Liberal Nationalism versus Patriotism

The words nationalism and patriotism are often confused, and even when political theorists draw a contrast, the result is often a distinction without a difference or a bizarre twist of meaning that defies everyday usage.  The modern concept of nationalism (just like the concept of internationalism) took shape during the French Revolution, which implemented Rousseau’s theory of the general will and continued the process of centralization inaugurated by the monarchy.  

According to 19th century nationalists, the will of the nation, 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 (by way of Buonarotti, the disciple of Babeuf), spoke always of the twin principles of unity and nationality.  Italy presented a special case of a people that had not been unified since the fall of the Western Roman Empire and had been divided up into competing principalities, some of which were controlled by foreign dynasties, e.g. the Bourbons of Naples, and foreign powers, particularly Austria.  To liberate and unify Italians in a centralized state was the nationalist goal, one that naturally overrode all the local patriotisms of Sicilians, Venetians, Latins, and Tuscans--to say nothing of Catholics loyal to the Pope, whose estates were rudely stripped away by the French-speaking rulers of Piedmont.  That process of unification culminated in the 1860’s, when the more developed North conquered and subjugated the agrarian South.  The parallel with the American Risorgimento did not escape the notice of Pope Pius IX, who regarded Jefferson Davis as a fellow-victim of nationalist aggression.

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 distinct nation should have its own state.   However, other liberals condemned the nationalist state as spiritually and culturally mortifying.  Jakob Burkhardt pointed out that a divided Germany had produced Haydn and Goethe, but the unified nationalist German state was eager only for power and not for civilization, “hence 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, and he viewed a federal system, such as that of Switzerland or of the Holy Roman Empire, 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 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.   This attitude, as George Orwell pointed out, stems from “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 labeled "good" or "bad."  In identifying ourselves with a nation, he said, we place the state “beyond good and evil, … recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests.”  

Propaganda and ethnic bigotry are the hallmarks of developed nationalism.  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 denigrating the Japanese, resorted to the most sordid racial stereotyping.  Such propagandistic stereotyping, on the part of the American government, goes back at least to the American Civil War, when government and newspapers alike depicted Southerners as cruel and inhuman slave-drivers.  The propaganda was then used to justify the criminal actions of the Union government.

For the most part, however, nationalists do not actually identify themselves with the real and historic country of their birth but with a fictional version that has never existed.  Robespierre’s France was the imaginary product of his scheming but uneducated mind, and the Jacobins reinvented French history as the struggle between the subjugated Celts and Frankish invaders who made up the aristocracy.  Although the real Germany was divided between Catholics and Protestants, the Nazis’ ideal German nation had to be unified, and Hitler was more ready to persecute his family’s own Catholic Church, because it divided Germans and made some of them loyal to an international church.  

Rabid nationalism, so far from being a sign of strength, is actually an indication of a weak sense of nationhood.  Lincoln’s USA, Masaryk’s Czechoslovakia, Pavelić’s Croatia, and Mussolini’s Italy were divided countries in which people were more loyal to their region, their church, or their ethnicity--to anything but the nation. 

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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