Think of this post as a continuation of my older post “In defense of Nationalism”. If you have not read that one; then please do that before you criticize this piece. I strongly recommend to all that they read that piece before moving on to reading this one. Why? because this is more of a…
I was going to write a reply to your previous post (the defence of nationalism) but wasn’t entirely certain how I wanted to start or where I wanted to go, so I sort of got half way and then just left it. This new post has broadened the discussion up enough for me to get a better footing in where the discussion is going and how best to respond.
Let me start off by saying that at my core I’m a supporter of cosmopolitanism. That isn’t to say that I’m avowedly anti-nationalist, with mindless fervour. I recognise that nationalist notions do have their place and undoubtedly have played an important role in liberation movements. However nationalism is a tool, and only ever that. It is a socially constructed identity created to pull people together in liberation from or in defence against other constructed national identities. This is clearly shown in the way Rousseau first spoke on the matter in his advice to Poland: the notion of nationalism is promoted in so much that if Poland were conquered (primarily by Russia) territorially they would not be conquered as a people/nation.
In your previous post the examples you’ve used have been of similar instances: Palestinian resistance builds a Palestinian national consciousness to fight against the Israeli nationalist oppression, the Cuban revolution built upon a Cuban national pride to liberate from U.S. neo-imperialism, the Venezuelan national pride fought against U.S. interference. Similar instances provide the examples for the fight against colonialism in Africa, Latin American, Middle East; the national identity was built to combat the external or alien, oppressing national identity. In Iran the national identity worked to overthrow the U.S. backed Shah, but even then it could be argued that the constructed Iranian identity incorporated Islam as a major facet, and it was as much this sense of religious identity that built the revolution as it was the national identity. Lets also not forget that in the U.S. the end of apartheid was combatted by the concept of black nationalism as a focal point for the civil rights movement.
For me the primary blind spot of what you say on the matter of nationalism is because you forgo considering what nationality is in the first place. This is something of key, fundamental importance in considering how to progress further on the matter. Nationality is the concept that you are bound together with somebody in camaraderie on the basis of a unified idea of culture, of religion, of language, of ethnicity or geographic place of birth. Give or take some other social cleavages I haven’t thought of off the top of my head. These are not set in stone and they are flexible to someone’s own consciousness and life experiences, and also that of the society within which they exist.
To some people in the U.S. to be “an American” is to be white, Christian, English speaking, have been born in the U.S.. To be “a good American” similarly has connotations of a certain cultural value system attached to it (“that sounds socialist to me, you’re not a Red are you!?” – you get the picture). For such people if you were to try to re-appropriate the notion of “American” nationality it would be counter productive and they would be alienated as a result, just as to not use the language at all could be similarly alienating.
So we must also look at where this notion of nationalism really built from and how it was first used, to then further consider it’s use in a modern context. By most accounts the real first success of nationalist identity which caused a change in the way people associated themselves occurred and spread as a result of the French Revolution. French nationalism was built as a rallying call to end the oppression of the monarchy and the aristocracy and enable the people to have the vote. The sense of enlightenment nationalism is that it connects with a necessity for self-determination through representative democracy. These similar notions are still used today in the Arab uprisings with Libyan, Egyptian and so on struggles to achieve a vote for the everyday person in representative democracies.
The conflict itself to which you refer is entirely different in nature: the liberation of the proletariat from the bourgeoisie (if I may be so bold as to use Marx’ terminology). In the U.S., the U.K. and other “western” or “economically developed” states the struggle is entirely different because their governments are seen as being of the same nationality, without the foreign interference and already with an operative sense of self-determination. You cannot, in Britain, overthrow what is in the public consciousness a British government by decrying them as not British enough. Not unless you intend to invest a lot of time completely redefining (or predefining?) exactly what Britishness curtails. (Does David Cameron not eat enough fish and chips, does he not play enough tennis? Does this in itself legitimise the necessity of revolution?)
Even if you should succeed in re-appropriating the nature of the nationalist discourse the problem then arises as to what you are able to redefine it as because the concept of nationality is by definition a divisive thought process – to claim to be of a nationality that requires self-determination is to then create, define, label or associate other nationalities as being inherently different, alien, foreign. In instances where the people do not view themselves as being oppressed the tact must change entirely. To continue to use the nationalism argument for liberation, in a “democratic free state” is to make it necessary to construct a phantom nationality that oppresses which must be fought against.
The key in these revolutions is not that we must fight to build a national identity that cannot capture the necessary rhetoric of democratic liberation, nor does it have an oppressing nation to push against. The key is to transform the consciousness of the people and alter where their perception of shared interests lie. To bring to them realisation that they are oppressed by the corporations, by the ruling classes and by the bourgeoisie. Not to create a movement for a revolution that relies upon a national identity which is flexible, fluid and so easily able to be co-opted and mis-appropriated.
Instead it is necessary to create and reinforce identity which is inclusive to all irrespective of skin, language, faith – the consciousness of the proletariat and workers solidarity. A solidarity which transcends national identities, geographical borders and other arbitrary divides and unites all peoples.
Without succeeding in doing this the revolution is destined to fail as isolated and unable to expand or work with other groups. What’s more the building of this trans-national consciousness is important at the early stages because the domino effect caused by such solidarity is clear to see – from the way movements across North-Africa, the Middle East, Europe and the U.S. (notably the struggles in Wisconsin) have been able to communicate, inspire and incite. To lose this path and to get bogged down in a redefinition of nationalism to suit a new purpose is not only a waste of time, it is counterrevolutionary. It has its time and its place, but the U.S. movement is not one that will be benefited.
You’ve quoted Che on revolution already, so I shall quote him again to perfectly surmise exactly what it is I’m referring to.
“… the transition took place from a revolution of national liberation to a socialist revolution.”
– from Cadres for the New Party in Che Guevara Speaks.