05 July 2017

Agrarianism is not nativism

The programme [of the Republican Party of Farmers and Peasants]… 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.

- Daniel Miller, Forging Political Compromise, describing the views of Antonín Švehla and the programme of the agrarian party in Czechoslovakia

I am neither a Bulgarian nor a Serb; I am a Yugoslav!

- Aleksandŭr Stamboliyski, leader of the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union

Insofar as the agrarian, distributist, populist movements of early 20th century Eastern Europe were devoted to opposing both liberalism and communism, and insofar as they were devoted to recovering a rooted, peasant-oriented traditionalism, to that very degree the agrarian parties were able to resist the intellectual and electoral temptations of nativism and ethnic chauvinism. True, they embraced authoritarianism at times as it became necessary, and agrarian governments did get involved in border disputes. But the agrarians, God keep them always near His heart, were neither romantics nor intégristes. Indeed, the fascists found, almost uniformly, that they could not woo the peasantry which the Green Rising had radicalised, merely with appeals to race, blood and soil. The solution they reached for, just as the Bolsheviks had ten years before, was the truncheon and the gun.

Madgearu, the primary theorist of the Romanian Peasants’ Party, was murdered by the Iron Guard for his anti-fascist activities. Stamboliyski, quoted above, was tortured and murdered by the Nazi-aligned IMRO. And of course the Czechoslovak Republic was invaded by the Nazis; the agrarian party was outlawed along with all of the socialist ones. Only in places where agrarianism had not strongly taken root – places like the Ukraine, where land reform was shoved aside in favour of bourgeois language politics; or like Croatia, where agrarianism was forced underground by constant repression – did the poisonous weeds of fascism take root among the populace.

This is because the agrarian, distributist, populist movements of Central and Eastern Europe were fighting a battle of their own. Whether through Stamboliyski’s theory of the ‘estates’, or through Švehla’s ‘law of the land’, or through the coöperative theories of Marković or Madgearu, the agrarians were busy attempting to recover a ‘Tory-radical’ politics of the family and of the commons, that understood such a politics in geographical terms. The link of the people to the soil, to the village, was emphasised. The links of blood (considered as an abstract category, that is, rather than direct ties which preserve a family line) and language, both of which are forms of ephæmeral mass politics encouraged by the French Revolution, were downplayed. If the attitudes of the communists were that class matters and those of the volkisch right were that race matters, then the attitude of the agrarians of Eastern Europe was that geography matters.

In effect, just as the royal families of Europe had promoted a kind of traditionalist-conservative cosmopolitanism in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars in an attempt to stave off nationalism and other forms of revolutionary mass politics, so too did the peasants promote a similar sort of regionalism: but this time, one based on the common œconomic interests of the farmers, wherever they were to be found. The Green International, spearheaded particularly by Švehla was a collective, coöperative platform for these agrarian-populist peasant parties to pool resources, gather information, coördinate political initiatives. Unfortunately with the darkening political climate and the nationalist temper of the age, the Green International did not live to see its full flower but was mown down well before its prime. In addition, political figures like Stamboliyski, Švehla and Croatia’s Stjepan Radić were committed, far more so than the more ‘liberal’ parties and to a degree matched only by the socialists, to the regionalist, coöperativist state-building projects of Yugoslavism and Czechoslovakism: both of which are pre-Communist in the same way that the regionalist state-building project of Great Britain is pre-Whig.

Which is what makes the particular pretensions of modern forms of bourgeois nationalist politics to represent any sort of ‘localism’ or ‘subsidiarity’ so truly repulsive and abhorrent. The original agrarian movements which wanted to give land and welfare and political power back to the villages through œconomic reforms and education – these movements did not appeal to language politics or to base ethnic hatreds. On the other hand, unfortunately, many of the modern right-wing ethno-nationalist or intégriste movements in Eastern Europe are seeking to clothe themselves in the rhetoric of religious self-righteousness. Localists nowadays have to be careful not to be deceived by the politics of identity. We can take heart that the original agrarians weren’t.

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