Protests Against the Nation

24.02.2013
Marlene Dietrich

Following the German reunification process in the 1990s, a new anti-national movement appeared in Germany that rejected all forms of nationalism, including the desirability of national communities and the existence of the nation-state itself.

In Against the Nation, Robert Ogman covers the background of this movement – the rising Neo-Nazism, racist mob violence, restriction in immigration policies and growing state power – and its urge to organize society around other principles than nationality and borders.

By examining the campaigns and documents the various anti-national tendencies in Germany during this period, Ogman takes a fresh look at the question of nationalism that has haunted the left for more than a century. Against the Nation also provides a hope for an emancipated future based on  “Something Better than the Nation.”

Organizing in nations is part of the problem

Instead of facing and confronting the structural conflicts and contradictions of capitalism,politicians, also on the left,  has sought to “solve” them within the framework of nation-states. Yet, while critiques of nationalism have been articulated by various Left figures throughout the 20th century, the emergence of an explicitly anti-national tendency and social movement discourse only first emerged in response to thepolitical conjuncture that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.The anti-national tendency that emerged in the post-1989 setting had a negative orientation towards the nation. For them, the nation-state was the engine of nationalism, not the means for overcoming it. In no shape or form could “the nation” be the social force that would or could overthrow capitalism. Nor could it herald in an emancipatory social order or even exist in a post-capitalist society. The abolition of capitalism could not coincide with the nation.

“We won’t pay for your crisis!”

In March 2009, just months after the outbreak of the global economic crisis, 50,000 people marched through the streets of Berlin and Frankfurt declaring, “We won’t pay for your crisis!” It was part of an international day of protest against the negative material impact endured by the general population for the crisis and neoliberal crisis management. The broad coalition that included labor unions, alter-globalization associations, the Left Party, student organizations, anti-capitalist, anti-fascist and radical Left groups, brought together widely divergent perspectives regarding the root and potential solution to the crisis. In Frankfurt, this was strongly shown on the question of nationalism. As the Left Party leader Oskar Lafontaine began his speech at the closing rally, he only managed to get a few words out before being pelted with eggs by demonstrators who drowned him out, chanting, “Never again Germany!” and “Refugees Stay, Deport Lafontaine!”

The 2,000-person Social Revolutionary and Anti-National Bloc who claimed responsibility for the disruption, described Lafontaine’s appearance as a “provocation” because of his past support for nationalist positions. As former head of the Social Democratic Party, he signed policies deeply curtailing asylum rights, and supported the construction of detention centers in North Africa to prevent refugees from reaching Germany. He also blamed migrants for wage-suppression and cuts in social expenditures,[i] and supported restrictions on their access to the social welfare system.[ii]

Whereas the Bloc targeted Lafontaine for his policies and positions, these were not seen as mere personal failures, but rather as the result of systematic pressures. Instead of facing and confronting these structural conflicts and contradictions of capitalism, they argued, Lafontaine sought to “solve” them within the framework of nation-states.[iii]

In the end, this approach “comes to its logical conclusion”: that “in this society, social provisions belong only to [national] citizens alone”—to those of this nation-state—“and the rest of the world must be kept out with force.” The criticized Lafontaine wrote in his own words: “[in a] modern nation, the responsibilities of the state must be guaranteed, above all to care for those who are its citizens, and for those who contribute to the finances of the community.”[iv] According to this logic, the state is obligated to “protect its citizens [and] prevent parents from becoming unemployed, because of foreign workers who take their jobs for low pay.”[v]

Resurgence of nationalism

Nationalism has been a long-standing historical challenge for the Left. Yet, while critiques of nationalism have been articulated by various Left figures throughout the 20th century, the emergence of an explicitly anti-national tendency and social movement discourse only first emerged in response to thepolitical conjuncture that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Previously, the dominant Left orientation relied on a positive affirmation of the “nation.” The Old Left’s call for proletarian internationalism sought to build solidarity between different national working-classes, while the New Left’s anti-imperialism meant supporting “national self-determination” in the Global South.

With the opening of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent “German reunification,” a strong resurgence of nationalism was felt in both East and West German states. It came not only in the guise of neo-fascism, which erupted across Europe, but in a popular nationalist euphoria across the political spectrum. It was not limited to the German province, but advanced in the mainstream press, as well as in policy decisions strengthening the national border and the ethnic character of the state, and justifying Germany’s geopolitical goals on the international level.

Rejection of the nation state

An anti-national critique was born in the struggles of social movements against this nationalist wave. Not only did these movements reject nationalism—understood as national chauvinism or national antagonism—but also nationalism’s foundation, “the nation” and the nation-state as such.[vi] This represented a clear break with the Left’s inherited positions on nationalism.

The anti-national tendency that emerged in the post-1989 setting had a negative orientation towards the nation. For them, the nation-state was the engine of nationalism, not the means for overcoming it. In no shape or form could “the nation” be the social force that would or could overthrow capitalism. Nor could it herald in an emancipatory social order or even exist in a post-capitalist society. The abolition of capitalism could not coincide with the nation.

In response to the nationalist resurgence of the early 1990s, anti-fascist and anti-racist perspectives took on an increased importance for the Left. Yet each had their limitations. While anti-fascism became a pole of identification for many social movement participants in the early 1990s, and Anti-Fascist Action groups sprung up out of the ground to combat the burgeoning neo-Nazi movement, anti-fascism was circumscribed by a narrow focus on the fascist movement and ideology. Confronting the broader and more complex nationalist resurgence required new analytical tools and forms of political intervention.

Solidarity and anti-racism as tools

Anti-racism was also a central perspective for the protest movements of this period, and linked to a variety of projects, including direct support for refugees and victims of racist violence, and countering the re-nationalization of collective identity during and immediately following the “unification” process. Yet this perspective could not address the power ambitions of the expanded Germany in the new geopolitical situation, closely connected to the logic of international capitalist competition between states. The “colonization of Eastern Europe,” as the movement described the German state’s international political ambitions, was not based on racial ideologies.

It was in this context that a specifically anti-national perspective therefore emerged to address a wide variety of social and political developments. It incorporated both anti-fascism and anti-racism, yet transcended both of them with the aim of grasping a broader and more fundamental political dynamic centered around the German nation-state in the post-socialist period. 

A fundamental reorientation

The anti-national Left was therefore not the product of abstract theoretical reflections. Rather, it emerged out of the concrete struggles against resurgent nationalism in the country during “German reunification.”[vii]

Those involved in this small radical Left tendency insisted that the new social and political terrain required the formulation of new political questions. The result of this practical and theoretical engagement was not an amended leftist worldview, in which the inherited tenets would be supplemented with an opposition to the nation. Instead, the encounter with nationalism resulted in a fundamental reorientation of a broad set of political assumptions, and produced a deep restructuring in the content and contours of Left politics and practice.

As a result, the established Left position on nationalism, which viewed it as nothing more than a form of propaganda used by manipulative elites to gain popular support, was contradicted by the clear production of nationalism from below, through the push for “unification” amongst the general population, and the swelling in popular racism. The view that nationalism is merely the distortion of an otherwise positive collective expression, which the Left should simply re-direct towards the “correct targets,” was revealed as a dangerous delusion in the face of extreme violence against asylum seekers and immigrants in the early 1990s, and the popular support for harsh restrictions on migration. As a result, the anti-national debates broke the bounds of a neatly defined concept of nationalism, and began to interrogate the topic of the nation and nation-state more intensely.


Notes:

[i] Der sozialrevolutionäre und antinationale Block, “Lafontaine Rede ist a Provokation!” March 2009 (Available at antifa-frankfurt.org).

[ii] Der sozialrevolutionäre und antinationale Block, “Das Ei ist rund damit das Denken die Richtung ändern kann. Autonome Antifa verteidigt Eierwürfe auf Lafontaine und kritisiert Nationalismus,” March 2009 (Available at antifa-frankfurt.org).

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Throughout this book a “nation” is taken to be an “imaginary community,” a modern phenomenon born with the emergence of capitalist society. This is both a basic assumption of this book and a common denominator of the anti-national tendency, even as actors within this milieu drew from other theories to sharpen and specify their analyses. Throughout the book, where the term “nation” is used, it will always be regarded as an “imaginary community” brought into existence by certain social and material conditions and never as a natural fact divorced from them. See Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 2002).

[vii] The incorporation of the former territory of the German Democratic Republic into the Federal Republic of Germany in 1989/1990 is termed “German reunification.” The term however, clearly gives positive normative meaning to this political event, and presents it as a logical process of the natural coming together of a divided nation. Former Social Democratic mayor of West Berlin, Willy Brandt, perfectly expresses this political sentiment in his statement about the opening of the Berlin Wall: “now grows together what belongs together” (“Jetzt wächst zusammen, was zusammengehört”). Because an alternative, critical term has not been found to describe this political process, this book will sometimes use the dominant term “reunification” which will not always be placed in quotation marks. Like the term “the nation,” the reader should understand the author’s critical distance towards these terms even when they are not placed in quotation marks. As we will see, the naturalization of these terms is strongly contested by the anti-national Left.