An indefatigable tide of nationalism is engulfing the world. It is everywhere and in everything-Trumplandia, Post-Brexit Britain, Kurz’s Austria, Erdogan’s Turkey, even far-right fringe organisations here in Australia — to name a few examples.
There is no doubt that nationalism has a bad name. Western liberals often like to drag the ideology through the mud, vilifying it as a metastasis of xenophobia and racism associated with the far-right. Often, its name has inescapable connotations with 20th century cataclysms, from two world wars to ethnic cleansing in Armenia and the Holocaust. When war and conflict broke out in the past, nationalism was often automatically assumed to be the match that ignited the powder keg; a tool utilised by autocratic leaders to seduce the masses into fighting. Albert Einstein once famously said:
“Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.”
Albert Einstein was, irrefutably, a genius. But even geniuses are not omniscient.
To banish nationalism from politics is to fall grossly short of recognising it’s myriad accomplishments and benign virtues. Nationalism is not an ideology owned by the far-right, but served as the ideological bedrock for early liberal democracies. Nationalism defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Nationalism emancipated the large majority of humanity from colonial domination. Nationalism served and continues to serve humanity.
Nationalism- the doctrine of rule by a nationally defined people- is a relatively recent mass phenomenon. The idea of government ruling in the name of a nationally defined people was alien to pre-modern Europe; during this era, European politics was characterised by perpetual warfare between fragmented, decentralised governments with their own unique dynasties and allegiances. Often, territory was non-contiguous, and there existed no hegemonic sovereign authority to exercise it’s rule exclusively and effectively over its divergent territories.
That was until the events of the American and French Revolutions which formalised the notion of government by national and popular sovereignty; the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and the American Declaration of Independence leave little room for dubiousness that the masses are the only legitimate foundation for sovereign statehood. By the end of the eighteenth century, nationalism permeated Europe’s political landscape; Europe no longer looked like an arbitrary patchwork quilt of lordships and scattered territories, as states began to centralise their power and replace other institutions (primarily the church) as the principal providers of public goods and services.
So why did nationalism prove to be such a powerful force of change? To begin with, you could always make a human nature argument; from the moment we are born, we belong to some sort of community- a family, a tribe, a province, and in our contemporary world, a country of some sort. Because our very survival is contingent upon the nurture of the community that surrounds us, our most powerful, intimate loyalties will always be to those closest to us; to our family, then the larger community, and finally, the nation.
Whilst nations are always imagined communities because we will never personally interact with most of our fellow-members, members of a nation usually share similar physical characteristics, speak the same language, and identify with the same culture. Thus, human beings discovered that the key to liberty was to build a political life out of this natural loyalty to the ‘imagined’ community.
Nationalism proved to be an endearing attraction; it promised large scale political participation and offered the people a more intimate relationship with their government than any previous model of statehood had. Rather than inherited rights based on social status, nationalism promised equality in the eyes of the law and elevated the status of the common people by making them the beating heart of state politics and the new source of popular culture.
The newly-wed rulers and ruled flourished as the latter came to identify with the idea of the nation as an extended member of the family to which they owed allegiance and loyalty. Of course, marriage is a two-way street, and where rulers maintained their promises to protect and serve their people, the sovereign population embraced a nationalist vision of the world.
Nationalism also paved the way for modern liberal democracy. By limiting electoral participation to members of the nation and thereby excluding foreigners from voting, nationalism provided the answer to the age-old question: in whose name should the government rule? Thus, democracy and nationalism entered into a durable symbiosis. As nationalism provided the constituents of the nation with a newly-established hierarchy of civil liberties, it showed a tendency to promote equality. When nationalist rulers began to tear down the entrenched edifice, that of course entailed abolishing the old system of special privileges. From the inception of the nation, everybody was identical in the eyes of the law.
This Enlightenment ideal of ‘equality before the law’ was particularly evident in post-1871 Imperial Germany. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck introduced a sea of social-welfare legislation designed to extend the privileges of the Junker elite to ordinary Germans. Thus, the nationalist ideals of mutual obligation and shared political destiny forged a bond between the workers and the state so as to strengthen the latter. Bismarck saw these laws as a way to provide security and stability to the German nation, which at the time was under significant threat from socialism. The bismarckian modus operandi of state-building by granting social rights to all was closely followed by other European societies in the late 19th century, from Switzerland to Austria-Hungry.
For centuries, nationalism led to freer, fairer, and ultimately more democratic societies in Europe. That is, until World War I and World War II changed nationalism’s narrative forever. As the world bemoaned the bloodshed and brutality of the two greatest cataclysms modern society has seen, many Western liberals sought solace in a more facile narrative: “nationalism caused two world wars and the Holocaust.” Nationalism, humanity’s faithful servant, transformed overnight from a force of good to a dangerous force of evil inimical to democracy.
Of course, as any student of history would know, nationalism does have its vices. Unmitigated loyalty to the nation can lead to the vilification of others, either foreigners or perceived domestic enemies. When national membership is defined on the basis of ‘blood’ rather than ‘soil,’ this pernicious form of ‘ethnic’ nationalism can lead to egregious episodes of ethnic cleansing of minorities considered disloyal to the nation. In 1914, the nationalist Young Turk government of the Ottoman Empire began to engage in a campaign of mass-extermination of Armenians and Greeks; in Imperial Japan, the ultra-nationalist government announced a ‘holy-war’ against the Chinese, culminating in the cleansing of millions of Chinese noncombatants; and most notoriously, Hitler’s vilification of Jews and Slavs whom he saw as a threat to his eastward expansion, led to the slaughter of millions by death squads and concentration camps.
These rare instances of ethnic cleansing are the chief reasons that nationalism has such negative publicity.
We cannot cherry-pick our history.
Let not nationalism’s current bad rap corrupt what is otherwise an innocuous sentiment that, most of the time, has led to fairer and freer human societies. It was nationalism that solidified the humanist premise that people imbued with fundamental human rights are the only legitimate source of sovereignty. It was nationalism that established self-determination as a universal norm and emancipated millions of people in the 20th century- Asians, Africans, Middle-Easterners- permitting them to fulfil their own autonomous, self-determined destinies. It was nationalism that defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan as nations across the globe called for national solidarity in the wake of shared suffering and sacrifice.
Nationalism is neither the enemy of freedom nor racism’s blood brother. It in fact, promotes connectedness and equity more than any other ideology. Nationalism serves humanity and permits democracy. Every operational government in the world must be nationalistic with the interests of their own people at heart as they move towards a future political destiny. With a growing mistrust of democratic governments across the Western world, political elites must renew the national contract between the rulers and the ruled, tying the two coalitions closely together. Leaders must learn to become better nationalists, looking out for the interests of their own people.
After all, nationalists founded the freest and most prosperous human societies in world history.