In Defence of Nationalism

Today there seems to be no doubt, at least amongst liberal circles, that nationalism is a bad word. Held in opposition with a positive cosmopolitanism, nationalism is articulated to be an ‘ism’ of the past whose associations are with racism, imperialism, and the most terrible sorts of violence. These associations are not unfounded, as the unspeakably terrible actions of the Nazis were founded upon a twisted vision of German nationalism and the ethnic violence that exploded in the Balkans in the 1990s too had foundations laid upon a bedrock of nationalism. Today, we see shadows of these terrible atrocities in the ideological nationalisms of Europe and North America that seek to isolate the national communities from ‘foreign contaminants’ and, sometimes literally, build walls to maintain the ‘purity’ of the nation and its people. Such nationalist expressions only make the slightest attempts to hide their racism, and even occasionally choose to flaunt it despite the dark path that such flirtations with ethnic ideologies are known to lead towards.

In the face of such nationalism, brought to bear by a resurgent far-right, many amongst the learned classes argue instead for a cosmopolitanism and globalism. In these terms, cosmopolitanism is argued to be a much more ideologically pure counter-part to racism and the next logical step in the evolution of human society as we cast aside our ethnic allegiances in favour of a better and less-racist world. However, such idealism should be taken extremely critically, as those who argue in favour of a positive and cosmopolitan world are often actually arguing for a set of arrangements no more favourable than those of the racist nationalists. After all, arguments for cosmopolitanism were central in the rhetorical defence of empire, as exemplified in Cromer’s, the former British governor of Egypt, opposition of Egyptian self-rule: “Free native institutions, the absence of foreign occupation, a self-sustaining national sovereignty: these unsurprising demands were consistently rejected by Cromer, who asserted unambiguously that “the real future of Egypt…lies not in the direction of narrow nationalism, which will only embrace native Egyptians…but rather in that of an enlarged cosmopolitanism.” Subject races did not have it in them to know what was good for them.” (Said, Orientalism, p. 37) Though we may wish to believe that such a rhetorical use of cosmopolitanism would not happen today, the truth is that it is. The flow of capital in the global economy follows old imperial lines, and growing economies are strangled by neo-colonial forces. This is of course not to say that the idea of cosmopolitanism is fundamentally flawed, but simply that it bears no great preponderance of moral authority as some argue it does.

There will be some that, in light of what I have just observed, will say that regardless of cosmopolitanism’s murky morality, it is safe to say that nationalism remains a fundamentally flawed philosophy. However, the construction of nationalism along such negative terms is itself a rather fundamentally flawed proposition as it fails to appreciate the variety of nationalisms that exist in the world. The nationalism that is held up as evil, and I would say to do so is only right, is ethnonationalism, that ideology that conflates the nation with a specific ethnic community. The stress here is placed upon false notions of ethnic purity and ancient history, one which says that the nation has always exist deep into the ancient past. This type of thinking, based upon these falsehoods, sows only hate, forges only siege mentalities, and builds only walls. However, to understand nationalism only along these terms would be to fail to understand nationalism at all. An alternative nationalism, one which is prevalent in North America as well as parts of Europe, is that of civic nationalism, which maintains that an individual is a member of a nation as long as they live within the political structures of that nation. Citizenship, or even simple residency, to a particular state therefore confers along with it membership into the national community. There is little room for racist interpretations of the nation in such an understanding, as though a line between those outside and inside the nation is maintained, that line is permeable and easily crossed. Finally, there are also cultural nationalists who hold that the nation is something people participate in, and that therefore participation within the nation’s culture is all that is required to join that nation. The importance of these cultures is narratively constructed upon their perceived importance and antiquity, but unlike ethnonationalism there remains a recognition that these traditions are invented and fundamentally transmutable. Once again, racism is not a factor here and the border separating the nation from others may be crossed by doing things like learning the native language. Of course, these three categories are not mutually exclusive. Rather, all nationalisms contain all three of these types at the same time within their communities to varying levels at any given moments. Nonetheless, they are useful as what defines a particular nationalism is which of the three is currently the dominant interpretation of the nation.

All of this so far has been mere theory, but what does all of this look like in practice? Well we are fairly well acquainted with ethnonationalism at this point, as it is the basis for the well known cases of the aforementioned Nazi Germany and the Serbian and Croatian national communities that fought during Yugoslavia’s break-up, as well as a host of others. However, national communities which have chosen congregate themselves along civic and cultural identities over ethnic ones are perhaps even more common despite their comparative lack of focus. Canada and the US both base their national identities fundamentally around a civic notion of the nation, as many other countries such as Britain and Australia. In these cases, the greatest emphasis is placed upon civic membership. Culturally focused nations are also common, particularly amongst the progressive minded stateless nations such as Quebec and Catalonia where language acts as effectively the sole gatekeeper of the nations, acting as a threshold which must be worked to be crossed but which is nonetheless crossable. As mentioned, these categories are not mutually exclusive and many countries can easily fit into two categories simultaneously, as is the case in most European countries, such as France where civic and cultural conceptions of the nation are intimately intertwined. Moreover, nationalism need not exclude cosmopolitanism either, but rather may compliment it, something Fanon recognized as a fundamental component of decolonization: “Each African must understand himself to be engaged in the struggle to liberate the continent…National will in Africa today must be redoubled by the will to liberate Africa…An Algerian cannot be really Algerian if he does not feel in his innermost self the indescribably horrible drama that is unfolding in Rhodesia or in Angola” (Fanon, Alienation and Freedom, p. 634). Fanon’s vision, far from idealist, could be said to find expression in the modern European experiment, where national and transnational identities are fosters in tandem with each other and strengthened by their association. Nationalism, therefore, is far more robust, flexible, and complex than the liberal circles set it out to be.

I have written this piece as a sort of defence of nationalism, not to excuse it. As I have repeatedly attempted to re-enforce, there have been countless evils committed in the name of the nation. However, what I have also sought to stress is that there have also been many goods that have come out of nationalism. Even today, we can see this complex arrangement at full display as reactionaries attempt to wield ethnonationalism as a tool to further their own aim only to find themselves confronted by those who articulate the nation along civic and cultural lines, confrontations that take dramatic forms such as the France’s ‘Republic Front’ whereby support coalesced around Macron to ensure Le Penn would not capture the presidency. As such debates rage the truth is revealed to us: nationalisms are not static things, but have a great internality to them that allows them to be redefined through debate and evolve with time. Therefore, to attempt to understand nationalism in strict terms as good or bad is a fundamentally flawed proposition. However, I do believe that nationalism does hold the promise of great good if it is allowed to grow and flower along positive lines. In defense of such thinking, I can say no better than has already been said:

“In an age when it is so common for progressive, cosmopolitan intellectuals to insist on the near-pathological character of nationalism, it’s roots in fear and hatred of the Other, and its affinities with racism, it is useful to remind ourselves that nations inspire love, and often profoundly self-sacrificing love. The cultural products of nationalism — poetry, prose fiction, music, plastic arts — show this love very clearly in thousands of different forms and styles. On the other hand, how truly rare it is to find analogous nationalist products expressing fear and loathing. Even in the case of the colonized peoples, who have every reason to feel hatred for their imperialist rulers, it is astonishing how insignificant the element of hatred is in these expressions of national feeling.” (Anderson, Imagined Communities, pp. 141–142)

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Brendan McKee

As both a political researcher and enthusiast, I write to unpack the complexities of current affairs and attempt to grow the conversation. Feel free to join me!