Nationalism–the Wrong Right Turn
In the course of the 18th century, many European thinkers agreed that national rivalries had led to destructive wars, and what was needed was some federal union of states. Rousseau, who did much to popularize this idea, 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 national conflicts in 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.
Many of the wars of the 19th century were informed by the ideology of nationalism. Nationalism—as the formation of the word indicates—is one of those ideologies that starts by acknowledging some part of reality which the ideologues then convert into the summum bonum. Love of country is a natural and wholesome 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 nation’s General Will is indivisible and inalienable—hence the language of our own nationalist Pledge of Allegiance: “One nation indivisible” has the same ring as Superman’s credo, “fighting for truth, justice, and the American way.” 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.
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. On another occasion, we might discuss the evils of Marxist internationalism that has killed more people than the most evil nationalisms, but as different as they may appear on the surface, both nationalism and internationalism are ideological movements that make war on all the little platoons in which the human character is formed and everyday life is life. (Next, we take up Romantic Nationalism).