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On reactionary cosmopolitanism and the internationalism of the far right

Friday 5 July 2019, by siawi3


The New York Times

The Far Right Says There’s Nothing Dirtier Than Internationalism — But
They Depend on It

They are less parochial than we think — and that’s dangerous.

By David Motadel

July 3, 2019

The European Parliament opened in Strasbourg, France, this week to
chaos. Outside, Catalan separatists protested the decision to bar
their elected representatives from the chamber; inside, members of
Britain’s Brexit Party turned their backs while the rest of the
Parliament stood at attention for the union’s anthem, Beethoven’s “Ode
to Joy.”

The disorder upstaged what was perhaps the most significant event of
the day: the debut of a new alliance among Europe’s leading far-right
nationalist groups. There, in the chamber, sat members of the populist
far right, from Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, from France, to Matteo
Salvini’s Northern League, from Italy. Their cooperation is worrying
enough. But it also raises a question: Why are nationalists so eager
to embrace an ethos of international cooperation?

For some in Europe, this alliance is mostly a pragmatic decision —
undermining the European Union from within is not an easy task, and
there’s strength in numbers. “We will not give up our identity; I
think that unites us all,” said Jörg Meuthen, a member of the European
Parliament from the Alternative for Germany party. The alliance’s
collective aims: “no to further harmonization, no to the undermining
of the nation state.”

But the cooperation goes beyond the specific goal of taking down
Brussels, and beyond Europe. The group is supported by none other than
Steve Bannon, the self-proclaimed éminence grise of the global far
right. Nationalist leaders pop up at rallies around the world to
support their local ideological cousins. Let’s remember the appearance
of Mr. Salvini at a Trump rally in Philadelphia in 2016.

Among today’s far right, there are few words dirtier than
“internationalism.” It connotes everything that contemporary
nationalists despise, above all the idea that our most pressing
problems need to be resolved by working across borders. But
internationalism, a concept that, after all, implicitly presumes the
existence of the nation, and extreme nationalism are not necessarily

Evoking the spirit of an international far-right fraternity,
nationalist groups around the world are building alliances and
operating more and more in transnational institutions. United in their
nationalism, hostility to minorities, and scorn for multiculturalism
and pluralism, they advocate global cooperation among supposedly
homogeneous, organically grown, closed national communities — call it
“reactionary cosmopolitanism.” It is a form of internationalism that
has a long history, yet remains less studied than the conventional
socialist and liberal variants.

In fact, international alliances of nationalist movements are as old
as these movements themselves. “It is not difficult to find a
universal cosmopolitan intent and an engagement with internationalism
layered through all manner of 19th-century political texts, including
those most famous for promoting nationalism,” noted the historian
Glenda Sluga.

[(Internationalism, a concept that, after all, implicitly presumes the
existence of the nation, and extreme nationalism are not necessarily

Some of the most important 19th-century nationalists were in fact
cosmopolitans, who considered the national order to be universal and
sought to carry their fights across borders. The most famous among
them was the revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini, who spearheaded the
movement for the unification of Italy and fought in other national
struggles across Europe. Promoting an international association of
nations, his People’s International League stood for “the rights of
nationality” and a “cordial understanding between the peoples of all

Even as nationalists radicalized, beginning at the turn of the 20th
century, growing more and more chauvinistic, anti-liberal and
authoritarian, they did not give up their internationalist ambitions.
Following the October Revolution in Russia, nationalists, ranging from
centrist conservatives to far-right extremists, united against the
perceived left-wing threat. Many fought within their countries, but
most considered their battles as part of a global struggle.

One of the key thinkers of this right-wing international was Nicholas
Murray Butler, the conservative president of Columbia University. In
his 1918 tract “A World in Ferment” he drew a distinction between
“colloidal" — i.e., cosmopolitan — and “crystalline” internationalism.

Butler dismissed colloidal internationalism as the “hopelessly
impractical" desire by liberals and the left for “a worldwide
community without national ties or national ambitions.” In contrast,
crystalline internationalism was based on “nationalistic and patriotic
sentiments and aims,” which are “elements in a larger human
undertaking of which each nation should be an independent and integral

One of the early organizations to emerge in this vein was the Geneva
International, founded in 1924, with sections in 18 countries as far
away as Australia. Devoted to “defending the principles of order,
family, property and nationality” around the world, its cosmopolitan
networks included figures like Spain’s Francisco Franco and France’s
Philippe Pétain — and it reached out to Benito Mussolini and Adolf

Europe’s Fascist movements between the world wars engaged in various
forms of international cooperation, including a series of world
congresses. The most important was the Conference of Fascist Parties
in Montreux, Switzerland, convened by Mussolini in 1934, which was to
forge a transnational coalition in the struggle against socialism and
liberal democracy. All of the major Fascist regimes held their own
international meetings, and invited fellow Fascist parties to events
inside their countries. At their Nuremberg rallies, the Nazis welcomed
like-minded groups from Iraq, Siam (modern-day Thailand) and Bolivia.

The regimes also founded several internationalist organizations to
engage with Fascist movements around the world. “Fascism is now an
international movement, which means not only that the Fascist nations
can combine for purposes of loot, but that they are groping, perhaps
only half-consciously as yet, towards a world system,” observed George
Orwell in 1937.

Fascist internationalism was nowhere more apparent than during the
Spanish Civil War. As socialist radicals flocked to Spain to join the
International Brigades, Fascist and right-wing nationalists, though
fewer in number, swelled the ranks of the nationalists. They included
Irish Fascists and Romanian Iron Guard militants, not to mention the
support Franco received from the dictators in Berlin, Rome and Lisbon.

This internationalism reached its peak during the Second World War.
The Anti-Comintern Pact, ratified by Tokyo and Berlin in 1936 (and in
1937 by Italy and Spain), was revised in 1941 when the ruling regimes
of Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Finland, El Salvador, and, as
an observer, Turkey, became signatories.

After the war the extreme right, though weakened, continued to
organize internationally, convening meetings, founding organizations
and starting publications. Even neo-Nazi groups founded international
organizations — including the extremist World Union of National
Socialists, created in 1962, which operated branches in America,
Europe and Asia. In the Cold War, many such alliances were rooted in
anti-Communism: The infamous World Anti-Communist League, founded
around the same time, united the extreme right with more moderate
conservatives from across the globe.

Then as now, the advantages of international cooperation are too
significant for nationalists to ignore, providing outside material and
moral support. Positioning themselves as part of a bigger
transnational movement also makes them look more important at home.

Still, such alliances can be fragile and full of frictions. Right-wing
nationalist groups frequently clash over small ideological
differences. Their members often have little interest in
internationalist politics. The right-wing leaders who do engage
internationally are often part of their countries’ social elites,
crossing borders with ease, while their followers often find these
cosmopolitan worlds less appealing. In short, the nationalists’
parochial views make international cooperation anything but

The nationalists of Mazzini’s 19th-century international were at odds
over issues such as territorial borders, types of government and forms
of cooperation. The far right of the interwar and war years, despite
all attempts to unite, was riven by rivalries. Take the fallout
between Hitler and Franco in 1940 over a dispute regarding Spain’s
audacious territorial demands in return for supporting Germany during
World War II. Similarly, the territorial revisionism of Axis allies in
southeastern Europe proved impossible to overcome.

In the postwar years, the alliances between far-right groups were
always tainted by mutual suspicion and selfishness — German and
Italian nationalists, for example, frequently clashed at international
gatherings over South Tyrol.

Today’s extreme right might likewise find the gulf between parochial
nationalism and cosmopolitan internationalism too wide to bridge.
Consider the European Union’s populist parliamentary group, which is
divided on many key questions. Driven by nationalist egos, its members
disagree on budget-deficit rules and the distribution of refugees.

They also disagree on relations with Russia, which is despised by
Eastern European nationalists but admired by many of their Western
European counterparts. In the end, with all its inherent
contradictions, the new nationalist international might prove less
stable than its proponents would like us to believe.

Even so, the danger posed by nationalist internationalism is real. The
far right does not always need to form stable alliances, encompassing
all areas of politics, to be destructive. Even pragmatic international
cooperation on selected points can be enough. They do agree on enough
things to do damage: which enemies to confront, which institutions to
weaken, which values to assault. We dismiss the internationalization
of right-wing politics at our own peril.

David Motadel (@DavidMotadel) is a historian at the London School of
Economics and Political Science.