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Nationalism and Beyond

Nenad Miscevic

Part One. Nationalism as a political program

Chapter one. Introduction

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1Suppose a white male acquaintance confided to you one day his feelings about belonging to the Caucasian race:

Let me tell you how proud I am of being white; it is not that I hate other races, but I love my race, and prefer to associate with my kind. Allow me to put it more philosophically. Belonging to a given race means being within a frame that offers meaning to people’s choices between alternatives, thus enabling them to acquire an identity. We are lost if we cannot identify ourselves with some part of an objective social reality, say, a race, with its distinctive qualities. Race is found, not created, and is found in identification with others. But one should be careful! Too much interaction between races leads to the loss of the distinctive pattern of differences between men, to a bland, indiscriminate mix in which important contrasts are lost. Races should be preserved in a recognizable form. It is therefore the duty of each white man to exercise solidarity with other whites.

2Would this brutal honesty shock you? Nowadays, almost no serious writer would endorse the above statement, and with good reason. Racism—in particular, white racism—has no place in a decent society. Now, replace the word ‘race’ with ‘nation’, and ‘white’ with almost any nationality, and you will find the above passage transformed into the typical views of a nationalist. The passage begins to sound much less exotic. In fact, the more ‘philosophical’ sounding phrases in this ‘quotation’ have been culled from the writings of prominent contemporary political thinkers, except that they spoke of nation (in the ethnic sense) where your fictional acquaintance speaks about race. You will find the original sentences quoted in the course of this book, if you look carefully enough. Is there any reason why nationalist attitudes should be judged differently from racist ones? To begin with, our thinkers might point out that ‘ethno-nation’ is a cultural matter, whereas race is a (spurious) biological concept. Fine, but these same thinkers also insist that national belonging—in their sense—is non-voluntary, non-chosen: in what does a morally significant difference with racial belonging then consist? Race is at least a partly invented category, and so is nation, as these thinkers are the first to admit.

3I shall argue that nationalism is almost as problematic as racism: our attitude to national exclusivity should become more like our negative attitude towards the racial kind. I shall defend my assertion by attempting to show that the best arguments for the nationalist attitude—the one expressed by the above paragraph after replacing ‘race’ with ‘nation’—available in the literature are not valid. This systematizing presentation and criticism of arguments constitutes the main body of the book. I shall also try to produce some independent arguments pointing to the ultimate immorality of nationalism. Finally, I will briefly sketch an alternative which relies upon pluralistic cultural belonging, which can represent a much wider affiliation than the national one, and which for this reason I will describe as ‘graded culturalist cosmopolitanism’. I will recommend it to your attention only briefly, since a detailed argument would require another volume.

4Given that there are so many books dealing with nationalism, why bother with yet another one? Let me offer an extended apology. Nation and nationalism were burning issues of political action and debate in the 1990s and have accompanied us into the next millennium. Attitudes to these issues seem to revolve around a dilemma. On the one hand, atrocities are being committed in ethno-national conflicts all around the world, from Bosnia and Ulster to Azerbaijan, East Timor, and Tibet—and most people not directly involved in the conflicts condemn them. Also, many thoughtful people are inclined to blame ‘nationalism’—whatever it might mean—for the atrocities committed. The rule of nationalism in its ugliest forms saps the strength of intellectual and political life in many Central and East European countries; most drastically in the former Yugoslavia in the aftermath of the war, but also elsewhere. On the other hand, many of us are prone to tolerate and often endorse the struggle of oppressed peoples for ethno-national autonomy, although the struggle is often fought in the name of the same ‘nationalistic’ principles which we condemn when confronted with the realities of civil war. Can one do both in honesty and without contradicting oneself? What is the right stance to take? This is the main dilemma for a serious, honest, and thoughtful citizen confronted with nationalism. Of course, there are related issues that are less dramatic, but more widespread. Take isolationism. Many small, newly self-assured countries would like to separate themselves from their neighbors: the supporters of Jörg Haider in Austria intensely dislike their South-Slavonic neighbors; these same neighbors living on the edge of the Balkans do not want to be seen as ‘Balkanic’; and many East Europeans prefer to see themselves as ‘Central Europeans’ (with the odd result that ‘Eastern Europe’ in their imagination seems to recede eastwards towards the Pacific Ocean!). Inhabitants of other, much larger and more developed countries worry about membership of larger, transnational communities; EU membership is the most obvious case in point. What about immigration policy? Can a nation simply decide it does not want to live with members of another one? If not, why not? In all these cases, values and norms are at stake, issues about what we should or ought to do. They form the central topic of the present book.

5Particularly interesting in the contemporary debate is the special role played by the cultural underpinnings of nation and nationalism. Nationalists insist on the purity of culture, and condemn cultural influence as the ‘base imitation’ of foreign cultures (the expression is from Shakespeare’s Richard II [2.1.23], a scene which will later be quoted more extensively). Along the same lines, some intellectuals worry about modifications to—in their view, the corruption of—their mother tongue by foreign influences, influences from other languages or even other dialects of what is officially the same language. Many French people worry about Anglo-American loan words from pop culture or from computer jargon; Croatian nationalists worry about Serbian words; and some English writers worry about the corrupting influence of American slang in all domains of culture, from soap operas to philosophy. The French authorities have been trying for some time to forbid formally the use of foreign languages—above all, English—at scholarly conferences held in France; they gave up because of the energetic protests of the scientific community. Those who use the ‘corrupted’ language defend themselves, if they care to do so, on grounds of practicality or of the sheer appeal of the foreign idiom. How bad is the change in question? Is it just a matter of personal taste, or does it have serious moral weight? If the latter, should something be done about it, and might the offended ones use legal and political means to prevent others from ‘corrupting’ the language? These issues arise in most countries today, and in the more fortunate ones provoke moral debate.

6Finally, let me mention a less widespread issue (which has actually arisen in some of the successor countries to the former Yugoslavia) which illustrates everyday nationalism in a rather graphic way. Suppose a somewhat conservative national community has ‘built its identity around a handful of historical myths, featuring, for example, a battlefield victory, a martyr, or a deep injustice perpetrated by a neighboring nation. If historians subsequently discover that the victory in question was in fact a defeat, and that the alleged martyr was in fact a cunning collaborationist, what can and should be done? One party argues that the discovery should not be made public since it threatens the most sacred values of the nation; the other opposes secrecy on the ground of respect for the truth. The first party wins: what are the historians to do?

7In the moral debate the more thoughtful participants tend to appeal to general principles, besides historical and sociological facts and particular circumstances. Such principles concern the value of nation, or of tradition-bound communities in general, as compared and opposed to the value of internationalism, or perhaps of the autonomy of the individual. They are often discussed in professional ethics books and journals, often inaccessible— due to their style and assumed familiarity with the literature—to those who most need the relevant information. A standard paper on the morality of nationalism assumes that its reader is familiar with the work of authors like Rawls, Nozick, Dworkin, or Habermas, and rarely explains the general philosophical background it presupposes. As a rule, the literature on the moral aspects of nationalism is much less readable and accessible than the one on its sociological and historical aspects (which features true classics which are both profound and readable, from Gellner and Anderson to Smith). There are brilliant exceptions, which I note in the recommended reading, written from a more pro-nationalist viewpoint (Canovan, 1996; Kymlicka, 1995). The philosophical critics of nationalism, however, tend to write less accessible essays. The intellectual public in general, as well as non-philosophers who are specialists in related areas, require an accessible critical guide to normative issues on nationalism. I vividly remember a talk by a linguist friend who described, and tried to condemn, the linguistic purism in our home country, Croatia. The linguistic part was excellent, but as soon as he arrived at the evaluation and condemnation, it became painfully obvious that, in spite of his culture and erudition, he simply lacked the required conceptual and even terminological means to make his condemnation of purism really hit home. Here, then, is the intention behind the present book: to provide a readable and opinionated introduction to the moral debate. It thus has a double aim: first, to persuade the reader that the pro-national stance is ultimately morally more doubtful than the opposite, more cosmopolitan one, and might even be downright immoral; secondly, to introduce those readers who are not familiar with the philosophical debate to the concepts and principles that shape it. It is thus not a sociological analysis of nationalism, but an ethically based polemic against it.

8At this juncture, an impatient, activist fellow-opponent of nationalism may raise a doubt: assuming that nationalism is to be resisted, at least in its invidious varieties, what can theoreticians, armed only with their professional skills, do about it? Obviously, as a scholar one can do little, at least directly, about primitive, visceral nationalism which is impervious to discussion, not to mention its more intellectual, but still dogmatic variant which refuses to consider evidence and arguments. But this does not mean that nothing can be done. The primary target should be the intellectual (or quasi-intellectual) justifications of nationalism; and indeed one should address oneself primarily to other intellectuals, those who produce, support and spread nationalistic discourse, thus legitimizing the action of the viscerally nationalist hangmen and henchmen. Nationalist politics needs intellectuals: to use an example from the former Yugoslavia, let me mention that some of the best-known Serbian philosophers—most prominently Mihailo Markovic—have been successfully recruited by either Milosevic or by the nationalist opposition to legitimize the war waged against other nations in the area. The ex-foreign minister of the Bosnian Republic of Srpska Krajina, Professor Aleksa Buha, is also a philosopher, specializing in German Idealism. In the mid-1990s he toured Europe in an attempt to justify the genocidal policies of his government with philosophical nationalist arguments.

9Given that the use of such arguments has some political importance, one is obliged to show how shallow and misleading the arguments on the nationalist side are. This is a modest, but promising enterprise. There are a number of things which can be done in respect of nationalist discourse with a modicum of intelligence and analytic skill. First, deflating nationalist discourse by laying bare the biological, psychological, and social origins of nationalism. Recent work on the evolutionary origins of group solidarity (van der Berghe, 1983) certainly offers a deflationary, even debunking view of traditional group loyalty: making this more widely known can help to divest nationalism of some of its attractiveness, at least to some people. (I shall not be much concerned with this line in the book, leaving it to specialists in the respective areas.) Secondly, debunking nationalist appeals to historical and anthropological mythologies. In states run on nationalistic principles such mythologies are taught in schools and even at university. Teachers who refuse to teach them are often simply fired. The humanities are especially vulnerable to such pseudo-history. Thirdly, disentangling dangerous confusions. Most attempts at legitimizing nationalism use conceptual devices of varying subtlety to promote strong and dangerous nationalist claims by wrapping them up in more innocent-looking rhetoric. A typical case is the following: the speaker starts by asking for a particular right for his ethnic group, say, the right of cultural self-determination. Once the audience is persuaded, he switches to talk about ‘sacred duties’ to one’s culture, implying that once the group is granted cultural autonomy it may freely push its members to participate willy-nilly in the construction of a nationalistic cultural life. My personal experience of living through the Balkan War years in Croatia has taught me that such conflations of right and legally enforceable obligation are the bread and butter of nationalist legitimization rhetoric. The skills of critical thinking—distinguishing and discriminating—should show their bite here and help disentangle legitimate claims to rights from the dangerous rhetoric of sacred duties. Fourthly, offering and defending alternatives to nationalism. It is often claimed that the main alternative to nationalism, cosmopolitanism—of any variety—is doomed to supporting a cheap, rootless pseudo-culture. I want to defend it against this accusation and propose my own favorite version of it as a viable alternative to nationalism.


10Let me conclude this introductory chapter with a few remarks on the concept of ‘nation’. In the older Anglo-American literature the dominant concept was simply the civic, state-oriented one: all citizens of a state form a nation. This was often contrasted with the Central European, ethnically oriented one, for which a special term, ‘ethno-nation’, has been coined: a group forms an ethno-nation if its members share—or, alternatively, believe they share—an origin, a language, and a culture. (This concept is sometimes further subdivided into more descent-based and more culture-based varieties.)

  • 1 Walzer seems to use the expression with a subtle and tender irony in his Tanner Lectures.

11Most nationalists in the contemporary world do not strictly distinguish between the two concepts. At the level of both political, unrefiective nationalism, and the sophisticated philosophical defense of pro-national attitudes, the dominant conception is the mixed one of a cultural group, possibly united by a common descent, endowed with civic ties of some kind. Much debate concerns whether all such groups should be granted the right to a state. They are variously called ‘nations’, ‘ethnic groups’, or even ‘tribes’.1 Since we want to enter the debate with the nationalist, we have to accept his terms, and remain with this vague sense of ‘nation’. (Some recent commentators explicitly propose an analysis of this mixed concept: see the essays by Seymour, Couture, and Nielsen in Couture et al., 1996, and by Seymour in Miščević, 2000.) I shall remind the reader of the ethnic component by occasionally writing ‘ethno-nation’ in full.

12Let me reiterate that various combinations of various underlying traits (language, common history, customs, values, common religious denomination, geographical proximity) make true for each separate group the claim that it forms a nation. For instance, Bosnian Croats distinguish themselves from Bosnian Muslims—in the sense of belonging to another nation—mainly by being Catholics; they speak the same language, live in similar conditions, and have a great deal of shared history with their Muslim neighbors. In contrast, the Quebecois distinguish themselves from their neighbors mainly through language and tradition, sharing with them most values and forms of life. (It is sometimes the case that nation forming or state building leads to a concentrated effort to create new differences: witness, for example, the separation of the Croatian from the Serbian language, the effort to Islamize Bosnia, or the spread of Islam among African Americans aspiring to some kind of political independence.) Moreover, there is no limit in principle to the kind of traits that can underlie national(ist) identification: color of skin, dietary or sexual habits, and who knows what else might one day play a legitimate role in rallying together a group of people demanding recognition as a nation.

13Not even all (pro-)nationalists agree about the objectivity of even the most prominent traits in question; some demand the objective possession of a common descent and relatively pure culture; others rest content with a more subjective version. (This means that the mixed concept we proposed can be subdivided according to the degree of subjectivity in contrast to objectivity.) Here is what I regard as a sensible version of the more subjective concept, proposed by D. Miller, one of the most brilliant and most moderate contemporary defenders of pro-nationalist attitudes:

What does it mean for people to have a common national identity, to share their nationality? It is essentially not a matter of the objective characteristics that they possess, but of their shared beliefs; a belief that each belongs together with the rest; that this association is neither transitory nor merely instrumental, but stems from a long history of living together which (it is hoped and expected) will continue into the future; that the community is marked off from other communities by its members’ distinctive characteristics; that each member recognizes a loyalty to the community, expressed in a willingness to sacrifice personal goals to advance its interests; and that the community should enjoy a measure of political autonomy, normally (but not I think necessarily) in the form of a sovereign state. Where these beliefs are widely held throughout the population in question, we have sufficient grounds for saying that a nation exists. What needs underlining is how little this definition includes. It contains no assumption that nations are, as it were, natural kinds marked off from one another by physical characteristics. It can easily accommodate the historical fluidity of national identities, and recognize the extent to which nations are brought into being by extraneous circumstances such as conflicts between states. Nor is there any assumption that people who share nationality will share objective characteristics such as race or language. It is indeed possible that people’s belief about these characteristics may form part of particular national entities. (Miller, 1992, 87)

14This characterization—compatible with the absence of an objective basis for national identity—accords well with the views made prominent in social science by Benedict Anderson, encapsulated in his famous saying that a nation is an ‘imagined community’. It also has the advantage of being proposed by many serious philosophical pro-nationalists, so that it offers a common conceptual ground for moral debate with them. Philosophical pro-nationalists are mostly clear-eyed about the factual falsity of common nationalist beliefs. The costs of accepting such a subjective definition are very high for them, and it is to their credit that they embrace it: sacrificing the objectivity of nation might deprive it of most of its moral claims. I shall try to show this briefly at the end of chapter two. Why do they accept it nevertheless? One possibility is that they do not endorse it with all their heart, but only verbally. But even if this is the case, why would one do that, given the costs? I guess that they want to make the demands of various groups safe from sociological rebuttal: suppose a large group wants a state, and sociologists, together with historians, find out that dialects spoken within the group are really a rather mixed lot (and that there is no real frontier separating some of them from the closest dialect of the neighboring ‘language’), that they do not have a common origin, but really originated from three different groups, one of them indistinguishable from their neighbors, and so on. Such possibilities are very real (for example, the genetic map of France as a whole is apparently extremely heterogeneous, whereas particular French provinces are internally genetically very homogeneous). The thoughtful nationalist theoretician will want to avoid such sociology- (or history-, or genetics-) based rebuttal, and will prefer to pay the high price of making the nation a creature of subjectivity.

15Given all the advantages of the definition, I propose that we go along with it. In what follows, ‘nation’ (or ‘ethno-nation’) will denote any group united through a common belief in the possession of common features, such as language, roughly common origin and history, denominational ties, and a territory.


1 Walzer seems to use the expression with a subtle and tender irony in his Tanner Lectures.

© Central European University Press, 2001

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