History

What Is Nationalism?

June 10, 2008

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Richard responded to one of my Eunomia posts on nationalism, and I have been slow in replying, but I think this question still deserves some attention even though we have batted it back and forth for months.  All of us often speak about both communism and nationalism as if they were singular and monolithic for the purposes of general discussion and definition.  In any attempt to define the word, everyone involved in our discussions of nationalism has treated nationalism as something very much like “a monolithic world-historical force” about which one can make general statements.  It has been the insight of certain anti-anticommunists that communist movements were not part of an undifferentiated whole, but differed according to national character and reprised old national rivalries among themselves.  Of course, every nationalism is different in certain ways and bears the characteristics of the people who espouse it, but nationalists tend to have many basic assumptions in common that allows us to describe them as nationalists.  There is first of all a desire for political sovereignty more or less coterminous with the boundaries of one’s people or the historic territories once inhabited or ruled by that people or by their dynastic masters, and then a common exaltation of and identification with the state as the vehicle for national ambitions once that sovereignty has been established.  There is also a progressive reading of history in which the slumbering, divided nation awoke to its true purpose and mission, which are usually revealed through wars of liberation or wars of unification in which the recalcitrant members of “the nation” who did not wish to be united to the new state were subjugated, and their regional and linguistic distinctiveness suppressed as much as possible.  Their resistance is typically condemned in terms of being corrupted by foreign influence or as ideological deviationism from the reigning ideology of the nation-state, which in most early nationalist movements was liberalism, in post-WWII nationalist movements was often communism and in most post-1990 nationalist movements is at least lip service to “liberal democracy.”  (The weird dependence of universalist ideologies on nationalist enthusiasms to provide the grounding and emotional attachments necessary to give such abstract fictions meaning is a recurring theme; in turn nationalists then valorize their expansionist or irrendentist goals in terms of spreading revolutionary liberation to their fellow nationals outside the state or to other “oppressed” peoples.)  Do the lessons of nationalism in Europe have any bearing on the American experience?  Even if I were not a decentralist and critic of Lincoln, I think I would have to say that they do, but that will have to wait for the next post. 

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