On race and nationality

As a radical left-libertarian movement, anarchism is intrinsically anti-racist. Opposing hierarchy and oppression, we of course oppose the most overt form of such. The idea that any one can be superior to any other based on race, gender, sexuality, or class is antithetical to the very concept of anarchy.

But what of the more subtle aspects of race and nationality as concepts? It is my intention to discuss these topics in more depth in the main articles of this blog. However, as a useful starting point what follows is an overview of the subject.

As Murray Bookchin states in Nationalism and the “National Question”, “one of the most vexing questions that the Left faces (however one may define the Left) is the role played by nationalism in social development and by popular demands for cultural identity and political sovereignty.” Whilst “the Left universally scorned the civilizatory claims of imperialists,” it always “regarded nationalism as an arguable issue.”

For Bookchin, the key fact is this;

That specific peoples should be free to fully develop their own cultural capacities is not merely a right but a desideratum. The world would be a drab place indeed if a magnificent mosaic of different cultures does not replace the largely decultured and homogenised world created by modern capitalism.

However, nationalists will often extend this to argue that that the cultures of different national and ethnic groups are incompatible and must be preserved as they are. Ironically, this is also the basis for the whole idea of multiculturalism. The difference is that, where nationalism would have these separate cultures “preserved” by putting clearly defined borders between them, multiculturalism argues that different cultures can exist side by side to create a richer “diversity” whilst still “preserving” them as separate identities. Essentially, multiculturalism is nationalism in microcosm, though presented as “positive” and “liberal.”

As Bookchin points out, anarchists “advanced humanistic, basically ethical reasons for opposing the nation-states that fostered nationalism” recognising that “national distinctions tended to lead to state formation and to subvert the unity of humanity, to parochialize society, and to foster cultural particularities rather than universality of the human condition.”

However, a distinction must be drawn between cultural freedom and cultural separatism. Errico Malatesta made the point that states are not “homogeneous ethnographic units, each having its proper interests, aspirations, and mission, in opposition to the interests, aspirations, and mission of rival units. This may be true relatively, as long as the oppressed, and chiefly the workers, have no self-consciousness, fail to recognise the injustice of their inferior position, and make themselves the docile tools of the oppressors.” In such a case, it is “the dominating class only that counts” and, “owning to its desire to conserve and to enlarge its power,” it “may excite racial ambitions and hatred, and send its nation, its flock, against ‘foreign’ countries, with a view to releasing them from their present oppressors, and submitting them to its own political and economical domination.” Thus anarchists have “always fought against patriotism, which is a survival of the past, and serves well the interests of the oppressors.”

This is because, as Rudolf Rocker argues, the “nation is not the cause, but the result of the state. It is the state that creates the nation, not the nation the state.” And it is the ruling class whom this concept of “nation” benefits;

[W]e must not forget that we are always dealing with the organised selfishness of privileged minorities which hide behind the skirts of the nation, hide behind the credulity of the masses [when discussing Nationalism]. We speak of national interests, national capital, national spheres of interest, national honour, and national spirit; but we forget that behind all this there are hidden merely the selfish interests of power-loving politicians and money-loving business men for whom the nation is a convenient cover to hide their personal greed and their schemes for political power from the eyes of the world.

Nationalism, then, “has never been anything but the political religion of the modern state” which exists to reinforce the state by acquiring the loyalty of those who share linguistic, ethnic, and cultural affinities. These affinities are not always natural, of course, because nationalistic movements have often created them with centralised education that forces an “official” language upon the people and suppresses cultural differences that already existed – indigenously – within its borders.

So what is the anarchist’s alternative? As already stated, we need to recognise the unique and diverse cultures of those peoples who, as Rocker observes, have “existed long before the state put in its appearance” and who should be allowed to “develop without the assistance of the state,” as such “interferes by violence with their life and forces it into patterns which it has not known before” making them part of “a whole array of different peoples and groups of peoples who have by more or less violent means been pressed together into the frame of a common state.” Hence, autonomy and freedom is vital to avoid people being forcibly homogenised either by the multiculturalists or by the nationalists.

Look at any group of individuals, and you will find a whole spectrum of contrasting and complimentary cultural loyalties that define their identity. Race, personal religious beliefs, religious heritage, nationality, ancestry, skin colour, gender, sexuality, current social class, class background, even things such as subcultural affiliations (punk, goth, hip hop, etc). Every single person has a multitude of both cultural commonalities and cultural differences with people around them, even with their own families, and between who they are now and where they come from. This is not only natural, it is an essential part of our ongoing evolution both as a species and culturally. Yet the nationalistic ethos treats people not as unique individuals but, to cite George Orwell, as though they “can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’.”

For anarchists, the response is not multiculturalism but the more nuanced idea of “polyculturalism;”

Multiculturalism focuses too much on “cultures” having autonomy, resources, and so on. I would say a polycultural outlook puts the focus on people and on whole societies. Polyculturalism recognizes that a single person holds multiple identities, multiple allegiances and affinities. We speak different cultural ‘languages’, and we can change. And to go from the individual to the society, polyculturalism recognizes that cultures overlap, they change, they evolve over time. They cross-fertilize, and all societies are in a permanent state of flux, with all kinds of often very creative exchanges and interactions happening.

So if a multiculturalist says that a society should allow all cultures to develop autonomously, a polyculturalist says fine. But the “wider society” has a culture of its own, and that culture is one that everyone would have to relate to. It is in this shared space where people of different cultures interact that the basis for solidarity can be built. So in addition to having cultural autonomy, it would be important that the shared space be representative of everyone, and be based on things that are universal (and I believe there are some universals). No one is going to live sealed off in a single culture. There is just no such thing -and there probably never was.

Likewise if a nationalist says that you should owe your primary loyalty and cultural affiliation to the nation, a polyculturalist says no, there are many loyalties and affiliations, that overlap and merge and change.

But such is not possible within rigid hierarchies of any kind, as with these come the same problems as the rigid hierarchy of the state. As long as the masses are stuck at the bottom of such a hierarchy, their individuality and their cultural evolution suppressed, then such local cultures cannot flourish. That is why, to return to the writings of Malatesta, anarchists seek “the end of all oppression and of all exploitation,” and why our goal is “to awaken a consciousness of the antagonism of interests between dominators and dominated, between exploiters and workers, and to develop the class struggle inside each country, and the solidarity among all workers across the frontiers, as against any prejudice and any passion of either race or nationality.”

4 Responses to “On race and nationality”
  1. K says:

    I don’t know if this is an already answered question or whatever, but I’m relatively new to all of this, and one question that arises for me is how do you deal with the fact that in our present situation there are people who are visible numerical minorities who are oppressed? That is, why should I believe that this ideal situation could exist when a visible minority exists? How do you ensure that people actually respect everyone else’s right to exist and live happily? Pretend that US is an example and suppose all the land and all that is no longer owned by individuals, but is shared. Now suppose you live in a community and one family out of many is clearly of African descent; couldn’t everyone else just collaboratively jump back on the racism train to justify excluding that family and denying that group of people its right to exist and make its own choices? In my mind, I’m seeing issues of differences in attitudes or beliefs being more of an issue…what, do people who don’t “fit in” enough to be taken seriously in the community just have to get up and go find some more like minded people?

    As I said, I’m new to all of this, so I may have just missed something.

    • J.M. Becker says:

      So you have two different aspects of race in capitalist society. Racism is created through systematic structure, bigotry is only an individual’s beliefs. In today’s world how do new racist systems get propagated? Conservative politics just simply goes back to their prefered manner of maintaining economic power. Essentially racism serves to enforce super exploitation. In the US example, those with dark skin were literally enslaved to private interests.

      Bigotry is always best handled on the societal level, just like we do today, by showing outward disgust at such ignorance. Racism itself loses all it’s power without capitalism, in your example the system that can use racism to create a hierarchy doesn’t still exist. The only interest you described would be a cooperative interests, so you’d only be dealing with individual’s bigotry… not a superstructure that enforces that bigotry, but a community which is appalled by bigotry.

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