political revue


Year XXXII, 1990, Number 1 - Page 3



The Revival of Nationalism

Nationalism is starting to re-emerge in Europe. Besides the internal tensions in the Soviet Union, the phenomenon has appeared with sinister violence in the relations between Hungary and Rumania, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, among the Yugoslavian Republics and between Serbia and Albania.
Eastern Europe runs the risk of “balkanizing” itself. The only possible answer to this explosion of barbarity consists in the Community’s ability to offer Europe, and in the last instance the whole world, a model of political organization capable of presenting an alternative to the national state.
The future of the Community depends on the direction the unification process of the two Germanies will take. The latter is considered by many as a reassertion of the national principle, while it makes many others aware of the need to include it in a more rapid process of federal unification which involves in the first place the Community and then, in a more or less near future, the rest of Europe. 
The ambiguous nature of the unification process of the two Germanies is not reflected only in the behaviour of the political class and in the reactions of public opinion in the Federal Republic, but also in those of the other Community countries. In some cases, the awareness of the need to “europeanize” the German question has alternated with the temptation to revive the alliances which characterized the European balance of power before the Second World War, based on the juxtaposition of different nationalisms.




Federalism has its roots in the critique of the very idea of nation. It is therefore our specific responsibility, in a phase of history in which this phantom – which had never disappeared completely – seems to return with particular virulence, to vigorously re-propose this critique.
We must recall that the idea of nation, as soon as one tries to define it, appears indeterminate and contradictory, and that in its very indeterminateness and contradictory nature lie the roots of the emotionality it becomes charged with and of the aggressiveness it arouses. We must repeat that the nation does not coincide with any of the characteristics it is usually identified with (language, culture, religion, customs), nor with their combination (because by combining in various ways all these criteria, infinite areas of affinity of various dimensions can be defined, each without any precise boundaries). Nor can the nation be considered as the result of a common history, because history is constantly changing, and thus it can be used as a pretext to justify the most disparate “national” claims. But neither is it Renan’s “everyday plebiscite”, because every day we all tacitly express many loyalties, and the problem lies precisely in finding what constitutes the specificity of the consensus having the nation as its object.
Actually, the idea of nation has no real correlate. It is a myth, or a fetish, as was described in an essay published thirty years ago in this review and taken up again in this issue, the function of which has been, and still is, that of binding the citizens to power by making them feel members of a community at the same time natural and religious, which provides the only legitimation of the state’s sovereignty and in the name of which the citizens are expected to sacrifice their very life.
It is true that myths play an important role in history. The most eloquent demonstrations of this are the tragedies which, in the name of the idea of nation, have taken place in the past and are still taking place nowadays. Moreover, in the 19th century, the myth of the nation, extended by imposing on all the citizens of a state some types of behaviour – such as a particular language – which originally belonged only to the inhabitants of a region or to the members of a social class, had also had a progressive function. In the name of the nation, states were created in Western Europe whose size was compatible with the degree of development of the productive forces, and barriers and privileges linked with the old regime were abolished. In the name of the ambiguous principle of national sovereignty it has been possible to fight the democratic battles feasible in a world of sovereign states forced periodically to resort to war for their survival. But this progressive function was subordinate to two conditions: the compatibility of the dimensions of the nation-states of Western Europe with the requirements of economic development and the existence of a strong power, able to impose the national myth on its whole territory as an instrument for the creation of a more united society characterized by greater solidarity.
These conditions have not existed now for a long time (and they have never existed in Eastern Europe). The dimension of economic development is now continental and there is an increasing awareness that the only dimension in which it is possible to guarantee mankind’s survival is the planetary one. In this situation the idea of nation has lost any positive function and has retained only the negative one – which on the other hand it has always possessed – of ideological justification of the horde instinct which is found in every man, of principle of violence and disorder. Thus today an ethnic group of three million inhabitants. in the name of the tribal fetish of the coincidence between “nation” and sovereign state, is endangering Gorbachev’s perestroika, a transformation on the success of which the fate of mankind largely depends. And thus in Eastern Europe we see the first disturbing signs of a return to border disputes, sterile irredentisms and the oppression of minorities. The danger looms that the dark Brezhnevian order be replaced by an even darker age of international anarchy and economic disorder.
As in every phase of nationalist revival, today, in the political debate, especially in Germany, there emerges once again the opposition between “good” nationalism, which is supposed to be the mortar of solidarity among the members of the same nation, and “bad” nationalism, which is supposed to be the principle of violence against other nations. Actually
it is a groundless opposition. After the conclusion of the initial phase, in
which it was possible to confuse the idea of nation with the ideals of
democracy, nationalism showed itself for what it is, in other words as the principle of barbarity, which annuls individuality, here meant as the seat of autonomy of reason and of moral action, into a misty collective subject, thought of as being provided with a conscience and a will, and as a subject of rights. It is in this perspective that once again, with particular reference to the German unification process, the equivocal principle of peoples’ “self-determination” is re-proposed. It is a principle that, like that of nation, questions the political order of a region and even of the whole world, without clarifying the criterion on the basis of which the new order should be created. Who decides, in fact, what is the subject with the right to “self-determination”? Why should the Germans of the GDR be entitled to this right, and not those of Silesia and Pomerania? Or the Europeans intended as a single pluralist people? And who formulates the question to which the “self-determining” people must give an answer? Why should it concern the unity of Germany and not the unity of Europe ? And finally, what becomes of those who remain in a minority? Should we consider that they, too, have practised the right to “self-determination”?
These questions are bound to remain unanswered. The truth is that the idea of “people”, apart from the legal meaning in which it designates the citizens of a state, is just as vague as that of “nation”. The only people with a definite identity, and therefore the right to “self-determine” itself, is mankind or, in the present historical phase, the part of mankind that represents it to the extent that, giving an example of the destroyal of barriers among nations, it ideally asserts its unity. In any other case, that of “self-determination” is not a right, but an empty slogan. This obviously does not mean that in the present circumstances one should condemn the wish of the majority of the GDR citizens to be part of a state order which guarantees them greater stability, affluence, and freedom. But it must be clear that by pressing for the union of the two Germanies, they do not exercise a right, but take advantage of an occasion. Theirs is an instrumental choice, which must be evaluated as such, accurately assessing the costs and benefits it involves and which cannot be legitimized either on the basis of the idea of nation or on that of asupposed right of peoples to “self-determination”.
In actual fact the achievement of peace, freedom, democracy, justice and economic welfare for all men today goes through the denial of the national principle and the affirmation of the unity of mankind in the framework of a world Federation. And regarding this aspect the Europeans have a particular responsibility, because it is in the European framework, and in particular in that of the Community, that the first step can be taken immediately towards reaching the objective by putting into practice – even if only partially – the federal principle.
It seems right to deduce as a consequence of all this that, as it is often repeated, the unification process of Germany does not concern the Germans alone. Besides, the cause of the stormy events which have made German unity by now an inevitable fact must not be sought in Germany, but in Moscow. Without Gorbachev’s perestroika, today Honecker would still be in power, the GDR would continue to be, as it had always been, the most faithful and disciplined ally of the Kremlin and its government the most rigorous guardian of marxist orthodoxy. But the statement that the unification of Germany does not concern the Germans alone must not become for the others a slogan in the name of which a return to power politics or to the traditional alliances of the old European equilibrium can be justified. On the contrary, it must mean that Germany is by now but a part of Europe undergoing a unification process, and therefore the unification of the two Germanies must involve the responsibility and solidarity of the Community and accelerate its federal union.
The dilemma Germany and Europe are facing has nothing to do with the democratic and European reliability of the German people, questioned by some and supported by others with equal obtuseness. Here is to be found once again the fatal conceptual confusion, whose roots always lie in the idea of nation, which attributes to the elusive collective entity “German people” a conscience and a will, and therefore makes it imputable of moral responsibility. The truth is that, as Machiavelli wrote, it is not a matter of “criticizing Athens or praising Rome”, but of “accusing necessity”: because every people is what the kind of international equilibrium it is part of, the institutions regulating its life and its level of economic and social development make of it. And it is a fact that the German unification, if it were achieved in a purely national context, would radically transform these three conditions, indefinitely putting off the prospect of European unification. On the other hand it seems that the Community context is solid for the time being, and has even been strengthened by the events which have hastened the German unification process; just as the Europeanism of most German politicians is unquestionable. What is to be questioned, if ever, is their ability and that of their colleagues in the other EEC countries to realize that the perils threatening the Community require the path of eternal recommencements, which has characterized the process until now, to be abandoned, and the federal unification of Europe to stop being only a prospect and become a matter of concrete decision. In the next few months the men of the Community governments will have the opportunity to show with facts and not with words some concrete proof of their European will.
The Federalist




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