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On Nationalism and Fascism, Part 3

These reflections suggest that the most useful way of conceptualizing the interwar Organization of Ukrainian Nationalism (OUN) is as a nationalist movement with a nationalist ideology along the lines described above. In turn, this means that the OUN is most usefully compared to other nationalist movements that aspired to national liberation and the creation of nation-states (such as the American revolutionaries of 1776, the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Algerian National Liberation Front, the Irish Republican Army, the interwar Croatian Ustasha, the Vietnamese National Liberation Front, the Chinese Communist Party, and the Haganah in the British Mandate of Palestine, to name just a few) and not to fascist regimes or to fascist movements (such as Italian fascism, Nazism, the Polish Falanga, the Romanian Iron Guard, the Hungarian Arrow Cross, and the like). This is not to say that individual members of the OUN or individual planks of the OUN’s constantly changing ideology were not, or could not have been, fascist, but it is to say that to focus on these fragmentary fascist elements is, first, to mistake the part for the whole and therefore to misunderstand the OUN; second and much worse, to misunderstand both fascism and nationalism; and, third and worst of all, to engage in conceptual nonsense.

The Ukrainian nationalist movement’s relationship to political ideologies changed continually, proceeding from an apolitical militarism to authoritarianism to proto-fascism to democracy to social democracy. Thus, whereas nationalism as national liberation was a constant, the political ideology was a variable. The OUN’s predecessor in the 1920s, the Ukrainian Military Organization, was a collection of patriotically inclined ex-soldiers with little sense of political ideology. The OUN began as a radical youth movement, then morphed into a quasi-authoritarian movement, adopted fascist elements by the late 1930s and early 1940s, abandoned them by 1943–1944, and began acquiring progressively more democratic and social-democratic characteristics in the mid- to late-1940s and 1950s. The picture looks even more complex if we consider that the OUN, throughout the 1930s, was divided into the émigré and homeland factions, with the former being more concerned with ideology and the latter more with action. As we would expect, post–World War II émigré Ukrainian nationalists were divided into liberal, moderate, and authoritarian wings.

If you really want to understand what made such Ukrainian nationalists as Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych tick—both were made Heroes of Ukraine by President Viktor Yushchenko and both were subsequently unmade as Heroes by President Viktor Yanukovych—don’t compare them to Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, or Francisco Franco, but to George Washington, Jefferson Davis, Giuseppe Mazzini, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Menachem Begin, Vladimir Jabotinsky, Theodor Herzl, Ahmed Ben Bella, Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, Josip Broz Tito, Simón Bolívar, and Emiliano Zapata. Personally, if I were doing comparative biographies, I’d do one on Bandera and Begin as political leaders and another on Shukhevych and Tito as military leaders. And then I’d compare the Ukrainian nationalist theorist Dmytro Dontsov with the Zionist theorist Jabotinsky.

If you want to understand what kind of arguments Ukrainian nationalists, like all nationalists, make and how they justify their claims for national self-determination, go no further than the American Declaration of Independence, Herzl’s The Jewish State, or the PLO’s National Charter. You won’t find anything in any of those three documents that any nationalist in any country at any time wouldn’t have agreed to. Consider the opening passage of the Declaration:

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. … But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

Begin, Bandera, and Mao might have used different language, but they could easily have subscribed to the core logic of Thomas Jefferson’s argument. Unsurprisingly, all four were equally nationalist, even though the first two tended toward authoritarianism, the third was a totalitarian communist, and the fourth was a slave-owning democrat.

To summarize: Fascism is always anti-democratic and it always emerges within an already existing non-fascist state. Nationalism may or may not be anti-democratic and it always emerges within an already existing non-national state. Fascism aspires to change a state and make it fascist. Nationalism aspires to create a state. Like fascists and scores of other ideologically inspired individuals, nationalists can be violent. Like fascists and scores of other ideologically inspired individuals, nationalists can be chauvinists. But, like democrats, liberals, and other champions of human rights, nationalists can also be democratic and liberal champions of human rights. Unsurprisingly, Ukrainian nationalism, like Jewish nationalism (or Zionism), has contained all these elements at various times and in various places. The most striking thing about Ukrainian nationalism, therefore, is not that it is unique, but that it is so commonplace—no better and no worse than all other nationalisms: just as committed to liberation and just as likely to fall short of its ideals as to meet them.

It makes perfect sense for liberals and democrats always to oppose fascism. When it comes to nationalism, their attitude should be welcoming but cautious. Welcoming, because liberals and democrats should welcome every form of liberation: the political philosopher John Rawls even suggests in The Law of Peoples that liberalism demands recognizing the right of nations to self-determination and is, thus, intrinsically nationalist. Cautious, because nationalism, like all political projects, can be flawed. Like most things, come to think of it.

This is the third and final post of this series.

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