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Mugabe's Rule Led Us to Dismiss Nationalism, But That Was a Mistake
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Robert Mugabe was one of the many leaders who came to power as a national liberator between the 1950s and 1980s, only to establish violent, corrupt and incompetent autocracies. The decades of misrule they inflicted on their countries did much to discredit nationalism as a progressive ideology that could better people’s lives.

Bad though Mugabe was, he was not the worst of the dictators of that era, which included Saddam Hussein, who became absolute ruler of Iraq in 1979, the year before Mugabe was first elected prime minister of Zimbabwe. Both men ruined their countries, denigrating and eliminating opponents as traitors in a supposed ongoing struggle for self-determination.

The death of Mugabe will provoke much critical commentary about his life in the next few days. But one side effect of his disastrous years in power – and that of many national leaders like him – was to lead people to imagine that his grim record and that of others like him would permanently undermine nationalism as a political force. In country after country, after all, promises to deliver personal and national liberty had been forgotten and family dynasties had rooted themselves in power from Cairo to Manila.

The result was that those who had previously supported national independence became disillusioned and saw all forms of nationalism as a cynical ploy by corrupt elites or a single national faction to monopolise power and money. Progressives and liberals in the West had always had a split approach to nationalist movements, approving them in foreign countries when opposed to imperialism and colonialism, but opposing them at home as the ideology of racial superiority and imperial land grabs. Now all forms of nationalism seemed equally toxic.

Remember also how in the high days of globalisation between 1991 and 2008, nationalism was portrayed as hopelessly out of date. It was being replaced by the latest benign liberal version of international capitalism which would solve all problems: cooperation not competition between national states was the new name of the game. Rising politicians and well-funded think tanks were at one in speaking of the necessity and inevitability of “win-win situations” in international relations.

But in practice, globalisation turned out to be just as phoney in its promises as old-style nationalism. Big fish still ate the little fish as they had always done. The wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya were justified by the US, UK and their allies as being fought for the good of humanity, but turned out to be much the same as unashamedly imperial wars in the past. To cite but one example, Nato overthrew Muammar Gaddafi to save the people of Benghazi in eastern Libya in 2011, but eight years later much of the city has been destroyed, mostly by Gaddafi’s former opponents, without Nato countries showing the slightest interest.

Inequality between and within national states was supposed not to matter so much in an integrating interdependent world, but the crash of 2008 showed this too to be a myth. Many politicians and academics were slow to recognise the trend, but from then on the forces of disintegration began to overwhelm those of integration. The nation state had never gone out of business, but it increasingly made a comeback in the eyes of many as the flawed but essential vehicle for their political, social and economic aspirations.

Many on the left and centre of politics who today lament the rise of right-wing nationalist, populist leaders opened the door to them by dismissing nationalism as a back number. They created a political vacuum when it came to communal interests and identity that was swiftly detected and filled by politicians like Donald Trump in the US, Viktor Orban in Hungary and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. Their beating of the nationalist drum was crude but effective – as was their denunciation of opponents as traitors to the nation and a threat to the “real people” who inhabit it.

Even opera bouffe old Etonians like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg could present themselves as the unlikely representatives of the true nation. As with other ultra-nationalists, there is a relentless urge towards authoritarianism, because nationalism requires an enemy, real or imaginary, against which to define itself and to rally its forces. The promises of extreme nationalists usually turn out to be snake oil so they will no longer be able to persuade people to vote for them and must rely on force or fraud. This was Mugabe’s trajectory.

Boris Johnson’s shambolic performances are disarming, but he is very much part of this populist nationalist wave and his direction of travel is all too evident. His appearance in front of a phalanx of black-clad police recruits in Wakefield may appear ludicrous, but the last British leader to do this sort of thing was Oswald Mosley and his Black Shirts.

It is easy to denigrate the new class of nationalist demagogues as proto-fascists, but it is more useful to suggest how they might be resisted. They should never be allowed to monopolise all the nationalist cards in the pack: nationalist movements are by their nature broad churches with socially and economically diverse congregations held together by the demonisation of a common foe. Thus a plutocrat like Trump sought with some success to win the support of former industrial workers in Michigan in the presidential election in 2016 by saying that as Americans they should not have lost their jobs and he would make sure that this would never happen again.

Democrats in the US and Remainers in UK have been inept in presenting their own policies as part of a nationalist project. This is partly because they are defending the status quo in the shape of membership of the EU as having not much wrong with it. They do not have a problem with globalisation because they benefit from it.


Many people who give an approving nod to Scottish, Greek or Vietnamese nationalism recoil with distaste from English nationalism as an attempt to assert racial superiority at home and abroad. But it is a mistake to imagine that many of the pro-Brexit voters in Hartlepool or the Welsh Valleys have much nostalgia for the world of Rudyard Kipling – though they may have nostalgia for a decent job.

Nationalist dreams are not easy to dissipate because they give simple solutions to real grievances. They provide a cloak for xenophobia, never very far beneath the surface in Britain, directed against the EU abroad and immigrants at home.

The problem is that divisive but very different issues have come together within a certain sense of English national identity. As always, nationalism is something of a poisoned plant because it needs an enemy as a justification for communal solidarity. Charles de Gaulle said that “patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first”. In the present crisis, nationalism is out there in front.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
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  1. I guess then one man’s patriotism is another man’s nationalism.

  2. Generally, demonization of nationalists foreign leaders, like Mugabe, Hussein, and Bashar al Assad, coincides with a high domestic QOL.

    Does anyone know the high school and college enrollment rate of females in Zimbabwe and Iraq? That’s a handy litmus test.

    • Agree: byrresheim
    • Replies: @Thorfinnsson
  3. polistra says:

    One missed point: US imperial wars since 1990 are not the same thing as old-fashioned imperial wars. The old-fashioned empire conquered territory in order to USE the territory for resources. This meant that the territory had to be intact, and the people had to be kept relatively contented. Modern US wars are purely destructive. The specific purpose is to ELIMINATE resources and people.

    China’s new imperialism is more like the old British type. Let the people keep their religion and culture, improve the farms and factories to make them more productive.

  4. Paddy, do some Google due diligence before writing falsehoods.

    Bojangles and Jacob Rees-Mogg are no nationalists. The former wants an immigrantion amnesty for nearly a million browns and browns running amok. The latter has denounced Enoch Powell.

    Sir Oswald Mosley was very cultured. He has been maligned for years because of his opposition to war with Germany through the Polish guarantee.

    Mugabe was your typical brutal African thug. He just spoke better English compared to peers like Idi Amin.

    ‘The more he felt insure the more ruthless he became’.
    ‘To the world Idi Amin is the embodiment of all that’s dark and almost animal-like that came out of Africa’.
    ‘He used to kill people that man’.
    ‘King of Scotland’.

    Ian Smith, the last white leader of Rhodesia, had warned about handing over power to blacks but was ignored. The country’s fate was sealed at the Lancaster House talks of 1979.

    Meanwhile another Mugabe is emerging in South Africa. He hates white people just as much.

    • Replies: @Okechukwu
  5. Gordo says:

    @Amerimutt Golems

    You are correct.

  6. @Godfree Roberts

    Are you brain damaged?


  7. Larry M. says:

    Godfree Roberts

    Please tell me what QOL means. Wikipedia cannot.

    Larry M.

    • Replies: @Digital Samizdat
  8. anon[372] • Disclaimer says:

    But it is a mistake to imagine that many of the pro-Brexit voters in Hartlepool or the Welsh Valleys have much nostalgia for the world of Rudyard Kipling – though they may have nostalgia for a decent job.

    Nonsense. The pro-Brexit voters want their country back.
    One word marxist/progressives like Cockburn won’t use is “democracy”.
    Democracy means majority rule. It means government by the just consent of the governed.
    Democracy is inherently nationalistic, populist, and organizes around a majority culture/ethnicity.
    Globalisim, Internationalism, Progressivism and Marxism are all political movements opposed to democracy. Today corporate oligarchy is their preferred system of goverment.
    Cockburn hates democracy. All the Trump haters hate democracy, because they hate the majority of the human population wherever they find it. They just won’t say it out loud.

  9. Mr. Grey says:

    One could also easily conclude that Globalism requires an enemy, real or imaginary, against which to define itself and to rally its forces. Who really benefits other than a tiny elite who run multinational corporations?

    Thinking that nationalism needs an enemy to have any appeal to working people who feel they have no voice, who see their jobs outsourced and their tax money spent on foreign interventions is true elitist thinking.

    • Agree: Digital Samizdat
  10. Okechukwu says:
    @Amerimutt Golems

    Ian Smith, the last white leader of Rhodesia, had warned about handing over power to blacks but was ignored.

    The same Ian Smith who didn’t have the foresight or intelligence to figure out that Rhodesia was totally untenable. He was told as much, repeatedly. But he was deadset on maintaining white supremacy in perpetuity. Don’t even mention Smith in the same breath as the brilliant revolutionary Mugabe.

    And, btw, the blacks took back their country by force. Nothing was handed to them.

  11. Mr.Demos says:

    I am surprised about an idea I have read, directly stated, or merely suggested, in a lot of comments. I thought it was a dangerous idea which is very extended in my own country, primarily on the right but too extended in the left, too. It’s the idea that the winners on a “democratic” debate can do whatever they want, they are the winners and precisely by this they are free to implement whatever necessary.

    I don’t think so, nor I have learned what really a democracy is. Of course, everybody wants to be a democracy, so everybody is a democracy, we have not a scientific method to measure or qualify such a thing. The Roman republic, as I see it, of course, was more democratic than the elitist democratic classical Greece and its lottery for public positions, in despite of enormous corruption in Rome. The Roman republic went directly to Hell when this idea of “winner take all and go straighforwardly” reached its final consequences.

    I think Mr.Cockburn is somewhat near the truth in certain points, but reality is far complex. The problem with Humans is precisely our will, and we don’t know how to manage it. Properly, I mean.

  12. I cannot believe the mendacious tripe that Cock-up writes.

    So, NATO overthrew Gaddaffi for good motives? To save the people of Benghazi?

    And Boris Johnson is analogous to Robert Mugabe?

    Is the author of this piece being blackmailed? I can’t think of any other explanation. Stupidity and ideological blindness seem to me to be insufficient justifications.

  13. anarchyst says:

    The author’s premise comparing Mugabe to Saddam Hussein is dead wrong. Hussein, although being a one-time CIA “asset” was able to “keep the peace” in which the various factions co-existed without much trouble. Even Christians and jews were a part of the mix and had little problem living in Iraq. The destruction of Iraq by Israel’s “lackey”, the USA did much to destabilize the nation and made it ripe for various factions to attempt to fill the “power vacuum”.
    Not so with Mugabe, who demonized whites, while realizing that he did need them to run the country.
    Patrick Cockburn is a shill for Israel and the “New American Century”…

  14. anonmyous says:

    Cockburn is MI6 agent. Don’t pay any attention to his garbage.

  15. gkruz says:

    Why is a member of the Stalinist Cockburn family writing for this blog?

    • Replies: @Dan Hayes
  16. Jake says:

    Mugabe was not a nationalist in any meaningful sense. He was an African tribalist who also had imbibed a good deal of revolutionary thought from Marxists and learned from his time in the West how to charm and con white liberals.

    Mugabe would discredit white liberalism focused on uplifting blacks if white liberals had both decency and common sense.

  17. Anonymous[191] • Disclaimer says:

    Comparing the traitorous politicians of today’s Britain with a great man like Moseley is impossible. Moseley was truly a great nationalist but he was also a patriot who had he become Prime Minister of Britain, would have saved millions of lives by keeping Britain out of the war. The jews who were financing Churchill wanted war and had Churchill lock up Moseley for the duration because they saw him as the greatest threat to their plans.

    Mugabe was not a nationalist, he was just a UN-appointed potentate lording it over millions of stone-age savages and a few whites who stayed behind. His stupidity and greed drove a formerly rich country into the ground. The UN will appoint another ruthless potentate to take his place and nothing will change unless the Chinese take over.

  18. Dan Hayes says:


    Answer: Ron Unz and at least one member of the Cockburn family (Alexander) go back a long way!

    Also remember that Alexander was even sometimes published in Chronicles Magazine’s website.

  19. anon[314] • Disclaimer says:

    Mugabe was not a nationalist. He was a Shona tribalist. This was demonstrated in the early 1980’s when the then-new government of Zimbabwe sent its army and North Korean advisors to slaughter tens of thousands of Matabele people.

    Naturally the progressive left looked the other way. Because leftists are all about power. They are some version of Trotsky, Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot at heart, so mass killing for the ’cause’ is fully justified in their minds.

    Africans saw nothing wrong with the murder of Matabele, because Africans are tribalists and inter-tribal killing has been the norm in Africa for thousands of years.

  20. Malla says:

    Mugabe was no nationalist liberator. His “liberation movement” was funded by Wall Street and the ZANU & ZAPU got the support of Soviet, Chinese and North Korean commies. Also Great Britain and the USA back stabbed Rhodesia in the back.
    Mugabe was an incompetent loser who had no chance militarily against the Rhodesians without overwhelming outside support and funding. Rhodesia failed because tha scumbag Henry Kissinger actually threatened Prime Minister Ian Smith of an American invasion of Rhodesia in support of Mugabe and his terrorists.

    • Replies: @Malla
  21. Malla says:

    To give you an idea of what a loser clown Mugabe was, check out Operation Dingo

    Rhodesian Army + Air force loses
    2 killed
    8 wounded

    Mugabe and his Wall Street funded, Commie trained terrorist losses
    3,000 killed
    5,000 wounded

    LOL. Pure comedy gold. Mugabe was a loser clown.

    The Rhodesian Army operations were led by Maj. Brian Robinson and the air force operations by Gp Cap. Norman Walsh. Mugabe was leading the terrorist group who under his leadership,
    got roasted away by the Rhodesian defense forces.
    No wonder he was sacred shit of Rhodesian Whites and wanted them away ASAP.

    Greedy Mugabe was also involved in the Congolese conflicts where he squandered the wealth of Zimbabwe for personal gains. To take attention away from his greed and failures he started the farm invasions.

  22. @Jake

    …and learned from his time in the West how to charm and con white liberals.

    Those people are always looking and hoping to be “charm(ed) and con(ned)” by persons of ‘color’. 

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