Accessibility links

East/West: Analysis From Washington -- Nationalism On The Left

  • Paul Goble

Prague, 2 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The protests at Davos last weekend, just like the earlier demonstrations in Seattle, highlight the reemergence of nationalism on the left, a phenomenon not included in most political classifications but one with the potential to produce dramatic changes in both individual countries and the international system.

Demonstrators at the world economic forum in Davos and at the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle were animated by both class and national concerns. They were protesting the growing inequalities between rich and poor within their own countries. And they were denouncing both the growing inequalities among countries and the declining ability of existing states to regulate multinational corporations.

But if most of the participants came from traditionally left-of-center groups such as organized labor and lobbyists for the poor, their arguments against the globalization of the economy were cast in nationalist terms, in a defense of the nation state and its ability to direct and control economic activity on its territory on behalf of its population.

That makes these protesters nationalists, but nationalists of a very different kind than most people expect. In recent times, those on the left have defended the interests of workers and other excluded groups against the wealthy and the power of the state and have sought allies beyond the borders of their own countries.

Those on the right, in contrast, have typically defended the wealthier classes and the power of the state to protect them, and they have viewed their economic and political counterparts in other states as competitors and threats rather than allies.

There have been numerous exceptions to this generally accepted classification. National Socialism in Germany had a distinct left-wing tinge of class grievance at least until Adolf Hitler purged Ernst Roehm in 1934. And communism in the Soviet Union and left-wing parties elsewhere often have been profoundly nationalist.

But the new era of globalization appears likely to power a nationalism on the left that may be even more powerful than the old nationalism of the right for at least three reasons.

First, this nationalism of class grievance appears likely to become an organizing principle against the ever-growing economic and cultural power of the United States and Western Europe.

Unlike ethnic-based nationalisms of the right which are inevitably self-limiting, such a nationalism of the left can organize people across national borders even as it uses the terminology of individual states and peoples. Indeed, the growing importance of the global economy seems certain to lead to a further growth of this kind of nationalist feeling.

Second, a nationalism of the left is likely to draw far less criticism from both political figures and analysts than has the nationalism of the right. And that in turn means that nationalism of the left may acquire the kind of respectability inevitably denied to nationalism on the right.

At both Davos and Seattle, numerous political leaders openly pandered to the protesters arguing that the international community should take their arguments into account. And in the commentaries following these meetings, even more numerous analysts and commentators suggested the same thing in even more radical form.

It is difficult to imagine either group making similar statements about the claims of nationalism on the right, about the claims of nations as opposed to the claims of class.

And third, precisely because this kind of nationalism has an international dimension and because it is far more acceptable to political and intellectual elites, it is likely to grow in power and influence over the next few years.

At a minimum, the growth of nationalism on the left appears likely to exacerbate political conflicts within democratic countries and to limit the willingness and ability of the leaders of some of them to push for further integration of the global economy.

But the rise of this kind of nationalism could have a far more serious consequence, one that could deprive the world not only of the benefits of the free flow of goods, people and ideas but even of peace and stability.

To the extent that this nationalism of the left gains in strength, it may link up with the nationalism of the right and even lead some countries to try to opt out of the international economy altogether and increasingly view foreign firms and foreign countries as competitors and threats.

And if that development goes unchallenged, it could lead in the twenty-first century to even worse confrontations and conflicts than the nationalisms of the right and of the left produced in the twentieth.