NATION AND EMPIRE: The Left and the Contemporary State

Delphi, 20th / June 21st, 2015

Nation and Empire

The Left and the Contemporary State

Intellectuals were the true janissaries of nationalistic chauvinism in the early 20th century. Today, liberal intellectuals are almost unanimously embittered enemies of the nation and fervent partisans of the supra-national state, the empire.

The Left is trailing them.

This presentation is a short summary of a voluminous study on the emergence of the nation and its trajectory today. It argues that the nation evolved out of the fusion of the idea of people’s sovereignty with the need of social integration at a wider, supra-regional scale. This was based on earlier, more local forms of ethnic solidarity and identity. This way, it formed the very basis of the demos in parliamentarian democracy. Rightest forces succeeded in hijacking this political concept in the two great transformative crisis of capitalism.

Today, the political scene bears some similarities to this setting again. The crisis of the income distribution, the financial crisis and the Euro-crisis are the background. This time, however, the elites have chosen another strategy, the supra-national, the global one. Thus, once again the Right offers itself as the saviour of the national frame. As the life-world of the big majority of the population centres on the welfare state at the national level, the chances of the Right are good, if the Left continues to neglect this vital problematic.

The question of the nation and, on the other side, the supra-national bureaucratic empire is once again a core issue of emancipatory policies and politics.


Since Plato drafted his Republic and tried to persuade Dionys to realize it, intellectuals were ambitious to be „kings“, to dominate society and to rule. In the dark ages of European feudalism, however, their role was an extremely small one. As monks and priests they gave support to conflicting elite factions. Only in the period of enlightenment they started again to claim a stance of their own in the political process. They did so as speakers of a slowly emerging new class which eventually became the dominant one.

People’s sovereignty was a promising tool in the ideological contest, in the struggle not only for dominance, but also for hegemony in the society to come. In the upcoming complex society only those could claim legitimacy who credibly would aim to represent „the people“, that is: the historical strata standing for cultural, technical and social progress. But who was „the people“? Surely this was a bounded collective. But to determine the boundaries of this collective was a tricky affair.

Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau did not even consider this basic issue of the boundaries. Herder, who has to be seen as the German Rousseau, thought to have discovered the fundamental units of world history. He gave „the people“ a special shade and delimited the boundaries of the peoples („Völker“), in plural, by the languages they spoke. In fact, this was a rather fuzzy way to identify the peoples.

Southeastern Europa at this time was under the sway of Ottoman despotism. As the Ottomans and their core population, the Turks, were Muslims and claimed superiority as Muslims, another way to mobilize the subjects was rather naturally. The nation as a political concept for freeing the people of Ottoman despotism there was not based on the linguistic facts by the first theoricians importing Western European ideas. As Christians, Adamantios Korais (living in Paris) and Rhigas Pheraios / Velestinlis (executed at Belgrade) based their humanistic project upon religion. All the Balkan populations, speaking whatever language, would constitute a single nation.

The political practice of the French Revolution toppled these ideas. The troops of the different anciens regimes attacked the revolutionary forces and were routed by them. The kingdoms and principalities in the German speaking Central Europe were on the brink of extinction. At this moment, a handful of German intellectuals, aiming to resist the victorious French armies, transformed Herders programme for human emancipation into a narrow ethno-national concept. Fichte and Jahn succeeded in giving this progressive project a decidedly reactionary taint. Since that time, we speak of the German approach to nation and nationalism and identify it as a conservative ideology.

It was this framing of the nation which was accepted at the end of the 19th century, after the Prussian – French war and the defeat of France, by Maurice Barrès and a generation later by Charles Maurras as their version of the national idea. It became a device to embattle libera­lism and socialism at the same time. They saw society as a sort of old-fashioned community led by elites and intellectuals, this time not by divine grace, but by their natural, racial or biological superiority.

Italy at this time was a late-comer in nation building. The imperialist race for colonies to exploit them was almost over, and Italy had none. It felt disadvantaged in this competition. Furthermore, as a sort of Third World country at the fringe of Europe, many of its intellec­tuals saw it as an underdog also in a social perspective. Giovanni Pascoli, a half-mad neo-Latin writer, and Enrico Corradini, a facist avant la lettre, took over the reactionary French halluzinations and gave them their own brand. They formulated a fierce chauvinist construction and called it the Proletarian nationalism.

Thus, at the turn of the century, before WW I, all the elements of a reactionary cocktail were assembled: „Nationalism“ had been the other side of democracy at its beginnings. Now it became synonymous with retrogression and reaction.

In the meantime, an alternative concept aiming at the emancipation of the subject classes in general and the proletariat as a special case had come up. Socialism as a political project for historical progress and the liberation of the lower classes realized that capitalism was a global system. Internationalism, as a counter-project, was therefore one of the basic tenets of Mar­xism. (This did not hinder F. Engels to lean heavily to German nationalism.) As the focus of this presentation is not the history of socialism in its diverse strategies, I have to shorten the reflections regarding the workers movement and its relation to nationalism and internationa­lism. But let us be clear on one principle. The life-world of the lower classes is centred around the local, the regional and the national. Therefore, a non-authoritarian version of socialism has to depart from these levels: the local, the regional, the national. Of course, it has to transcend immediately those starting levels. But we cannot and must not neglect them. Doing this, we are punished by the utmost failure of our political project. The nation state remains the extremely important, the essential arena of left politics and policies.

Let us continue our path in recent history.

The crisis of imperialism led to WW I. It was used by the elites to push their populations and polities into a frenzy war which brought the collapse of Old Europe. After a brief recovery, the crisis recovered, too. But again, 1929 and its consequences were exploited by reactionary forces, this time by fascism, not by the workers movement and its organizations. Again, the strong Socialdemocratic Party in Germany stood aside, and the Communists were not able to counter effectively, for other reasons.

After WW II the political elites and their „organic intellectuals“, as A. Gramsci would say, realized that capitalism had escaped narrowly its doomsday. Fierce national competition between European elites was obviously a recipe for catastrophy.

In the Interwar period Julien Benda had urged them to unite. Now, in the aftermath of war, Alexandre Kojève drafted a new political order. In the 1950s, in line with such inputs and instigated by them, bureaucrats and politicians began to put into practice these drafts. The ECCS was the first rather modest product. As it worked in a satisfying way, the EEC was drafted and put into existence. The former nationalist intellectuals soon realized that there were chances for them hitherto undreamed of. They became „internationalist“ almost without exception and almost independent of their wider allegiance – as liberals, conservatives, socialdemocrats, later on as green-„alternatives“.

The first and original target of E(E)C was to build up a competitive ensemble of European economies – competitive especially vis-à-vis the USA – while at the same time taming aggressive German-national imperialism. This appears quite clear from the documents of the 1950s. And in fact, in this regard EC was a huge success onto the 1990s.

In 1914 Karl Kautsky published an article exactly as WW I started, in which he spoke of ultra-imperialism as a new possible peaceful way of capitalism: the joining of national capitalist classes under one common imperialist umbrella. As exactly in this moment war was chosen by these groups, Lenin had an easy way to scornfully deride Kautsky. Indeed, Kautsky had not understood that to come to such a ultra-imperialist cooperation there was need for a common state or something similar.

A century later, ultra-imperialism has become reality. It is embodied in a state which has retained the semblances of states for its constituents.

To obtain this, there were needed two socio-political processes and events of truly historical importance.

In Western Europe, the welfare state after WW II has reached what socialist took for impossible: the integration of the lower classes in the most affirmative manner into the capitalist system. However, this was a costly affair for the elites. For the first time in history, income distribution became a bit more equal, and the working classes and their dependents had some benefits. The upper classes became dissatisfied, and they started a roll-back. This needed the rebuilding of the political system.

General enfranchisement was instituted in most of Europe after WW I. Fascism abolished it soon after. At the end of WW II again this experiment started. Getting acquainted with this instrument, the population soon became more demanding. National politicians had to give way if they aspired to be re-elected. The elite became angry and sought for an alternative to this process as well as to fascism which was never more viable.

The solution was simple and yet genial. Political decisions had to be taken at a level where the population could not influence, and by a body, an authority which was independent of natio­nal populations. EU with the European Court and the Commission as a government was devised. As this proved insufficient, the Monetary Union with ECB as the ruling body was added.

This was made possible by the breakdown of the USSR and its allies in Eastern Europe.

But not only the Soviet Union broke down. The Western European Left followed suit. Its most influential parties and organisation had seen their guide in the Soviet Union and its political strategy. This sort of „internationalism“ proved fatal. The PCI changed into a socialdemocratic and centre party of most conservative stance; the PCF almost disappeared into political oblivion. The scarce rest of the groups and organisations independent of Soviet communism was reduced to intellectual circles or, worse, to political sectarianism.

In 2008 the financial crisis first, then the Euro-crisis started ravaging especially the peripheral societies of Europe, at the Southern and the Eastern fringe. After some trials and errors, this stimulated a new era of left politics. In some countries, f. i. in Greece, parties with roots in the classical, the „proletarian“ left, came to the fore. In other areas, f. i. in Italy, a new and fascinating development stimulated some sort of a Plebeian Left. By many militants of the old left this was completely misunderstood and misinterpreted. Nevertheless, a new political debate on the Left popped up.

It is a wide, indeed a confuse scene which we are observing now. This is unavoidable after years of standstill, and I would say, it is most fruitful.

One of the main issues, in fact a core argument in this new debate is the question of the supra-national in Europe and the future role of the nation-state. The reformist Left and also part of the radical Left have not abandoned their illusions. The main strategy of them (f. i. in the majority of SYRIZA, in the German party DIE LINKE, but also in Spain’s PODEMOS) is called Social Europe. They dream of the transformation of EU into a benign association of a new, transnational welfare state.

It is almost ridiculous.

Lenin, who surely committed fatal errors in his structuring of revolutionary Russia into a USSR which made possible Stalinism, nevertheless was an admirable theorician. He did not admit the least doubts about the old and the new state. A stately apparatus constructed for hedging the oppression and exploitation of the working classes cannot be transformed into an innocent instrument of these same masses. What else is the EU other than a powerful apparatus of such a brand? What is ECB (and the other „institutions“) doing in Greece?

To this policy we have to oppose quite a different strategy. But to have a dim chance to come to such policies, we have to restructure Europe. Re-nationalization, going back from this oppressive apparatus to the national state as a space for alternative policies and politics is an indispensable first step. Only in this space we can re-start the debate for a new internationalism, for new forms of international cooperation, for a new political agenda in general.


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Cunsolo, Ronald S. (1985), Enrico Corradini and the Japanese Prototype of Proletarian Nationalism. In: CRSN, Vol. XII, 207 – 214.

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