian material support) were adamant that liberation should be the task of Bangladeshis themselves — would not have justified India’s military intervention.72 On the other hand, the massacre by Indonesia of 300,000 or one-third of East Timor’s population would have justified an external humanitarian intervention to stop this but did not get it. A similar case was that of Rwanda in 1994 when some 800,000 or 70 percent of Tutsis in the country were being slaughtered over a 100-day period. What made matters even more shocking was that while Romeo Dallaire, the then head of the UN peacekeeping forces already posted there, was pleading to the Security Council for more military support, the US acted to discourage a robust UN support until too late.
The UN definition of genocide is of no help since it talks of not just the whole of a population being threatened but also of an unspecified “part’ of the population and therefore lends itself to labelling even small-scale killings as genocide. The claim of genocide having taken place was then unjustifiably used to endorse NATO intervention in the Balkan conflicts after the collapse of Yugoslavia. By this third standard of ‘qualified intervention’, where external military interventions by any force or concert of powers whether UN sponsored or not should have taken place, these did not happen. Here the examples of East Timor in 1975 and Rwanda in 1994 stand out. A necessary act of intervention that did take place, though the motive was not principally humanitarian but nevertheless deserved to be supported, was actually condemned by most western democracies — namely, the intervention by Vietnam in Kampuchea to overthrow the Pol Pot regime, which in proportionate terms outdid the horrific massacres carried out by Hitler of Jews, gypsies and other designated ‘enemies’ of the Third Reich.73
In the post-Cold War era, the masks of humanitarian and moral concern have been more frequently donned mainly but not solely by the west to cover their imperialist behaviour. This is all the more reason, then, to recognise and oppose the ‘imperialism of human rights”!
Competing Nationalisms in India
Currently there is an ongoing battle for how one should understand Indian nationalism. The very fact that we have a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in power headed by a man with a hardcore Hindutva mindset is a clear indication of the significant strides that have been already made by the Sangh Parivar to impose their vision of India and its nationalism. There are those on the Left who believe the era of the nation-state and therefore of the ideology they associate with it — namely nationalism — is basically coming to an end and it is the pursuit of global democratic governance that should be the priority. They differ from liberal cosmopolitans in that the sought for global order must not be capitalist. Given the problems (some of which have been highlighted earlier) that must now be tackled globally, the terrain of anti-capitalist struggles must, they say, now be shifted to the extra-national and global terrains. Here, the basic orientation to nationalism is to see it as a basically negative phenomenon possessing little or no virtue. The global and the national are seen as conflicting principles of organisation. Therefore, insofar as one will have to fight against the forces of Hindutva in India, this should be done in the name of democracy and internationalism but not in the name of an alternative conception of nationalism to that being promoted by the Sangh Parivar.
However, for reasons that have to do with the continued importance of the nation-states system for capitalism, whether operating within or across countries, and because of nationalism’s powerful appeal to popular loyalties, we cannot escape political engagement at the level of the national. Marx, who in his Manifesto showed that he was really the first theorist of globalisation (though not of imperialism), nevertheless also recognised that the working class, to eradicate capitalism worldwide, would still first have to settle accounts with it at many a national level. The struggle for generating a progressive internationalism will require struggles to promote progressive changes at the national level as well. In India, given the determination of the forces of Hindutva to define the meaning of nationalism in the way they want means that they have to be confronted with a very different understanding of nationalism. That is to say, a nationalist vision that is much more open and inclusive and therefore constructed through wider struggles for democracy and radical transformation. But such a national project must also recognise its limits and its subordination to the even wider project of progressive global transformation.
In one of his numerous writings the late Benedict Anderson suggested that nationalism can be seen in two ways. It can be seen as something belonging to the past, an inheritance of some sort. In which case there is likely to be endless disputes about what the proper inheritance is and who are the proper inheritors? In India two competing versions of this ‘cultural nationalism’ (as the supposed essence of Indian political nationalism) are the respective historical legacies of ‘Hindu religion and culture’ (described in variant ways) and the notion of a ‘composite culture’ to which many plural cultural and religious currents are said to have contributed. But the latter is not a serious counter to the former. The question then arises what particular ingredient plays the biggest role in helping to ‘compose’ this plural cultural admixture that is supposed to lie at the heart of Indian nationalism? And here the candidate for the status as key composer that gets the most applause from various circles including those perceiving themselves as highly secular, is Hinduism. Moreover, both perspectives subscribe to the myth that a unique characteristic of India through the ages that has shaped its nationalism is its socio-cultural tolerance. Here cultural plurality, co-existence and diversity are being misread as meaning tolerance. However, any modern, as distinguished from any pre-modern, notion of tolerance is umbilically tied to a political culture of rights, individual and collective, which itself is a post-Enlightenment, modern development. No equivalent ‘culture of rights’ ever existed anywhere in the past.
This ‘inheritance’ approach to nationalism in the hands of Hindutva acolytes insists on there being a cultural essence — in this case ‘Hinduness’ as interpreted by them — that must then be recognised, appreciated and strengthened for it is on this foundation of ‘cultural strength’ that a strong nation can be erected. And for this the unity of Hindus is paramount. Furthermore, as Savarkar sloganised during World War II, “Hinduise all politics and militarise Hindudom.”74 But one can try and unite Hindus in only two ways. One way is to try and find a principle of ideological unity internal to Hinduism and organise around that. The only possible candidate for this is a loose and accommodating Brahminism. But given the cultural-emotional-material ballasts that Brahminism provides to the caste system, one can only go so far in this desired unification process. Greater prospects of success in this project of creating Hindu unity are deemed to come from finding and then organising around a principle of unification that is external to Hinduism, i.e. to postulate a ‘common enemy for all Hindus’. Here the ‘best’ candidate for villainy, given the Hindutva construction of Indian history, is Muslims and Islam.
Thus the political project of Hindutva is by its very nature anti-secular, anti-democratic and viciously communal. The cultivation of deliberately constructed grievances so as to arouse collective Hindu anger, fear, and even hatred then requires militant and aggressive posturing and mobilising around a) presumed iniquities of the historical past requiring rectification, symbolic or otherwise, e.g. the Babri Masjid-Ram Janamabhoomi issue; b) contemporary issues of presumed ‘bias/partiality/favouritism’ by the state, e.g. Article 370 or Muslim Personal Law; c) presumed threats to the existence of the Hindu family and ways of life, e.g. ‘love jihads’ by young Muslim males; d) mortal dangers represented by Indian Muslims who are guilty by virtue of mere religious identity of sympathy for or association with Pakistan-based terrorists and constitute an actual or potential fifth column for them and the Pakistan state.
Minority communalist politics and projects are morally speaking, equally reprehensible and must be opposed and fought against. But one must be clear that majority communalism is always more dangerous. One does not merely have in mind the disproportion in terms of deaths and casualties caused in communal riots by whomsoever are responsible — the overwhelming majority of riot victims throughout the history of communal outbreaks in India since independence are Muslims. But it must be understood that the ultimate political logic of minority communalisms is a movement towards separate nationhood while only majority communalism can hope to disguise itself as a form of nationalism and by doing so help to transform Indian society as a whole in a much more authoritarian fashion. Given the feedback relationships between all communalism, they all have to be fought against concurrently and with maximum vigour. But the distinctive and more powerful danger represented by Hindu communalism in India must never be minimised.
The second way of understanding nationalism is to see it as an ongoing political project that belongs to the present and future. That is to say, nationalism is what we will make of it! And in a multilingual, multi-religious, multi-ethnic society like India, that nationalism must not only be secular but democratic, where secularism is the necessary but not sufficient condition for having a democratic state. So more important than Indian nationalism being secular it has to be democratic. And this means that all the citizens of the country should be able to feel a loyalty to that country and state that is not coerced but freely given. Not, as pointed out earlier, a nationalism that is constructed by supposed descent but by consent willingly given. That is to say, there must be different ways (and not one uniform or laid down or ‘essential’ way) of being and feeling Indian! This in turn is only possible if all the diverse communities that make up India feel that their respective cultures, languages, religions, etc. are respected and that their secular needs and interests (as individuals and groups) are addressed with impartiality and fairness. This is why the construction of a more secular and democratic understanding of nationhood is crucial.
Nor can this process be separated from the larger issue of carrying out a wider transformation of the Indian polity, economy and society. Moreover, Marxists (and not only them) must reject that widespread understanding of nationalism as meaning or demanding loyalty to the nation above all else. The creation of the conditions for human flourishing is by its nature a universal and crosses all territorial borders. This has always been the lodestar guiding the allegiance to the socialist project. At a time when, as pointed out earlier, we are faced with dangers of a new kind caused by a globalising capitalism to the human species itself, the classical socialist internationalism of agency (the international working class) and of its goals, remains paramount.
At the heart of this text then lies a simple enough, though difficult to achieve, injunction — that the pursuit of a capitalist transcending socialism on a world scale is now more necessary than ever before! Rosa Luxemburg had it right all along when she declared that the choice before us was “Socialism or Barbarism”. And by barbarism she meant not the collapse, but the continuity of capitalism itself!
Courtesy Society for Marxist Studies, New Delhi.