Rada, you have been an acute observer of our societies’ transformations for decades. I would like to begin our discussion by looking at Russia’s war against Ukraine. How does the paradox of Russian attempts at (or claims to be engaging in) de-Nazification in Ukraine square with its tacit support of authoritarianism in its own space and in the wider context of its international affairs?
It looks like a paradox, but it is not illogical within the framework of the general confusionism of our times and the corresponding loss of landmarks in knowledge and political orientation. It is an epistemological conundrum. Everyone is logical within his or her own framework, and possible readings are multiple. The paradox is rather the following: throwing allegations of nazism—an extreme nationalist ideology—at others, and then being nationalists of another nation in return!
In Putin’s highly inflational jargon, “nazi”—a general term used to demonize others—now includes Ukrainians, the west, and the EU. Toward “the west,” he has developed a kind of excessive, postcolonial-like language full of simplistic invective and simple labels. In the Yugoslav war of the 1990s, Serbian and Croatian nationalists called each other fascists (ustashe and chetniks, respectively) after the conflicting local quislings of the Second World War, who had collaborated with the nazis. By doing so, nationalist Serbs and nationalist Croats played out a remake and a replay of WWII. Putin too is staging a remake of WWII, which involves renaming it “The Great Patriotic War” (a renaming elaborated through propaganda and the reshuffling of education and of the nationalist narrative throughout his whole time in power) and presenting it as Russia/the USSR liberating Europe singlehandedly. The transposition of these names to the present flattened the historic and temporal dimension. By claiming de-nazification and defense, or that the others are fascists (or nazis) and that we must fight them for our lives, the architects of such accusations do the following:
1) They refer to the glorious past and make it the blueprint for the future (the Soviets lost some 25 million people in the Second World War and shared the victory over historic nazism)—thus stopping history and putting World War II values first, which should make “us” great again.
2) They stick to a binary system of values and thinking—it is “us” against “them,” which alone can ensure “our” supremacy—and fabricate an official and exclusive line of history. We shall win, the narrative goes, by repeating the pattern of a sealed official history. It is a recipe that is “guaranteed” success, believed by a majority of Russians now, but this may change.
Also, by saying that Russia defeated fascism in World War II, Putin is illogically qualifying the victors nationally, but the enemy ideologically. Actually, Putin is doing what others have done throughout history and around the world: reinterpreting history. The conventional time scheme itself is thereby disrupted, leading to greater confusion and depoliticization. In his speech on May 9, 2022 (the day celebrating “Russian” victory in World War II) at the military rally in Moscow, Putin said: “Russia has resisted aggression preventively, as a precaution.” The United States has done the same in Iraq, on the false pretext of the presence of weapons of mass destruction. “Nazism” is one such false pretext and justification, no matter how much sympathy for German occupation there might have been during Stalin’s deadly implacability in Ukraine.
Curiously, the indelible value of anti-nazism and antifascism was reconfirmed some 40-50 years after World War II, at the exact time when the legitimation of diverse socialist regimes through antifascism and anti-nazism has faded with the “end” of the cold war and generational change. But Second World War antifascism was exhausted simultaneously in the west and generally. This transnational historic threshold (the end of the cold war) in 1989 had been jointly prepared by “east” and “west” since the 1970s. Upon the fall of the Berlin Wall, the west fell into the trap of neoliberal triumphalism (“we are the best”) despite Gorbachev’s readiness for understanding and negotiations; this is not unlike Putin’s belated anti-nazi triumphalism (“we are the best”) today.
This coincided with the sudden visibility of globalization, the hardening of neoliberalism, and the appearance of an epistemological collapse (before a much-needed future reconfiguration) characterized by cognitive uncertainty, plural values, “fake news” and general disorientation, although still permeated with western hegemony.
It is revisionism, but based on partly plausible beliefs. The interpretation that Ukrainians are really Russians is a possible historic scenario, with a politics of history involved. Why is it “possible”? Because the concept of nation remains vague and has many definitions.
The same is true of language: Ukrainian can be seen as a separate language (this is how many Ukrainians view it), but it can also be seen as a dialect of Russian, since there is no linguistic difference between a language and a dialect; the distinction is merely political. Linguistic secession accompanies political and territorial secession. The language and national culture narrative become instruments of war. Immediately after the Yugoslav civil war in the 1990s, distinct dictionaries of the Serbian and Croatian languages, hitherto considered one language, appeared. National academies, exercising linguistic violence and purism, became the guardians of national languages. This policy achieved distinct standardizations of the now mutually hostile official languages in the Yugoslav space. Four languages derived from Serbo-Croatian now compete, and more may yet appear. The same process is occurring in Ukraine between Russian and Ukrainian. People still understand each other across fences and speak the same language with variations, but are blamed for this by nationalists and the authorities.
Both Russia today and Serbia in the 1990s deny being at war, while nationalist Serbia today identifies with Russia, assuming the same victim’s posture. But what is incomparable between the two cases is the scale and the general and worldwide danger of war, since Russia is a nuclear power. The Yugoslav war (like in Ukraine and Russia, partly civil and partly a war of aggression) was much smaller in scale, but it could be said that it was foundational for the European Union (EU) as it is today. Indeed, it appears to have “contaminated” Europe, if not the entire world, with the virus of new nationalisms.
Moving outside the current context of the war, you wrote in the Journal of Post-Colonial Writings that “Almost the whole Arab world is ablaze as a result of colonial history, of European irresponsibility, of serial wars in Western Asia due to western politics.” Can you discuss the Western reticence to recognize its complicity in these political crises? And how can Western states overcome the political hurdles to recognize their responsibility to refugees and asylum seekers?
Maintaining hegemony is not easy. It requires constant physical and epistemic violence against history and memory through the mechanism of universalizing (“our”) concepts, cultures, ideas so as to save our good conscience and make us blind to the damage we produce—since “our truth” is the only one allowed. First of all, it necessitates that a dominant single story—in this case a western one—be universalized. (All cultures have a universalist pretense, although not all are successful in imposing it; luckily, all are reciprocally incomplete and therefore check each other.) Although we do need some universalism (for example, the universality of humankind regardless of race, gender, etc.) and although all universalities are made up of many particulars, ideological universalism tends to be abstract and therefore exclusive.
The universal associates itself too easily with hegemony and domination, so it needs control, although it cannot and should not be abolished. Within the arrogant western reticence to recognize complicity in political crises, we might see an over-exaggerated survival instinct, as in Putin’s phrase about a pre-emptive war on Ukraine. At war, though not only then, aggression is regularly disguised as defense. This happens through words and interpretation as warmongering, followed by feats of arms. Again, this is not specific to the west, but is probably a general feature of modern societies. I number among these not only western capitalist societies, but also socialist and post-socialist societies. In this sense, they all respond to the same pattern. I am not sure how we can overcome this state of affairs unless we deeply modify our societies and political regimes. We are still very far from that. States alone (much less western states) cannot do this, because they are part of the problem.
You also wrote about the contemporary formulation of nationalism born in the wake of the end of the Cold War. Can you explain how nationalism today looks different than nationalisms of the 19th century and the decolonial period? What are the global implications of contemporary nationalism at both the national and international levels?
Around and after the end of the cold war (1989), many thinkers theorized the end of the nation and hopefully of nationalism too, including in the construction of the EU. That was wishful thinking. Although it mutates, the concept of nation is a modern one; it is common to the two versions of western modernity—capitalism and socialism—and distinguishes modern formations in Europe from the ancien regime, the Church, royalty, and the feudal economy and society. In mid-17th century Europe, this was called the Westphalian system.
But within this, there is no single understanding of the nation or its link to the state. There are many scenarios, especially as the figure of the nation, of the modern state, and of borders proliferated around the world through modern colonial history. The nineteenth century indeed fostered the appearance of modern European nations and—in a continuation of the colonial enterprise—the nations and independent states of the Americas. In the latter, the nation and the state were constructed on the foundation of the earlier exclusion and/or extermination of the local population, so they were only partly independentist and their independences were fashioned by upper classes of creoles or immigrants. These forms, too, must be counted.
The decolonial period—which occurred, for Africa and Asia, mainly in the 1960s (with India two decades earlier)—produced reactive anti-colonial and independentist popular nationalisms where whole populations fought for emancipation and independence. The difference from today’s new nationalisms is abyssal. Most of the latter are exclusive or, when “inclusive,” are inclined to subsume their neighbors, called “others” and enemies. Minorities are unwelcome, immigrants rejected, racism now uninhibited, and misogyny invigorated. Plural societies with diverse nationalities are not on the agenda. Historical examples of such plural societies are not limited to empires such as Austro-Hungary or the Ottoman Empire; the Non-Aligned Movement was a tremendous force in the 1960s and 1970s, giving much hope to the emerging nations and states of the Third World.
Let us turn now to one of the central issues: gender. What is it about the fall of communism that led to the re-masculinization of Soviet-bloc states? Did this necessarily come at the expense of women’s rights that were won during the period of communist rule? How is gender at the heart of reactionary politics? What do anti-women backlashes around the world tell us about the future direction of global politics?
I don’t know exactly what you mean by the fall of communism; i can only talk about the historic fall of socialist countries in 1989, a historic fact. In the latter case, it was these states’ restoration of (by then) neoliberal capitalism that led to their re-masculinization and re-patriarchalization, whether they had been within or outside the Soviet bloc. There is deep-seated machismo and systemic misogyny in both capitalism and socialism. In some cases, as in Yugoslavia, post-Yugoslav countries, and now Ukraine and Russia, a general militarization through war has produced the current re-patriarchalization. But again, this is hardly a socialist or communist specificity.
The fall of socialist regimes was calamitous for women: all women-specific human rights were either threatened or directly abolished in post-socialist countries, so they had to fight all over again to regain them. In socialism, although the society was equally patriarchal, women’s formal rights, right to abortion and to their own bodies, divorce, working rights, equal salary, education, health, etc., were at least defended by legislation and the state. And what is happening elsewhere? See the threat of abolition of the right to abortion in the US (which was decriminalized in 1973) pending a new decision by the Supreme Court; the closure of schools, imposition of the burqa, loss of freedom of movement, and job losses affecting women in Afghanistan; the systemic femicides in many countries, including Mexico; and the abduction of girls and women in Nigeria and elsewhere. Even in France, one woman is killed every 2.5 days by a man because she is a woman, and the same is true in other “democracies.”
The mistake is thinking that these systemic features are exceptional. They are not; they are constitutive. We must see them within a larger framework that comprises societies, political systems, and the constant wars that our societies and states are producing. Parallel to the advancement of legislation regarding women in prosperous countries, we have a multipolar backlash against women from all sides, on all fronts, and in most if not all countries. The hunt against women is open again. Some women’s human rights, if not all, are endangered. The historian Dubravka Stojanović explains:
“[Patriarchy and nationalism] are inseparable. Nationalism sees the nation as an extended family, as a blood relationship of its members in which there must be intelligible roles. […] I am ready to go so far as to say that nationalism was invented as a means of maintaining patriarchy, as well as a means of gaining power, strengthening it, preserving it… […] [M]aintaining the patriarchal order was one of the strong motives for the disintegration of Yugoslavia, because within closed national constructions this social order is far easier to maintain than in a complex multi-ethnic, multi-confessional community. In essence, it poses a constant challenge to a closed society and a patriarchal matrix.”
Yes, it is all at the expense of women’s rights because these are the issues on which it is easiest to bargain—it doesn’t cost the menfolk anything, and it may help them “advance” and compromise on other fronts. Women’s rights have always been unstable. We are in a critical period on this front, because patriarchy has been deeply challenged everywhere, though in different ways. Gender is indeed at the heart of reactionary politics at all times (remember the Inquisition and the historical witch-hunt mainly against women? It still exists). Global politics, animated by men, is busy on so many other fronts that women’s condition seems unimportant.
The question is complex, because pro-women politics has to interact with many other priorities: with care needing to be taken into account at the local and global level; with reproductive work (carried out by women worldwide, and unpaid) being recognized, reconnected to, and its value calculated in relation to productive work; with environmental and climate planning; with utter poverty and inequality in many places; with north-south inequality between states, etc.
The thing that seems to me most urgent to start with is: how can we stop self-destruction and serial wars all the time and on every continent? One of the main obstacles remains the binarism in thinking. I would start thinking from there, and it seems to me a women’s but universal priority. Is it possible to exclude the death drive? This may be counter-intuitive, counter-factual, and untheorizable, but aren’t most women inclined to reject the death drive that affects menfolk?
The gratuitousness of violence—in peace and at war—against women and the vulnerable generally is linked predominantly to males and what they understand as their “culture.” So resisting and escaping violence and war would imply civilizing men specifically, within a framework of civilizing all, including women who count on manly violence as a system and who bring up boys. All of that requires a thorough change in the international order, too.
I thank Goran Fejić for patiently providing comments on this interview as usual.
Rada Iveković is a French educator, philosopher, and writer of Yugoslav origin. She worked as a Professor in the Philosophy Department of the University of Paris-8 (Vincennes à St. Denis) and at the Collège international de philosophie, Paris. Iveković is the author of Migration, New Nationalisms and Populism: An Epistemological Perspective on the Closure of Rich Countries and other writings.
 There have been comparable cases. In West Bengal, Subhash Chandra Bose, the Indian nationalist commander who fought the British occupation, is still celebrated as Netaji (“dear/respected leader”), although to this end he joined Japanese fascists in Burma and paid allegiance to nazi Germany, before ultimately failing militarily. Anti-colonialism was more important than anti-fascism.