It must be understood that, literally, everything has changed in modern
society with the demise of the world-historical challenger or rival of
capitalism, the international workers’ movement.1 However momentous,
this is usually hidden from view, as if it did not affect or modify ‘Western
history’, that is, a seemingly uninterrupted history of unruffled capitalist
domination. In reality, the whole culture of the West since 1848 has been
steered by the need to make sense of this adversary, which has thrown
everything into doubt.
As Martin Heidegger wrote to Herbert Marcuse on 20 January 1948:
‘concerning 1933: I expected from National Socialism a spiritual renewal of
life in its entirety, a reconciliation of social antagonisms and a deliverance
of Western Dasein from the dangers of communism’.2 This kind of
rejuvenation of the natural order was the programme of ‘reaction’ as it had
been perceived by the ruling class, i.e. that communist subversion wanted
to resist the agonistic and competitive order.3 This once was supposed to
be able to select the excellent and the superior and communism wished to
replace it with a new social dispensation in which the weak, the base, the
vulgar, the uneducated, the unruly, the ungainly would gain the upper hand
over the bold, the cunning, the clever, the gifted, the dominant, the elegant,
the beautiful, the strong, the cultivated, the connoisseur, where gentlemen’s
influence would be undermined by women, by ‘pederasts’, by people of
colour and mostly by workers common as muck.
But this old reaction had to give way to a younger one as the biopolitical
constraints of caste (noble versus ignoble; social differentiation and distinction
by birth) could not hold their own any longer after the Enlightenment and
after the spreading of industrial and commercial capitalism. These constraints
had been, as it were, exported by imperialism: the difference between
metropolis and colony, between settler and slave, between whites and people
of a darker hue, has kept the importance, even centrality of biopolitical
inequality alive. The egalitarian discourse in Europe and North America
– despite its origins in Rousseau and among his more radical followers –
was mostly preoccupied by injustice and discrimination within the white
colonial nation-states and within the similarly white continental empires,
and not outside them.
Then as later, ‘rule of law’ regimes, constitutional ‘democracies’ in need
of citizens’ consent – traditional deference, monarchist sentiment and oldstyle
religion being on the wane – had (and still have) the enormous task to
explain why equal rights did not result in equal power and equal wealth for
all. Then as now, the main explanation was nationalism; then as now there
had been three main competitors to the idea of the nation – class, race and
After a century and half of the immense theoretical, sociological, political
and historical writing on nationalism (with which I have dealt elsewhere),
the retrospective verdict on ‘nation’ and ‘nationalism’ can be summarized
as follows.4
The idea of the nation is, or rather was, paradoxically, a universalist
notion. It presupposed a preliminary, tentative idea of the ‘common good’
and of ‘public interest’ which ought to be common among citizens with
different private interests and aspirations, as befitted their differing stations
in life – a ‘common good’ transcending these differences and embodied by
the nation-state. This ‘common good’ could not be reduced to any narrowly
defined material need, as it encompassed perceptions of common security,
dignity, identity and the complicated idea of ‘collective’ liberty (usually
expressed as ‘national sovereignty’ and as ‘national independence’) that had
to be protected from rival nations suspected of designs of conquest or, at
least, of intentions of gaining influence over ‘us’. But the problem remained,
always, why and how should this ‘common good’ and ‘public interest’ –
outlined by Enlightenment thought – be limited geographically. Which is
the factor that could trace convincingly the boundaries of such a polity so
that the public interest would not reach beyond them, so that the common
good would stop at the frontier?
The answer had to be found beyond Enlightenment thinking in something
that has been customarily called Romanticism in Europe: the ‘rational’ idea
of the ‘common good’ and of ‘public interest’ had to be circumscribed by
‘experiential’ and ‘emotional’ considerations of inherited custom, especially
that shaped by a shared political past (called ‘common history’), by ethnic or
dynastic identity, by denomination, by language (meaning a written literary
tradition). In one word: by culture. In order to attain the necessary limited
conformity, the nation-state had to unify these elements by forcible or
voluntary assimilation of minority groups, by merging dialects and idiolects
into a national language (remember those ‘patois contre-révolutionnaires’
denounced by Saint-Just), by creating a unified national history through the
educational system and through the draft (universal and obligatory military
service), by introducing a unitary public administration and legal system – all
based, in the modern manner, on a collection of canonical texts and of visual/
aural symbols. Langue d’oc, Gaelic or Catalan counted as ‘patois’, French,
English and Castilian (‘Spanish’) as languages. In the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries, the use of ‘dialects’ (and of minority languages) was occasionally
forbidden and punished. The dominant ‘civilized’ language, tradition or
Leitkultur was chosen arbitrarily and, frequently, ‘created’ arbitrarily and
artificially by the dominant bureaucracy and the new intelligentsia.
Siding, as it had sometimes done, with hard-pressed cultural minorities,
but having been in general impatient with particularisms and separatisms,
the international workers’ movement regarded nationalism as a fraud, as an
instrument of the ruling class to subdue egalitarian feeling by ‘inventing’
reasons for cross-class solidarity and to succeed in mobilizing the oppressed
against themselves. This was the only ‘historical bloc’ to resist nationalism in
the nineteenth century, and it is forgotten that this was why it was considered
the public enemy, the first to be accused of ‘rootless cosmopolitanism’ (a
charge later extended to others). But the socialists were wrong or, rather,
simplistic. Not everything deliberately or artificially contrived is fraudulent.
Many – but not all – modern nations have been founded on the basis of old
territorial states, some of the unifications and separations which led to the
birth of such nations have been sincerely desired by a majority of politically
active people (always a minority, particularly at that time).
It is a fact that the ‘national pasts’ constructed by institutions fashioned
to serve this purpose (well-guarded national borders, national currency,
national banks, a state system of elementary education, academies,
universities, ‘historical societies’, dictionaries, encyclopaedias, archives,
archaeological and folklore collections, history and ethnography museums,
national theatres, popular history book series, patriotic children’s literature,
militarist-chauvinist poetry, brass band military music in the city park,
patriotic statuary everywhere, mass-circulation xenophobic newspapers,
never-ceasing nationalist parades and festivities suggesting ‘pride’ and
‘honour’) and undergirded by political measures (forcible imposition of the
official language, drives to change foreign-sounding names, banning foreign
or minority language schools, changing geographic names, forcing people
to participate in various nationalistic pledges, oaths, campaigns, officially
fomenting hatred and contempt for neighbouring nations and domestic
minorities called ‘nationalities’) were vastly fictitious and propagandistic.
The poison injected in our veins in the 1820s is still circulating.
Nevertheless, nationalism remained universalistic: in spite of this tasteless
and pernicious pompiérisme and war mongering, it was possible to become a
member of the dominant nation through linguistic and cultural assimilation.
These nations wanted – with well-known exceptions – to attract, not to reject,
to construct cultural unity, conformity, uniformity and not hostile diversity.
Cultural assimilation was an admission price to civic equality; the republican
idea was regarded as the merger of cultural and political characteristics; a
‘political community’ considered to be united in civic practice, common
loyalty, unified in the shared tradition of a people solid in its enmities and
sympathies. It was real and it was the source of unprecedented political and
military strength. It was meant to replace religious piety, feudal deference
and loyalty to the crown, and it did. Modernity was seen by the ruling
classes as intrinsically divisive and uncertain as modern science and modern
philosophy was ‘dissecting’ reality regardless of cherished old prejudices and
of once widespread feelings of dependence on a timeless and hard cosmic
order. Nationalism seemed to be the answer and, for quite a long time, it
The retrospective construction of a supra-historical national past (which
presented, e.g., rapacious imperial-territorial conquest by the warrior
nobility as an ‘old conflict between nations’) succeeded in hiding the
novelty of capitalism and managed adroitly to ensure the identification of
the downtrodden and of the have-nots with the interests of their masters,
surely the key to political supremacy in modern societies, then as now. The
nation, heir to the Third Estate, was supposed to possess (and be united by)
a commensurate system of rights and obligations. The trick was (and is) to
separate the political from the economic and the ‘social’.
In capitalist society, the political is the legal. The highest power – usually
parliament and parliamentary government – is exercising its prerogatives by
‘passing legislation’, i.e., by concocting texts (laws, statutes, legal norms) and
by ensuring conformity and obedience to them under penalty of law, that
is, under legal coercion administered by learned and uniform interpretation
of those texts by the courts. This is a highly abstract way of governance, in
keeping with the predominantly abstract character of modern capitalism.
What is legal is public, and at the same time mandatory or obligatory.
Authority pertains only to the public and to the binding.
Labour, though, is officially considered to be a private affair, a voluntary
act between legally equal and equidistant contracting parties, governed
by the offer and demand of the commodity ‘labour’. Private contracts –
voluntary acts, acts of freedom – are regulated externally by a superior and
neutral third, the state. Any arrangement and understanding between private
contracting parties, if outwardly legal, is a private affair, and its fairness has
to be ascertained by the concerned, not by the political community as such,
nor by its lawful representatives.
Socialism is nothing else but the attempt to make this private affair public,
to transform ‘economy’ into ‘politics’ and thus, it is a major heresy. Breaking
through the hallowed dividing lines between ‘public’ and ‘private’, ‘contract’
and ‘statute’, ‘obligatory’ and ‘voluntary’, ‘economy’ and ‘politics’ would
mean the obliteration of the bourgeois idea of liberty. Also, it would mean
breaking up the unity of the nation by showing that there is not one public
interest, but that there are – at least – two. The emphasis is on the ‘public’.
The political constitution of the proletariat, i.e., socialism, if true and
effective, is relocating the major societal division from the struggle of nations
for territorial, military, cultural and political primacy into a supra-national
(or international or global) class struggle. This would herald – among other
things – the end of nations and of nation-states.
To relegate labour into the realm of the ‘private’ as being a feature of the
market that belongs to civil society, not to the state, that is, to the domain of
contractual relationships, of voluntary associations – and these contracts can
be tacit of course, like in the sphere of the Öffentlichkeit – is the flipside of the
alienation of labour, its political translation, if you wish. (One should recall
that strikes were once illegal because they had been regarded as deliberate
breaches of contract.)
The assumption that labour and the market do not belong to the public
sphere is a myth, but a founding myth of bourgeois society. In principle,
coercion can be legal only if it is exercised by the state as stipulated by law,
within certain prescribed limits. If the private contracting parties agree to the
severe curtailment of one partner’s personal freedom, if they agree, indeed,
to his or her submission and subordination, so be it. Such servitude is freely
assumed and it can be terminated at will, like an S/M routine freely accepted
by two or more partners where submission need not be prolonged beyond
the rendezvous and it is recognized as play, the epitome of freedom in classical
humanism. But work is certainly not playful.
Needless to say, technology and work discipline – nowadays extended
to educational requirements, dress code, speech habits, personal hygiene,
style, rhythm, pacing, speed, manners, language in the myriad offices of the
giant global state, para-state and business bureaucracy – a kind and degree
of servitude and confinement no medieval serf would have put up with for
an hour, let alone for the interminable length of a contemporary workday,
prolonged further by ‘creativity’, ‘passionate interest in one’s job’, ‘fun’ and
good fellowship. Old-time peasants at least did not have to wax effusive
about the delight of it all.
Technology for the worker is the mode of appearance of capitalist
domination. As wage labour – which is an institution of capitalist society
– is totally alien from the aims of production (producing use-value for the
satisfaction of consumers’ needs), technology is for the proletarian a set of
prescriptions regulating his or her behaviour while working for a wage
and is equally external for the capitalist whose aim is accumulation.5 But
it is imposed in an obligatory fashion upon the worker; this is institutional
coercion shaping the worker’s time and steering his or her activity. There
is no escaping it, hence it is not true that it is uncoerced. It is an obligation,
thus it is political. For it is only politics that is allowed to prescribe obligations
without the consent of the concerned. And if technology cannot be escaped,
labour cannot possibly belong to the realm of contract, to civil society.
The political meaning of the concept of exploitation is the most radical
denial of capitalist legitimacy. This forced the workers’ movement to adopt
internationalism as its main political doctrine which – in modern conditions –
is also a denial of institutionalized political power (the nation-state) as well as
a rejection of property and of the (patriarchal) family. It tends to be forgotten,
but it was quite clear to everybody around 1900 that internationalism was
a radicalization of the idea of perpetual peace, as it tends to be forgotten,
too, that perpetual peace was a revolutionary idea. The official teaching was
that civil war (revolution) was illegitimate, but war legitimate. Socialism
had taught the opposite of that. Global class struggle would create perpetual
peace, as the agent of war (the supreme coercion), the state, will be dead.
Even today, if there would be tens of millions of people believing this, the
powers-that-be would be frightened. One needs to have a little historical
imagination to picture how this kind of ‘godless communism’ affected those
stable, conservative, puritanical, diligent, respectful, hat-raising societies of
the late nineteenth century.
This is not only about the early bourgeois (mercantilist) state, which was
violently on the side of capitalism (from the enclosures to colonial conquest
to the re-invention of slavery). It is not even about the well-known class bias
of the bourgeois state, still the main target of a non-Marxian left committed
to the exploited and to the indigent. It is about what the bourgeois state is.6
The customary definition of modern power – absolute (exclusive)
control of a state over a given territory and over the population thereon –
is dependent on the perception that the state not only represents, but also
expresses the political community, i.e., the nation. Law is living morality. The
state protects freedom, that is, civil society, that is, contractual relationships,
that is, wage labour.7
If you resist and reject exploitation, alienation, reification, then you will
have to reject the nation-state, which both represents and conceals them.
The main idea of a successful nation-state, the ‘common good’ transformed
into the veiled injunction of ‘national unity’, presupposes such a cross-class
solidarity that no socialist movement can possibly accept it.
And when it did accept it finally – in August 1914 and also later within
‘socialism in one country’ – it destroyed it. The communist revolutions in
Europe from 1917 to 1923 had been revolutions against ‘national unity’
and cross-class national solidarity, a result of which was and is war, so it was
against a progressivist, reformist, gradualist and positivist social democracy.
Old social democracy, the first serious proponent of a welfare state within
the boundaries of an egalitarian state capitalism, was only consequent to
support the ‘war effort’ as it has replaced the socialist aims with equality,
workers’ corporate rights, shorter working hours, higher wages, paid
holidays, old-age pensions, cheap housing, socialized healthcare, free general
education and universal franchise, all perfectly compatible with a modern
capitalist state, an enlargement of liberal objectives, supported by imperial
bureaucracies and by the left-leaning bourgeoisie and its press. The price of
admission was nationalism.
The communist revolutions have radically opposed nationalism and war;
the bourgeois state had opposed communism by invoking ‘the nation’. An
adamant refusal of cross-class solidarities, the secret of electoral success then
as now, was simply incredible. To reject the ‘common good’, embodied
in the nation and represented by the state where the acknowledgment of
irreconcilable conflicts within it appeared tantamount to treason or simply
immoral, seemed suicidal in day-to-day politics. By desiring the dissolution
of national frontiers and the creation of a new international community free
of exploitation, oppression and ideology, modern socialism ignored even the
Rousseauian idea of a people and contradicted tradition and custom to an
extent that was unheard of since the inception of Christendom. The collapse
of the Second International demonstrated indeed that desiring sincerely the
socialist goals was impossible, that the International fell (and would always
fall) apart into warring fragments which joined their respective national
bourgeoisies in a intra-national conflict, proving thereby that socialism was
merely a weltfremd daydream, felled by the irruption of reality.
But then of course the question will arise: if the ‘common good’ fought
for heroically by the various imperial armies is something regional, sectional,
particular, peculiar – that is, not ‘common’ at all, but un-common everywhere
– then what is the universal substance that will create this phenomenon
throughout the human universe? Which is the general principle of which
nationalism is a special case? If you listen carefully to Max Weber, the reply
to this question is that the historically or randomly formed identities around
the modern state are subject to the demonic influence of capitalism, an
agonistic social order where polemos, the Greek spirit of war and battle, is the
rule and eirēnē, goddess of peace, is the exception: polemos may be irrational,
but it is rooted if not in human nature, then in the nature of human history
and certainly in the nature of the triplet capital/state/technology.
In Weber’s and in so many others’ view, pacifism, internationalism and
communism are illusions, a refuge for the weak who don’t get it because
they can’t. This is especially because he follows Montesquieu in believing
that political virtue is passion, ‘a sentiment and not a consequence of
knowledge’, only that for Montesquieu the passion of love of the country
had been the reigning ‘principle’ (i.e., passion) of a republic which means
an egalitarian regime.8 How can such a passion arise in a hierarchical society
such as that of any country in 1914 where class antagonism was not only
expressly and consciously experienced but acknowledged by most people as
something self-evident?
A natural substance had to be found which links together – in a given
polity – people with different interests, aspirations and memories, lord and
serf, mendicant and magnate, man and woman, city-dweller and peasant.
The answer was, as we know, race. Beyond doubt, it is rather difficult to
make a valid inference from race to political form – what kind of a state
would truly fit, e.g., the Celtic or the Germanic race? – but this answer may
address, at least formally, the need for cross-class solidarity in a given polity
as opposed to other polities. The necessity in any given state to overcome
self-interest – the first step in each and every kind of politics you might
imagine – is at least, formally again, made irrelevant by the idea that it is the
racial essence or substance or substrate that is talking through you when you
speak of public affairs.
At the same time, old-style nationalism had a universalistic streak in it, to
wit, it presented itself to itself as a fair summation of a number of rights among
which the most important is certainly the right to self-determination in the
case of every ethnic group desirous of settling down in its own politicalterritorial
state – a right, by the way, fully granted only by the greatest antinationalist
of them all: Lenin. The right for political self-assertion for every
group is the liminal case of nationalism which would oppose imperialism,
war of conquest, colonial subjugation and ethnic inequality; it would be
conducive to autonomies and federations. It is significant that this extreme
version came only after the inferno of the First World War, and it was
offered, paradoxically, only by the October Revolution (while it lasted – and
it didn’t for long), and it has inspired Third World liberation movements (it
still does in Baluchistan and Kurdistan, and still is opposed by imperialism).
Notwithstanding all this, attitudes not linked to nationality, ethnicity and
the hierarchic state (Obrigkeitsstaat) are simply not believed to be authentic
in the capitalist era, such a behaviour being explained either, simply, by
ulterior motives or by moral peculiarities of its bearers, peculiarities wanting
an interpretation.
A force which has refused to identify with any nation, only with a
universal class (or seemed to), had to be identified. The ethnic identity of
a resolutely supra-ethnic and supra-national movement was easily found
(i.e., Jewish). On the old right, communism was regarded as an alliance of
the working class with the secularized Jewish intelligentsia. There is some
truth to this, a weighty and thorny matter, which I shall not even begin to
examine, only as an aspect of my chosen topic. It was during the First World
War that supra-ethnic, political nationalism – that made Jewish assimilation
and emancipation possible – had begun to disintegrate, together with the
old liberal empires, grounded in ‘enlightened absolutism’, which defined
political capacity as an affair between subjects and the Crown, regardless of
status (noble or otherwise), of denomination, ethnic tradition, language or
region – a position forced upon the reigning dynasties and their courts by
their ancient feud with territorial aristocracy and their reluctant alliance with
patrician city burghers. It was this alliance and its Enlightenment ideological
and bureaucratic apparatus which enabled Jewish emancipation, and when
the main players either disappeared (kings and emperors) or changed (the
bourgeoisie, becoming reactionary), the process of emancipation was halted
and the non-ethnic and non-denominational elite alliance deemed to be ‘the
nation’ was smashed into fragments by the war.9 As capitalism is an abstract
conceptual system in which personal servitude and deference and political
obedience play a subordinate role, and the bourgeois state is ruled by law,
that is, by written text, modern power must be perceived as something
called ‘spirit’ by Hegel and Humboldt. But then this spirit ought to have a
body. This body had been identified as Jewish.
When people had to discover the secret of impersonal (abstract, conceptual)
rule, they had to find a hypothesis that would put something substantial or
natural behind it. This – since class power is indirect and abstract in market
and rule of law régimes – had to be a human group which was neither
a class, nor a state nation, moreover one which is clearly transgressive as
regards national boundaries, being found in many polities, linked together
by something other than class or law. An ethnie which could be – rightly or
wrongly – identified with international finance and with the international
workers’ movement (and then with ‘cold’, ‘impersonal’ science and with
‘destructive’ philosophic and cultural forms, called ‘Kulturbolschewismus’ by
Goebbels) addresses this need admirably. Gradually, this non-state ethnie will
become the model for ethnicism, as classical citizenship (in the republican
sense) will be weakened (to the brink of extinction) in late capitalism,
especially after 1989.
The imaginary replacement of ‘the nation’ by ‘class’, which has entailed
internationalism and an end to statehood as it was known hitherto,
contradicted the general wisdom acquired during the First World War,
namely, that politics was a battle to death between races and states. As the
right, not any longer aristocratic or mandarin, but middle class, identified
itself with this presumptive lesson of the war, and was facing the new
realities, it had – for strong ideological reasons – to look under every stone
to find who was behind something believed to be incomprehensible, if not
unnatural. The explanation was, of course, that socialism and communism
served the Jewish interest, so it was as ethnic or racial as any other political
aspiration, the interest of a stateless people that wanted to make everybody
White Guard-type anti-communism could not fight another, hostile
nation, as it had to face an international movement; but nation-states had
to oppose other nation-states in order to keep their identity and cross-class
substance. In the nationalist imagery, hostile minorities (not classes, as they
were not recognized as legitimate belligerents) had to take the place of other,
enemy nations: they had to be racial, as class was considered an unreal,
fraudulent, treacherous notion. Citizenship was reduced not to adherents
of the dominant Christian denominations, but to Aryans; and racial aliens
which belonged to a cross-national, universal entity had to be excluded
from the equal citizenship granted to the Aryan nations, purged from the
universalist element, targeted as Semitic, in cahoots with the barbarous
oriental, the Russian and (later) the Chinese. This is the moment of the
birth of National Socialism and other fascisms.
Ethnicism begins with Nazism, but it is not necessarily or even
predominantly Nazi. The breakup of bourgeois nations – triggered by the
communist revolution – resulted in the abandonment of universal and equal
citizenship within nation-states (within bourgeois nations), so much so that
it had become increasingly difficult to imagine localized universalism – also
called the liberal bourgeois state – self-contradictory anyway. This has been
resurrected after the defeat of Nazi Germany and of the Axis powers in
the Second World War, with the help of the Soviet Union, of the West
European communist parties and others. One should not forget that it was
the Soviet system that has created the most generous and costly network
of ethnic autonomies, following the theory not of Lenin, but of another
Marxist, Otto Bauer. Russian and other East European communists did
not any longer believe in a possible end to ethnicity and to other kinds of
human separateness, they only tried to reconcile it with the fundamental
fact of Enlightenment-type central power. (But we must never neglect
the part played by imperialism and colonialism in all this. The first ethnies
treated as non-nations, where citizenship as such did not apply, were the
‘coloured’ groups bereft of a political status: a special code for indigènes, that
is, the colonial subjects of France, was valid until 1944 when the anti-fascist
provisional government of General de Gaulle threw it out, something that
even the Popular Front has not dared to change. Colonial borders were
drawn irrespective of traditional, national or ethnic entities, dictated only
by natural, economic and military interests; hence the intractable ethnic and
denominational problems of most Asian and African countries, where the
attempts to achieve non-ethnic, abstract citizenship, and a pervasive notion
of cross-class and cross-ethnie national interest have almost uniformly failed.)
They have thereby conceded the force of fascism. Or at least the
force of an element of fascism and Nazism. Conventional historiography
notwithstanding, these latter have not sought the aggrandizement of the
nation-state, they have been in search of a space for the ethnie, by conquest
and genocide (ethnic purification or ‘cleansing’), creating empty swaths of
the earth to be populated by the seed of the master race. ‘Germans’ were
neither subjects, nor citizens. The ethnie that the Third Reich represented
was thoroughly and profoundly apolitical. In the Nazi imagination, the only
institution was the army, a supreme unity encompassing all males (and even
some females) whose only function was the creation of empty spaces for a
fantasy warrior tribe. Ethnicism has inherited this apolitical character, and
this is why it is so little understood. The biological (genetic inheritance:
race) is so essential because it is the soil on which the new, trans-institutional
humankind grows, beyond any conceivable notion of public interest. The
only interest is self-preservation and self-identity.
All philosophical critique is rejected; everything conceptual is – in keeping
with the modernist framework – merely a mask behind which there is
nothing else but the hypocritically hidden ethnicity of a weak and cowardly
adversary. Anti-philosophy, whose source and origin is always Heidegger, is
strangely parallel to ethnicism: it is not ‘unmasking’ like critical philosophy –
finding the hidden and often unsavoury substance behind the mask, beneath
the façade – but rejecting conceptual ‘masks’ as such, since there is no
concept, only self-assertion or will of random clusters of humans shaped by
historical happenstance. ‘Relativism’ is a word which would underplay its
radicality. When ethnicism is, as it were, in opposition – as it is now under
global capitalism – it does not, like rebellious groups have done in the past,
invent and propose a different version of justice, it will only emphasize its
difference and sui generis being without any attempt at justification. Bare,
unadorned being will suffice.
The old romantic cult of silence – the strong, wordless hero, the unutterable
mystery, the inexpressible suggestion, the intuition that wordy reason will
never comprehend, the primacy of the act over thought – returns. Being,
which is always specific and peculiar, cannot be grasped by language made
universal and general by grammar. The ethnie is what it is. (This is where
Wittgenstein is close to Heidegger, and both are related to Johann Georg
Hamann, the holy clown of romantic philosophy.)10 Paradox, irony, ‘depth’
unexplained, inaccessible for the ‘raisonneur’. What is being ignored here is
that the market, too, is irrational or better: unreasonably self-explanatory, it
cannot be summed up rationally or conceptually. The market is not hostile
only to state intervention and egalitarian redistribution, but to all politics,
which is by necessity conceptual and moral – even if it embodies a morals you
passionately reject, the market is as apolitical as ethnicism. Small wonder that
some of the most potent ideologies of the bourgeoisie were romanticism and
its cognates. Late liberalism’s idea of freedom is freedom from the concept,
which is tantamount to freedom from politics. Late, anti-Enlightenment or
(dread word) ‘post-modern’ liberalism is deluding itself – due to its remnants
of benevolent humanism – in opining that ethnicism and romanticism are
‘archaic’ while it would stress the autonomy of everything partial, particular
and peculiar, irreducible to ‘abstract generalizations’ and the like, these being
synonyms for power and for the imposition of a utopian, i.e., ‘totalitarian’
ideal. The same goes for contemporary conservatism, but no matter. One
cannot say that ethnicism is an ally of any definitely circumscribed political
regime. It is rather a feature of the decomposition of progressive bourgeois
regimes both of the western and Soviet variety and of the Third World
developmental dictatorships.
With the defeat of old-style social democracy and of Bolshevism, the
universal element always resisted by nationalism was seen as the newfangled
version of capitalism, market globalization, embodied politically by
different versions of liberalism. The world domination of financial markets
came to be regarded as akin to the ideology of human rights (opposed to
biopolitical discrimination based on race, gender, age, health and the like,
but not necessarily egalitarian where class is concerned). ‘Common good’
and ‘national unity’ seemed too universalist for the spirit of the age. And
now, after the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, it is Great
Britain’s and Spain’s (and Ukraine’s and Kosovo’s and Montenegro’s and
Macedonia’s) turn to be disintegrated. The aspirations of discriminated and
oppressed ethnic minorities are not aimed at the universalist idea of civic and
social equality – witness the Muslim movements in European cities – but
to separation and to the wholesale rejection of the bourgeois and supraethnic
nation-state. In my country, ‘Hungarian’ means someone who is not
Roma and ‘Christian’ means a Gentile. Hungarian minorities in Romania,
Slovakia, Serbia, etc., count as ‘Hungarian’, but not all Hungarian citizens
within Hungary do. The frontiers of nation-states are irrelevant.
There’s no telling apart the Russian army and the pro-Russian irregulars
in the present conflict in the Ukraine. This is not merely a trick: the Russianspeaking
ethnic minority in East Ukraine in the eyes of everybody in the
area is classified as Russian: ethnicity is all, nationality is nothing. Ethnic
cleansing is a logical outcome: minorities cannot be tolerated, assimilation is
disbelieved, as ethnic or racial belonging are considered the only valid basis
for state-formation or for the replacement of the state with a self-asserting
social being without any discernible form. In Europe, the national level of
politics is much weakened: there is an international institution, the European
Union; everything beneath it ought to be ethnic, racial or denominational.
The universalist nation-state with its liberal or socialist rationale and its
Enlightenment Vernünfteln (ratiocination) is simply disbelieved as something
that cannot exist. The nation, if it did exist, was only something artificial,
i.e. non-existent, inducted by the foreigner. All versions of the political are
considered – in opposition to the classical republican ideal, including its
Rousseauian idiolect – as inferior to authentic human existence, this latter
being reduced to a radicalized tradition purged of high culture (an artifice
of cosmopolitan urban elites). The result is a curious indifference to politics
among ideologically committed people, considered to be the realm of private
interest, in contravention to any previous definition of politics. ‘Politics’
in this view is but an instrument, and a pretty value-free one, of an amoral
community of kith and kin, opposed to all other communities of this ilk, not
because they are wrong, but only because they are there.
So ethnicists can, if need be, cooperate with divergent political forces
and, indeed, become parts of various political groups, infecting them with
their apoliticism and their ‘value-free’ attraction to power, especially military
and police power. But they tend to be closest to right-wing anti-bourgeois
‘Völkisch’ anti-capitalism is nothing new: capitalism is supposed to dilute
ethnic and racial identity and togetherness. The leftish nationalism (not
ethnicism) of Syriza is distinctly old-fashioned (they are in favour of the
emancipation of discriminated ethnic minorities in Greece, while resisting
great power Diktat from abroad). Still, European post-fascists and neo-fascists
are greeting Tsipras with great enthusiasm. (And they were doing so even
before Syriza’s coalition with the right-wing Independent Greek Party.)
They are doing so because they suspect liberal capitalism of anti-ethnicism
and universalism, according to Mussolini’s theory about ‘proletarian nations’
and ‘bourgeois nations’ and, in Eastern Europe, according to the Nazi idea
of ‘old nations’ and ‘young nations’. Having appropriated the tiers-mondiste
idea of US (and, in Eastern Europe, of West European) ‘hegemony’, the
ethnicist and racialist new right in Europe harks back to proto-Nazi theories
opposing culture and civilization, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. The liberal
‘left’ cannot think of anything else but being ‘European’, with all the colonial
connotations this entails. However, opposing ‘ethnic’ and ‘European’ plays
into the hands of the ethnicist new right: neither class, nor – for that matter
– the nation are reinvented.
But it is not only the far right that is ethnicist in Europe today. European
‘multi-culturalism’, unlike (or more than) its North American elder sister,
is rather ethnicist in defending and even glorifying any minority subject
to persecution or discrimination without regard to substantive aspects of
their politics. I happen to think, too, that it is our moral duty to defend
persecuted groups regardless of their principles, but this should not mean
a ‘value-free’ approval of each and every principle that might be shared
by victims of discrimination, however heinous. Approval of or respect for
mutually exclusive views only because they are held by humans who by
virtue of existing are members of communities believed to be natural is
ethnicist. It is apolitical and amoral. But this is, of course, the lesser problem.
The affirmation of unreflecting, irreflexive and ineffable social being
in absolute unreasoning opposition to all similar social beings imagined as
consequences of genetic and cultural inheritance without the intervention
of self-examination will smoothly lead to tyranny, as critical consciousness is
not perceived by ethnicism as evil, but as absurd and impossible. Economic
and political arrangements are commensurable with ethnicism if they would
accord with the ethnies’ imagined natural characteristics, and they can be
construed as arbitrarily as you please.
Ethnicism, as ought to be obvious by now, is the result of the dissolution
of late capitalism without the benefit of an alternative. It would appear that
the defunct modern bourgeois state has been propped up by proletarian
counter-power and adversary culture – without which universal franchise
and the welfare state would have been well-nigh impossible. One of the
most extraordinary historical facts, veiled modestly by chroniclers’ cant, is
that the international human rights regime had been created at San Francisco
by, among others, Joseph Stalin and Andrey Vyshinsky. The disappearance
of this world-historical competitor means that things taken for granted, like
the rule of law and liberal nationalism, are not necessary components of
modern capitalism, as fascism has convincingly demonstrated. But fascism
was defeated by an unbelievable alliance of liberal imperialism and Soviet
‘socialism’ (planned, egalitarian state capitalism led by working-class cadres).
Fascism forced the Soviet Union to become nationalist and to make its peace
with western liberal imperialism. But the victorious Soviet Union and, later,
the Chinese People’s Republic, on the one hand, coerced the West to
become more egalitarian and to accommodate, up to a point, the proletarian
adversary in places like Italy and France and, on the other, to renounce its
colonial empire. It was an agonistic and antagonistic world system, probably
the most ‘democratic’ in world history. This bipolar system ended in 1989
and, with it, classical nationalism.
Confusing or conflating nationalism with ethnicism is one of the major
failings of the contemporary left, a blindness that may herald new defeats.
Bourgeois nationalism – there is no other – was based on a state recognizing,
at least in the abstract, civic equality, and on passionate political participation
shaped by huge mass parties and open class struggles, on citizens’ armies
(the draft or national service), on general elementary education, literacy, the
popular press, on cross-class solidarity (civic patriotism), on constitutional
guarantees and a well-regulated free market, on public hygiene, on secularism,
on gender rights (at the beginning, divorce and abortion). The foundation
for all this has been the hypothesis that there are no natural barriers between
citizens, that people of ‘foreign’ extraction could be assimilated and ‘elevated’
in exchange for unconditional loyalty, including a cultural one, to the nationstate
and the hegemonic historical identity fashioned by the progressive and
patriotic clerisy drawn usually from the dominant ethnic group, unlike in
medieval times when minorities (such as the Norman French in England)
could be staatstragend elites. This nationalism had become conservative at
the beginning of the twentieth century, but through most of its historical
career – clearing the way before capitalism – had its liberating functions,
particularly when it was opposing arbitrary rule by monarchs (for example,
in 1848). But nationalism is dead.
The political craft needed for the creation of nation-states is moribund,
too. Next to the economic, ecologic and demographic crisis of late
capitalism there is a crisis of the bourgeois state, exemplified – alarmingly
– by the immigration and refugee disaster in Europe used mercilessly by
the right where it is not any longer possible to tell conservatives and the far
right apart. Long forgotten ethnic hostilities are flaring up again under its
influence. It is characteristic of the post-national situation that what remains
of European liberalism and the European ‘left’ takes refuge in the uncertain
institutional framework of the European Union (also incapable of solidarity:
see Greece) because it cannot even dream to stop ethnicism that is taking
the continent by storm, reinforcing the undisputed supremacy of a repressive
reactionary force siding openly and exclusively with the dominant white
ethnies of each state, rejecting deliberately, sans phrase, the last vestiges of
republican citizenship or, for that matter, elementary humanity. By declaring
an end to the belief that ethnically alien members of the political community
(civic nation) are capable of sharing in the public interest or even able to
understand the common good which is redefined in terms of cultural
identity and tradition (‘values’), the foundations of the bourgeois nationstates
are crumbling. The right has shifted its ground: it may still say that
it represents ‘the nation’, but in fact it does not. Citizenship as a privilege
means an end to the bourgeois nation whose main method for fostering
unity, the prerequisite of collective action, was assimilation predicated on
an undivided human universality as political hypothesis.11 Britain, where
the old constituent parts of the monarchy are drifting apart – while the
victorious Little England right, quite indifferent to ‘Old Blighty’, is fostering
a new identity based on anti-European and anti-immigrant savagery – is a
particularly nasty example.
The old right stood for order, discipline, obedience, honour and
deference. Ethnicism is chaos. It may be used perhaps for the purposes of
tyrannical domination – it is so used at the moment by the extreme right
in Europe – but as it is apolitical, it is also destructive. In the absence of an
emancipatory alternative to decadent capitalism, it might be an overture to
collapse and global counter-revolution.
1 This text, which is a fragment of a work in progress, will tacitly re-examine some
of my earlier assumptions which since their first appearance had lived their own life.
There will be formal similarities, as I think that my historical judgments have proved
essentially correct. But they’re just that, formal. See G. M. Tamás, ‘Ethnarchy and
Ethno-Anarchism’, Social Research, 63(1), 1996; and G. M. Tamás, ‘On Post-Fascism’,
Boston Review, Summer 2000, available at Compare
these with my older Les idoles de la tribu: L’Essence morale du sentiment national, Paris:
L’Arcantère, 1991, originally written in the 1980s for samizdat publication, brought out
finally by an émigré house, also in Paris, in 1988, in Hungarian, of which this French
version is the translation. It is characteristic of the times that the translator thought it
wise to chose a pseudonym, for she wanted to travel to Eastern Europe. Now I can
name her: Véronique Charaire, thank you.
2 Herbert Marcuse and Martin Heidegger, ‘An Exchange of Letters’, in Richard Wolin,
ed., The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical Reader, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993, p.
3 I elaborate on this ‘rejuvenation of the natural order’ in a public lecture delivered in
Zagreb on 15 March 2013, entitled ‘Once More on Post-Fascism’ (in English), available
on SkriptaTV’s YouTube channel at
4 You will find my detailed discussion of the theoretical literature on nationalism in my
works cited.
5 For the right, technology is the domination, not the instrument of domination. In
Heidegger, technology’s instrumental character appears (for he was more intelligent
than most reactionaries). But instrumentality is presented as a problem of means and
ends, where production takes a detour through technology while addressing nature, and
so it becomes a mere instrument instead of being a ‘bringing-forth of truth’ as technē was
once upon a time. See Martin Heidegger, ‘The Question Concerning Technology’,
in Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, New York: Harper
Torchbooks, 1969, esp. p. 6.
6 ‘The precondition from which economic theory begins is man producing in society.
The general theory of law, in so far as it is concerned with fundamental definitions,
should start from the same basic prerequisite. Thus the economic relation of exchange
must be present for the legal relation of contracts of purchase and sale to arise. Political
power can, with the aid of laws, regulate, alter, condition and concretise the form and
content of this legal transaction in the most diverse manner. The law can determine
in great detail what may be bought and sold, how, under what conditions, and by
whom. From this, dogmatic jurisprudence concludes that all existing aspects of the legal
relations, including the subject, are generated by the norm. In reality, the existence of
a commodity and money economy is the basic precondition, without which all these
concrete norms would have no meaning. Only under this condition does the legal
subject have its material base in the person operating egoistically, whom the law does
not create, but finds in existence. Without this base, the corresponding legal relation is a
priori inconceivable’. Evgeny Pashukanis, Law and Marxism: A General Theory, London:
Pluto Press, 1989, p. 93.
7 Obviously, at this point this essay needs a companion piece concerning the state.
Here I can only allude to a number of more or less recent Marxist writings on it,
such as John Holloway and Sol Picciotto, eds., State and Capital: A Marxist Debate,
London: Edward Arnold, 1978; Simon Clarke, ed., The State Debate, Basingstoke:
Palgrave, 1991; Associazione delle Talpe/Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Bremen, eds.,
Staatsfragen: Einführungen in die Materialistische Staatskritik, Münster: Westfälischer
Dampfboot, n.d.; Joachim Hirsch, John Kannakulam and Jens Wissel, eds., Der Staat
der Bürgerlichen Gesellschaft: Zum Staatsverständnis von Karl Marx, Baden-Baden: Nomos,
2008; the special edition of Antipode, 43(1), 2011; and Heide Gerstenberger’s work of
extraordinary importance, Impersonal Power: History and Theory of the Bourgeois State,
Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009.
8 See Bernard Yack, The Longing for Total Revolution, Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1992, pp. 42-7.
9 In an interesting book (Nationaler Antisemitismus: Wissenssoziologie einer Weltanschauung,
Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2001), Klaus Holz – followed by Claudia Globisch,
‘Was ist Neu am “Neuen Antisemitismus”?’, Krisis, 32, 2008 – emphasizes that Jews
as a non-state ethnie, in the European political imagination, would always represent ‘A
Third’ in the conflict of two nations as a sort of ‘universal enemy nation’ for every state
nation. Nationalism, thus, will always produce anti-Semitism. What these excellent
authors are neglecting is the retroactive impact of anti-Semitism on nationalism; this is
why they ignore Nazism as the last nationalist and the first ethnicist political ideology.
10 Compare this to Isaiah Berlin, The Magus of the North: J. G. Hamann and the Origins of
Modern Irrationalism, London: Fontana, 1993. In the preface (p. xiv), Berlin invokes the
device of all romantic philosophy: te saxa loquuntur, stones are talking to you. See J. G.
Hamann, Schriften zur Sprache, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1967.
11 For more on ‘citizenship as a privilege’, see my ‘On Post-Fascism’.