Recent press reports inevitably describe Serbia’s Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica as a “nationalist,” presumably because he thinks his primary duty is to look out for the interests of the Serbian people. Today, few newspaper readers or bloggers (in descending order of education) have the slightest idea of what terms like “nationalism” and “patriotism” mean. To realize the depth of this ignorance, you only have to look at the controversy stirred up by Pat Buchanan’s new book on Churchill and by John Lukacs negative review written by historian . Since I count both men as friends, I do not intend to enter into the polemics except to say that I have found most of the discussion superficial at best and repulsive at worst. If this is conservatism or paleoconservatism or postpaleoconservatism, I want no part of it.
I would like to contribute a few pages of analysis of “nationalism” and “patriotism,” a subject on which I have been sounding off in several languages for about 10 years. I’ll take the argument piece by piece, posting additions and amplifications. The full context of this discussion is my book The Morality of Everyday Life, which takes up these questions in Chapter II “Citizens of the World.” I will supplement, however, with a lecture I gave at the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts and testimony I was preparing to give in the Slobodan Milosevic “trial” at the Hague, before he fired his lawyers, reorganized his defense, and became too sick for the trial to continue. Before taking up nationalism, though, I want to eliminate two canards: 1) That national patriotism was invented by 19th century Romantics, and 2) that Internationalism is a self-evidently good remedy for ethnic conflict.
“Nationalism is a phenomenon of the European nineteenth century. It is a political consequence of the literary-intellectual movement called Romanticism, a Central European reaction to the universalizing, and therefore disorienting, ideas of the eighteenth century French Enlightenment.” This statement, so appalling in its ignorance, comes from William Pfaff’s recent book The Wrath of Nations . The subtitle states the thesis: Civilization and the Fury of Nationalism. Nationalism—even a strong sense of nationhood—is an East-European thing, you civilized Anglos wouldn’t understand– thank goodness. Pfaff, you may remember, is the International Herald Tribune columnist who lied his way through the Balkan Wars, and his 1066 and All That History of nationalism is the theoretical justification for the disinformation he handed out in service of the benevolent global hegemony of the US. Connor Cruise O’Brien describes his approach as “willfully obtuse” but the Irishman is too kind.
If nationalism and nationality are not the inventions of Poles and Serbs, how shall we describe them? We are going to have to make some nice distinctions. Later on I shall try to distinguish nationalism from various forms of patriotism, but at this point it is enough to point out that one can have a sense of ethnic identity—as ancient Greeks or 18th century Germans did, without wanting a unified state: Indeed, the Greeks and Germans were perfectly happy to kill each other, often in alliance with nations that were their national enemies.
National and ethnic identities are an almost universal phenomenon in human history, but nationalism, as an ideological movement, is not a spontaneous growth or a natural development from the nation-state. Ideological nationalism is a response, admittedly distorted, to internationalism. Although the roots of internationalism go back to the Stoic theory of world-citizenship and to the actual facts of the Roman Empire, modern internationalism is a more recent production, a political substitute for the unity of Christendom that was shattered by the Schism of the Church, the establishment of various national churches in England, Germany, Switzerland, and the rise of powerful national states.
Large nation states began to take shape in the later Middle Ages for different reasons. One obvious reason is security: Anglo-Saxons unified their part of the island against the repeated invasions from which they suffered; Catholic Spaniards labored for centuries to unify their country against the Moorish Muslims who oppressed them. In France, Bourbon kings of the 17th and 18th century worked to repress the religious feuds and the threat to their authority posed by powerful regional nobles.
The internationalist movement, however, is almost as old. Although it is often described as an expression of disgust with war and religious intolerance—and there is an element of that—the international ideology is actually part of a more general tendency toward western self-loathing. When a French intellectual looked in the mirror in 1600, he saw a Frenchman and a Christian where he would have liked to see a Greek pagan. Since the Church was still powerful, few intellectuals were as mad as Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake in 1600, for his pagan notions. Instead, the intellectuals became sly and ironic. From Montaigne on, intellectuals began subjecting Catholic France to imaginary visitors from Latin America, Persia, and China, all of whom expressed astonishment at the silly religion, false reverence to the king, and loyalty to the nation.
Of these philosophes, Voltaire was perhaps the most evil and the most effective. Outwardly proclaiming his rational allegiance to king, church, and nation, he was forever egging on his friends and followers to find ways of undermining faith in the Consubstantiel and loyalty to the crown. His entry in the Philosophical Dictionary on “Patrie” is instructive:
A young journeyman pastry cook who had been to college, and who still knew a few of Cicero’s phrases, boasted one day of loving his fatherland. “What do you mean by your fatherland’?” a neighbor asked him. “Is it your oven? Is it the village where you were born and which you have never seen since? Is it the street where dwelled your father and mother who have been ruined and have reduced you to baking little pies for a living? Is it the town hall where you will never be a police superintendent’s clerk? Is it the Church of Our Lady where you have not been able to become a choirboy, while an absurd man is archbishop and duke with an income of twenty thousand golden louis?”
The journeyman pastry cook did not know what to answer. A thinker who was listening to this conversation, concluded that in a fatherland of some extent there were often many thousand men who had no fatherland.
Frenchmen, the thinker argued, do not even know the different parts of their own country, while the exploiting classes—financiers, soldiers, the nobility all treat the people of the fatherland as enemies to ruin. Your true fatherland is wherever you are comfortable, no matter what country your are in. Voltaire, who followed his own advice and went to live first in Prussia, then in Switzerland, concludes by saying: “He who should wish his fatherland might never be greater, smaller, richer, poorer, would be the citizen of the world.”
Citizen of the world was a phrase picked up from the Stoics and adopted by intellectuals like Voltaire and Adam Smith. National rivalries led to destructive wars, and what was needed was some federal union of states. The Abbé de St.-Pierre, author of Projet de Paix Perpetuelle, was a typical–perhaps stereotypical–Enlightenment intellectual with an unbounded faith in the goodness of human nature and the blessings of progress. His concern for bienfaisance (benevolence) led him to propose graduated taxation to benefit the French lower classes and, ultimately, to outline a plan for a world confederation that would eliminate war. Rousseau, who commented on and popularized St.-Pierre’s essay, concluded that it might take a revolution to bring about a European federation to end war.
Unfortunately, the revolution, when it came to France shortly after Rousseau’s death, initiated one of the bloodiest periods of European history. The French Revolution was the seminal event of modern times, the period when Enlightenment theories of liberty and equality, natural rights and the social contract assumed a concrete form. All subsequent history in the West has been a series of attempts to extend (or resist) the principles of the Revolution, and since World War II, there has been no practical opposition to the ideology of 1789.
The French Revolution is not a simple phenomenon dominated by one ideology. Influenced by Rousseau, the leaders of revolutionary France proclaimed their devotion to the nation Indeed, The Declaration of the Rights of Man states that “The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.” Yet they also declared their support for other revolutionary movements that would rise up to throw off the chains of monarchy, feudalism, and Christianity. In the Proclamation of the Convention to the Nations, December 1792, they declared: “We have conquered our liberty and we shall maintain it. We offer to bring this inestimable blessing to you, for it has always been rightly ours, and only by a crime have our oppressors robbed us of it. We have driven out your tyrants. Show yourselves free men and we will protect you from their vengeance, their machinations, or their return.” In other words, the universal rights of men justify the French conquest of Europe.
In the 19th century, the revolutionary ideal would separate, temporarily, into nationalist and internationalist channels, the one leading to the formation of centralized nation-states in France, Germany, Italy, and the United States; the other inspiring Marxists with their project of establishing economic justice in an international order.
Marx and Engels viewed the nation-state (along with the family and private property) as an institution that had been created by patriarchal men solely for the purpose of oppressing women and the poor. In the Communist Manifesto, they wrote the blueprint, not merely for communist revolutions, but for an international order that would ultimately end the exploitation of poor nations and replace nation states themselves. Here, in a nutshell, is the entire modern doctrine of internationalism: an end to the exploitation of poor nations by rich nations, and, ultimately, an end to the system of nation-states.
A bit more detail on Marx:
Marx and Engels viewed the nation-state (along with the family and private property) as an institution that had been created by patriarchal men solely for the purpose of oppressing women and the poor. In the Communist Manifesto, they wrote the blueprint, not merely for communist revolutions, but for an international order that would ultimately replace communist nation states:
“The workers have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got. Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is, so far, itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word.
National differences and antagonisms between peoples are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereunto.
The supremacy of the proletariat will cause them to vanish still faster. United action of the leading civilized countries at least is one of the first conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat.
In proportion as the exploitation of one individual by another will also be put an end to, the exploitation of one nation by another will also be put an end to. In proportion as the antagonism between classes within the nation vanishes, the hostility of one nation to another will come to an end. “
Here, in a nutshell, is the entire doctrine of internationalism: an end to the exploitation of poor nations by rich nations, and, ultimately, an end to the system of nation-states.
Marxist theory, however, has done little to alleviate ethnic and national hostilities. Marx’s own ethnic prejudices were confirmed, rather than weakened by, his progressive view of history. Primitive and retrograde peoples, such as Highland Scots, Africans, and Jews, were viewed as so many obstacles to progress that had to be eliminated. In their correspondence, Marx and Engels frequently used the English word “nigger” as an insult for people (including Jews) with dark skin. Marx, who supported the North in the War Between the States but had initially opposed the emancipation of American slaves, frequently described his son-in-law and disciple, Paul Lafargue, who was perhaps one-eighth African, as “the negrillo” and “the gorilla,” observing that his daughter had contributed to solving the race problem “by marrying a nigger.”
Though Marx was himself ethnically Jewish (the grandson of a rabbi), and Jews predominated in the leadership of most communist parties, Marx and Engels were openly antisemitic in their writings, and the Soviet Union under Stalin eliminated most of the Jewish leaders of the party during the Purge Trials. Marx’s repulsive bigotry, combined with the record of communist states in persecuting ethnic groups (e.g., Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Mongols, Tibetans, et al.) and in engaging in aggressive wars even with other communist states (between Vietnam and Cambodia), does little to strengthen the Marxist case for an international order.
On the question of political violence, most socialists and leftists part company with revolutionary Marxists, and most have been content to advocate a gradual movement within states toward a more perfect system of social justice. There is, however, a common thread (visible already in St.-Pierre) that runs through liberal (and socialist) nationalism and internationalism: the duty we have to provide ”social justice,” either to the citizens of a nation or to citizens of the world. The brotherhood of man promised to Christians living in the kingdom of God is now to be delivered by force to the denizens of the Commonwealth of Man. But, even though the genii of human brotherhood cannot be locked up in the bottle of a nation-state, the reality of Marxism to date has been the growth of socialism within nation-states and an enhancement, rather than an elimination, of the nationalist spirit.
Love of country is a natural outgrowth of the love of kith and kin, but the modern concept of nationalism is largely the creation of the French Revolution, which implemented Rousseau’s theory of the general will and continued the process of centralization inaugurated by the Bourbon monarchy. The classic text is Le Contrat Social, a book as mad as it is important. Following his own injunction in his essay on the origin of Inequality,” Rousseau set aside all the facts and accepted John Locke’s state of nature and social contract lock, stock, and barrel. He then developed the social contract theory into a nightmare.
Since government rests on the mystical consent of the governed, which Rousseau terms the General Will, that national will is the sovereign. “…the act of association comprises a mutual undertaking between the public and the individuals, and that each individual, in making a contract, as we may say, with himself, is bound in a double capacity; as a member of the Sovereign he is bound to the individuals, and as a member of the State to the Sovereign. But the maxim of civil right, that no one is bound by undertakings made to himself, does not apply in this case; for there is a great difference between incurring an obligation to yourself and incurring one to a whole of which you form a part.”
The sovereignty of the national will is indivisible and inalienable—hence the language of our own nationalist Pledge of Allegiance. The General Will is also infallible, though the people in their deliberations may make mistakes. These mistakes arise from ignorance and the self-interest of factions. “It is therefore essential, if the general will is to be able to express itself, that there should be no partial society within the State, and that each citizen should think only his own thoughts which was indeed the sublime and unique system established by the great Lycurgus.” In other words, the militaristic communal system of tiny Sparta can now be applied to a great nation state.
According to nationalists, the will of the nation, as defined as an historic community of blood and tongue, had to find expression in a common and unified state. Hence, the Italian nationalist Mazzini, whose political lineage goes back to the Revolution, spoke always of the twin principles of unity and nationality.
Is usually associated with German philosophers and propagandists of the 19th century. This is a battlefield where the bones have been picked clean by leftist internationalists. The basic argument is that beginning with the late 18th century, Germans began seeking ways of justifying unification and expansion of the German people as a superior race. The usual sources they cite are Herder’s “romantic” notions about cultural unity, the researches into folklore made by the Brothers Grimm, the bizarre but influential philosophy of Hegel who spoke of the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, which could be incorporated into a nation with a special destiny—and that it was the destiny of the German nation to be the masters of the new European civilization.
Kant was not without his own nationalist strain, and he was both xenophobic and fiercely anti-semitic. German Romantic nationalism reaches its frenzied peak in one of Kant’s disciples, Johann Gottlieb Fichte. In his “Address to the German Nation”:
The first, original, and truly natural boundaries of states are beyond doubt their internal boundaries. Those who speak the same language are joined to each other by a multitude of invisible bonds by nature herself, long before any human art begins; they understand each other and have the power of continuing to make themselves understood more and more clearly; they belong together and are by nature one and an inseparable whole.
Only when each people, left to itself, develops and forms itself in accordance with its own peculiar quality, and only when in every people each individual develops himself in accordance with that common quality, as well as in accordance with his own peculiar quality-then, and then only, does the manifestation of divinity appear in its true mirror as it ought to be; and only a man who either entirely lacks the notion of the rule of law and divine order, or else is an obdurate enemy thereto, could take upon himself to want to interfere with that law, which is the highest law in the spiritual world!
Since this language reappears in the mouth of Adolf Hitler, then all German nationalists going back to Herder are proto-Nazis. Not exactly. I hold no brief for Hegel or Fichte, but it is important to make some distinctions, and th easiest way to do that is to consider the thought of the godfather of German nationalism, Johann Gottlieb von Herder.
Herder was born to a humble family in East Prussia in 1744. His philosophical studies led him to Kant, but not to the Kant of the Critique, but the early Kant. At the age of 20 he went to teach in Riga, and his experience of Baltic and Slavic peoples had a profound effect on him throughout his life. To a great extent Herder was a man of his time. Although not an extreme rationalist, he was sublimely rational in his approach to most questions. His views on metaphysics and the philosophy of mind were skeptical and naturalistic, and in his famous theory of the origin of language he rejected divine and supernatural causes in favor of natural causes—much as Epicurus and Lucretius had argued in the ancient world. In politics he advocated republican and democratic principles and took a cautious “wait and see” approach to the French Revolution—though he deplored the slaughter in the Vendée.
Historians of philosophy still debate Herder’s importance, but there is not doubting his enormous influence. This is partly due to the clarity and vividness of expression. He rejected the convoluted language and style of academic philosophy and wrote powerful essays. It is not that he rejected systematic thought. In fact, he favored systematic thought, but he believed that it should be presented in such a manner as attracted intelligent but non-technical readers. I think he also felt that dogmatic philosophy stultified the reader’s brain, while the technique of Plato in his dialogues, Hume in his essays, and, I would argue, Thomas in his scholastic method, stimulates thought.
Herder very much believed in nations, even small nations, and he gives the conventional political metaphor “the ship of state” a new twist, by arguing that the members of a nation are all on board, and no matter what problems their nation has, the passengers on board must love the ship and work together to see it through a storm. “The word fatherland brought the ship afloat at the shore,” and each individual passenger “can and may no longer (unless he casts himself overboard and entrusts himself to the sea’s wild waves) stand idly by in the ship and count the waves as though he was on the shore.” Culture and language, Herder insists in the same place, are essential aspects of nationality.
Herder did not regard nations as mere ideas as Hegel seemed to regard them: Nations are “the result of a thousand cooperating causes of the whole element in which they live” and thus he concludes it would be childish “to present this formation as merely consisting in and occurring through a few brighter ideas towards which people have been trotting almost since the reinstitution of the sciences.” Arguing against Voltaire and others, who argued that human beings are pretty much the same everywhere and at all times, Herder insisted that history and observation teaches us that the character of a people can change, and in his essay on “The Change of Taste”, he compares the Enlightenment’s universalistic attitude, seeing all cultures as imperfect reflections of itself, with the ignorant xenophobia of Chinese who hardly believed in the existence of other peoples. Just as human individuals are different, even unique, so are human nations, the Germans no less than the Chinese.
Herder approached the nations of the world much as a radical environmentalist today regards endangered species. Each nation is precious because it reflects some quality within the human type, and when an imperial nation eliminates another nation, it is committing a crime against humanity. I thought I was the first humane nationalist to put forward what I called the Golden Rule of nationalism—whatever you want for your own people, whether self-determination or rights to culture and language—you must accord to people of other nations, but Herder had worked this all out before 1800. He has bitter things to say about European colonialism which not only brings misery to the peoples of Africa and the Americas, but which deforms and distorts the cultures of the enslaved peoples.
Unlike Montaigne and Voltaire, Herder was no apologist for alien cultures at the expense of the European, but as a skeptic he believed that he was not entitled to make ultimate judgments on the value of civilizations he had not experienced. Nature has made the nations separate, and world-unifiers, since the time of Nimrod, have been attempting to join by violence what nature has kept asunder.
The Liberal Critique
With his emphasis on human freedom and dignity, Herder can be understood within the context of early liberalism, and indeed he was a strong influence on JS Mill. On the other hand, his concern for nations sets him apart. Most 19th-century liberals were sympathetic to patriotic and nationalist movements of liberation and unification, and even John Stuart Mill, an arch-individualist, embraced the notion that every discrete nation should have its own state. However, other liberals, such as Jacob Burckhardt, condemned the nationalist state as spiritually and culturally mortifying. A divided Germany had produced Haydn and Goethe, but the nation-state, in its desire for power, would regard such dismemberment with shame, and Burckhardt noted “the hopelessness of any attempt at decentralization, of any voluntary restriction of power in favor of local and civilized life.
In England, Lord Acton condemned nationalism as the principle most inimical to human liberty (which liberals claimed, by definition, was the great object of all their policies). Acton, who was descended on his mother’s side from the aristocratic Dalbergs of Bavaria, was an admirer of the Holy Roman Empire, and he argued that the mixture of competing nations under one crown served to prevent the tyranny of the centralized state. He viewed a federal system, such as that of Switzerland or of the early American republic, as the best solution to ethnic conflict. States built on the national idea were, he felt, too confining to inspire the generous, cosmopolitan civilization that had been characteristic of European man.
If the nationalist point-of-view narrows the human outlook, it also implies, though it is not always expressed, a willingness to divide the human race into the categories of “us” and “them,” and to define “them” as an enemy to be eliminated or subjugated. Nationalism, as George Orwell pointed out, stems from, first, “the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’” and second, from “the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests.” Orwell distinguished this nationalist habit of mind from patriotism, which he defined as “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people.“
Although nationalist ideology was born in the French Revolution, which was the “church militant” of the Enlightenment, the aspirations of European peoples to free themselves from the Ottoman, Hapsburg, and Russian empires was not based on theory. The Poles had once been a great nation, and the partition of Poland among the great powers was a cynical expression of the imperialist urge to eliminate historic nations. The backlash was inevitable and not just among Poles: Czechs, Serbs, Croats, Greeks, and others all had a legitimate desire to live within a state that allowed their language, culture, and religion to flourish.
Nationalism, although it often has its origin in so innocent a source as the desire for national liberation, may take ugly turns, developing into a theory of the racial uniqueness and superiority of one’s own nation over all its rivals. All peoples will tend to hate the conqueror and to look down upon the conquered, but such natural feelings do not always result in implacable resentment or bitter contempt. Ancient Greek cities banded together to oppose the invading Persians, who sacked cities, destroyed temples, and killed noncombatants, and yet Aeschylus, who fought them at Marathon and Salamis, portrays the Persians sympathetically in The Persians, and later writers, such as Herodotus and Xenophon, were perfectly frank about the courage and virtues (as well as the vices) of the Greeks’ greatest enemy. Serbs, though brutally oppressed by the Ottoman Turks and their Slavic and Albanian allies, were respectful toward the sultan and freely acknowledged, in their folk poems, the heroism of their enemies. “Alas,” cried the Serbian hero Prince Marko after killing an Albanian brigand, “for I have killed the better man.”
Such respectful sentiments would be unthinkable coming from the mouth of a radical nationalist who, at his worst, depicts the imperial Russians or Austrians as savages and the neighboring Slovaks or Serbs as canaille. While soldiers in the two world wars were sometimes willing to look upon each other as human beings, their governments, which enlisted distinguished writers in their propaganda campaigns, were not. The Germans, who were portrayed as savage monsters by the Allies, ridiculed the effeminacy of Britain and France and portrayed Jews and Slavs as subhuman. The United States, in ridiculing the Japanese, resorted to the most sordid racial stereotyping.
Although such propaganda is often associated with right-wing nationalist movements, it is equally common among leftists and progressives, who are willing to demonize any opponent as racist or retrograde. This technique of propagandistic stereotyping, on the part of the American government at least, goes back to the American War Between the States, when a progressive government and its newspapers depicted Southerners as cruel and inhuman slave-drivers who deserved no sympathy. Such propaganda can be used to justify any actions undertaken by the superior government, whether it is the elimination of the Jews, the bombing of undefended cities, or Sherman’s march to the sea. It is the hallmark of the nationalist to justify every crime committed by his own people and to impute no honorable motives or actions to rival nations.
In general usage, patriotism signifies a person’s willingness to take risks and make sacrifices for the sake of his country and his fellow citizens. Although his devotion may spring from an instinctive “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life,” the patriot does not merely feel loyal to a spot of ground; he is willing to defend it with his life, even if he feels no particular hostility toward the enemy who wishes to take it from him.
Patriotism, as Acton understood, can transcend the blood-and-soil passions of primitive man and become an ethical force :
“Our connection with the race is merely natural or physical, whilst our duties to the political nation are ethical. One is a community of affections and instincts infinitely important and powerful in savage life, but pertaining more to the animal than to the civilized man; the other is an authority governing by laws, imposing obligations, and giving a moral sanction and character to the natural relations of society. Patriotism . . . is an extension of the family affections, as the tribe is an extension of the family. But in its real political character, patriotism consists in the development of the instinct of self-preservation into a moral duty which may involve self-sacrifice.”
Acton is not alone in regarding the highest form of patriotism as ethical rather than instinctive, but such a conception is liable to misconstruction, and Burckhardt applies the words “arrogance” and “degeneration” to any state’s attempt to fulfill a moral purpose directly.
Burckhardt understood St. Thomas’s point that the state exists to make virtue possible and not to impose virtue upon the people, and his refusal to attribute moral purpose to the state is similar to the distinction made between individual charity and a government-imposed system of welfare. When a man is called “patriotic,” the implication is that he has made a moral choice to risk his own self-interest for the good of his country, which is viewed as something more than blood and soil, as a constitutional order grounded in morality and law, and yet, as a moral individual, he can have little influence over life-and-death decisions made by the semi-divine state, which may go beyond inspiring or requesting such loyalty: It may command it, backing its command with all the resources of the modern state. At that point, patriotism is so far removed from instinctive loyalty as to be almost indistinguishable from nationalism. It is not always easy to distinguish a war veteran who flies his country’s flag to honor its heroes and its resistance to aggression from the chauvinist who waves the flag as a sign of the superiority and invincibility of the nation; indeed, the patriot and the chauvinist may often be the same person.
We can, however, draw a valid distinction between patriotism as an ethical and political virtue, originating in natural attachments but formed and directed by the state, and nationalism as a statist ideology that opposes and excludes other loyalties, whether those loyalties are to an international religion and civilization or to the province or region of one’s birth. A patriotic German from Hanover might have no quarrel with Catholics in Bavaria, but a German nationalist will more typically dislike a religion that divides some Germans from others and unites them to people of other nations and races. Such distinctions are often, however, more theoretical than real. If patriotism can merge into nationalism, then perhaps we are dealing with a distinction without a difference, a question of gradation and degrees. At the opposite extremes of sentimental loyalty and rabid chauvinism, however, patriotism and nationalism seem poles apart. The problem lies in the concept of patriotism itself, which (in everyday speech) seems to designate a transitional phase that may pass into nationalism but derives from something more primitive, which has no name.
Patriotism is not simply an ethical devotion to a constitution or legal order, and even where such higher sentiments have come into existence, they may not have entirely escaped the more primitive passions of love and loyalty. What Acton failed to understand, with his mind lodged securely in 18th-century rationalism, was that the stages of human social development can never be transcended; they can only be incorporated into more complex communities. The family was not eliminated, for being incorporated in a tribe, and a tribal or provincial identity can only be destroyed at grave peril to the moral health of the people.
Jacobin nationalists, in attempting to build an abstract and artificially unified French nation, made war on all other, more real loyalties: They destroyed the Church, waged a war of genocide against Catholics in the Vendée, and did their best to obliterate the regional civilizations of Provence and Brittany that were responsible for the vitality of French culture. The predictable results, in France, Britain, and the United States (to name only three examples), is a mass culture in which the only “national identity” is the creation of commercial entertainment and state propaganda. Sheltered by the stultifying effects of communist misrule, the nations of Eastern Europe were able to preserve some of their cultural traditions; exposed to the virulent forces of free trade and global commercialism, they may sink into the morass of Americanism.
As a deeply learned aristocrat, as at home in Italy or Germany as in England, Lord Acton did not grasp the fundamental and enduring importance of the instinctive attachment to family and tribe that has no name in English or in most European languages. However, Edmund Burke (a strong influence on Acton), in opposing the French Revolution, referred to the “little platoons” that command our loyalties, and we can sometimes speak in English of “local patriotism,” when referring to the attachment to neighborhood celebrated in G.K. Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill, but we are fumbling to express a concept for which we have no word. Serbian does have such a word: rodoljublje, love of kith and kin, love of the stock (rod). If we were to coin a technical term to describe such an attachment, it might be something like genophilia. This instinctive loyalty, which lies at the root of patriotism, is something quite different from–indeed, opposed to–nationalism.
To understand such loyalty requires a more anthropological approach. The historian of Sicily, Edward Freeman, following the work on kinship done by Sir Henry Sumner Maine, clearly distinguished the sentiment of attachment from ideological nationalisms such as German race theory or Russian Panslavism. As he wrote in a very pertinent essay of 1879 :
“. . . there is nothing but what is perfectly simple in the feeling which calls Russia, as the most powerful of Orthodox states, to the help of her Orthodox brethren everywhere, and which calls the members of the Orthodox Church everywhere to look to Russia as their protector . . . So again, the people of Montenegro and of the neighboring lands in Herzegovina and by the Bocche of Cattaro feel themselves countrymen in every sense but the political accident which keeps them asunder. They are drawn together by a tie which everyone can understand, by the same tie which would draw together the people of three adjoining English counties, if any strange political action should part them asunder in like manner. The feeling here is that of nationality in the strictest sense, nationality in a purely local or geographical sense. It would exist all the same if Panslavism had never been heard of; it might exist though those who feel it had never heard of the Slavonic race at all. It is altogether another thing when we come to the doctrine of race, and of sympathies founded on race, in the wider sense.”
Such love of kith and kin is not based in race, but in language, culture, and tradition, and while the process of loyalty begins with the family, it culminates in the commonwealth which fulfills, without superseding, lesser loyalties. As Freeman observes: “Kindred, real or artificial, is the one basis on which all society and all government have grown up.”
The love of kith and kin does not require a nation-state. It is possible to be loyal to one’s own people even when separated, as Serbians, Montenegrins, and the Serbs of Bosnia and Krajina were in the 19th century (or as Greeks were until the Roman conquest). Separate ethnic groups may also be unified in a crown–as Scots and English were under James VI/I or the peoples of Spain for many centuries. The Mexican poet Octavio Paz attributed Spain’s comparative stability (when compared with that of Mexico) to the unifying effect of the monarchy, and there are undoubted advantages, for a multiethnic state, in having a symbol of unity that transcends politics.
The difficulty comes when a multiethnic monarchy or empire begins to force assimilation, as happened in Austria-Hungary, which degenerated from the more inclusive ideal of the Holy Roman Empire into a dual monarchy, which, at the mercy of dual nationalisms (Hungarian and German), made it difficult if not impossible for Slovaks, Croats, and Serbs to preserve their identities. The Hungarian liberals, who had noisily and violently demanded their national rights, were unwilling even to take on the Croats as junior partners. Such Hungarian nationalists as Louis Kossuth portrayed themselves as enlightened patriots interested only in the good of humanity, but Kossuth’s attacks on Panslavism (a Russian plot!) and his generous declarations of support for Slavic ethnicities (made to ignorant foreigners) make interesting reading, when one is aware of the role he and his allies played in suppressing the Croats’ and Slovaks’ legitimate desire to defend their interests and preserve their identity. Like a true nationalist, Kossuth favored the Magyarization (that is, “Hungarification”) of ethnic Slavs.
The Ethnic Point of View
“Patriotism,” in Dr. Johnson’s famous phrase, “is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Nothing so illustrates the dishonesty of the liberal attack on national loyalty as the systematic misrepresentation of this quotation. Johnson was proud of being a patriotic Englishman, and, in his essay “The Patriot,” he praises the patriot as “he whose publick conduct is regulated by one single motive, the love of his country; who, as an agent in parliament, has, for himself, neither hope nor fear, neither kindness nor resentment, but refers every thing to the common interest.”
What Johnson objected to was the cynical misappropriation of the word by Whig politicians who wished to enhance the power of Parliament at the king’s expense: “Some claim a place in the list of patriots, by an acrimonious and unremitting opposition to the court. This mark is by no means infallible. Patriotism is not necessarily included in rebellion. A man may hate his king, yet not love his country.” (As a side note, John Lukacs is also entirely wrong on this point, believing, as he says, that Johnson really meant “nationalism”–a concept he would have understood very ill.
Patriotism of any kind may be drenched in blood, and, when it is perverted into nationalism, the love of nation it can be held partially accountable for many terrible wars in the 19th and early 20th centuries. All good impulses, however, can be turned to evil ends, and the ethical distortions and hatreds engendered by nationalist movements should not blind us to the moral significance of ethnic and national identity. The cosmopolitanism advocated by Stoics and Marxists has never been a reality, except for a tiny part of the international ruling class. It was not the national point of view that turned the Soviet Union and Cambodia into slaughterhouses. The spiritual unity of mankind preached by saints and taught by philosophers is an ideal to be pursued and cultivated; it cannot be imposed by any government or combination of governments except by the most tyrannical means.
I have written elsewhere about what I called “The Golden Rule of Nations,” which can be summed up easily as according to other nations the respect and privileges that one demands for one’s own–the very opposite of Kossuth’s hypocritcal stance toward Slavs or of the liberals who attack people like Jean Raspail for defending in France what he has also defended in the case of primitive peoples. One of the great problems with internationalism and nationalism both is that they insist on speaking the language of “I” and “the state,” when it is better to speak of the “We” who share common ancestry, customs, traditions, and experience. It is normal and, if I believed in human rights, I should say it is a “right” for human beings to be able to speak in the first person plural, as “we French,” or “we Cajuns” or “we southerners” or “we Catholics”–so long as the we represents something real and historic. “We whites” is a fatuous abstraction that would encourage us in the delusion that we should ally ourselves with the Ainu and despise the Japanese.
But “we” is a sliding scale. Forrest McDonald used to say that in Alabama, he was a Texan; in Boston, he was a Southerner, while in Europe he was a “yankee.” Identity is a series of concentric circles, as an ancient eclectic philosopher argued. The inner circle is defined by family and close kinfolks, and the expanding rings would include local communities, provincial identities, nationality or national-citizenship, and all mankind. But there are also cross-cutting identities, as anthropologists call them, such as religious affiliation, craft or profession, and membership in secret societies. A man might think of himself as a Smith from Smithfield, NC, a Southerner, but as, say, a Catholic convert he feels a loyalty even to the Mexican chicken-pluckers he sees at Mass, while as a stamp-collector he finds kinship and friendship with other philatelists around the world. These cross-cutting relationships, which in primitive societies can include marriage, have the important effect of uniting and pacifying tribal and ethnic divisions that might otherwise cause perpetual strife and violence.
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