Throughout the recent war in Yugoslavia, a great many Western commentators have compared Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to Adolf Hitler, and the treatment of the Albanian Kosovars to the Nazi Holocaust. While much of this rhetoric was somewhat overblown, the example set by Milosevic's Yugoslavian Socialist Party is perhaps the most extreme case of a disturbing post-communist trend: the replacement of state socialism as a guiding ideology with extreme ethnic nationalism, or "national socialism" - albeit without the Nazi symbolism, and possessing enough of a progressive veneer for many Western leftists to feel comfortable denouncing NATO involvement in Kosovo. Former Polish dissident Adam Michnik's claim that "nationalism is the last stage of communism" appears most appropriate when discussing events in the Balkans.
At first glance, such a transformation seems strange. While the grandfather of modern communism, Karl Marx, was not above using racial and ethnic slurs, or cheering German victories in the Franco-Prussian war, his writings were internationalistic, rather than nationalistic in outlook: "the working men have no country".
Still, nationalism has often trumped proletarian internationalism in communist countries for the simple reason that it is a much more powerful source of identity. Fidel Castro, for example, owes his political survival in Cuba much more to his ability to whip up anti-American nationalism, than to his skills as an economic manager. Nationalism can unify a country by transcending divisions while Marxism can, at best, appeal only to the working class and some intellectuals. Indeed, the last remaining Marxists seem to be found only on university campuses these days.
Ethnic nationalism allowed Milosevic to distract public attention from economic problems. Communist parties were defeated everywhere in 1990 Yugoslav elections except Serbia and Montenegro, as Milosevic channeled public hostility towards communism into intense nationalism. The result has been a re-legitimization of the political elite without a loss of privilege.
Much of the available evidence would suggest that Milosevic is in fact a political opportunist without any real interest in Serb nationalism. That may be the case, yet we can still ask why his phony nationalism has met with so much success. One possible answer is that Yugoslavian communism created a political climate conducive to nationalist appeals.
In his 1983 work "National Communism", Peter Zwick argues that nationalism and communism are collectivist ideologies with "quasi-religious characteristics". Each may lash out at different "devils" (nationalists see foreigners as the enemy, while communists view themselves locked in opposition to an entire economic class) yet "nationalist and communist revolutions are both essentially rites of exorcism".
According to Zarko Puhovski of the University of Zagreb, ethnic nationalism was "almost tailor-made to replace" communism in Yugoslavia; "(a)gainst this background of an indoctrinated 'public sphere', it was relatively easy to transform one form of collectivist ideology into another, even if it was distant in content, so long as the collectivist nature of the ideology was preserved".
This recent transformation of communism into fascism is not an entirely new phenomenon. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini began his career as a Socialist, while Hitler claimed in 1934: "there is more that unites us with than divides us from Bolshevism". Communists were said to possess the correct "revolutionary mentality" for Nazism, so Hitler ordered the party to allow them to join: "(t)he petit-bougeois Social Democrat and the trade unionist boss will never make a National Socialist, but the Communist always will".
At a time when the Russian Communist Party is flirting with anti-Semitism, Hitler's prediction that "it is not Germany that will turn Bolshevist... but Bolshevism that will become a sort of National Socialism" is most unsettling. Perhaps Michnik was correct.