The last three days I’ve been commuting to and from Banbury with another International Relations student. He was mostly into critical theory and poststructuralism, but he indulged my questions about realist theory.

I like realism, it makes a lot of sense to me. Anyway, this student kept talking about abstracting diplomatic conditions and attempting to apply them as a universal norm. For example, the same set of implicit rules and power structures which shape the current Greek situation also shaped the conflict between Argentinia and the IMF in the 1990s. A country builds up debt, struggles to service the debt, and loses sovereignty in the process. In both Argentina and Greece, there is a precedent of military rule, but in both cases a military coup was avoided. Can we say that’s an established pattern?

I’ve been listening to Michael Goldfarb’s essay series on ‘what is a nation?’ - In ‘Socialism and the New Man in Cuba’ Che Guevara explains that socialism is not built through a change in economic management. Instead Guevara explains it as a revolution in popular consciousness. The people need to see themselves as one people, they need to become the nation, become the Republic. So, going off Goldfarb’s thoughts, I wonder whether romantic nationalism is compatible with the Marxist-Leninist view that a nation is made up of its people.

For example, there’s the famous field sequence in Dziga Vertov’s epic film Three Songs of Lenin. The resolution of the national question comes out in the idea that Soviet Union is the country of the working class, the country belongs to the people. And that’s true in a very tangible material way: my farm, my university, my factory. The film really gets across the feeling of ownership which came out of socialist transformation.

I think the point here is that the socialist nation can’t be exlusively defined as an territorial-economic unit. A nation is made up of people, it belongs to the people, and they alone determine its political character.

And then there’s the opposite view, a sort of ultrarealist approach, that the nation is little more than a territorial boundary with a state to govern it and a military to defend it. There’s no idea of cultural self-recongition or the national myth or any of that. The nation is reduced to its basic functions, and the advantage of this is that it removes any subjective assumptions. By taking a more mechanical view there’s much more focus on the things which matter to “political scientists” - eg. the position of the nation relative to others in terms of military or economic strength.

There are some similarities between the ‘cultural nation’ and the ‘existential’ one, both ideas see the nation as a single entity with united national interests. And that in itself is already a wobbly foundation (is there such a thing as national interest?). I’m torn between the two because I like the idea of abstracting cultural assumptions in order to avoid value judgements, but I also like the idea that the nation can be more than just a territory with a flag.