from Michael Löwy, Fatherland or Mother Earth?, IIRE/Pluto Press, 1998




The burning problems of our times—such as the growing gap between the South and the North, the need for general disarmament, the world capitalist crisis, the threat of ecological catastrophe—are obviously of an international character. They can hardly be solved on a local, regional or national scale. However, at the same time as the world economy is becoming more and more unified by multinational capitalism, a spectacular tide of nationalism is rising, in Europe and on a world scale, submerging everything in its way.


While some national movements are emancipatory and progressive, nationalism is very often a 'false solution' to the economic, social, political and ecological challenges of our times. Why then has it become so popular in so many countries and areas of the world?


There is no easy explanation for this upsurge, but it could be helpful to compare it with the parallel revival of religious feelings. The crisis of both existing models of (instrumental) rationality—capitalist accumulation and bureaucratic productivism—favours the development of non-rational (sometimes irrational) reactions such as religion and nationalism. Of course, both phenomena can also take progressive forms—as in national liberation movements or in liberation theology—but the regressive tendencies (nationalist and/or religious intolerance) are quite formidable.


In many countries of the world, religion tends to merge with nationalism infusing it with greater power of attraction and an aura of 'sacredness': this is the case with Catholicism in Poland and Croatia (as well as, in a different context, Ireland), of Eastern Orthodoxy in Serbia and Russia, of conservative evangelism in the USA, of certain forms of Jewish orthodoxy in Israel, of Islam in Libya and Iran. In other cases, religion and nationalism are competing rivals or even forces in open conflict, as it is the case with Islamic fundamentalism and Arab nationalism in North Africa and the Middle East.


In any case, nationalism has its own roots and does not depend necessarily on religion in order to expand. How to explain its present rise? One could perhaps consider the nationalist wave as a sort of reaction to the growing internationalisation of the economy and (to a certain extent) of culture, a struggle against the threat of homogenisation. It could also be understood as a compensatory movement, trying to counterbalance the decline of economic independence by reinforcing (sometimes in monstrous proportions) ethical, political and cultural aspects of national identity.


A similar (but different) hypothesis was suggested by Theodor Adorno in a conference in 1966 (on 'Education after Auschwitz'): if nationalism is so aggressive 'it is because in the era of international communication and supra-national blocs, it cannot really believe in itself, and has no choice but to become outrageously excessive, if it wants to persuade both itself and others of its substantive character'.[i] Of course, the argument applies to a much greater degree to the situation in Europe in the '90s than in the '60s.


However, this and other general interpretations, although useful, cannot quite explain the extraordinary diversity of the phenomenon, which takes very different forms in different parts of the world. One has therefore to examine the specific nature of nationalism in each of its multiple contexts, in order to be able to understand its moving forces.




The Ex-Third World


Progressive and reactionary forms of nationalism can also be found in the so-called Third World (a term which has lost any meaning, since there is no longer any 'Second World'), that is, in the dependent periphery of the imperialist world system.


Several important emancipatory and progressive national liberation movements can be found today in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. But it should be emphasised that most of these movements—such as those in Kurdistan, Palestine, East Timor and southern Sudan—are not directly opposed to Western imperialism as such but rather to local forms of national oppression. With the exception of the wave of popular protest in the Arab world against the Gulf War, anti-colonial and anti-imperialist nationalism seems to have lost much of its influence, to the benefit of basically reactionary and/or xenophobic movements like Islamic fundamentalism, ethno-linguistic and religious communalism (India, Sri Linka) and tribalism[—shown most horrifyingly in the genocide of as many as a million Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994].


Contradictory forms of nationalism co-exist in Latin-America as well.[ii] The classic example of reactionary nationalism is the 'patriotic' ideology of military regimes—as in Argentina, Brazil or Chile in the '70s and '80—usually directed against the ghost of 'international communism' and its  Latin American 'subversive agents'. In the name of the 'doctrine of national security', every social protest, every leftist movement was denounced as being 'of foreign inspiration' or based on 'exotic doctrines alien to our national tradition'. This conservative brand of Cold War nationalism made extensive use of national symbols (the flag, the national anthem) and patriotic rhetoric, but it accepted US hegemony ('the American leadership of the Free World') without hesitation. It may have referred to geopolitics in order to claim a sub-imperialist role of regional hegemony—like the Brazilian military during the '70s—but this ambition  led very seldom to an open conflict with rival Western powers, as in the Argentinian war with Britain over the Malvinas/Falkland islands.


Middle-class populist nationalism, which had its peak during the '40s and '50s (Peronism in Argentina, the Peruvian APRA, 'Getulismo' in Brazil, etc.) is in decline and has come to terms with foreign capital. The most obvious example is the Peronist government in Argentina (President Menem), which systematically broke all links with the nationalist tradition of the movement and followed very strictly the instructions of the IMF. In some cases, like Mexico, the crisis of the governmental populist movement (the PRI, Institutional Revolutionary Party) has led to a split and the formation of a new party. The Mexican PRD (Revolutionary Democratic Party), led by Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas—the son of former president Lázaro Cárdenas, who expropriated the US oil companies in Mexico during the '30s—aims at a renewal of the nationalist and anti-imperialist tradition of the Mexican Revolution.


Revolutions in Latin America always had simultaneously a social and a national content. This applied not only to the Mexican Revolution of 1910-11 or the Bolivian Revolution of 1953, but also to the more radical revolutions (aiming at a socialist transformation) in Cuba (1959-61) and Nicaragua (1979). Fidel Castro and his followers were inspired by the struggle and the ideas of José Marti, the Jacobin, nationalist and anti-imperialist leader of the insurrection against Spanish colonialism; and the the fighters of the FSLN (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional) in Nicaragua cansidered themselves heirs to Augusto Sandino's war of national liberation against the US marines (1927-32). The struggle for national independence and sovereignty, in confrontation with aggressive US imperial policies, was a decisive component of the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutionary movements and of their popular support.


Today, the fight against foreign debt and IMF policies has been the main focus of progressive national feelings and anti-imperialist mobilisations in Latin America, taking the form of rallies, strikes, protests and even mass riots. Thanks to the heavy requirements of (strictly speaking impossible) debt repayment, the IMF and the World Bank exert such direct control (without precedent since the end of Spanish colonisation in the 19th century!) over the economic and social policies of these countries that their independence is often reduced to a fiction. The 'advisers' and 'experts' of the international financial institutions dictate to Latin American governments their rate of inflation, their budgetary cuts in education and health, their wages policy and their tax structure. The popular struggle against such outrageous forms of dependency, and against the repayment of the foreign debt, is not only a 'nationalist', but also an anti-systemic (to use Immanuel Wallerstein's useful concept) movement, by its opposition to the logic of world capitalist finance. It has also a 'class' component, by its conflict with the local rulers—eager to comply with the policies of the IMF and of the foreign banks.


It is not surprising that in some countries, like Brazil, Bolivia or Peru, it is the labour movements, unions and leftist parties that lead the fight against the repayment of the foreign debt: national and social 'liberation are intimately linked in the consciousness of the most active sections of the movement. Lula, the leader of the Brazilian Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers' Party)—47 per cent of the vote in the 1989 presidential elections—called for an immediate suspension of payment and the establishment of a public enquiry on the debt, in order to find out what happened to the money borrowed (mainly by the military regime which ruled the country from 1964 to 1985). He also called for a common initiative of the indebted countries, since none of them is strong enough to confront the creditors alone.


How far can a single country—even a powerful one like Brazil or Mexico —go in rejecting the dictatorship of the World Bank and breaking the yoke of imperialist domination? Can Latin American unity, under popular leadership, constitute an alternative to US plans for economic integration? How to achieve national and social liberation in an underdeveloped country without the economic or military support of an industrial power like the USSR? How important are the contradictions between Europe, Japan and the US, and could they be exploited by liberated peripheral countries?


These and similar questions—which cannot be easily answered—are being debated among progressive, socialist and anti-imperialist forces, in Latin America and elsewhere in the ex-Third World. They show that national liberation is still a key issue at the periphery of the system, but also that purely nationalist solutions are of limited value: the need for an internationalist strategy is perhaps better perceived now than in the past.


The example of Cuba seems to show that an independent country can, at least for a limited amount of time, survive in confrontation with a US blockade, a boycott by the world financial institutions and no support from the ex-USSR. But in the longer run, the future of Cuba will depend on developments in the other parts of Latin America.


In recent years, the various socialist, nationalist and anti-imperialist forces in Latin America—including, among others, the Brazilian PT, the Nicaraguan FSLN, the Salvadoran FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front), the Mexican PRD and the Cuban Communist Party—feeling the need of an international (or at least regional) coordination, have associated themselves in a united front, called the Sao Paulo Forum, which meets yearly and discusses common perspectives. At the first conference of the Forum, in 1990, a document was adopted, which presented the broad outlines of a common strategy for national liberation in Latin America. First of all, it rejected the proposal for 'American integration' proposed by US President Bush, denouncing it as an attempt to 'completely open our national economies to the unfair and unequal competition of the imperialist economic apparatus, submitting entirely to its hegemony and destroying our productive structures, by integrating us into a free-trade zone hegemonised and organised by US interests'. The document counterposes to this proposal for integration under imperialist domination 'a new concept of continental unity and integration', based on the sovereignty and self-determination of Latin America, the recovery of its historical and cultural identity and the internationalist solidarity of its peoples.


'This presupposes the defense of the Latin American patrimony, an end to the flight and export of the continent's capital, a common and united policy towards the scourge of an unpayable foreign debt, and the adoption of economic policies in the service of the majority, capable of alleviating the poverty in which millions of Latin Americans live'.[iii]


Along with anti-imperialist nationalism, a different sort of emancipatory nationalism has been developing in Latin America in recent years: the movement of the indigenous nations for their rights. The debate around the quincentennial of Columbus's arrival in the Americas and the Nobel Prize granted to Rigoberta Menchú have given greater visibility to the indigenous struggle for the defence of their communities, their land and their national culture against the oppression of the ruling oligarchies (usually of Spanish descent).


These Indian movements, associations or political parties (like the Tupac Katari Movement in Bolivia)—which usually are not limited to one ethnic group (Quechuas, Aymaras, Mayas) but unite all the Indian communities in each country—develop a thorough criticism of Western civilisation and its values (private property, individualism, commodity production) in the name of pre-capitalist (and pre-Columbian) indigenous traditions and their communitarian culture. Their struggle has at one and the same time a national, social and ecological character.


While some organisations have a stronger ethnic component and call for the restoration of the old Indian nations and empires, most of those movements fight for the recognition of the national and cultural rights of the indigenous peoples in coalition with other oppressed groups and classes. One example of this was the continent-wide movement in 1992 against the official celebrations of the quincentennial, called 'Five Hundred Years of Indian, Black and Popular Resistance', which had as one of its main aims solidarity with the struggles of indigenous peoples. Of course, there are very great differences between the indigenous nations of countries like Guatemala, Peru and Bolivia, where they constitute the majority of the population, and the small surviving tribes of the Amazonian area. While in the former case the national struggle is intimately linked to the social one and to the agrarian question (the struggle for land), in the latter case it is rather a matter of protection against the ethnocidal logic of 'civilisation'.


The resistance of trade unionists, ecologists and Indian tribes against the destructive development of agribusiness may lead to common action, as happened in the Brazilian Amazon region with the constitution of a Confederation of the Rain Forest Peoples by initiative of the well-known trade-union and ecological leader Chico Mendes (later killed by landowners).


Finally, there is a third form of progressive nationalism in Latin America (and the US as well): Black nationalism, which is particularly important in the Caribbean countries. Its historical roots can be found in the slave rebellions and in particular in the Haitian Revolution of 1791 led by Toussaint L'Ouverture and the Black Jacobins. In a country like Brazil, where the majority of the population is black or coloured, there have also been slave revolts (like the Quilombo dos Palmares, a community of rebel slaves during the 18th century). In our time, the main form of Brazilian Black cultural resistance is religious, through the development of Umbanda, a syncretic cult composed of African and Christian elements.

[i] Theodor Adorno, Modèles critiques (Paris: Payot, 1964), p. 106.

[ii] I am referring more extensively to Latin America because I am more familiar with this area of the Third World.

[iii] 'Declaración de São Paulo', Inprecor para América Latina no. 6 (July 1990), pp. 5-6.