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Letter

Dear Editors

by Matthew Williams


I'm glad Matt Hern raised the thorny question of the relationship between anarchism, nationalism and self-determination in his article "The Challenge of National Self-Determination: The Pitfalls and Contradictions of Anarchism and Nationalism". It's something anarchists have needed to address for a while since we are often involved in solidarity work with Third World self-determination movements. While I would agree with his argument that "the possibility of a directly democratic, ecological society emerging from within independence movements is much greater than if these homelands are colonized and disfigured by imperial domination," I find many of his other basic points problematic.

Hern's understanding of the nation as inherently organic and distinct from the state is an ahistorical oversimplification of a concept that has a tangled, contradictory history. I think his implicit equation of self-determination and nationalism is mistaken as well. Finally I believe it is mistake to support every nationalist self-determination movement across the board with out looking at the social and historical context in which each occurs.

Historically, the concept of the nation rose in the early modern period in an incestuous relationship with the modern state -- which is why we now speak of the predominant form of political organization as nation-states. With the rising merchant class throwing their weight and their money behind the kings, the latter were able to set about creating centralized modern states. Nationalism was the ideological cement that the kings used to try to bind this together, replacing loyalty to lord and locality with the idea that all people within the boundaries of one state should share a common civic culture -- a culture imposed from the top down; later the idea that all should be equally protected by the laws of the state came along as well.

The concept of the nation was a power of increased centralization, not of decentralization. This process goes on even today in the recently decolonized African continent, as elites there try to create nation-states of peoples with very disparate ethnic identities.

The organic notion of the nation to which Hern latches on has more recent origins, in the romantic movement of the nineteenth century. It changed the older notion of the nation subtly from the idea that all who lived within a common state should share a common culture to the idea that all who shared a common culture should live within a common state. It invoked reified notions of racial and/or cultural purity, tying them to ancient history, bonds to the land where the nation was born, etc. Although it certainly had potentially progressive aspects with its turning to "folk" (peasant) culture and its stress on organic community, romantic nationalism also had a reactionary streak in its emphasis on cultural and/or racial purity (indeed, little distinction was made between race and culture in the nineteenth century). Romantic nationalism became one of the main philosophical streams that gave birth to fascist ideology.

In practice, these two forms of nationalism (territorial and romantic/ethnic) are not clearly distinguished but blur into each other. Take the debate on immigrants in the United States. The standard conservative line is that they should learn English and assimilate to the dominant culture -- territorial nationalism. But a strong dose of ethnic nationalism is also involved, for there is a determination to keep any more immigrants (particularly non-white ones) out. The two veins are not clearly separate, but play off and blend with each other.

The main problem with romantic or ethnic nationalism, both in its nineteenth century form and as Hern presents it, is that it is totally ahistorical. There is no such thing as a pure national or ethnic identity. Every ethnicity has its origins in the interactions and interminglings of varied peoples. New ethnicities, new nations in the romantic sense, are continually being born as others dissolve or are absorbed. In other words, we are all mongrels.

The Seminole Indians, for instance, were born in the face of Anglo-American imperialism, as black slaves fled and mingled with the Creek Indians in the swamps of Florida, giving birth to a new people. In the Balkans the three ethnic groups of Bosnian, Serb and Croat all speak the same language (Serbo-Croatian) and share much of the same history. They are distinguished only by the religions their ancestors adopted -- Islam, Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism respectively -- in the course of the struggle between Western Europe, the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire for dominance in the Balkans. One of the tragedies of the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina is that many people there were of mixed heritage; many people did not even think of themselves as Bosnian, Croat or Serb at all but as Yugoslav -- a new ethnic identity. The civil war forced these people to choose an identity as Bosnian, Croat or Serb and take sides against their kin and neighbors.

Even the most isolated Native American tribe in the Amazon in no way represents some pure nation going back into the mists of time. Their history may be unrecorded and only half-remembered in oral transmission, but we can be sure that at various points they broke off from other tribes and combined with still others. There is no pure ethnic identity. It is always shifting and changing, sometimes within a single lifetime; some people may have multiple ethnic identities -- both Bosnian, Croat or Serb and Yugoslav, both Italian or Irish and American.

Given this complicated history, we have to recognize that the quest for self-determination and nationalism are not the same thing as Hern implies. Self-determination is in perfect accord with the basic anarchist principle that people, both individually and collectively, have the right to control their own lives and their own futures. Nationalism, even taking it in only its romantic/ethnic sense, is in no way necessarily a progressive, decentralizing force. What is Slobadon Milosevic if not a nationalist? And his and his followers' quest for an ethnically pure Greater Serbia if not racist and imperialist?

Too often, as in the Balkans, people of different ethnicities share a common land and supporting self-determination on an ethnic basis promotes violence and authoritarianism, not peace and grassroots democracy. An approach to the Balkans situation more in accord with anarchist principles than supporting the break up of the Yugoslav Federation into ethnic nationalist republics, would have been to preserve the multi-ethnic federation while working for more decentralization within that framework. After all, anarchists don't just support local control, but local control within a framework of regional federation and cooperation; anti-racism; and artistic, scholarly, religious, etc. exchange -- not local control with neighboring localities constantly at each others' throats.

Similarly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can not be simply settled by creating separate homelands for Jews and Palestinians. Both peoples claim the same land as their homeland. To support Jewish nationalism is, as recent history has shown, to support the dispossession of the Palestinians. But to support Palestinian nationalism would now, after many years and generations of Jewish settlement, mean dispossession of Jews. The two people have to find a way to reconcile their differences and live together in the same land, in the same political framework, as equals.

Any anarchist support for self-determination should be based not on a common ethnicity but a common sharing of a given territory. Self-determination has its roots in the idea that the colonies of the Western European powers should have the right to determine their own form of governance; not that oppressed ethnic groups should have the right to secede. If self-determination is to remain a liberating force, it must remain territorially based and rid itself of ethnic chauvinism -- both that of imposing one elite culture on all people within a territory and that of ethnic cleansing. Instead self-determination movements must break new ground for finding room for all ethnicities within a territory to live as equals.

There are, of course, cases like those of Native Americans, East Timor or Tibet, where territorial self-determination and ethnic nationalism seem to coincide and both seem to be in accord with anarchist principles. But even these situations may not be cut-and-dried. Take the plight of the Tibetans. If Tibet should regain its independence and the Tibetans set up a nonviolent, grassroots democracy, what will they do with all the ethnic Chinese that have migrated there under the encouragement of the Chinese government? Ethnically cleanse them? The Tibetans will have to find a multi-ethnic solution to this dilemma.

As anarchists, I think we have to take each struggle for self-determination and each nationalist movement on a case by case basis. We have to ask the hard questions of whether this movement will promote peace and grassroots democracy or will it promote interethnic violence and authoritarianism? For any given situation, there may be no clear answer or the answer may change over time.

I think it would also be best for anarchists and other progressives to explore alternatives to both elitist, homogenizing notions of territorial nationalism and ahistorical and potentially reactionary notions of romantic nationalism. An author who has begun doing this is the Jewish-Puerto Rican feminist Aurora Levins Morales in her book Medicine Stories. She begins to show us ways to preserve the progressive elements of romantic nationalism with its emphasis on a return to folk culture and organic community, while countering the reactionary elements of racial and ethnic essentialism. Using her own mixed heritage, she find ways of celebrating people's ethnic heritages that recognize that these identities have changed throughout history and are interwoven with each other. There are ways that we can simultaneously celebrate our diversity and our common humanity. This seems far firmer ground for building true democracy on than narrow national identity.

Matt Williams
Somerville, MA

 

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