This op-ed was originally published by Project Syndicate.
Steve Bannon’s extensive travels in Europe this year have not drawn as much attention as they should have, given that he is the key theoretician of U.S. President Donald Trump’s signature brand of nationalism. Bannon now wants to build a federation of nationalist parties in Europe. And yet, one wonders how an “America First” ideologue can pursue his political project anywhere other than in America. By joining forces with the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen—herself an open supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin—Bannon seems to have in mind a new type of “neo-nationalist international.”
As more countries transform themselves into “nationalist autocracies” and “illiberal democracies” under strongman rule, nationalism has become an ideological common denominator. But the question is whether one should take seriously the oxymoron of nationalist internationalism.
Historically, internationalism has generally been the preserve of the left, starting with the French Revolutionaries’ attempts to export their political project across Europe. That effort was brought to an end by Napoleon’s Bonapartist dictatorship. But it is interesting to imagine what would have happened if Europe’s then-ideologically receptive states had also gone the way of imperial republicanism.
At the beginning of the last century, socialist internationalism came closer than its precursors to realizing its global ambitions. Firmly rooted in classical Marxism, the socialist movement regarded the nation-state as a transitory vehicle for achieving proletarian universalism. Most countries would eventually adopt communism under an international framework, and the nation-state would become obsolete.
At the time, leading communists such as Rosa Luxemburg—and even Vladimir Lenin for a while—believed that communist institutions would gain a foothold in post-World War I Germany, and then radiate to the rest of the world. With the collapse of Imperial Russia, the Bolsheviks envisioned the Soviet Union serving as the vanguard of global communism. But when communist revolutions in the rest of Europe failed, Joseph Stalin and Nikolai Bukharin reconceived the Soviet Union’s historic task as the construction of “socialism in one country.”
The Soviet Union itself was originally conceived as a federation of socialist republics under the yoke of a dual institutional structure comprising a bureaucracy of “habitual” ministries, on the one hand, and the Communist Party, on the other. Under this arrangement, party commissars formed a parallel power structure, and reported to the Communist Party Central Committee. In theory, the federation’s republics were coequals, and Russian nationalism was subdued. In reality, the Russian republic immediately dominated the others, because it was the seat of power.
On the economic front, the Soviet Union did not have an explicit nationalist-protectionist policy. Yet, because production was centrally planned from Moscow, economic policymaking played a protectionist role, favoring some Soviet republics over others.
For decades after World War II, many communist and left-socialist opposition parties in Europe would follow the Kremlin’s lead. These included the French and Italian Communist Parties, each of which commanded around one-third of their respective countries’ fragmented electorates, as well as Germany’s Social Democratic Party, which did not formally abandon its Marxist roots until the 1959 Bad Godesberg Congress.
Meanwhile, the West went on to dominate the world economy. With the United States leading the way, Western countries liberalized trade and encouraged others to open up their economies. Over time, newly independent emerging-market countries would join the Western-led international order. And even China, a nominally communist country, would eventually embrace Western economic principles in its pursuit of growth. Within Western democracies during this time, socialism was largely abandoned and replaced by social democracy, which rejected central planning in favor of markets as a mechanism for allocating resources.
Against this historical backdrop, how should one interpret Bannon’s initiative? His objective is certainly not to build a right-wing alternative to the Soviet federation and the Communist International. Leading European right-wing nationalists such as Jérôme Rivière of the French National Rally (the recently renamed National Front) have rejected that idea outright. “Bannon is [an] American and has no place in a European political party,” Rivière told Politicoin in July. “We reject any supra-national entity and are not participating in the creation of anything with Bannon.”
Bannon’s mission, then, is not to improve policymaking or build new institutions for managing the economic and technological challenges of the twenty-first century. Rather, his sole focus is on weakening and, if possible, unraveling “liberal-social” gains, such as the European project.
At the heart of that project are two strains of internationalism that Bannon and his allies want to destroy: one of the liberal center-right, the other of the liberal center-left. That goal, more than any policy similarities, is what unites Europe’s far-right parties. Despite its weaknesses, Europe is still the center of liberal internationalist thinking. And that makes it the ideological bête noire of nationalists everywhere.