Despite its penchant for internationalism, the left has sided with forms of separatism and nationalism throughout history: Irish republicanism, Kurdish independence, and the cause of the Palestinians, to name only a few. In these early days of the 21st century, similar separatist movements are gaining traction worldwide, with referendums being held in Catalonia, Kurdistan and Scotland throughout the last few years. Yet in the wake of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union and the victory of Donald Trump, internationalism seems to be the clarion call of the left. As such, it is worth reflecting whether or not separatism is worth defending in the age of reactionary nationalism.
The idea of a nation can be used to redress the grievances of a group to whom history has been unkind. The clearest such case to which the left are sympathetic is the Kurds, who have long suffered persecution in the Middle East, vulnerable as they are without a state. The same could be said of the Palestinians, a salient example of the dangers of attempting to use nationalism as emancipatory. Taking up Palestinian nationalism has done little to alleviate the suffering of these stateless people and has even served as a justification for heightened Israeli nationalism. Likewise, the establishment of a Kurdish state might only provoke more hostility from its neighbours, just as the foundation of Israel itself did. The left might well learn from Northern Ireland here: campaigning for the rights of the oppressed Catholic minority as men like John Hume and the SDLP, contributed more to social justice than the burst of violence unleashed by the IRA.
The other draw of nationalism to the left is the possibility of using this new nation to fight a greater political battle. Many leftists associate the cause of the Palestinians and the Kurds as one of anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. Scotland positioned its fight for independence as part of the struggle against Tory austerity, and Brexit was often presented as a chance to reassert the importance of free market capitalism in contrast to the EU’s regulatory zeal. But of course here the left risk losing their revolutionary edge, and falling into reactionary politics. Unless one is to submit to the conservative view that the only plausible way of organising human beings is in nations, the left’s project ought to be building strong international law that transcends individual states, and from which no nation is exempt.
There is undoubtedly one separatist goal that the left ought to rally around: democracy. Separatism throughout history has been used as a countermeasure to authoritarian regimes that deny certain peoples the right to hold power to account. If we insist that our nations remain whole by force alone, we betray the democratic principles on which they ought to stand. Whether espousing a separatism that is reactionary or radical, the Kurds and Catalans should be able to shape their own fate. And maybe if the European Union had been more democratic, the British people wouldn’t have felt the need to tear themselves away, ripping much of their skin off as they did.
The new separatism offers a lesson for those who want to see a future defined by greater global integration: that integrating nations while denying people democracy is doomed to failure.