Secularism, Nationalism, and Nativism

As should be clear from my essays on this blog, I am a man of the left. I am also a scientist. If I confess to Darwinism when pressed on my orientation to matters of natural history (and what scientifically-minded person wouldn’t?), then I must confess to Marxism on matters of social history. This is not to say Marx is all there is. Marx didn’t answer every question (nor did Darwin). But Marx set the course through his domain.

I say this in part as an advertisement for the materialist conception of history, a sure (if not complete) foundation for the study of social history. Marx is to social science what Darwin and Galileo are to natural science and physical science respectively. Moreover, this essay will argue with Marxian logic.

But I also say this because, today, whenever a position is taken on nationalism and immigration that deviates from the rhetoric of the progressive activist—who, despite being a small percentage of the population, and even of the left, effectively wields the stigmatizing fire of white guilt—it’s scorched as racism. I fear the progressive activist no longer bears the torch of socialism, but has taken up the neoliberal cause. So I am here to present a Marxian defense of nationalism. 

Finally, I am not here merely attempting to shield myself from the smear of nativism by showing my left-wing credentials. This essay frames the problem of the current immigration debate on the left by using a Marxian lens focused on the meanings of nationalism and the historic development of secularism and the nation-state. I defend the integrity of the republic not from a nativist but a socialist standpoint. These matters need to be clarified.

* * *

In Marx’s materialist conception of history, freedom and solidarity are objectively integral, alienated under conditions of segmentation, whether in class, gender, or religious estrangement. Justice and rights demand that adequate sociocultural arrangements empower individuals to participate fully in the production and shaping of the economic and political relations of which they are an integral part. Anywhere an individual is limited in his species-being, for example by religious doctrine and practice, unfreedom and injustice prevail.

Historical materialism thus represents a vigorous defense of the necessity and universality of human dignity and human rights, necessarily social rights in their fullest form, for the ground of self-actualization. A free society is “an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all,” Marx and Engels write in the Communist Manifesto in 1848. The conditions of freedom must be established for all before all people can be free. This formulation presupposes a conception of freedom.

In “Zur Judenfrage,” published in 1844 (in the Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher), Marx argues that the freedom of conscience (the right to practice any religion one chooses) is, like private property, an expression of the bourgeois conception of liberty, based not on the association of man with man, but on the separation of man from man. Religious association is reduced to personal choice, its coercive nature concealed, enabling its perpetuation under the guise of a rhetoric of freedom.

Liberty of this sort is the possession of “egoistic man, an individual who enjoys his rights “without regard to other men.” Drawing a distinction between the droits de l’homie (the rights of man) and the droits du citizen (the rights of the citizen), Marx finds that “it is not man as citoyen, but man as bourgeois who is considered to be the essential and true man.” Estranged from his species-being (the self as social being, not atomized existence), egoistic man becomes “natural man,” and the rights of man appear as “natural rights,” to be protected by the state from society, as well as from the state itself.

The bourgeois conception of freedom is a negative one in which the person moves from the unfreedom of group identity, where he is defined in ethnic and religious terms, to the unfreedom of isolation, where he is an individual but also alone. As Erich Fromm writes in Escape from Freedom (1941): “freedom from the traditional bonds of medieval society, though giving the individual a new feeling of independence, at the same time made him feel alone and isolated, filled him with doubt and anxiety, and drove him into new submission and into a compulsive and irrational activity.”

Civil society, the domain of natural man, is emancipated from politics. Thus, in the transition from feudalism to capitalism, Marx writes in “Zur Judenfrage,” “man was not freed from religion; he received religious freedom. He was not freed from property; he received freedom to own property. He was not freed from the egoism of business; he received freedom to engage in business.” The heart of Marx’s argument is this: “The political revolution resolves civil life into its component parts without revolutionizing these components themselves or subjecting them to criticism.” 

The solution? The liberal’s negative conception of “freedom from” must be joined by the socialist or positive conception of “freedom to.”

Only when the real, individual man re-absorbs in himself the abstract citizen, and as an individual human being has become a species-being in his everyday life, in his particular work, and in his particular situation, only when man has recognized and organized his “own powers” as social powers, and, consequently, no longer separates social power from himself in the shape of political power, only then will human emancipation have been accomplished.

The notion of abstract citizen points to the historical necessity of the nation-state as the ground for organizing political action, for consciousness cannot be raised among large groups of people—required for the overthrow of the capitalist state—when they are segmented by ethnicity, language, race, and religion, identities that the nation-state subordinates to shared liberties and rights, however incomplete they may be. To be sure, the modern nation-state falls short of completing the historic mission of the proletariat, but the proletariat cannot move from klasse an sich (“class in itself”) to klasse für sich (“class for itself”) without common ground upon which to move on the objective facts of structural contradictions and class antagonisms with the subjective practice of class struggle.

Supposing the end of the nation-state before the world communist revolution is as idealistic and fantastic as supposing Martin Luther King Junior’s dream—articulated during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that his “children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”—could be realized before racial justice has been achieved (which itself depends on the overthrow of the economic relations that gave rise to and perpetuate racial injustice). Indeed, colorblindness under conditions of racial injustice is another manifestation of white racism—just as the practice of globalism, or transnationalism under capitalism, is another manifestation of bourgeois classism.

This situation is the result of history. The emancipation of the individual from the lord-serf relationship in the transition from feudalism to capitalism, requiring secularism (the emancipation of religion from the state) and liberalism (the emancipation of property from the state), embodied in the nation state, assuming the individual in a single culture in a definite territory—one language, one law—appropriate to a market economy—all this created the grounds for democratic government through the progressive attainment of civil, political, and social rights: speech, suffrage, and education, values (excepting the property right) appropriate to socialism.

Marx and Engels write in The Communist Manifesto

The bourgeoisie keeps more and more doing away with the scattered state of the population, of the means of production, and of property. It has agglomerated population, centralized the means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands. The necessary consequence of this was political centralization. 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, one national class-interest, one frontier, and one customs-tariff.

In this way capitalism lays the basis for its own negation; but socialist transformation is not automatic. As Rosa Luxembourg observes in the “Junius Pamphlet” of 1915 (“The Crisis in German Social Democracy”): “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.”

Marxists grasp that the bourgeois character of the modern nation state, a political-juridical and apparatus congruous to the capitalist mode of production in the context of European culture and historical development, alongside the creation of the modern national proletariat, sharpens class antagonisms and amplifies the chance for political struggle at a higher level. Just as freeing the economy from absolutism creates the ground for democracy (but doesn’t guarantee it), freeing conscience from theocracy creates the conditions for irreligious criticism and freedom from transcendent obligation. For the individual to finally be liberated from religion, religion must first be emancipated from the state, and this requires the secular state brought about by the development of capitalism. Therefore, before the worker revolution establishes the basis for a classless and stateless society, it must first exploit the prevailing conditions for the development of its advantage, and the nation-state is the framework for the affirmation of social life and political struggle necessary for the revolutionary transformation of everything going forward.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels write that, although in “the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries” the communists “point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality,” and although the differences and antagonisms “between peoples are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto,” that is through the homogenization of populations, revolutionary politics also requires the organization of diverse groups into a national proletariat for “one national struggle between classes.”

Marx and Engels contend that “the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation.” Which is why they stress this: “Though not in substance, yet in form, the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle. The proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie.” It is only after this that the proletariat can establish the future basis of communism and dissolve into the being of the whole:

When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organise itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.

The logic of their analysis—taking the standpoint of class struggle—led Marx and Engels to recommend the dissolution of Great Britain (they were something of early Brexiteers); the Irish worker disrupted the formation of class consciousness among the British proletariat in the same way black slaves undermined working class solidarity in the United States via proletarian identification with the capitalists class on the basis of race. In Marx’s letter to Abraham Lincoln, signed by members of International Working Men’s Association and presented to US Ambassador Charles Francis Adams on January 28, 1865:

While the workingmen, the true political powers of the North, allowed slavery to defile their own republic, while before the Negro, mastered and sold without his concurrence, they boasted it the highest prerogative of the white-skinned laborer to sell himself and choose his own master, they were unable to attain the true freedom of labor, or to support their European brethren in their struggle for emancipation; but this barrier to progress has been swept off by the red sea of civil war.

This is not to blame the Irish worker or the African slave for racism; they were just as exploited by their capitalist oppressor as the rest of those whose labor the capitalist exploited. It is to grasp, in the context of imperialism, the international actions of capitalists with respect to the less developed (indeed, underdeveloped) countries and regions of the world as a strategy for securing cheap resources and labor. Globalization is a strategy not only aimed at maximizing surplus value production for the promise of greater profits, but to interrupt the formation of the proletariat into a national force capable of wresting control of the state from the bourgeoisie. Thwarting class consciousness lies sat the core of the neoliberal strategy of identity politics and multiculturalism. 

* * *

I am also a secular humanist. Because of my grounding in Marxism, I reject the postmodern notion that the secular humanism is just one among many equally valid frameworks for establishing rules for human interactions. Marx’s critique of religion represents a paradigm of how to proceed on the problem of truth. The theocratic principle that all social relations and conduct should be under the thumb of religious doctrine, to draw a contrast, is not merely an inferior notion with respect to human freedom and social progress; it is oppressive and wrong. 

When Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor in 800 AD, he established the tradition that secular leaders were properly subordinated to the authority of the Church. As at the genesis of the state in ancient Sumer—at Eridu, Uruk, and Ur their gods lent their authority to their kings—Yahweh determined the legitimacy of the earthly ruler through the Catholic Church. The Christians of Rome choose to identify themselves as katholikos, from the Greek words kata or kath, meaning “through” or “throughout,” and holos, meaning “whole.” They chose this construction—and not the Latin universalis—because their ambitions were totalitarian. They did not mean to simply reach everybody, but to command everything.

Reformation did little to tame the Catholic desire to dominate law and politics; the Church continued to assert for itself a privileged position in states where other doctrines emerged from the shadow of hegemonic theism. It was not until 1965, one hundred and seventy-one years after delegates to the Constitutional Convention (only two of whom were Catholic) established the American Republic, that the second Vatican Council issued its “Declaration on Religious Liberty,” in which separation of church and state was recognized as a principle that “frees a church and its members from the coercive power of the state so that the exercise of religion is unimpeded.” Thus they did not seek the separation because they believed the religious should bow to the secular; the Vatican did not seek man’s liberation from religion, but the liberation of religion from reason.

The postcolonial view that the system of human rights is the product of western white culture and therefore intrinsically oppressive is objectionable as the postmodern notion of plural truth. Indeed, it it its cousin. The notion that all cultures should be respected with the exception of the western outlook, that the mistreatment of women and gays and lesbians is justified on the grounds of cultural relativism—these are regressive notions. To be sure, culture is relative, but morality and truth are not; they are mind independent and objectively determinable. To say they are mind independent is not to say they are handed down from the heavens, but that they are social facts emergent from the needs of humans and the demands of social intercourse. Moreover, culture is properly subject to rational and empirical assessment and, if found inadequate to the needs of people, in turn subject to criticism and even ridicule. Not all cultures are created or emerge equal with respect to human wellbeing and actualization—indeed, many cultures and traditions are leveraged to perpetuate inequality and injustice.

It is on this basis of science and socialism that I make my choice of comrades. However, tragically, many on the left today align their politics with world bourgeois notions of globalism, identity, and multiculturalism, projects that, while deploying a rhetoric of social justice, fracture consciousness and set the working class against itself in order to discipline and disrupt labor and confuse the socialist movement. We hear it in rhetoric characterizing the native-born as immigrants in their own country, in the racialization and ethnization of immigrants, in the charge of collective guilt—not in the failure of members of working class to pull together, but smearing those who resist those forces pulling the working class apart. The neoliberals, those who strive to push commodification into every layer of the social bed, exploit white guilt and the emotional need to virtue signal by the victims of it. Capitalists use it as a weapon to demoralize and disorganize national proletariats in order to incorporate them into transnational structures of governance without democratic redress. And they have found allies among the proletarian masses.

The socialist nationalism I advocate is not to be confused with reactionary and destructive ideology of national socialism. These terms represent polar opposite positions; each aims for completely different ends. Indeed, the words that make up these terms don’t carry the same meanings. For the fascist, nationalism is ethnic chauvinism and belligerent xenophobia, aiming for the racial organization of society. The national socialists wanted a Germany in which ethnic Germans were the master race and other races were subordinated or eliminated. A Marxist rejects the ethnic or racial organization of society and advocates instead for civic nationalism, a government organized around the rights of the individual and a substantial degree of popular suffrage for all without regard to identity. The communist goal is to create a world without segmentation along lines of class, ethnicity, and race. Whatever the concept of socialism means to the fascist, it is not a Marxian socialism. National socialists were  dedicated anti-Marxist and anti-communist agents. Their allegiance was not to the working class over against the capitalist class, but to the German race against other races. And because the German industrialist and banker represented the cream of the crop, the national socialist regime served their interests over against the proletariat’s. As Walter Benjamin noted in the Epilogue to his 1936 “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”: 

The growing proletarianization of modern man and the increasing formation of masses are two aspects of the same process. Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. The violation of the masses, whom Fascism, with its Führer cult, forces to their knees, has its counterpart in the violation of an apparatus which is pressed into the production of ritual values.

A socialist nationalism seeks the diametric opposite of the outcome Benjamin identifies: we seek to preserve the republican conditions that allow for individually differentiated conduct and popular political participation, that is, conditions necessary for the progressive advance of freedom and democracy. 

* * *

I have written about the capitalist strategy to undermine the proletariats throughout the world through open borders (see “The Need for Limits”). The remainder of present essay examines the use of the smear “nativist” to delegitimize advocates of immigration restrictions. I make this critique to clarify emancipatory notions of nationalism. I am seeking to defend nationalism against those who would reduce it to racism. 

By emancipatory nationalism I mean the progressive emancipation of the individual from tribal associations—from those oppressive relations that demand individuals be in some fashion reduced to their race, ethnicity, or religion and controlled by these group identities—and reincorporation into a national system that elevates the individual to a position of civil, political, and social equality. A national system insists on a common language so that everybody can dialogue (but does not restrict the languages spoken or the ideas they carry) and a common culture that values and upholds humanism, liberalism, and secularism. These are not features to be condemned, but to be upheld.

Yet the nation in this sense is maligned by the progressive activist for its very virtues. The nation-state is said to be an artificial construct that violently forces together and molds peoples with different cultures, languages, and religions (presumed to be organic) into a single entity where they are all subjected to the same fixed national culture which expects of them the same obligations to serve the state. I am here essentially quoting Noam Chomsky, an anarchist whose views on nationalism depend on whether he is talking about oppressor nations or oppressed nations, the latter entitled to exclusive ethnic nationalism. 

It is an odd position for an anarchist to take. Suppose a territory in which there are multiple cultures, all governing themselves based on their own rules. Some of the culture areas are theocratic and patriarchal, where women are forced to cover themselves, not allowed to go outside the home without male relatives, and subject to arranged marriages and corporal punishment. Persons in those areas are subject to genital mutilation and scarification that mark them as members of the tribe. Such systems are exclusive, oppressive, and totalitarian in their orientation. These are examples of the types of cultures whose rights the modern nation violates (as if cultures are persons). 

For Chomsky, if nation in this sense accentuates the richness and authenticity of particular cultures and traditions, then it is a laudable exercise. (No gods? No masters?) Yet such systems are intrinsically closed and exclusive, subjecting persons not to a rational system based on an equal distribution of individual liberty and rights (where human rights obtain), but to irrational customs and conventions based on the authority of hierarchy and tradition. For someone who ridicules postmodernism, Chomsky paradoxically takes for his own position on the question of nationalism a remarkably postmodern view in which third world people are not entitled to the human rights western individuals enjoy (because the West is hypocritical). After all, the Declaration of Human Rights is about persons, and each person, and therefore “all human beings,” are “endowed with reason and conscience” and “are born free and equal in dignity and rights” (quoting from the Declaration). These human beings are part of the same species only artificially divided into classes, ethnicities, races, and religions. Chomsky and his ilk abandon the individual to the tyranny of her culture.

To be sure, the formation of the modern rational nation-state has a bloody history (not in every case, but in most), but the nation in the civic sense has liberated or is liberating women from patriarchal doctrine, homosexuals from compulsory heterosexuality, children from oppressive parental ownership, human beings from slavery, and the human mind from ignorance. Emancipatory nationalism creates a system focused on individual rights and individual rights are human rights, universal and objectively ascertainable and determinable through reason and science. Chomsky even admits that the moral progress humans have made in the West has been of this quality—progress that could only occur uniformly under modern nations. 

In a 2017 piece,“What is a Nativist, published in The Atlantic, Uri Friedman wonders “why, when it would seem to raise valid questions about the rights of natives versus non-natives, does nativism have such negative associations?” But is it really nativist (as used as a derogatory label) to defend the interests of native-born and naturalized citizens against the ambitions of capitalists and immigrants? The answer to this question depends on what one means by the term “nativism.”

The term “nativism” appears amid the mid-19th century concern with growing presence of Germans and Irish Catholic in the United States. Native-born Protestants perceived German and Irish Catholics as a threat to the national culture. Protestants worried about the loyalty of the new arrivals to American republicanism that had enshrined the value of secularism and religious pluralism in its Constitution. Most of those who founded the US Republic professed deism (the Enlightenment theism of nature and reason) or were  Protestants influenced by deism, confessing belief in Christian teachings but rejecting or expressing rational skepticism in supernatural claims.

Unlike Protestants, Catholics were loyal to an international order that stood above and apart from the nation-state. That order was as much political as anything. And it was theocratic. Unlike Catholics, many Protestants had separated themselves from the idea that a religious faith should dictate the law. They agreed with John Locke who said, “No peace and security among mankind—let alone common friendship—can ever exist as long as people think that governments get their authority from God.” Theirs was no irrational fear; they found the prospect of an ideology antithetical to the secular way of life insinuating itself into American law, politics, and culture troubling on rational grounds.

I can hear readers shifting in their seats. “Didn’t we get over this with Kennedy?” (As if Mormonism became acceptable because Mitt Romney reassured the public during his presidential campaign that his religious views would not direct the nation). But something must be said about the problem of painting anti-Catholicism as the “antisemitism of the liberals” (as conservative poet Peter Viereck put it) or as an inseparable part of racist ideology, such as the brand of hatred the Ku Klux Klan peddles, something we have been hearing a lot about lately. Exposing this canard (an especially absurd and, really, insulting parallel given the centuries of Catholic oppression of Jews, including a major role in European fascism and the Holocaust) illuminates the point of this essay—to whit, the problem of theism is the justification for civic nationalism. 

Stridently opposed to abortion and even contraception, the Catholic Church endeavors to marginalize public support for and acceptance of reproductive liberty, a project imperiling the advance of women’s rights. Catholicism remains a barrier to moral progress. The latest marker in the Catholic anti-woman campaign is the ascension of Brett Kavanaugh to associate justice of the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh’s confirmation is yet another step in the political-religious project to roll back liberalism, that culture that marks the beginning of female emancipation.

See, Catholics have been at this for a long time. In November 1975, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the US Catholic Conference published the document “A Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities: A Campaign in Support of Life,” launching a campaign to push the agenda of right-wing Catholicism into Protestant consciousness. Anti-choice Catholic activities fractured the Democratic Party along moral lines. Seeing political advantage, right-wing evangelicals and Republicans moved to incorporate Catholic sentiment into the philosophy of the party, amplifying the worst Catholic tendencies. By 2000, half of all Catholic were Republicans, where a majority of evangelical Protestants joined them in a coalition that is profoundly changing US political culture, reversing decades of social progress.

Today, Catholics dominate the Supreme Court (there are no Protestants on the court and only three Jews remain to defend liberalism in its expansive sense albeit sadly imperfectly), and while the public is well aware of the threat to reproductive freedom the current composition of the court represents, they are loathe to see this threat as a consequence of religious persuasion because they have been indoctrinated to believe that antitheism and irreligious criticism—the highest forms of rationality—represent forms of bigotry akin to ethnic or race prejudice, an utterly false conflation that shames people into silence with tragic results. (We also see this happening with the Islam.) Catholicism has grown in strength in large measure because generations have been told that criticism of Catholic dogma is “anti-Catholic bigotry.”

The attempt to pair anti-Catholicism with white nationalism and white supremacy falls flat, as Catholicism was the principle ideology driving European colonization and the creation of the world patterns of poverty, and remains a major source of antisemitism on the continent of Europe. Catholic immigrants embraced the legacy of the butcher Christopher Columbus, a devout member of the tribe, to show their loyalty to the (worst of the) American idea. The right spent billions of dollars to paint opposition to Kavanaugh as “anti-religious,” specifically anti-Catholic. But then so what if it was? Catholics are responsible for untold cruelty and misery across the centuries. Catholicism, like Islam, is not analogous to ethnic or racial minorities. These ideologies are akin to fascism. They cannot hide behind accusations of bigotry.

The foregoing was not merely a digression into Catholic-bashing. I am using the Catholic experience to demonstrate how rational secular concerns are silenced by characterizing them as some form of prejudice or discrimination. It’s a tactic. The tactic of nativism as a characterization of an expression of a particular intellectual and, in some sense, religious tradition—rationalist, individualist, liberal—proved useful in opening up US society to immigrants formed by different and sometimes incompatible and even harmful cultural traditions. The effort to protect their traditions became evidence against their character; the native-born were not entitled to expect that preservation of the American way of life was a noble or rational cause. Thus, we can think of the charge of nativism as a forerunner of the postmodern critique of modernity—that is, the claim that there is nothing intrinsically good about the values of humanism, liberalism, and secularism and therefore it is fine and good to allow Islam to move substantively uncompromised into free and democratic cultural spaces, where they have harmed and limited communities in every historical instance.

The charge of nativism was used during the period of mass immigration 1880-1920s to malign sentiment in favor of restrictions. As I have written in previous blogs, labor unions supported restrictions not because they were what we would describe today as racist and xenophobic, but because migrants from Eastern and Southern Europe were used by capitalists to drive down wages, disrupt labor solidarity, and hinder the work of unions. The native-born worker understood that capitalists imported low-skill populations from Europe to discipline labor and thwart its political development. Moreover, Immigrants destabilized neighborhoods and disorganized communities, frustrating the native born. Just as workers worried that alien religious ideas threatened the stability of US political culture, workers were rightly concerned that low-skilled, low-wage labor would undermine their livelihoods and collective power.

The question is this: who benefits from marginalizing those who complain about harm to the working class caused by immigration?

If by nativism one means to convey the presence of ethnic bigotry, racism, or xenophobia, can concern for the future of the republic, for secure and decent-paying jobs, for safe and orderly communities really be characterized as such? Surely the reader can see the thought-stopping power of the charge and the forces that lie behind it. It assumes what requires proof. Tilt the tables and ask whether, when people say assimilation is a “racist code word,” they really mean to say that, not only is there no value in integration, but that the desire to strengthen solidarity around our core values and laws is a bad thing. 

The characterization of the desire for national self-preservation as wrong-headed and bigoted presumes that the rational legal and political principles and values that mark the American republic as distinctive and special is problematic and unworthy of defending, that the United States can exist as an cohesive entity irrespective of the ideas and traditions shaping its future. Or perhaps there is a desire that the United States not exist as a cultural system at all, that it becomes a territory without ideals—the postmodern pipe dream—that it should exist as nothing rather than something (that territory I earlier asked you to imagine). But then there is the demand for the integrity of foreign cultures. Baum’s noble savages—Kipling’s white man’s burden—in new and improved form.

By suggesting that opposition to religious ideology and the importation of cheap labor is not nativism, I am questioning the assumption that the motive to restrict immigration is always or for the most part driven by the ethnic chauvinism that characterizes nativist sympathies. I am operating with a particular definition of nativism that is not so broad as to cover all immigration-restrictive sentiment. Nativism is not merely the native-born response to the effect of immigrants on the host society; it is an attitude characterized by an intemperate faith in ethnic superiority. Nativism sees other ethnicities as inferior, even dangerous, not out of reason but out of an irrational fear and loathing of the other.

Nativism is an American term paralleling such European terms as ultranationalism and xenophobic nationalism. Nativism is belligerent nationalism. Yet many on the left are conflating nationalism—pride in one’s country and identification with its values—with chauvinism and jingoism. In their hands, the charge of nativism is a sledgehammer used to pound dissent to the goals of globalism into dust. Where established populations have a valid objection to immigration, the charge of nativism is a weapon to delegitimize the source of that objection.

In discussions surrounding immigration, while the parties may use the same terms, they do not do so with the same meanings in mind. At the core of the confusion is a failure to deal honestly with the concept of the nation. Nation has two basic meanings. One is a political-juridical unit with a sovereign state and an independent government covering a defined territory. The other is a group of people having a common cultural tradition, including a language and shared worldview, often referred to by the term “ethnicity.” There is overlap in these meanings, but they are not reducible to each other. The term “nation-state” is sometimes used to identify a situation in which the state is coterminous; however, it is possible to have a language and shared cultural values apart from common ethnicity.  

It is more precise, therefore, to distinguish between two types of nationalism: civic nationalism and ethnic nationalism. Civic, or liberal nationalism is marked by values (principles or standards that embed in behavioral norms) of equality before the law, individuals liberties and rights, pluralism and tolerance. Ethnic nationalism (or ethnonationalism) is an ideology expressing the idea that a nation is defined in terms of its second meaning, an emphasis on common ancestry and religion—in other words, that the political-juridical unit should be coextensive with a dominant ethnic or racial group.

One of the hallmarks of liberal nationalism is secularism, which is the principle of separation of the state from religious institutions and practices (or rituals), as well as a general attitude disfavoring religious ideas in the formation of law and policy. This system maximizes individual liberty while respecting persons before the law regardless of their race, gender, and so on. To draw a historical contrast, examples of ethnic nationalism include Nazi Germany, which sought to raise the status of ethnic Germans over other ethnicities in German law and policy, and Israel, which declares itself to be a Jewish state, relegating other ethnicities within its territory to second-class citizenship. Religious nationalism operates in a similar fashion to ethnic nationalism and the two are sometimes intertwined, although there are theocracies in which multiple ethnicities and races are treated independent of religious belief (for example Islamic states).

Ethnic nationalism is marked by xenophobia, ethnocentrism, and racism, what in the United States is called nativism. Nativists are concerned with losing white Christian civilization. Transcending white Christian civilization is a goal of Marxian socialism.

* * *

Those on the left who desire to see an end to the nation-state with regional and world systems and open borders substitute a wish for the reality of the world. The globalist agenda is not a socialist agenda. It is an expression of capitalist expansionism. Immigration is not an humanitarian effort to provide comfort to the victims of capitalism (as if workers in the West are not victims of the same system). Immigration is a process of importing human capital to maximize surplus value production in pursuit of profit and leisure for the capitalist class. Capitalist bring foreign-born workers to the West to super-exploit them.

Until the world is won for socialism, the nation remains the territory of class struggle. The interests of native-born and naturalized workers still matter because it is upon these interests that the national proletariat builds its politics. Borders are potential bulwarks not only against neoliberal globalization and political disorganization, but against such regressive and totalitarian ideas as Islam.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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