In Defense of Nationalism

In Defense of Nationalism

Mini Teaser: Global elites inveigh against the evils of nationalism. But how will transnationalism save us from bad ideas? It never has before.

by Author(s): John O'Sullivan

In other words, Orwell's essay is not really about nationalism as other people understand the word at all; it is an essay on power-worship. That becomes clear in Orwell's crucial concession that nationalism is probably least dangerous when it is attached to one's own country--when it is no more than a harsh variant of patriotism--and most virulent when it is attached to some other unit of humanity. If proof were needed for this proposition, it would come in the support that the political intellectuals on the Left have given to such foreign utopias as Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, Cuba and North Vietnam over the years, transforming themselves into ideological chauvinists and justifying torture and mass murder in the process.

Let me now turn to the third concept of nationalism. This is the argument that people come to share a national identity, mutual loyalty and sense of common destiny as the result of sharing the same language and culture and of living under the same institutions over a long period of time.

This group to which people feel loyal may be a tribe, an ethnos, a people in an ethnic sense. Or it may be a group that was originally diverse ethnically but that has become a single people, through time and intermarriage, rather like an extended family. Or it may consist of the subjects of a dynasty who originally felt no attachment to the state but who developed one over time. Or it may consist of immigrants to a settler society, such as Australia or the United States, who assimilate to a common culture and identity established before their arrival. What matters is that over time they come to feel that they are part of the same collective body and feel a loyalty to it and to its symbols, whether the monarchy in the UK or the flag in the United States.

Because a shared language and culture are at the root of this political loyalty, a wider national identity naturally replaces more local identities in periods when we see the spread of communications. In the early 19th century, nationalism spread because it was transmitted by new organs of mass circulation, in particular, newspapers, pamphlets, novels, popular histories and so on. These enabled many more people to feel a sympathy for--and to forge an identity with--others beyond the boundaries of their village or province. Nationalism of this kind is, as we shall see, inseparable from improved communications.

Now, the constructivist historians object that this sense of common sympathy is an artificial construct planned by governments and built with the help of intellectuals and artists from Sir Walter Scott to Rudyard Kipling. A new sense of national identity was manufactured in Britain, for instance, by persuading the English, the Welsh, the Scots and (some of) the Irish that they were a people gifted with Protestant liberty in peril from continental Catholic absolutism. As the historian Noel Malcolm has pointed out, however, while the process of building may have been artificial, it drew upon real materials. The Catholic powers in 18th-century Europe were largely absolutist and Britain was a free society by contemporary standards. Louis xiv and Napoleon were threats to British independence. If artifice too played a part, the short answer to the constructivist historians is Burke's observation that "Art is man's nature."

Once we grant that conventional patriotism is real, even if artifice went into its construction, however, is it also virtuous? Orwell comes near to conceding that it is. Describing the nationalism of power-worship that he despises, Orwell remarks in passing that "Its worst follies have been made possible by the breakdown of patriotism and religious belief." He hesitates almost immediately, warning that "if one follows this train of thought, one is in danger of being led into a species of conservatism." But the damage has been done. He has conceded what conservatives have long contended. When patriotic sentiments have been expelled from polite discourse, all manner of brutish ideologies rush in to occupy the vacant space--whether that space is the public square or the human heart.

Indeed, we might consider the three types of nationalism we have been discussing not as three distinctive concepts but as three stages in a process of collective ideological conversion. First, an existing national identity ceases to satisfy its former adherents for a variety of possible reasons--defeat in war, internal religious oppression, political boredom, the influence of bad companions, and so on. We might concede (with a bow to the constructivists) that such national identities, once abandoned, seem invented and imposed to those no longer under their sway. In the second stage these ex-patriots, now vulnerable to the attractions of the power-worshipping ideologies listed by Orwell, adopt one of them as a new, more authentic and more rational identity. And when they do so, the scales fall from their eyes. The possessors of this new self-conscious identity are soon seized by a missionary impulse to spread the good news. That leads them to the third stage of doctrinal nationalism. To convert others, they must first demystify the false identities still extant and demonstrate the rationality of their chosen identity. Hence they develop a doctrine to establish that their new identity is the only real and legitimate kind. And that doctrinal nationalism now sets out to replace the national identity whose weakness started the entire process.

There is an inevitable rivalry between ideological nationalism of this kind and taken-for-granted national identities rooted in a shared culture. Pre-existing loyalties are an obstacle to any new political identity that is striving to assert itself. These rivalries can sometimes be murderous--real men and real women perished in Stalin's campaign to kill nations to create a new Soviet man. With the demise of Soviet communism and the corresponding decline in some power-worshipping ideologies cited by Orwell, however, it might seem that there are no more power-worshipping ideologies and doctrinal identities to disturb us--and that more traditional identities can therefore rest secure. In fact, however, there are two important new examples of doctrinal nationalism entering the lists: multiculturalism in the United States and the European Idea across the Atlantic.

The word multiculturalism means many things, but in its largest sense it is an alternative national identity for the United States. It seeks to replace the present political system of liberal democracy based upon rights-bearing individual citizens with one of multicultural democracy in which the fundamental unit is the ethnic or cultural group with its own worldviews, values, history, heritage and language. It holds that people should express their political aspirations through membership in such groups. And it predicts that in the future, national sovereignty will devolve upwards towards transnational bodies and downwards towards these now semi-autonomous groups.

It is hard to take these ideas seriously, because they clash sharply with the liberal U.S. Constitution, in part because, if implemented, they would transform the United States into a larger version of Lebanon or Northern Ireland, and in part because there has been a unifying upsurge of American nationalism since September 11. But the fact that something cannot work does not mean it will not be tried. Multiculturalism remains the orthodoxy in law schools, corporate America and elite institutions. If nothing else, it is likely to sharpen the sense of ethnic grievance, to chip away at national cohesion, and to obstruct improvements in homeland security. Insofar as multiculturalism is a rising nationalism, then, it is one that threatens not foreign countries but internal security and stability in the United States.

The "European Idea" rests somewhat more openly upon hostility to existing European nations and their national identities. Its justifying claim is that the European Union has overcome the shameful legacy of the European nations that were responsible for two world wars and threaten the peace of the Balkans today. Since its foundation in the 1950s the EU has been a bulwark against the recrudescence of such dangerous nationalism, ensuring that nations like France and Germany will never go to war again. The United States should be grateful, since GIs will never again die in European civil wars.

Every single argument in this list is either highly questionable or plainly false. Half of the states involved in the First World War were multinational empires such as Austria, Hungary and czarist Russia. The Second World War was caused by the colliding ambitions of the two great transnational ideologies hostile to nationalism: Nazism, with its belief in a racial hierarchy transcending nations, and communism, with its belief in a class hierarchy transcending nations. It was local nationalisms in Britain and occupied Europe that provided most of the morale to resist fascist ideologies. Indeed, nationalism is being used as a synonym for interstate rivalry. But the European Union is not proposing to abolish the system of states, merely to create a larger state in a world of larger states--in other words, to replicate 1914 on a larger scale.

Nor is the EU the cause of the postwar peace in western Europe. Rather, it is the consequence of that peace. As the dates plainly show--nato was established in 1949 and the EU's forerunner in 1957--what has ensured a European peace since 1945 is the military and diplomatic presence of the United States. And this security has enabled countries to trust their neighbors and form cooperative arrangements in the economic, political and military affairs from which they would otherwise have shrunk.

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