38. Is a left nationalism possible?

Nationalism is commonly associated with the political ‘right’, yet as a philosophy it is sufficiently empty in terms of social and economic stances to allow other ideologies to mix in elements of it. In this essay we explore how a Left nationalism could look like.

Nationalism as an ideology of the political (far) right has gone through a revival in the last decade, of which the most important political changes probably was the comeback of neo-fascism. Recently in U.S.A. with Trump, in Brazil with Bolsonaro and earlier in Russia with Putin, the far right finally (re)gained executive power. These mutually sympathizing leaders won elections with an aggressive nationalist rhetoric, largely masking their empty social promises and elite economic reforms. More broadly conservatives and neoliberals have served themselves with nationalist slogans to gain electoral advantages from the United Kingdom to India.

    Yet the political Left has struggled to do the same. To start with, because of an accident of history the term ‘National Socialism’ is practically unusable, since this is what the Nazi’s (falsely) described their ideology as in the early days to trick workers before murdering their socialist wing. Today, in Europe socialist parties that adopt a more nationalist or migration-critical stance like the Danish one get critiqued for selling out to the far right, further adding to the erosion of European socialism.

    The situation is considerably different in Latin America, where progressive reform and nationalism often went hand in hand in the fight against imperialism and foreign backed elites. This is particularly true for Mexico, which finds itself in the unique situation where the traditional right has historically vacated nationalism. The Mexican right is thoroughly malinchista and outward oriented, aggressively defending the interests of Spanish and American elites, on who they often depend for their training, points of reference and residence after facing corruption charges. Nationalist anti-immigrant rhetoric as well as regional nationalism exists (especially in Nuevo León), but this is nationally not the mainstream. This creates a situation in which the left doesn’t need to sell out (to who?) to appropriate nationalism. In the rest of this essay we first discuss the concept and limits of nationalism, after establishing five criteria for a left nationalism. We end with the discussion of concrete policies.  

Nationalism in a broad sense refers to the promotion of sovereign nation-states. This implies that nations (= groups of people with a common identity) should be reflected in states (= territorial political entities). The world was of course not made with these nations nor states, which have to be constructed through policies, ranging from standardized education and national infrastructure, to military conquest and suppression.

    One of the important limitations of nationalism from a Marxist perspective, is that while it can generate unity, is on a larger scale divides the world population into (imaginary) units, making it harder to tackle collective action problems like global labor justice or peace. Another limitation is that given the world is so interconnected, nationalist policies always come with a certain blindness for the external effects and causes of political actions. For example there is an important difference between ‘solving’ the migration problem of a single nation state, and solving the migration problem (why people are moving) itself. Many more problems and inconsistencies could be analyzed, but the objective of this essay is to discuss if and under what conditions the Left could appropriate elements of nationalism. In what follows I will lay out five points of difference between a left and right nationalism.

1. Positive vs. Negative national identity. To some extent the national identity of a country is always fictional, but that fiction can be constructed by either defining what one is (positive) or what one is not (negative). The Right appropriation of nationalism often focusses on the exclusion of outsiders and the rejection of their culture, rather than devoting significant resources to the development of the own culture. The anti-Islam motive of many European nationalist parties is a good example of this. A positive nationalism that fits the left starts from pride of the people and their achievements. To be genuine, this love cannot be limited to high culture, but must be grounding in a love of the popular culture in general. While the Mexican conservatives now and then leave their tinted SUV’s to eat street tacos in business suits in front of the cameras, it is quite evident that in Mexico Morena embodies this form of positive nationalism the closest.

2. Diverse vs. Uniform national identity. Most of the historical horrors committed by nationalists, related to attempts to have only one type of nation (people) within the state. From outright killing other ethnicities in Nazi-Germany, to the rather bizarre Christianization campaigns the unelected Áñez government conducted in Bolivia. In a Left nationalism, inclusion in the nation is not based on common political and territorial experience, nor the fantasy of a single ethnicity or culture. In Mexico’s case, Left nationalism takes the form of actively encouraging and celebrating all Mexican cultures, not just the Spanish one.

3. Sovereign equality vs. imperialism. This insistence of national sovereignty usually implies respect for the sovereignty of other countries, who are equal under international law. Yet in an imperialist interpretation the own nation is seen as superior, and the national freedom is conditioned on the domination of other countries. A clear example of this is the Russian aggression against Ukraine, which is seen as a security state, implying that Russian sovereignty requires the violation of other nations to exist. Especially in today’s world, a Left nationalism must reject all such notions of inequality, but instead support an inter-nationalism that supports the development of other countries.

4. Economic independence vs. competition. Following closely on the latter point, a left nationalism is not focused on the competition with other nations, but on the ownership of its own assets. Instead of focusing on imaginary enemies or fighting trade wars, the objective is to increase the control the people as a nation have over their own economy. Here the parallel to socialism is clear: the nationalization of economic sectors and resources leads to less dependence on foreign capital and allows a more deliberate distribution of wealth. In an extended view, such resources don’t just relate to elements on the chemical table, but also ‘human’ resources such as education and the average health of the population.

5. Central solidarity vs. regionalism. Nationalism can be used to create patriotic solidarity, but also to create division by playing on regional pride. In right wing nationalism this often takes the form of wealthier regions developing an identity of superiority, and political actors using this to decrease solidarity with other areas. Politically, this helps to mask the absence of any real social-economic plan, as well as to undermine progressive taxes and redistribution. In a socialist interpretation, national solidarity could help to bolster support for national social policies and insurance systems, as well as facilitate a more centralized governance. This is a controversial point, since left-leaning regionalist movements exist, such as the Scottish, Catalonian and Quebec ones. Respectfully, it is my humble outsider impression that long term these regional movements rather hindered than helped the cause.

The above five points help imagine how a left nationalism might theoretically look like. A practical example of these principles would be the even-ongoing discussion on how the energy landscape should be organized. While part of the discussion focusses on sustainability versus economic needs, a large part directly relate to matters of nation sovereignty. In Mexico’s case: should we aim for (maximum) self-sufficiency, including both owning the energy sources and processing powers, or should this be outsourced and privatized to American and Spanish multinationals. The massive loss in potential income to foreign capital, the risk of foreign intervention, the dependence on market fluctuations, the instability of prices for consumers and the lack of control over the environmental effects of energy generation all suggest that socialists should adopt a nationalist stance. A similar case can be made for secondary resources such as lithium, which can either become a new source of national wealth, or find their place in the imperial production chain of China or the United States – all managed by some under the watchful eye of some ex-president, of course.

    The issue of national control also relates to environment: when did we get tricked into believing that the absurdity that the market was somehow a safer guardian of this than the state? Whether this or that policy is green enough is a separate discussion, but the capacity of the government (any government!) to control the development of energy seems a fundamental to any discussion on how it should do so. For example the building or updating of massive infrastructure projects like high speed electrical trains or hydraulic dams are hard to imagine without centralized governance.

This essay is not a direct endorsement of ‘left nationalism’ (I’m not a nationalist), but rather an imagining on how it could consistently be integrated in working class politics. Nationalism and its populist potential are here seen as an ideological battlefield (just like spirituality, education, etc.) rather than an independent system. In Mexico’s case, this battlefield is largely deserted, as the traditional right leadership has (often literally) sold out to foreign interests and increasingly physically resides abroad. If the left doesn’t occupy part of it, the field is open for a far-right populism to sprout, issuing in a new age of racism, classism, xenophobia and most of all a general waste of political time arguing over constructs. As a stranger, I sincerely hope that the nationalism of the future will be social and inclusive or will not be.