01 September 2017

Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia: a Švehlist defence

I’ve indicated before that my hostility to nationalism in its more brute forms, but my unwillingness to discount it completely, stems from certain distributist and narodniy (or ‘thedish’, to use my English neologism) concerns. Christians, in fact, should distrust too-close associations between the ‘nation’ (the ethnos or the thede) and the state: it was a connivance between the Jewish nation and the Roman state which, after all, crucified Our Lord Christ (Who, in addition to being God, was a loyal member of both).

The nation-state is, after all, an abstraction and (possibly) an idol. It’s all-too-easy to see how one can fetishise waving the flag, and not pay attention to someone suffering in the same neighbourhood. The priest and the Levite were the upstanding, patriotic buttresses of Second Temple worship and symbols of Jewish loyalty and pride; they both passed by the man beaten up on the road. It was left to the Samaritan – the heretic and ‘foreigner’ to the Jews – to be a neighbour to that man. Even so, the nation-state points to some deep realities about human loyalties and limits. People can feel real attachments to a national identity, and those attachments are good things: those who deride them too easily are often given to equally-abstract forms of political idealism and universalism which, in fact, do not require them to love their neighbours at hand, on a personal basis. The burning question is: how can we ‘juggle’ all of these overlapping loyalties – to our neighbours, to our thede, to our state and to our faith, of which Scripture tells us the most important are the first and last – without wrongly or excessively privileging our ‘intermediary’ loyalties?

This is why, despite neither project being an explicitly-Orthodox one, the ideals of Yugoslavism and Czechoslovakism (as well as related movements like the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union) have appealed so much to me. These states provided a unique, and ‘Eastern’, solution to the problem of the nation-state. These states were, of course, authoritarian, whether the ‘hard’ authoritarianism of Stamboliyski, the Karađorđevići or Tito, or the ‘soft’ smoke-filled room authoritarianism of Švehla and the Pětka. Today they would undoubtedly be considered ‘illiberal democracies’ or ‘hybrid régimes’. I can even imagine modern critics writing them off as ‘proto-Putinist’. But each state-building project considered itself an alliance of different peoples, not the sole property of any one nation. Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia mediated and suspended the relationship between nation and state. One could be fully Czechoslovak and also a good Slovak, a good Czech, a good Rusin, or a good Jew or German or Hungarian. This, in turn, allowed for greater expressions of solidarity, and more room for meaningful reforms (like Švehla’s aggressive – and successful – breakup and redistribution of large estates, which made him and his government immensely popular among the poor peasantry in the east of the country).

How did they accomplish this? By attempting to build regional, geographic loyalties to transcend the ethnic ones. People eking a living out of the same geographical features have a physical and immediate solidarity that transcends blood – this is what Švehla called the ‘law of the land’. As Daniel Miller describes it:
Švehla’s concept of the “law of the land” [illustrated] man’s natural relationship to the land and special respect for the soil, which made the people of the countryside the “constant reservoir of the nation”. Relying on geographic determinism, the authors [of the Agrarian Party platform] reasoned that “the nation is created from its land”, which influenced all aspects of the culture. Based on this theory, the party maintained that the state must support the needs of agriculture and improve the œconomic factors of land, labour and capital… The programme favoured no particular religion and… stated that “rough nationalism is foreign” to the Czechs and Slovaks and called for strong links with Rusins, all the minorities in the republic, Czech and Slovak minorities abroad, “colonies” in the New World, the Sorbs and all other Slavs. The programme expressed the party’s desire for good relations with all states and… conveyed the party’s desire that Russia would “once again become an equal factor in the world œconomy”.
Yugoslavism and Czechoslovakism are far from perfect – they were, after all, sæcular projects. As such, they both eventually lost sight of the unique, multifaceted narodniy visions of Stamboliyski and Švehla, and shaded over into various forms of Marxism under Tito and Beneš. But even though both movements were fundamentally anti-capitalist and internationalist, it would be quite wrong to write them off as doomed to the grasp of dialectical materialism. There was a distinct ‘Eastern’ flavour to both – both in the sense that they approximated, whether they meant to or not, the layered and mediated Byzantine relationship between nation and state; and in the sense that they partook of the influence of Russian narodnichestvo, and thus of the Slavophil heritage, through such figures as Svetozar Marković and Constantin Stere. And if it had not been for the rise of ideological extremism in Western Europe, the collapse of Central and Eastern European narodnichestvo might not have been so precipitous.

In my recent reading, it has been fascinating to note the several parallels that Chinese thinking has had with the Eastern European nation-building experiments. China too is a multi-ethnic state. The Qing Empire could very well have broken apart into its constituent nationalities and ethnic divisions, but – as Wang Hui points out – it did not (for the most part). The glue was a common moral heritage, often termed ‘Confucian’ but clearly not exclusively so. In a move paralleling that of the Yugoslavists and the Czechoslovakists, the representatives of this ‘Confucian’ cosmopolitanism began expressing themselves in increasingly radical ways and seeking to implement broad, solidaristic and equity-seeking reforms. I’ve talked briefly about Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, and some of the intellectual legacy they left; I’ve talked about Zhang Zhidong and Gu Hongming a bit, too, who represent a different direction. It’s also worth mentioning other figures from other Confucian schools, Buddhism and even Christianity: people like Jimmy Yen and Liang Shuming. The agrarian reforms and coöperative organisation advocated by the last two indeed have an uncanny parallel with the Czechoslovak and Yugoslav state-building experiments.

These figures were insistent on not dragging ethnic feuds or language politics into questions of reform. They were emphatically not Han supremacists, haters of Manchus or despisers of Mandarin. Still less were they interested in the language politics that were surfacing at the time, except insofar as they impacted education. Jimmy Yen – a Chinese Christian from Sichuan who left Hong Kong University in disgust on account of the anti-Mainland bigotry he faced there – went on record openly rebuking and denouncing the remnants of that warlord-driven chauvinism which pitted China’s Mandarin-speaking North against the Cantonese, Fujianese and Shanghainese South. (A chauvinism which today is sadly resurfacing.) Farmers of North and South faced the same struggles to feed themselves, educate themselves and stand up as communities. His project of mass education at the grassroots was something much more personal – and therefore, much more righteous. Yen may not have spelt out a Švehlist ‘law of the land’ explicitly, but he well understood the importance of geography over blood and especially over (spoken) language.

Indeed: these questions of nationalism and responses to it, will become more and more salient and urgent as time goes on. It may be time to consider thinkers like Stamboliyski and Švehla more seriously, if only because they managed to articulate a layered and multivalent approach to the question of nationhood which bears some interesting parallels to Orthodox, Slavophil and narodnik social thought on the question.

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