The Left and the Nation: Unresolved Ambiguities

Commentary No. 419, Feb. 15, 2016

The term “nation” has had many different meanings across the centuries. But these days, and ever since the French Revolution more or less, the term has been linked to the state, as in “nation-state.” In this usage, “nation” refers to those who are members by right of the community that is located within a state.

Whether those who form a nation give rise to the creation of a state or a state creates the category of a nation and thereby rights within the state is a long-standing debate. Myself, I believe that states create nations and not the reverse.

The issue however is why states create nations, and what should be the attitude of the “left” to the concept of the nation. For some on the left, the concept of the nation is the great equalizer. It is an assertion that everyone (or almost everyone) has the right to full and equal participation in the decision-making of the state, as opposed to the rights of only a minority (for example, the aristocracy) to full participation. Today, we often call this a Jacobin view of the nation.

Jacobinism gives rise to the category of a citizen. Persons are citizens by birthright and not because they have a particular “ethnic” origin or a particular religion or any other characteristic that is attributed to them, either by themselves or by others. Citizens have votes (as of a certain age). Each citizen has one vote. All citizens are therefore equal before the law.

According to this perception of citizenship, it is crucial to consider all citizens as individuals. It is crucial to suppress the idea that there are groups who might be intermediaries between the individual and the state. Indeed, as an even more rigid view of the nation might suggest, it is illegitimate for such other groups to exist: all citizens must use the language of the nation and no other; no religious group can have its own institutions; no customs other than those of the nation may be celebrated.

In practice, of course, people are part of many, many groups that constantly assert their demands of participation and loyalty on the part of their members. In practice, too, and often under the guise of equal treatment to all individuals, there are innumerable ways in which the equal rights of all citizens can be abridged.

The idea of citizenship can get to be defined primarily as the suffrage. And there are multiple limitations on access to the suffrage. The most obvious and numerically important one is sex. Suffrage was limited by law to men. It was often limited by income, a minimum income being required to vote. It was often limited by race, by religion, or by how many ancestor generations had been resident in the state. The net result was that what was originally conceived as a great equalizer did not in fact embrace everyone or even a majority of persons. It often embraced a rather small group.

For Jacobins who thought of themselves as the left, the solution was to fight for expansion of the suffrage. And over time, this effort bore some fruit. The suffrage did indeed get extended to more and more persons. Somehow, however, this did not achieve the objective of making all citizens, all members of the nation, equal in access to the supposed benefits of citizenship – education, health services, employment.

Given this reality of continued inequalities, there arose a counter-Jacobin view of the left. The counter-Jacobin view saw the nation not as the great equalizer, but as the great mesmerizer. The solution was not to struggle to suppress other groups but to encourage all groups to assert their value as modes of living and modes of self-consciousness. Feminists insisted that not only should women obtain the suffrage but that women had the right to their own organizations and their own consciousness. As did communities of racial and ethnic groups, so-called minorities.

The result has come to be that the left has no single view of the nation. Quite the contrary! The left is torn between ever more deeply opposing visions of the nation. Today we see this occurring in many different forms. One has been the exploding character of demands linked to gender, the social construction of what had once been thought of as genetic phenomena. But once we’re engaged in social construction, there is no obvious limit to the rights of subcategories, already defined or yet to come into social existence.

If gender is exploding, so is indigeneity. Indigeneity is also a social construction. It refers to the rights of those who lived in a certain physical area earlier than others (“migrants”). Pushed far enough, every single person is a migrant. Discussed reasonably, there are today significant social groups who do see themselves as living in groups that are significantly different from those who exercise power in the state and who wish to continue to maintain their communities in their principal existing modes of living rather than lose these rights in these boundaries because the nation asserts the rights of a nation.

One last ambiguity. Is it left to be internationalist, one-worldist, or is it left to be nationalist against the intrusion of powerful world forces? Is it left to be for the abolition of all frontiers or for the reinforcement of frontiers? Is it class-conscious to oppose nationalism or to support national resistance to imperialism?

One could take the easy way out of this debate by suggesting that the answer varies from place to place, moment to moment, situation to situation. But this is precisely the problem. The global left finds it very difficult to confront the issues directly and come up with a reasoned, politically meaningful attitude toward the concept of the nation. Since nationalism is arguably the strongest emotional commitment of the world’s peoples today, the failure of the global left to enter into a collective internal debate in a solidary manner undermines the ability of the global left to be a principal actor today on the world scene.

The French Revolution bequeathed us with a concept intended to be the great equalizer. Did it bequeath us all with a poison pill that may destroy the global left and therefore the great equalizer? An intellectual, moral, and political reunification of the global left is very urgent. It will require a good deal more of a sense of give and take than the principal actors have been showing. Still, there is no serious alternative.