With just four more days to go, it is not gonna be a long wait before a statement from the Nigerian Left on the national question is made. That is a statement that could reverberate at the headquarters of socialist as well as those of liberal and social democratic parties around the world.
The national question? Europe shudders at the thought of it. The Balkans taught it so in the immediate post Cold War. The United States of America which appeared to have overcome it with the hegemonic narrative of ‘grass to grace’ was to find itself coming apart with the Floyd George episode and the global solidarity that greeted it last year. That must have shocked the establishment which had been thrusting itself around the world as the guardian of human rights.
Africa is partly on its knees on account of it. Some early 1990s statistics assert that 11 out of 24 genocide/ethnocide worldwide between 1960 and the 1980s were in Africa, where 19 full-fledged civil wars were also fought involving over 4 millions dead and the continent accounting for 43 per cent of the global refugee population. From Zaire to Nigeria, Angola to Mozambique, Sudan to Ethiopia, Uganda, Chad, Somalia, Liberia, Algeria, Rwanda, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Cote D l’voire, Cameroon, Togo, Senegal, Ghana, Mali, Chad, Niger, the national question explains the ordeal of the average African.
The data tends to confer aptness on the notion that nationalism, more than liberalism and Marxism, has been the most successful ideology in human history. Protagonists of such claims, particularly Michael Billigs, argue this to be the case because, like Christendom or Islam in the Middle Ages, liberalism and Marxism have had to utilize the sovereignty of the nation-state while nationhood itself has known no boundaries in its historical triumph.
This makes the national question such a slippery subject matter as to be a nightmare for all, particularly for socialists who have always privileged internationalism. Unfortunately, nationalism keeps impairing internationalism at both the national and international level. Archie Mafeje, the late South African Sociologist once observed how nationalism beheaded internationalism, contributing to the world wars.
This has left socialists permanently searching for the ultimate creativity in managing the national question. Lenin offered one such case of creativity by offering federalism but withholding it in practice until the collapse of the USSR. It was an uncommon creativity because the USSR did not collapse due to the national question as is commonly but erroneously marketed. The collapse of the USSR has a deliberate choice in response to errors that had accumulated from ideological contradictions of Realism in general and orthodox Marxism in particular. It was the combination of that with agency politics that produced the collapse.
Collapse of USSR was, therefore, not the collapse of Lenin’s interpretation of what was required on the issue in space and time. After all, why wouldn’t socialism have been able to manage the national question if capitalism has been able to manage its own numerous contradictions and crises?
Where then might the problem lie? One suggestion is that socialists are just not good politicians of the national question as to replicate Lenin. As this goes, Lenin had foresight and the force of personality to cobble together 15 or so republics and enforce a model of managing the national question. There are, however, not many Lenins everywhere. Space and time also matter.
In the absence of Lenins here and there, socialists or Leftists tend to go with the Realist assessment that the national question has fallen victim of manipulation by bourgeois elite. But that raises the question as to why the socialist component of the elite end up with almost nothing that the much loved masses can go home with on ethnicity, religion, region and other spaces of difference. Rather, they are the righteous guys but who always have to do with the image of the atheists, thereby remaining the fringe actors in the political space taken over by those who can frame ethnic and other differences to serve their own logic of power.
Nearly everyone knows that ethnicity is a ruse but a powerful one. Nowhere has this been best demonstrated than in the case of the collapse of Yugoslavia which intellectual cranks and conservative ideologues presented as driven by 14th century or ancient hatred. But, in his powerful piece on “Invitation to War”, William Pfaff showed that there is nothing ancient about the hatred that drove cruelty in Yugoslavia because Yugoslavia did not exist before 1918. There could not be anything ancient about a 20th century nation in which all the different ethnic groups had distinct history but were basically the same people. He concludes that “the notion of an exclusive, and exclusionary ethnic existence for each of the Yugoslav peoples is an invention”. His clincher comes in where he states that “Yugoslavia’s then is a war of histories, not ethnicity”.
This is the failure of politics argued against Left foot works on the national question. While some scholars regret this to a point of apologizing that they have not given ethnicity sufficient scholarly attention either because it has been seen as contradictory of nation building or on account of what Jega once called excessive “class – determinism” of radical scholarship, most socialists, at least in Nigeria, stick to their original orientation of trying to avoid it, trying to show that it is a ruse. In other words, not for them the chastisement that “it would be a curious form of idealism which would allow a Marxist to dismiss a concept for which people are prepared to die”.
This is the turning point that its re-engagement with the national question at this point in time could be, depending on what big question the keynote speaker puts on the table. As stated earlier on, it could be such that could reverberate at the headquarters of socialist as well as those of liberal and social democratic parties around the world.