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February 2000 (Volume 51, Number 9)

Notes from the Editors

Isaac Deutscher once said that, in dealing with some questions, Marxists have to wear gloves. If memory serves, he was talking particularly about the nationalisms of the oppressed.

The “national question” has, of course, always been a thorny subject for socialists and a major bone of contention among leading Marxist theorists. But the most serious engagements with the national question, the most substantive debates among socialists, happened a long time ago and in response to very different historical conditions from the ones we’re living in today. Much of the discussion happened at a time when the history of ethnic nationalism had barely begun. Today, we have many decades more of ethnic/national conflict to look back on. Although we live in a “globalized” world where the nation-state is supposed to be in decline, there’s never been a time when the world has come face-to-face more dramatically with the destructive consequences of ethnic-national divisions. Yet we’ve hardly begun to address the problem as it confronts us right now, in our own very particular historical conditions.

The conundrum of the national question obviously isn’t something we can resolve, or even adequately sketch out, in these Notes. But because we’re running a piece in this issue that asks us to confront this contentious question in a particularly provocative way, we thought we’d just outline some of the general problems socialists have faced in grappling with it.

Even singling out some bare essentials is hard. So much depends on specific historical conditions, and so many different kinds of social forces and political struggles have come under the rubric of “nationalism” (and, for that matter, “internationalism”). “Nationalism” can cover everything from fascism to socialist anti-imperialist struggles. But we can at least make a start with a few essential points.

In very general terms, the problem comes down to this: internationalism is a matter of fundamental principle for socialists. We’ll leave aside here the questions raised by even this apparently uncontroversial proposition. (For instance, does, say, the Soviet Union sending the army into Hungary mean the same thing as Cuba sending doctors to Angola or Vietnam?) We can presumably all agree, at the very least, that an inclusive human emancipation is the goal of the socialist project, and the solidarity of working classes across ethnic and (so-called) racial boundaries is an indispensable condition of achieving that goal. We may believe that the domestic front should be the first terrain of socialist struggle, or, on the contrary, that the struggle has to move immediately on to the international stage. But either way, as socialists, we share a commitment to the universality of human emancipation and to socialist solidarity.

Measured against that basic standard, the idea of nationality, especially defined in ethnic terms, is bound to be problematic for socialists. We’re not, of course, talking here about the linguistic and cultural diversity that enriches human life. The problem is rather the notion of a closed and exclusive community, in which membership is determined effectively by blood (even if the ties of “blood” are more mythical than real) and sustained by coercive force. That exclusive and divisive idea of nationality is, on the face of it, hard to square with socialist conceptions of inclusive emancipation. And, of course, the principle of nationality—even the “right” of national self-determination, with all its emancipatory connotations—has often served oppression and imperialism, no less than liberation, not to mention all the bloody conflicts conducted in the name of nationalism.

At the same time, in certain historical conditions, and given the prevailing social forces, national liberation struggles have forced themselves onto the socialist agenda as the most direct means of confronting an oppressive power, even if only as a transitional goal. Struggles for national self-determination or against imperialism have, of course, often been led by socialists and communists. But even when they’ve been led by national elites, even when the best possible outcome has been the entrenchment of a national bourgeoisie no less inclined to oppress and exploit the masses than was the defeated imperial power, socialists have found it hard to turn their backs on the mass mobilizations generated by national liberation movements. At the very least, the argument has been that socialists have to align themselves with all such liberation movements or risk losing touch with the masses.

In those conditions, committed internationalists have often felt compelled to set aside all their fears about the dangerous consequences of nationalism, and ethnic nationalism in particular—their fears not just about the installation of a new, national, system of class domination but also about the destructive impulses generated by divisive ethnic exclusivity. So, like Isaac Deutscher, socialists have often worn gloves in dealing with the national question, in solidarity with the oppressed and for fear of giving aid and comfort to the oppressor.

It’s hard to go beyond these generalities without considering historical particulars. Besides, we have to keep in mind the ways in which the world has changed since the major socialist debates on the national question. Consider, for instance, the historical moment in the wake of the First World War, when some of the most heated controversies about the national question first erupted. This was a moment in which the issue of nationalism was mainly shaped by the collapse of the Russian, Ottoman, and Habsburg empires, the ferment of national movements that inevitably followed, and, of course, the 1917 Revolution. Compare that world to ours, in which the sovereignty of the capitalist market, under the aegis of one unchallenged superpower, has replaced older forms of imperial domination.

Consider, too, that, if today there’s a longer history of national liberation and anti-imperialist struggles to look back on, there’s also a much longer record of destruction and human suffering inflicted in the name of nationalism. So now more than ever, there’s a lot to think and talk about here.

In this issue, we’re publishing an article that challenges the analogy repeatedly invoked by NATO between the Kosovo Albanians and the Jews in the Second World War. With its legalistic argument and difficult style, it probably needs to be read more than once in order not to be misunderstood, but even then, any article that combines such hugely sensitive issues will inevitably generate strong feelings, both for and against. We can’t comment here on every aspect of the argument. But because it concludes with—in fact, the whole argument leads up to—an uncompromising case against ethnic nationalism (definitely no gloves here), we thought it might be useful to put that part of the argument into some kind of context by talking about some of the historical and political contradictions that have always complicated the national question. Whether readers agree or disagree with the piece, it’s hard to deny that this kind of gloves-off treatment forces us to concentrate our minds on thorny questions we might prefer to avoid but which any serious socialist has to confront.

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