Nationalism, Euroscepticism and the radical left and right: A short response to Halikiopoulou’s, Nanou’s and Vasilopoullou’s (2012) study

In their 2012 article in the European Journal of Political Research, and its summary in Extremis Project (20 November 2012), Daphne Halikiopoulou, Kyriaki Nanou and Sofia Vasilopoulou (hereafter, Halikiopoulou et al. (2012), or the authors) test a novel argument about the importance and role of nationalism in driving Euroscepticism in radical left and radical right political parties. They conceptualize nationalism through process tracing, following predominantly the work of Anthony Smith. They distinguish between ethnic and civic nationalism, ascribing the former to the radical right and the latter to the radical left. And they test their argument carrying out a qualitative and quantitative analysis of the French and Greek radical left and radical right parties; and a quantitative analysis of the relevant positions of all parties in 24 European countries, by following a slightly modified version of the European Election Study classification of party families. In both cases, they utilize data and codings from the European Manifesto component of the European Election Study. For Greece and France, their analysis draws on data from the period between 1994 and 2009 and for their large-n analysis they employ data from 2009. They conclude that nationalism is a cause of Euroscepticism for radical left and radical right parties.

This article disputes their claims on conceptual (and to a lesser extent also methodological) grounds. It constitutes a brief and preliminary response and should ideally be approached as such. Still, I consider it pertinent to respond, even briefly and preliminarily at this stage, as empirical endeavours that aim at justifying ideological labels with negative connotations for political collectivities or other political phenomena can have political implications. They may be utilized in such a way as to cultivate normative ideational frameworks and suggest policy responses at the national and EU level. As Halikiopoulou et. al. (2012) conclude in the summary of their article on this blog ‘… in a current climate of economic crisis where parties of both the radical right and left are increasingly successful, the implications of the close link between nationalism and Euroscepticism for the European project are paramount’.

I argue that the central tenets of Halikiopoulou et al.’s (2012) identification of nationalism with radical left party ideology suffer from conceptual stretching and downplay various nuances in the history of nationalism at the political level. First, a minimum definition of nationalism is employed that leaves ample space for significant internal (within the concept) variation: the equation of the political with the national unit. On the basis of this definition, one can raise the objection that every party family has been at some point, or still is, nationalist in its own particular way. If radical left parties equate class struggle with territorial integrity, as the authors argue that they do, then in a similar fashion the social democrats can be thought of equating territorial integrity with the welfare state and the Christian democrats can be thought of equating it with social stability and the preservation of cultural heritage. Conceptual stretching arises since we reach a point when a given ideological trait, in this case nationalism, can be linked to everything, rendering inexistent any empirical boundaries that differentiate it from other concepts. But if this is so, then what would nationalism not be? Indeed if, as the authors correctly argue, nationalism is a ‘sticky’ and ‘chameleon-like’ ideology then we cannot speak of nationalists as such, except where nationalism prevails over other ideas and the nation becomes the main, overarching concern, as in the case of the radical right. Given the presence of nationalism in every ideology, the real issue at hand is how explicitly the state is equated with nation, citizenship with ethnicity and so on. It is this ‘magnitude question’ than can unravel the concept of nationalism into its defining functional attributes.

One of the central guideposts of Halikiopoulou et al.’s (2012) argument is that there is a fundamental distinction between ethnic and civic nationalism, where the former ‘is exclusive and organic, defined by a community of birth and a native culture’, and the latter, ‘is inclusive and voluntary, emphasizing historic territory, legal political community and a civic culture’. While the radical right is characterized by ethnic nationalism, the argument goes, the radical left is largely a vessel of nationalism’s civic variation. But don’t these two types of nationalism entail different degrees of concentrating on the nation as something important in and by itself? And isn’t xenophobic and racist nationalism more of a nationalism than anti-xenophobic and anti-racist nationalism?

Further, doesn’t each of the above two types of nationalism entail a number of ideas and attitudes, intrinsically related to it and diametrically opposed to those entailed by the other? Xenophobia and even racism have been widely documented to go hand in hand with ethnic nationalism, because they arise out of the exclusive views of community that the latter embodies. On the other hand, civic (or liberal, or simply non-ethnic) nationalism is characterized by multiculturalist outlooks, inter-ethnic solidarity and anti-racism, as these arise out of the demand for equal respect between all nation-states. Civic nationalism can indeed be thought to lead to pro-EU attitudes and not the opposite, since some of its functional properties are widely accepted to constitute fundamental guiding principles of European integration. Radical left outlooks on European integration that acknowledge the significance of not having decisions that directly affect their societies, being made in institutions designed in such a way that real change from any kind of minority (political, social, national) group can at best be gradualist and syncopated, are anything but nationalist. At worst they reflect claims for a state-centered international democracy.

By contrast, those parties (usually mainstream ones from the bigger member states) that are ubiquitously termed as pro-EU or Euroenthusiastic, may be so precisely because they are not sensitive to cries for equal respect among nation-states and all the political and economic policies that this would involve. The more integrated Europe is, the more regional (and by extension global) power certain countries can gain. The attitudes of mainstream parties from such countries towards pan-European cooperation may then be driven more by concerns that revolve around the political and economic power of their country, and less by the belief in the equal national standing among member states. The only way to decipher this would first of all mean not taking as a given that all EU policies are internationalist, or at least to consider those ones that violate core principles of internationalism. Second, it would require cross-tabulating those EU policies that violate (even indirectly) the principle of equal respect among nation states with the parties supporting them. Currently, manifesto analysis does not offer us this option.

Another issue is whether nationalism is employed as a tool or as a target. Those who use the idea of the nation will often do so for different reasons, either in an endemic or instrumentalist way. Categorizing all of them as nationalist would thus translate into a confluence of the means of struggle with the ends of struggle; a crucial methodological distinction in the history of the Marxist left. For the far right, nationalism is an end in itself, the principle of principles, and their dearest concern. It is further a ‘sentiment’ (to use the words of Michael Freeden, as quoted by the authors in their article) that has no underlying tactical motivation, which is untainted by emotional disquiet. For the radical left, nationalism, defined as national sovereignty is a temporary weapon, intended to serve class interests in the long-term, and embodying no inherent, emotional and objective significance. Put differently, the approach viewing radical left parties as equating class interests with national interests is highly problematic, because national interests do not exist for the radical left at the teleological level. Radical left and radical right parties diverge in their rationalization of the nation’s significance in time. The long-term goal of fighting off imperialism is not to enjoy the fruits of the nation or resurrect national pride but to protect the lower classes from capitalist excesses.

This point becomes clearer once we consider the delineation of the four variables used by the authors to operationalize the concept of nationalism – ‘cultural’, ‘ethnic’, ‘economic’ and ‘territorial’ nationalism. The inclusion of economic nationalism in the list of these variables is premised on the assumption that protectionist economic policies denote a nationalist outlook; that they are defined above all by their nationalist content, itself serving as an ideology or ideological stance. Consequently, the possibility of such practices having a purely economic rationalization is ignored. The term ‘economic nationalism’ has negative and thus ideologically charged connotations, since it is on many occasions viewed as something encompassing a national rather than a class or other approach to trade by definition. Again, this is a question of intent. Radical left and radical right parties do share a number of views on protectionism, which include policy options such as the maintenance of tariffs, but they do so with different purposes and rationalizations in mind. For the radical left, underlying is the desire for the regulation of capitalism by the state so that the lower classes of society can be protected from the free market, where international capital dominates and exploitation reigns. In other words, the state is an entity with the potential of counterbalancing the effects of profit-seeking, and references to the nation are at best ‘collateral damage’. For the radical right, protectionism is the natural choice of any proud nation that wants to avoid cultural mixing, foreign influence on its community and the blurring of its territorial boundaries.

Particularly tricky seems to be the inclusion of trade protectionism as a component of the so called ‘economic nationalism’ variable. Historically speaking, for many nationalists from countries with a strong bearing in the world system, free trade (at the regional and/or global level) has been often approached as an instrument to consolidate (or consolidate further) their nation’s dominance over other nations. On other occasions free trade has been seen as a beneficial arrangement for the nation, because economic competitiveness on a world scale boosts national standing. Reflecting on the climate of the Cold War, one could make the case of a ‘free trade nationalism’, whereby free trade was part of the strategy of containing Soviet socialism and establishing hegemony. More recently, there has emerged anti-German rhetoric among the left, exactly because it sees Germany’s support of the single currency (an internationalist stance in manifesto analysis terms) as underpinning its hegemonic orientation. We need to consider such arguments, as they may reveal a hidden aspect of nationalism that cannot be captured by manifesto analysis which measures nationalism in terms of proposals for economy closeness.

In the perspective emphasizing intent, territorial nationalism is an equally confusing term. As Halikiopoulou et al. (2012) define it, territorial nationalism refers to ‘the right to national self-determination within a specific and predefined territory measured in terms of support for territorial integrity, including the right to sovereignty, an independent foreign policy and support for strategic isolationism’ (my emphasis). But, when the intent of pursuing an independent foreign policy or supporting national sovereignty is completely unrelated to ethnocentrism as an ideologically lasting and central concern, then what we are dealing with is not nationalism, no matter how much support for an independent foreign policy is projected.

Generally speaking, the coding of manifestos is an inadequate method for uncovering ideological intent. Consider the following hypothetical example, as a case of comparing territorial nationalism across different party families. If both the social democrats and the radical leftists are analyzed in terms of the frequency of their actual manifesto references to an independent foreign policy, then perhaps the latter will be found to make more such references. But if the social democrats’ less frequent references to an independent foreign policy allude to past territorial conflicts with other countries, include direct calls for strengthening territoriality vis à vis non European countries, or glorify the history of their (civic) community, whereas the radical leftists’ more frequent references are much softer in tone and revolve solely around the theory of imperialism (and the necessity of anti-imperialism), then what is the justification of categorizing the social democrats as less nationalist?

Turning to the concept of Euroscepticism, the authors identify three variables. ‘The first three refer to the policy practice of the EU’ (economic integration, enlargement and cultural integration), ‘while the last one is broader’ (future deepening) ‘and refers to Member States’ willingness for an ever closer union’. Shining by its absence is parties’ stances on their country’s EU membership and, more broadly, the EU’s current standing. This is a multi-policy issue, whose inclusiveness can capture various aspects of Euroscepticism and thereby, allow us to form a solid opinion about parties’ views of the EU as an entity in the present time; not simply about the integration process per se, with which the authors’ selection of variables is exclusively concerned. Although not necessarily the key factor in classifying parties along a pro-EU-anti-EU continuum, or in categorizing them among various ideal-types, a party’s views on its country’s relations with the EU can tell us about at least one of the things the authors use as proxies to (territorial) nationalism – isolationism. It is worth mentioning that most radical left parties (with few exceptions, such as the Portuguese Communist Party, the Greek Communist Party and the Swedish Left Party) are in favour of their country’s EU membership given that this is now a given reality.

Hereafter, eschewing a reductionist approach would require a radical overhauling of the methodological choices made by Halikiopoulou et al. (2012). At a maximum manifesto analysis would be avoided altogether. At a minimum the analysis would have to include in the operationalization of economic and territorial nationalism components referring to expansionist outlooks in Europe or beyond, either in institutional design, military or economic terms; and to operationalize Euroscepticism through, inter alia, party positions on their country’s EU membership.

Lastly, little is discussed of the time frame, although the overall argument that emerges implicitly from the authors’ study is that the situation they describe has been in vogue more often than not. In previous decades, the radical left was more critical towards even Keynesianism and the social-democratic left was more sceptical of free market capitalism, including free trade, a common monetary policy, etc. It would thus not be far-fetched to expect that regressing the relevant data for a time-frame running as far back as the 1970s could show different results with inter- and intra-party family fluctuations. The data may not be sufficient for doing so as rigorously as by concentrating on 2009, but it may be enough for the longitudinal study of a reasonable sample of parties.

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