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East/West: Analysis From Washington -- Nationalism After Communism

Washington, 12 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The rise of nationalism in post-communist countries is typically explained as the result of either the end of repressive policies that kept such feelings under control or the ways in which communist regimes politicized ethnicity in order to maintain their power. But a former Yugoslav communist has provided a third reason, one that may help to understand this development and to overcome it.

In one of his last essays, recently published in an English-language collection of his works entitled "Fall of the New Class," the late Milovan Djilas suggests that the removal of repression and the politicization of ethnicity are not the real reasons for the resurgence of nationalism in post-communist countries. Instead, he points to communist policies that destroyed virtually all other social and political ties.

Djilas, most well-known for his criticism of the rise of the communist nomenklatura and his break with Yugoslav dictator Tito, makes the following argument:

"When revolutions occur," Djilas notes, "ethnic identities do get hammered down, only to bounce back with elemental force unless precisely defined relationships have developed in a society: democratic institutions, a free economy, a middle class. In this regard, communism left behind a desert."

These words are extremely suggestive both as diagnosis and as cure. As diagnosis, they suggest that much recent analysis of post-communist nationalism has fallen into the trap of blaming the victim and thus ignoring the groups and forces actually responsible.

In Djilas' understanding, communism as practiced in the Soviet bloc and Yugoslavia did not represent a step forward in societal development but rather a retreat. It destroyed or prevented the rise of those multiple, intermediate attachments which form the basis of civil society -- genuinely public organizations, private ties, and communities -- and which serve as a kind of dam against the elemental force of ethnic attachments.

As long as the communist regimes were able to maintain themselves by force, the lack of such social linkages did not allow nationalism to rear its ugly head except when the regime wanted it to. But once these regimes began to crumble and collapse under the pressure of modernization, then, Djilas suggests, they were doomed, and nationalism was the only attachment left to hold people together.

In short, the "desert" the communists left could only be filled by this particular ideology because nationalism is based on primordial ties, either real or assumed. And such ties could not be destroyed by communism in the same way that the party states destroyed all others: Indeed, "nationality" was one of the few permitted identities in these states, albeit permitted only when it served the interests of the regimes.

In this reading, the communist governments bear primary responsibility for the rise of nationalism after their departure from the scene. Even more, they deserve no credit for postponing the rise of nationalism, only blame, because by blocking other forms of social organization, the communists left nationalism an open field in which to grow.

But Djilas' argument is also important for an understanding of how post-communist nationalism emerged, it is likely to be even more significant as a guide to a way out of the current nationalist dilemma which faces both the post-communist states and the international community.

If nationalism is flourishing in these countries because of the absence of the normal institutions of civil society, then it follows that the best way to overcome post-communist nationalism is to promote the creation of such arrangements -- to push for democratic institutions, to call for a freer economy, to promote the ties and values of the middle class.

While many both in these countries and the West support such ideas, some in both places have been willing to back away from such commitments in the face of nationalism. They have concluded, often under the influence of post-communist leaders, that the rise of nationalism requires a suspension of precisely these institutions, at least for some time to come.

Such arguments serve the interests of those now in power. But to the extent the analysis presented by Djilas is right, an approach based on them will also end up promoting the very thing that its advocates say they are fighting: extremist nationalism and the instability such an ideology almost inevitably produces.