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The Lefts and Nationalisms
Workshop Number: WS25 – Workshop Director: Tudi Kernalegenn (Université catholique de Louvain) – Workshop Co-Director: Emmanuel Dalle Mulle (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya)
At a time of resurgent minority nationalism in some European regions, many of them clearly leaning towards the left, and when radical right and populist parties are attracting with success working-class support on the basis of welfare chauvinist proposals that pit natives against immigrants and globalisation in defence of the ‘national welfare state’, the study of the (often-troubled) relationship between the Left and the national issue acquires renewed relevance for both academic and practical purposes.
The aim of the workshop is to provide new perspectives on the relation between the lefts and nationalisms. We understand both concepts as being plural. This diversity must be an object of enquiry as well. It will mostly do so by looking with a non-normative perspective at the tension between the universality shared (or claimed) by different left-wing traditions, intellectuals and parties, and the particularism inherent in nationalism as a doctrine and a principle of political legitimacy. The workshop will also simultaneously analyse the cultural, economic, social and political aspects of this tension (and their inter-relation).
Whereas nationalism, and its product, the modern nation, could be said to be born on the Left at the end of the 18th century (Bell, 2001), the Left later came to be semantically associated with internationalism. Simultaneously, the Right, or even the extreme-right, acquired a near monopoly over nationalism. As a consequence, contemporary dominant left-wing ideologies, and notably social democracy, have largely tended to neglect the national issue.
Karl Marx’s interest in the topic being scanty, later thinkers, such as Lenin, Renner and Bauer, tried to fill the gap. Yet, none of them managed to formulate a consistent theory of nationalism (Haupt, Löwy & Weill 1997; Avineri 1991). Since the Second World War, left wing parties and politicians have been wary of engaging with nationalism because of the latter’s association with racism and the extreme right (Laxer 2001). Such a reluctance has been reflected in the scholarly production. In the 1970s, however, Poulantzas (1978) and Nairn (1977) innovated by arguing that nations and nationalism, despite resulting from the development of capitalism, were not the product of class struggle, but autonomous forces.
One of the main problems with this literature, which still continues nowadays (Kasprzak 2012, Ware 2019, Ryan and Worth 2010), is that it mostly consists of a doctrinal dispute within the Marxist left. In this respect, Walker Connor’s 1984 The National Question in Marxist-Leninist Theory and Strategy stands out as the first thorough comparative analysis of theory and practice concerning the compatibility of nationalism and socialism. Connor not only explains how Lenin doctrinally tried to compensate for Marx’s omissions about nationalism, but he also dissects the conduct of communist parties in the USSR, China, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Vietnam. This allows him to caustically conclude that, in the face of Marxism-Leninism’s prescription that communist parties had to harness the forces of nationalism for their own revolutionary purposes only to crush them after obtaining their goal, ‘nationalism has proved to be a much more powerful force than Marxism’ (Connor 1984: 584). Other strong contributions here are Nimni (1991), Schwartzmantel (1991), Forman (1998), Pasture & Verberckmoes (1998).
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, a number of scholars have dwelled upon policies towards minorities in communist countries, as well as in the post-Soviet space during the transition from authoritarian to democratic regimes (Brubaker 1994, Dawson 1996). These works have mostly taken the form of single case studies focusing on nation-building in former Soviet Republics (Yilmaz 2015, Ubiria 2015), on how the Soviet Union promoted ethnic identity, while repressing conflict (Hajda 1993, Slezkine 1994, Hirsch 2005), or on how communist parties in Eastern Europe dealt with nationalist issues at specific points in time and tried to make their policies consistent with Marxist ideology (Brun-Zejmis 2018, Sygkelos 2011). Some comparative studies have been carried out (Fowkes 2008, Gustavson 2010), but they are rather limited in number and scope. The main exception probably here is Kemp (1998), who has carried out a detailed examination of the relation between nationalism and socialism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in both theory and practice.
With regard to Western Europe and the Americas, one can find many case studies on left-wing ethno-regionalist movements, for example in Galicia (Beramendi & Nuñez Seixas, 1996) or Brittany (Kernalegenn & Pasquier, 2014), or on the lefts and the national issue in specific regions, for example in Wales (Jones, 2017) or Scotland (Keating and Bleiman, 1979). Specific research exists also on the Left and the national issue in some Western countries, such as France (Stuart 2006, Martigny 2016) or Spain (Blas Guerrero, 1989). What is lacking, however, is a comparative perspective enabling researchers to draw more general conclusions on the basis of consistent theoretical frameworks and more systematic analyses.
Of course, there are some exceptions. March (2011) has shown how some European extreme-left parties have blended their socialist rhetoric with a populism that often implicitly puts particularism before internationalism. Similarly, Laxer (2001) has pointed out how several left-wing anti-globalisation movements have made use of nationalist arguments about popular sovereignty to build up a case for the democratisation of world governance while at the same time defending internationalism. Yet, these comparative exceptions have mostly concerned extreme-left parties or movements. As a consequence, we know little about how social-democratic parties have handled such problems and used (or not) national identity to mobilise support.
This lack of focus on social-democratic parties is quite puzzling for three reasons. First, during the Trente Glorieuses most European social-democratic parties were able to contribute to the construction of powerful welfare states that, although being informed by classic left-wing concerns with equality, were also justified as national welfare states and were often consciously used as nation-building tools (Esping-Andersen 2004). Second, in the last 40 years, many European countries with important national minorities underwent constitutional reforms devolving substantial powers to regional institutions under social-democratic governments. Third, the rise of communitarianism in normative political philosophy from the 1980s onwards has challenged the colour-blind policies of mainstream philosophical liberalism (Kymlicka 1989). Since communitarianism has generally been seen as a direct opponent of liberalism (albeit often mistakenly), it has often been adopted by left-wing parties supporting minority rights, multiculturalism and social solidarity (on the latter see Miller 1989).
The literature on nationalism(s) and the Left(s) is therefore rich, but with problematic blind spots. Six major limitations can be singled out:
1. It tends to conceive of the Left in a monolithic way and to focus on disputes of Marxist doctrine over the practice of specific parties and movements. Additionally, it tends to neglect the non-Marxist Left (Republicans, Greens…).
2. It too often lacks a comparative dimension considering several cases from different countries and, even more, geographical areas.
3. It focuses often too much on ideologies, with a top-down perspective, and not enough on how on the field activists and citizens deal with such topics. The literature is too much dominated by political theory and political history, and not enough by political sociology.
4. Case studies have mostly focused on either cultural (relating to the management of cultural difference) or socio-economic (regarding the welfare state) issues, rather than to offer an integrative approach taking both dimensions (and their inter-relation) into consideration.
5. With regard to Western Europe, there seems to be a need to study how social democracy has handled problems relating to nationalism, as well as used national identity to obtain popular support.
6. Too many (left-wing) scholars have externalized nationalism as ‘the ideology of someone else’ forgetting in the process their own banal nationalism, their own ideology of the nation.
The workshop will thus aim to fill the above gaps by collecting and discussing the following types of contributions:
– Theoretical contributions on different forms of nationalisms (civic/ethnic, centripetal/centrifugal, hot/banal etc.) and the Lefts (progressive republicans or liberals, social-democrats, communists, greens…), thus taking into account the existence of different traditions. We will especially favour contributions analysing ideologies with a sociological and bottom-up perspective, at a grass-roots level.
– Socio-historical analyses (comparative or based on single cases) of specific parties, movements or intellectuals dealing with issues of national identity and using (explicitly or not, in an accepted way or not) nationalist language as a tool of political legitimation.
– Contemporary studies of left-wing policies towards managing cultural difference (both towards minorities and foreign immigrants) as well as the welfare state.
The conveners notably encourage the participants to look at the three following broad axes of research (and how they engage with each other):
– The cultural and the socio-economic dimensions of left-wing ideology and policy (as mentioned above, the former centres around the management of diversity, while the latter around the welfare state).
– Whether the most relevant national cleavage is internal to the state (as in the case of minorities) or external (as in the case of foreign migrants).
– When, where, why, for what and with whom do left wing organisations, movements and individuals frame their reflection with a national(ist) perspective?
The workshop will be open to junior and senior political scientists, historians and sociologists with an interest in the topic. Academic quality, an appropriate geographical coverage of different case studies, and gender balance will be the key criteria guiding the selection. Although privileging qualitative approaches that examine party discourses and practices, as well as theoretical debates, in depth and, possibly, over time, we will also welcome papers using quantitative methods.