Curse of nationalism

The Americans deemed themselves to be combating communism in Indochina, but what they came up against was to a large extent Vietnamese nationalism.

Europe has lost faith in humanity, and has become distrustful and sickly… There are habits that are not merely passive but aggressively arrogant. They are not like mere walls, but are like hedges of stinging nettles.

“Europe has been cultivating these hedges of habits for long years, till they have grown around her dense and strong and high. The pride of her traditions has sent its roots deep into her heart… But pride in every form breeds blindness at the end.”

These words could have been said yesterday. They were actually written more than 100 years ago by an Indian polymath who, in a poem composed on the last day of the 19th century, also observed: “The naked passion of the self-love of nations, in its drunken delirium of greed, is dancing to the clash of steel and the howling verses of vengeance.”

Rabindranath Tagore may have been surprised that the curse of febrile nationalism he so eloquently decried would still be a factor in international relations more than a century hence, not least in post-colonial Europe.

Not long after I acquired the Tagore text from which these quotations come some 35 years ago while at university in England, I was faced with a query on the pros and cons of nationalism during a tutorial on Marxism. What, in the context of communist orthodoxy, separated justifiable nationalism from the deplorable variety? The answer was simple: it depends on whether the trend arises in response to colonialism, or stands in opposition to internationalism.

In retrospect, that delineation broadly holds true. The kind of nationalism that fed liberation struggles — from pretty much the whole of Africa and Latin America to much of Asia, including not just India but also Bangladesh — is readily defensible in most respects. The Americans deemed themselves to be combating communism in Indochina, but what they came up against was to a large extent Vietnamese nationalism.

It could also be argued that the Second World War was in fact a product of nationalism, of the German, Japanese and to some extent the Italian variety. It had a natural ally in Spain, whose caudillo, Francisco Franco, had been ensconced in power courtesy of assistance from Berlin and Rome. But Franco technically stayed out of the war — and remained in power until he died in the mid-1970s, hailed by the US, alongside numerous Third World potentates, as a bulwark against communism.

Is there any excuse, though, for nationalism in the 21st century? There’s plenty of evidence of it. In countries such as Poland — where Donald Trump did his bit to exacerbate it with his stupid speech recently about protecting Western civilisation — and Hungary, both of which, ironically on the face of it, were until the 1990s part of the “sphere of influence” superstructure that emerged after 1945.

They are by no means the only culprits, though. French voters propelled Marie Le Pen into the second round of this year’s presidential election in large part on account of her appeal to nationalism. A similar mindset was no doubt key to determining the result of Britain’s Brexit referendum: there may well be good reasons for exiting the EU, but the existing immigration rules are not among them.

There can perhaps be little doubt that the Islamist jihadism that has emerged since the 9/11 attacks has exacerbated nationalist impulses in countries subjected to outbreaks of extremist violence. But is this a sensible response, or does it merely reinforce the false consciousness of those who go out of their way to perpetrate such atrocities?

From the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan to India’s Narendra Modi and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, almost every despot around the globe relies on nationalism to sustain himself in power and to enforce his agenda. Trump would love to do the same, but has been held back slightly by checks and balances built into the American system of governance, and in part by somewhat sharper brains within his administration. His appeal was built to a large extent on nationalist ideals that clearly militate against America’s necessarily multicultural ethos.

A mind as great as Tagore’s long ago designated nationalism as “an infantile disease… the measles of mankind”. As in so many other respects, Albert Einstein was on the ball. Long afterwards, a Western cultural emblem declared: “Imagine there’s no countries/ It isn’t hard to do/ Nothing to kill or die for/ And no religion too…”

The goal articulated in a lyric that a BBC poll designated the outstanding song of the 20th century may still seem out of reach, but many believe it remains worth striving for.

By arrangement with Dawn

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