I suppose it is odd to review a book that is seventy-years old, but I do tend to procrastinate. I have been doing some research on the intellectual foundations of libertarianism and decided to read some neglected classics and reread some works that I had not read in a long time. On that list was Rudolf Rocker’s Nationalism and Culture (1937), his classic work exploring the intellectual and cultural foundations of modern nationalism.
Written in the wake of the Nazi takeover of Germany, Rocker, a German expatriate and anarchist, traces the history of nationalism and the “will to power” that is associated with the state. The epic tome is impressive in its scope and intellectual breadth. Freely interweaving examples from Roman, Greek, German, American, English, and Italian history, Rocker’s work is honestly amazing. It is much more than a discussion of the origins of fascism, but how nationalist ideology has permeated and debased so much of human society and been so destructive to the human spirit.
Rocker’s intellectual project is two-fold—he wants to expose the corrupting influence of nationalism on the struggle for human freedom and to demonstrate that libertarian socialism is the best alternative for humanity. For Rocker, classical liberalism, defined as the principled defense of individual liberty, and socialism, defined as the opposition to capitalist economic inequality, can only truly be realized in conjunction with one another. Although I am familiar with many of his arguments through other scholars, part of what I found amazing about the book is how he has prefigured later scholarly arguments which have challenged the nation-state paradigm.
Rocker views nationalism as a secular religion—a belief system that reflects man’s anxiety regarding his own weaknesses and his willingness to place his trust in some sort of higher power that will protect him. Modern nationalism evolved during the breakdown of the authority of the Catholic Church due to the Protestant Reformation and from the anti-clerical intellectual movements of the Renaissance. The discovery of America and the ascendancy of the mercantile class produced an increase in economic power of the privileged minority of commercial capital and enhanced state power to protect said interests. What these movements shared was not simply a desire to overturn older forms of authority, but to supplant new forms of authority in their place and the nation-state was their mechanism for achieving that end. According to Rocker, the “nation is not the cause but the result of the state. It is the state which creates the nation, not the nation the state.” The state creates “fictitious unity” between pre-national communal groups, separating humanity into hostile camps under leadership elements. It is fundamentally reactionary in nature, looking to mythical and romantic pasts to create a “tradition” which can be utilized for current political aims. It capitalizes on man’s instinctual and benign attachment to home and cultural achievements (what Orwell called “patriotism”) and transforms them to state worship. It seeks to homogenize language and culture, suppressing the true to creative spirit of the people, subordinating the popular will to the “will to power.” Speaking out against the nation is the new heresy, akin to the Albigensian, Cathari, Brethren, and Bogomil movements following the consolidation of the Catholic Church.
In opposition to the development of the nation-state stood classical liberalism, a distinctively individualistic philosophy that believed, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, the “government that governs best, governs least” and hopefully, according to Thoreau, “governs not at all.” Rocker sees liberalism as a philosophy least susceptible to nationalistic appeals, drawing from international revolutionary Thomas Paine’s statement that he is a “citizen of the world.” Conversely, ideologies like democracy and socialism are susceptible to nationalism because, in practice, they have been connected to rights and parliamentary efforts attached to particular nation-states. Historically, this has left popular democratic and socialistic movements disarmed in the face of nationalistic appeals, their failure to stop WWI or the rise of fascism being case and point.
Although Rocker champions the liberal tradition as being integral to any philosophy of liberation, liberalism’s association with the rights of property and capitalism are problematic. The abuse of liberal ideas, which have elevated the rights of property in the form of collective capital above the individual and the universalizing appeal of natural rights have combined with American nationalism to naturalize the US imperial project. Just as Trotsky imagined that the Soviet Union could export communism through “permanent revolution” so has the inverted Trotskyism of American neo-conservatism sought to export Americanism through the revolutionary ideology of liberal capitalism.
Rocker is clearly aware of the corrupting influence of capitalism to the liberal tradition; however, living in the current epoch, I would say that Rocker underestimates the ability of moneyed elites to pervert liberalism. Capitalism has grown hand-in-hand with the nation-state. Despite the laments of modern “free market capitalists,” the expansion and centralization of capitalist economic operations have developed in an almost mirror image to that of the “Great State”—each capitalist crisis requiring greater involvement of bureaucracies, both public and private, to manage dissent, and in the most extreme cases, save capitalism from itself. This not to say that all government expansion has been at the behest of capitalist elites, some of it come s from parliamentary reforms, careerist politicians, and military officials, but the state has been and remains a central component of capitalist development. This trend is pronounced in the United States going back to the origins of the Republic. More recently, it has become increasingly obvious as the New Deal welfare state (America’s version of social democracy) has given way to the warfare/nanny state—where hard won reforms like Social Security and Medicare are “in crisis” and “going bankrupt” but in reality are gutted to subsidize the Pentagon and provide tax abatements to corporations meanwhile the government tries to utilize the remaining welfare and education expenditures to shape public morality.
Rocker also predicts the globalizing trends of our period. He sees capitalism outstripping the nation-state, moving towards large regional blocs (America, Europe and Asia) and ultimately towards an integrated and Taylorized world-system. The growth of international trade arrangements and the attempts to use the UN to facilitate the needs of international capital are examples of the "state" moving beyond the reach of populations as a means of limiting popular input into decision making. It is the tension between “national interest” and the imperatives of global capital have created so much consternation as of late in the United States. The neo-conservative imperialists seek to reconcile the two by connecting American living standards to the health of transnational capital through wars of aggression and “free trade” agreements. A powerful counter trend is the development of “state capitalism”—the concentration of both economic and political power in the hands of the state. Modern examples of this would be China, which despite its “communist” label, functions relatively harmoniously within the capitalist system under the direction of “the Party.”
To counter such trends, those interested in social justice and equality must draw from the best of the intellectual traditions which have critiqued capitalism, respected individual rights, but also be sensitive to corrupting influence of nationalism. Rocker favors the libertarian tradition because it fuses the classical liberal notion of natural rights with socialism. Although he is favorably disposed to Marx’s contributions to political economy and his critique of capitalism, Marxism is not sufficient, because it offers little in the way of an alternative method of social organization. It is a revolutionary ideology whose goal is to seize the nation-state, but without a clear goal for the “day after,” which has led to its corruption by nationalism. Conversely, libertarianism has been more open to “utopian” experimentation (even if such experiments are failures, there are still lessons) and is more sympathetic to Martin Luther King’s notion that the "means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means."
Although anti-statist sentiment in the United States is quite powerful, it seems to be slowly eroding, largely due to the “War on Terror,” the increased militarization of the economy, and the emergence of political Christianity. The increased concentration of capital and the central role the United States plays in orchestrating international capitalism have further prepared the American public for the centralization of authority, whether it be political or economic. Unfortunately, “libertarianism” is almost totally divorced from socialism and often is used as an ideological bludgeon against popular reforms imposed upon the state and corporations by workers in favor of the “free market,” which is little more than the right of collective capital it impose its will upon workers. Of course, the relatively weak labor movement in the US compounds the problem, in part a victim of its own economic nationalism, thus leaving the political field open to right-wing statism. This creates an even greater imperative among the political left in the United States to redefine itself as the libertarian choice, to build upon existing forms of popular dissent, to resurrect the labor movement, to forge bonds with international liberation movements, and to recapture the popular mind. Although I believe it is necessary to defend existing, solidarity based reforms, like Social Security and public education, and to exploit openings in the current power structure to curtail corporate power (free health care!), leftists and progressives should resist the urge to run headlong to the state to solve every problem that capitalism creates. We must find ways to create alternative institutions, which aren’t connected to the state, which can provide the basis of a more just and egalitarian society.