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).

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

12 Responses

  1. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    John Lukacs provided cogent warnings on the dangers of nationalism.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Yes, but while his basic outlook was correct, it was derived ultimately from Lord Acton, who spent a good deal of time making distinctions with a difference. Lukacs, like Acton, praised patriotism but rejected nationalism, and when Acton tried to make distinctions, he fell back on a Whig rationalist tradition–to which (As Herbert Butterfield pointed out) he was too deeply attached and distinguished between ethical attachment to one’s country to the extent it was ethical. Now this, I shall be contending, is not only wrong but plays into nationalism by converting patriotism into an abstraction. But all this will come out. Lukacs, with whom I discussed this on more than one occasion, was more sensible and intuitive than Acton.

  3. Ken Rosenberger says:

    Very timely essay, where I’m concerned, Dr Fleming. When I heard about Lukacs’ passing, I began to read his 1993 book “The End of the Twentieth Century.” He talks a good bit about nationalism there (as he did in many of his books), and he inevitably comes around to Hitler. I almost got the impression that he was saying that all nationalisms lead that way. Would it be possible to have a good nationalism, depending on who the leaders were? I’m not sure I got a handle on his ideal arrangement (I assume something like the federal system we had prior to the War Between the States), that he would contrast to, say, a nationalist system that might be favored by people like Sam Francis or Pat Buchanan. And I wondered what Lukacs thought about the soft totalitarianism (not so soft these days) of the managerial technocrats on the left. Well, I know you have some personal insights into all three men, and I hope you will continue to give us your meditations on nationalism. I hope Dr Wilson will weigh in on this subject too.

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I have a lot more to say about the definition of nationalism and patriotism. Lukacs supported Buchanan’s presidential run but viewed with suspicion his superficial endorsement of nationalism. His critical review of one of PJB’s books elicited rage among some of Pat’s less intelligent followers, but that, of course, is another and rather unpleasant story.

  5. Robert Reavis says:

    The late professor Lukacs said nothing about Pat’s book that Victor David Hanson and Christopher Hitchens had not said in their own critical reviews. Scott McConnell was only trying to appear and appease the intellectual fad of objectivity in his own unique, conniving and cunning way. In these pathetic times what’s left of the tattered remains should be better respected by those who can still remember—-very much like the Ute Indians respect the ancient remains of the cliff dwellers of Messa Verde even to this day.

  6. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    TAC was–does it exist any more?–designed to be a partisan publication, but McConnell–Sam Francis always referred to him as ‘Scooter’–could not be loyal to anyone or anything but his own vanity. Lukacs was never a movement conservative and a perfect right to be candid. He did his own reading, thought his own thoughts, and that is more than can be said for most of the latterday conservative movement writers.

  7. Ken Rosenberger says:

    TAC is a sad piece of work these days. Their marquee “writer” appears to be a rather histrionic fellow we don’t mention here, other than to say he’s a guy who switches religions a good bit.

    Lukacs is not someone who should be dismissed for one or two opinions he’s posited in his long, thoughtful life. Rather he is rare thing: a historian who’s also a genuine writer. His books are worth owning and reading and having on your shelf, as much as the works of someone like Anthony Powell or Walker Percy. Any genuine conservative (I always use that word with some trepidation these days, meaningless as it has become) who aspires to a higher degree of literacy, should probably own at 5-10 of his books, if not more. There is much wisdom there.

    Dr Fleming, I have been re-listening to your 2013 Summer lecture on nationalism and Maurice Barres. You provide some good delineation between nationalism and patriotism in that talk (not an easy thing to do, but “I gotta use words when I’m talking to you”). As I make it out, a patriot would be an American who loves his country because it’s filled with a billion small things he loves: a street corner in Charleston; a curve in Rte. 64, a few miles west of Brevard, NC; a short story by Fred Chappell, and so on. Whereas, a nationalist is really one of Lincoln’s acolytes: what’s all this big deal about states? Aren’t they just big counties? We need something like a new 14th Amendment, with an equality clause, so every state’s laws are the same. We’ve got to get this country united, if takes killing half of the people to doit. Then we’ll get them on the same page, thinking alike, watching Fox News. After that you just get a load of our Manifest Destiny.

  8. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Ken, you are indeed right about John Lukacs, whose work I admired for decades and whose friendship I valued highly. And thanks for reminding me about the Barres lecture–which had completely slipped my mind. I’ll hunt it up. Perhaps I should re-record it. I fear that the organization that has the tapes will not be around very long, if, it in fact exists today.

  9. Robert Reavis says:

    No dismissal of the good professor from me, Ken. His friends and students are the best witness of his good character and wisdom. His review of Buchanan’s book was not offensive to me in the least although Scott McConnells predictable machinations were of a type. Sorry if my post seemed rather dismissive of the old professor.

  10. Ken Rosenberger says:

    Robert, no problems with your post. I was thinking of a few other “conservatives,” who had probably never read one page of Lukacs, before they read that review, and then concluded, based on that, that he was someone they could now write off forever. And I say that as someone who has generally liked (and voted for) PJB and does not particularly care for Churchill, at least what I have read about him. I also have to admit that Lukacs, given his experience as a young man in occupied Hungary, given his long reflective life and three dozen books (most of them at least good and more than a few very good), might have had a few good reasons for liking Churchill as much as he did.

  11. Harry Colin says:

    I certainly concur with Mr. Rosenberger’s comments on Lukacs. For anyone who has not read any of Lukacs work, I humbly suggest “Remembered Past” as an introductory way to gain insight into his thoughts. This book is a compendium of his reflections on history, historians and other prominent figures, drawn from his work over decades. When I learned of his passing I decided to re-read much of it; I have not regretted that decision.

  12. Dominick D says:

    Dr Fleming piqued my interest . . . no it does not. It is now Charlemagne.