In the attempt to hold myself to my new year’s resolution of posting here rather than in long Twitter threads, I want to flesh out my reaction to a provocative article published this week in The Nation by David Adler, entitled “Meet Europe’s Left Nationalists.” Adler focuses on Sahra Wagenknecht in Germany, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and Jeremy Corbyn as examples of leaders of major left-wing movements or parties that have given up on welcoming immigrants and asylum seekers, taking an explicit stance against free movement. I’m not entirely sure being anti-migrant is completely the same as being “nationalist,” but leaving that aside, it’s certain that Adler is putting his finger on a real tendency in European left politics. Wagenknecht in particular has unmistakably taken the position that unrestricted migration into Germany is harmful to the German working class in real economic terms, and harmful to the German left in political terms. The Wagenknecht approach is to concede the immigration issue to the far-right in order for the left to compete with the far-right for working-class voters, taken to be uniformly hostile to either immigrants or the “elitist” progressives who want to bring them in.


What is not clear, however, is that a wave of “left-nationalist movements” has surged throughout Western Europe, as the article’s title apparently suggests. If Wagenknecht founded her movement Aufstehen on the explicit belief that the left needs to change its tune on immigration, Corbyn’s Labor Party and Mélenchon’s La France insoumise have adopted no such program. In the case of La France insoumise, there have unmistakably been members of the movement or aspects of its rhetoric and strategy that could be called “nationalist.” Adler points to the rejection of the Internationale for the Marseillaise at Mélenchon’s campaign rallies, and there have been plenty of “national orators” for the movement that have indeed embraced Wagenknecht-like positions on immigration. Mélenchon himself, like Corbyn, has made statements in recent years indicating a similar belief that immigrants are the dupes of capital, and that the goal should be first and foremost to make sure they stay in their home countries.


The main difference, though, is that La France insoumise has not made it its mission to purge the left of its pro-migrant sentiments. Its program calls for “addressing the causes of migration,” but also strengthening France’s system of welcoming asylum seekers. A number of LFI deputies, notably Clémentine Autain, have been highly critical of the anti-migrant strands of the movement. As Macron’s government has shown itself frequently willing to deal harshly with migrants camped at Calais or crossing over the Alps, LFI has joined other groups on the left in condemning French inhospitality. Mélenchon himself has in fact wavered quite a bit on this issue. Most recently, he has forced out movement figures like François Cocq and Djordje Kuzmanovic, branded as “nationalists” for their Wagenknecht-like positions on migration.


It seems to me that it is less accurate to call LFI a “left-nationalist movement,” than to conclude that radical-left leaders in Europe like Mélenchon and Corbyn are under far more pressure than their American counterparts to back away from the most radical positions in favor of free movement and open migration. This is the contrast Adler ultimately concludes with, and I think it is really the main story of his article. Though American leftists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have as of yet refrained from calling for “open borders” (a term which even the most radical politician would probably think twice before embracing), she has helped make abolishing ICE a near-mainstream view. More generally, the American left is engaging in serious reflection on the reasons we ought to have borders and immigration in the first place (if any), and beginning to learn to push back on the right’s notion that the presence of foreigners—documented or not—are an inherent danger to the country.


European left politicians appear to be far less willing to engage in this sort of reflection in public. Perhaps, of course, they sincerely aren’t interested in it. But on the other hand, the presence of Donald Trump gives their American counterparts far more license to imagine more radical possibilities—if this man, with all his temper tantrums over “The Wall,” is the face of “strong borders” and draconian migration restrictions, all the less reason to concede to the more moderate versions of his positions. At the same time, Mélenchon and especially Corbyn are far closer to actually taking power than Ocasio-Cortez will likely be for some time. It is not so surprising that they are more constrained in what they can propose, and that their positions on migration might become somewhat incoherent as a result.


None of this, in my view, points to a wave of “nationalist movements” taking over the left across Europe. The Wagenknecht position is out there, and has gained followers in many countries, but it is far from dominant on the European left. Framing the story this way might help it become so.


Photo Credit: Opposition 24, Sahra Wagenknecht die Linke Wahlplakat, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.


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  • Nicole Machiavelli says:

    Abolishing ICE is not a “near mainstream position” in the US. It is more like an albatross to hang on the Democrats neck.

  • Andy says:

    Thank you for this. I have read Adler’s piece and found it quite muddled and not a little selective in its historical account (see Peter Unterweger’s comments on Adler’s selective reading of Marx).

    Could part of the problem besetting the “left-nationalists,” and preventing them from consolidating a genuinely “leftist” position (pace Adler) is an inability or unwillingness to articulate or renew what in the early 1990s was the push for “fair trade” (as opposed to “free trade”) agreements as the basis for a left internationalism?

    That is, a project “led” by Social Democratic gov’ts, trades’ unions, and some EnvNGOs in high wage countries, to export decent working, welfare, and environmental conditions by attaching them to int’l trade agreements. A rising tide that would be guaranteed to lift all boats.

    As I remember it, such efforts were pushed off the table by two “alternatives”: the “Third Way” and via a more complicated route, what at the time was called “poststructuralism,” the apolitical literary theory that, by many twists and turns, came to inform much contemporary “postcolonial” political and social theory.

    For advocates of the former, inserting a fair (or green) trade floor into trade agreements would distort markets, hinder economic growth, and create moral hazards (Clinton and NAFTA, see Robert Reich’s appraisal of that deal). For the latter, efforts to “lead” from the high wage countries were simply extensions of the colonial project (Vivek Chibber offers a good account of this issue).

    IMHO, Wagenknecht, Corbyn, and Melenchon (the latter two old enough to remember something along these lines) are pragmatically clutching at straws, or worse, simply moving to the right, unless they can find their way back to articulating something like this, the ‘whole’ message.

  • Trying to win national elections while being hostile to the existence of the nation is sort of self-contradictory.

    In practice, democracy means rule by “A” people in a given territory over which they exercise sovereign power, a specific and legally bounded, historically grounded self-conscious group; and this is the only thing it can mean. Han in China, Nihonjin in Japan, Magyars in Hungary, and so forth.

    You can have a nation-state without democracy, but you can’t really have democracy without a nation-state.

    The EU has become a case in point, where unelected bureaucrats responsible to nobody (except possibly German bankers) tell national electorates to back and vote over and over until they vote the way the Jean-Claude Junckers of the world want, whereupon the issue is settled. Ask them in Greece how much democracy mattered.

    One would think leftists would be sympathetic to the Greek people’s desire to elect an anti-austerity party that would give them the policies they want, rather than a -diktat- imposed in the name of being financially salonfahig to the masters of capital, but where were they? Silenced by their anti-nationalism.

    If you don’t give people a respectable nationalist party to vote for — and it must be -actually- and not merely rhetorically nationalist — then they’ll start voting for un-respectable ones.

    Down with the gatekeepers and the boundary-enforcers!

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