One Legacy of Bakunin, Part II: A Nation’s Dreams, Research Time, 21/08/2014

Continued from previous . . . And even at the end of his life, Bakunin didn’t have any answers. All there was, was the resignation of a dying man that he would never see the social revolution of which he dreamed. His massive network of labour organizations, the International Workingmen’s Association, was split and torn apart by the internal rifts between his own factions and those of Marx and his authoritarian followers. Meanwhile, monarchist Germany consolidated its position as Europe’s new leading economic and military power, and nationalist movements continued to sweep the continent.

Gavrilo Princip, the nationalist
revolutionary whose terrorist attack
would start the First World War.
Nationalism would come to define the politics of the following century and beyond throughout the world. Today, we often understand nationalism as an entirely negative, destructive politics. In most of its articulations, that’s true.

Mikhail Bakunin interacted with many nationalist movements throughout his political life, and his reflections on the subject at the end of his days shows his usual clarity. When I read Bakunin, his words have a directness that is rare in most philosophical writing, which is usually very detail-oriented, more often to its detriment than otherwise. Reading secondary material about Bakunin’s work, I find snide remarks from the academics who write about him, even admirably, regarding his up-front style. Kolakowski’s giant book of Marxism is a noteworthy example of this subtle derision.

But Bakunin’s direct language crafts some clear assessments and condemnations of the nationalist movements that were growing in Europe at the time. Pan-Slavism is the central object of his criticism, being a major focus of his only long-form work, the career-capping Statism and Anarchy that still remained unfinished. At the time, few Slavic peoples had nations of their own. They were almost all dominated by one of two imperial states: either the Hapsburg monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or the Ottoman Empire.

Pan-Slavism, in its most popular form, reached for what Bakunin rightly considered the worst form of liberation from these two empires: the expansion of Czarist Russian rule over the Slavic territories of the Ottomans and Austria-Hungary. This would simply trade one oppressive regime for another, replacing an Austrian or Ottoman monarch with a Russian one. The kind of Slavic nationalism that embraced domination by the Russian monarch was a notion defined by paternalism. 

As well as Bakunin, Fyodor Dostoyevsky diagnoses this as the pervasive corruption of the Russian character: the tyrannical authority of a father figure weighs over all people at virtually all contexts of self-understanding, individual, familial, communal, bureaucratic and national. This cultural paternalism was the villainous force underlying Dostoyevsky’s most utopian novel, The Brothers Karamazov.

Slobodan Milosevic, an heir to the petty,
exclusionary nationalism that Bakunin
decried in the 1870s. We've come so far,
haven't we?
The only form of nationalism with any genuine potential to liberate is the version that recognizes the singularity of a local culture as it has developed throughout history. In this sense, a culture or a nation has a similar kind of character as an individual person, Bakunin says, and its constituent people should be free of oppressive measures to run its own affairs according to their own logic, dynamic traditions, and decisions. But this kind of nationalism can similarly (and often, or perhaps I should say usually) go horribly wrong when the people in question understand their national character in an exclusive sense. 

This is the petty kind of nationalism that defines itself by its physical and social borders, the ability to reject those who do not conform to its narrow self-definitions. We are all familiar with this brand of insular nationalism, because we’ve all grown up watching the violence and warfare it generates when such a movement takes control of a state apparatus, or even just enough guns to cause trouble. We’ve seen petty nationalisms do violence to minorities in the name of cultural purity, the exclusive definition of community. It’s in the suffering of the Jews, Roma, Albanians, Muslims, African immigrants. The topical term for it is ethnic cleansing.

The petty, superficial definitions of what it means to be of a particular nationality take precedence over what should be a person’s most important expressions of nationhood. The nationalism of brotherhood, of expressing one cultural history as a singular voice in a diverse world of equally unique and therefore valuable social characters, is the nationalism of friendly pride that motivates peace and freedom. Its rarity is another way Bakunin would remain a disappointed man. What could be done? To be continued. . . 

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