Jumbling up History

Submitted by AWL on 10 October, 2018 - 10:46 Author: Martin Thomas

The letter which this article replies to is here, towards the bottom, entitled "All states are racist endeavours".

Mike Zubrowski (Solidarity 480) is right that to go from saying “all nation states are intrinsically racist” or “all states are racist endeavours” to saying that *Israel*, in particular, is “a racist endeavour”, and therefore should be suppressed (by another state, in fact by a conquering state) is illogical and antisemitic in its implications.

It should also be said that claims that “all nation states are intrinsically racist” or “all states are racist endeavours” are an ahistorical jumble.

Xenophobia is older than states, and, in the great sweep of history, probably has been more restrained than inflamed by states. States are much older than nation states, and much older than racism. Nation states and racism arose in the same (capitalist) epoch, but by quite distinct dynamics.

The highlands of Papua New Guinea, isolated from the rest of the world until the 1930s, with a relatively small population divided into many tiny pre-state communities with hundreds of different languages, have had a high level of inter-community vendetta and violence.

Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature shows that in general pre-state societies had a higher level of violence than states.

Pre-bourgeois states were generally patrimonial and dynastic. Their members were subjects, not citizens, and defined by who fell under the rule of the emperor, king, prince, whatever, not by being components of a “people”.

Then with the rise of the bourgeoisie, as Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto, “independent, or but loosely connected provinces, with separate interests, laws, governments, and systems of taxation, became lumped together into one nation, with one government, one code of laws...”

Zig-zag, and with many complications, patrimonial states were replaced by nation states — which were a progress on, not a regression from, the patrimonial states.

Racism had a different origin. With the rise of the bourgeoisie came the idea of the formal equality of humanity and of human rights. It could no longer be taken just as par for the course that conquered peoples were enslaved. Around the Atlantic slave trade grew an ideology licensing exceptions to human rights in the name of a hierarchy of “races”.

The very word “race” (in that sense) is only 16th century, and it was a new development for people to identify in a common group (“race”) together with many millions of others whom they’d never meet and with whom they had no common language or culture, often against others whom they had met and with whom they shared some language and culture.

Particularly in the upbuilding of European imperial states in the 19th century, what Benedict Anderson calls “official nationalism” could segue into racism. But the origins and trajectory of nationalism and racism were distinct.

As Anderson puts it: “The fact of the matter is that nationalism thinks in terms of historical destinies, while racism dreams of eternal contaminations, transmitted from the origins of time through an endless sequence of loathsome copulations: outside history… The dreams of racism actually have their origin in ideologies of class, rather than in those of nation: above all in claims to divinity among rulers and to ‘blue’ or ‘white’ blood and ‘breeding’ among aristocracies” (Imagined Communities, p.136).

That nationalism and racism run askew, though sometimes meeting, is shown by the experience of African-Americans, unquestionably American; black South Africans, beyond doubt South African; Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, as Australian as you can get; Aónikenk and other Amerindians, indisputably Argentinian.

The Bolsheviks deliberately chose a non-national name for the USSR, and a non-national anthem, the Internationale. But the workers’ state was a federation of national republics, and in Ukraine, for example, the Bolsheviks followed a deliberate policy of “Ukrainianisation”, a sort of “nationalist” “positive discrimination”, to counter the heritage of Russian domination.

Future workers’ states, for generations into the future, will surely have the same character of federations of national units, within each of which a sort of nationalism operates. That nationalism will soften into a sense of belonging, not necessarily any more hostile to the “other” than my greater attachment to my own daughters signifies hostility to the hundreds of millions of other mid-20s women in the world, long before it vanishes together.

Many of the spurious polemics about Israel equate Israeli nationalism (of all sorts, even the “softest”) with chauvinism and then with racism. The problem with this is not just in the spurious exceptionalisation of Israel, but also in the general blurring-together of nationalism with racism.

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