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How has the Russo-Ukrainian conflict refreshed the idea of nationalism? What new information does it add to the history of nationalism? Nationalists might find the latter question to be highly offensive, because to them nationalism is not really meant to have any history. Once a nation has been assembled by the hands of history, it is meant to run unattended and indefinitely, as the universe does in the Deist story about the absentee God. Nationalism is meant to be some natural, ahistorical and culturally universal force, like motherhood or a fear of the dark. It is not meant to be – as a Marxist such as myself would propose – a product of specific and variable historical circumstances.

Ukraine’s extraordinary defiance of Russian aggression appears to show nationalism to be in rude health. And if nationalism is still so virile, long into an era of “globalisation,” and if it can still inspire people to such heroism and self-sacrifice, then perhaps it possesses more permanence than Marxists might think. Alternatively, is the nationalism that is on display in the Ukrainian resistance merely irrationality and fanaticism, a sterile residue of what once might have instead taken the form of religious fundamentalism? Philosophically, can it give any creditable account of itself?

It will naturally cause tremendous discomfort to question the motives of Ukraine’s freedom fighters. It also looks impertinent for a distant intellectual to challenge the actions of people who are being shot at on the ground. Nonetheless, from the start I have been maintaining that the Ukrainian state and military should have surrendered outright. Thereafter, the Ukrainian people should have resisted through non-cooperation, a general strike and civil disobedience. It is obvious that Ukraine would have a lot more of a future currently if its resistance had pursued these tactics.

It is still wonderful – and of considerable historical importance –that the Russian Bear has had its nose burned. In the West, many intellectuals have fallen into this belief that democracies always operate under a handicap and that less democratic systems are greatly cleaner and more efficient. Witness the esteem in which the “post-democratic” European Union is held amongst the UK’s middle class, along with the widespread assumption that China will spring ahead of a West that is held back by the mess of constant democratic upheavals. Vladimir Putin’s failure teaches us once again what the entire twentieth century should have already shown us: that political systems that dispense with democracy are always, in the end, losers.

Yet the Ukrainian military resistance has been disastrous and inhumane and it has knowingly gambled with countless civilian lives. It is a curious paradox that many Western commentators who are cheering on this resistance had previously supported lockdowns against COVID-19 on the grounds that they had prioritised the safety of the elderly and the vulnerable. Now, in supporting militarism unconditionally, they find themselves responsible for a survival-of-the-fittest in which the elderly and the vulnerable are amongst the very first to be sacrificed. The destruction of Mariupol, the mass graves and so on are the inevitable flipside of the resistance’s heroics, as night follows day.

Putin might be on the wrong side of history but the Ukrainian resistance are also looking increasingly lost in it. After such bitter suffering, they could end up in exactly the same condition in which they had started the war: sandwiched between a noncommittal West, which will pledge anything so long as any future conflict is contained within Ukraine, and a Russian state that remains spoiling for vengeance and a devastating reckoning.

Students of the historical struggle for democracy will know that democracy is these days always paired with nationalism. The struggle for democracy can be now no more extracted from nationalism than one can successfully tease a fine malt whisky out of the cherry-cola that it has been mixed into. Or at least this will be the case until history has moved on and the nation has been eclipsed by the city state or some new digital community or whatever will eventually render national belonging redundant.

During previous postcolonial struggles it was commonplace for intellectuals to worry over the niceties of how to best resist colonialism. The USA’s left-wing Jacobin Magazine has recently “offered up a suite of nonmilitary responses to the ensuing war,” but these are largely limited to reassessing NATO’s role and none of them involve posing any difficult questions to the Ukrainian resistance. This muted scepticism is perhaps historically unusual. The Ukrainian resistance surely opens yet another chapter in a long, busy history in which the stances that were taken by Daniel O’Connell and Frantz Fanon and Mahatma Gandhi and Robert Mugabe have between them shaped the postcolonial states that exist today.

Should we not question the expression of nationalism in Ukraine as a mindless inspirational force? Scratch the progressive fight for freedom and there is recognisably the same moronic distinction between national purity and pollution that has been evinced in every tawdry territorial scrape where the ideology of nationalism has so distinguished itself. The ethnic consciousness that is so often the guilty secret at the back of the nationalist’s closet.

Regarding the mindlessness of nationalism, one wonders how many of the people who are currently risking their lives for the Ukrainian nation can specify what Ukraine actually is? Is Ukraine the “imagined community” that Benedict Anderson, perhaps the leading theorist of nationalism, had clarified the nation as being? In which case, Ukraine becomes territorially negotiable and it is not an absolute evil if one fifth is traded away to secure the remaining four fifths. Alternatively, is the established geographical delineation of Ukraine the be all and end all? In which case, is everyone who has fled Ukraine as a refugee somehow morally less Ukrainian or a second-class nationalist?

Nationalists might grow impatient with this problematising of the Ukrainian nation. They might claim that the stickiness between the competing spiritual and physical forms that Ukraine takes is just an inevitable feature of nationalism rather than a debilitating complication. It is certainly the case that this existential problem is not exclusive to Ukraine. Across the whole of Eastern Europe ardent nationalisms are being compromised by a popular flight from active national citizenship. The economist Michael Roberts has studied this “demographic deficit”:

Even before the Ukraine-Russia conflict, there was a rising demographic deficit in Ukraine and most of Eastern Europe, including Russia.  Eastern Europe’s population has been shrinking like no other regional population in modern history… The UN estimates that there are about 292 million people in Eastern Europe, and that’s 18 million less than in the early 1990s, or more than the population of the Netherlands disappearing from the region.

Roberts explains that Eastern Europeans overwhelmingly emigrate “in order to get work and a more prosperous life.” By now we have a highly confusing picture of nationalism. The Ukrainian nation is inspiring enough for people to throw away their own lives in defending it but it is not attractive enough to live in. It is glorious to die for but there is no money in it.

Of course, I am boxing myself into caricature here. Many Eastern-European immigrants will send a lot of the money that they have earned in the West back to their original nation and they will remain firmly committed to returning there later in life. As Saint Augustine might have joked, “oh Lord give me the nation, but do not give it yet.” As for Ukraine’s fighters, they are imaginably fighting for the nation as a mere word and behind this convenient signifier lies their local neighbourhood and family, colleagues and friends.

You might wage that I simply do not like the militarism that the Ukrainian resistance has lumbered itself with and that I have unreasonably bunched it together with nationalism as supposed evidence of this ideology’s innate foolishness. There is perhaps some equation of national competition with military violence in my analysis that is nothing other than lazy prejudice. Moreover, if nationalism is irrational, then might not this “madness” be more profitably compared to examples of more positive human emotions? Maybe you are just not meant to explain your feelings of belonging to a nation, any more than you can logically account for why you love one particular person and not another.

Anderson celebrates national belonging because it is “disinterested.” He observes that, “for most ordinary people of whatever class the whole point of the nation is that it is interestless… it can ask for sacrifices.” The “aura of purity and disinterestedness” which comes from laying down one’s life for the nation makes this act fundamentally different to that of dying for the “proletariat” or “even Amnesty International.”

These words were published in 1983 and we might now struggle to recognise them for what they actually are: an early glimpse of today’s identity politics. Within identity politics, you are assigned an identity (preferably one with an advantageous spot within a designated hierarchy of oppressors and oppressed peoples) rather than doing anything to bestow value upon your own selfhood. Someone who is struggling for democracy is taking an active stance, in fighting for political power for themselves and for their peers. Anderson’s nationalist remains, however, fundamentally passive. They have been subsumed within an ideology that they did not choose and that they are allowing to govern their actions. This is essentially little more than intellectual serfdom.

In this way, if the Ukrainian resistance are embroiled in a lowly nationalistic struggle, then however many tanks they blow up and towns they liberate, they continue to be weirdly passive behind their action-packed performance. And the nationalism that rules them remains so unaccountable that they can be scarcely said to be even participating in secular politics.