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Nationalism and Beyond

Nenad Miscevic

Part One. Nationalism as a political program

Chapter three. Invidious nationalism

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  • 1 This is the point of MacIntyre’s defense of serious, anti-cosmopolitan patriotism.

1Invidious nationalism is nationalism without brakes: the love for country it demands is unrestrained, devoid of any kind of universalistic considerations. It appeals to the unconditional patriotic spirit which makes people “walk together, work together, fight together, and die for each other”, to quote the formulation by famous French nationalistic historian Fustel de Coulanges. Secondly, and more importantly, the patriotism recommended is a non-selective one: the fatherland is not to be loved for its qualities, for the universal values it happens to incarnate, but rather for just being what it is, one’s fatherland. (Of course, if love is to be dictated by qualities rather than by their bearer, why not sidestep the particular country, our contingent mediator between us and the universal?)1 An unconditional love for one’s people and hatred of its enemies are political passions, glorified by national poets. Let me quote, as one example among thousands, the verses by the Parnassian Victor de Laprade deploring the French defeat by German armies:

  • 2 In Le nationalisme français, ed. Girardet (Paris: Seuil, 1983), p. 55.

Terre de la pitié, douce terre de France,
L’honneur que je te rends, l’amour que je te dois,
Ne m’inspirent plus rien que haine et que vengeance.2

[Country of pity, sweet France, the honor I bestow upon you and the love I owe you inspire in me nothing but hatred and vengeance.]

2As already mentioned, however, we should distinguish between a spontaneous lack of care for other people and invidiousness proper. A ‘Lavinian’ (see chapter two) peasant fighting for his people need not care about others, nor have any kind of reflective attitude about how other communities should organize their lives. But such innocence is grounded in ignorance, and is utterly irrelevant for our purposes. With a little bad luck, our peasant will have to face the question: would you expect other people from other communities to behave like you do; would you let them do the same thing for their country, or not? The unrefiective nationalist then has to choose whether to become invidious or not.

3Let me briefly remind the reader that invidious nationalism often gets very nasty in practice. To start with the least evil, culture is usually the first victim of its feverish attentions. Then comes serious violence: think of the massacres, ethnic cleansing, and other ethno-nationalist excesses in the former Yugoslavia or Rwanda. People torture and kill their neighbors, with whom they have lived in peace for decades, apparently for ridiculous reasons: the war in Bosnia was the first religious war fought by atheists. Note that massacres of this kind are not perpetrated in an impulsive, blind manner; they are organized and planned in advance, and justified in sophisticated ways later on. Once the violence is seen as a normal matter, there is no end to further evils.

4Does the invidious nationalist really have to be so nasty? Very often, he does. The main reason seems to be a ‘scarcity of resources’. Start with culture. Cultural values are scarce: if Swift is a great Irish writer, he is not a great English one, so if you really care about appropriating cultural goods, you should hurry up and grab him before it is too late. To go on to more vital matters, the main resource for the state-oriented nationalist is territory, and this is extremely scarce. Dozens of ethnic groups may have to compete for a territory that is large enough for one viable state. The mechanism is simple. If one of the ten groups puts in a claim for territory, it is rational for the remaining nine to do the same, otherwise the first bidder takes all, by the very nature of invidious nationalism.

5This territorial bottleneck threatens the following. Consider a society ethnically divided between two (sub-)communities, say, our Lavinians and Illyrians. The competition for resources between the two communities can easily end in conflict. If Lavinians have a hunch that their neighbors, the Illyrians—with whom they share part of the territory—might want to form an independent state, it is rational for them to enter the claim first; even worse, it is rational for them to start preparing to back their claim by force. But if the Illyrians can foresee that—as they probably will—it is rational for them to hurry up. In such a situation it becomes more and more difficult even to signal good intentions, if one has them, and increasingly dangerous to believe such signals from the other side. It is also rational for both parties to try to strike first. Also, once tensions have become high, it is rational for each member of the ethnic group to identify completely with their group. In such circumstances, extremist sub-groups will easily increase their influence, at the expense of moderate sub-groups. The process has been described many times by political scientists. Let me give an example from Croatia: the election of Franjo Tudjman to the presidency at the culmination of the political crisis in the former Yugoslavia was to a great extent motivated by his image as a tough politician with a military background, and therefore capable of responding to the provocation of Milosevic. His closest competitors had better political and personal qualities—as seen from the safe perspective of the West—but they were obviously inclined to compromise: their image was not hawkish enough to guarantee to the average Croatian citizen that they would display the requisite toughness and aggressivity in response to the direct threats issued by Belgrade.

6In short, starting from the initial competition for territory and other resources, both peoples can become involved in violent conflict, as a result of which each ends up worse off than if it had cooperated. Unfortunately, at each particular step, the non-cooperative attitude was more rational than the cooperative one. (You will no doubt have recognized what in the literature is known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma.) Let me illustrate the claim that the negative results of the invidious stance tend to have ramifications in all sorts of areas. The fact that the Serbian war criminal Seselj, after having led campaigns of the crudest ethnic cleansing, was appointed to the chair of Constitutional Law at Belgrade University in January 2000 would be humorous were it not so chilling, his promotion papers having been signed by respectable Belgrade law professors. Imagine the effect of this on the promotion of human rights in Serbia, the credibility of his fellow professors, and trust in the Constitution.


7The invidious nationalist sometimes has to justify his attitude to his own public. After all, most people tend to know that their neighbors of different ethnic origin are human beings; most normal people are sensitive to their neighbors’ needs beyond the limits of ethnic belonging; and some members of the native community might have a considerable stake—material, emotional, or otherwise—in preserving good relations with their neighbors. One of the most often used means of justification is ethno-national mythology. Most ethnic traditions contain crucially important elements—legends, stories, proverbs—characterized by at least one of two kinds of features: first, they are factually false, or, to put it kindly, ‘mythological’; secondly, they are invidious to their neighbors, implying their baseness, cowardice, or lack of culture, and insisting on the contrasting virtues of their own people. They also typically mention glorious victories over neighbors and the past glories of the Great Fatherland (for example, the ‘Greater Lavinia’ extending over territories now ‘unjustly’ held and inhabited by Carpathians), presenting them as paradigms to be followed and possessions to be restored. The nationalists-in-the-street, of course, believe nationalist myths: Spanish nationalists believe in the Gothic origin and essence of the Castilian nation; Slovenian nationalists believe in the non-Slavic, allegedly old Venetian origin of the Slovenes; and so on, without end. The ultra-moderate nationalist D. Miller describes the situation in the following, in my opinion correct, terms:

national identities typically contain a considerable element of myth. The nation is conceived as a community extended in history and with a distinct character that is natural to its members. Dispassionate research is likely to reveal considerable discontinuity, both in the character of the people who have occupied a given territory, and in their customs and practices. It is also likely to reveal that many things now regarded as primordial features of the nation in question are in fact artificial inventions, indeed, very often deliberate inventions made to serve a political purpose. It appears, therefore, that national identities cannot survive critical reflection. If one applies to them normal canons of rationality, they are revealed to be fraudulent. (Miller, 1995, 35)

8Let me mention one nasty example from South Slavic tradition, lest one should think of nationalist mythologies on the model of Hollywood movies. Part of the canon of literary works that my own generation was taught in school were epics about the struggle of Christian Slavic peoples—Croats, Serbs, Montenegrins— against Ottoman rule. One of them, entitled ‘The Mountain Crown’ (by the early-nineteenth-century Montenegrin prince and poet P. P. Njegos), glorifies the massacre of the local Montenegro Muslims, perpetrated by an ancestor of the author, himself a prince and a high-ranking cleric. The hero is far from being unsophisticated; he is even troubled by doubts about the propriety of his planned deed; however, he quickly regains his equanimity and organizes a preemptive ethnic cleansing of his small country. The justification given is in terms of faithfulness to the race and religion and abomination of religious conversion (“The seed should bring forth fruit where first it sprouted”), in spite of the admitted fact that the Muslims massacred were not recent converts, but children or grandchildren of converts. Our teachers never questioned the propriety of the massacre; it was—and still is— presented in Yugoslav schools as a perfectly normal thing for a prince to do in a situation of crisis. (I remember how surprised I was when, at the age of eighteen, a Bosnian Muslim girl told me that she found the poem deeply offensive, so successful had my teachers been in convincing me of its value.)

9Nationalism, especially the invidious variety, takes mythology to be constitutive of the identity of a people. Since cultural identity in its eyes trumps all other considerations, classical nationalism recommends sacrificing the recalcitrant values of truth and benevolence. Regarding factual falsity, it recommends accepting mythology as it stands and discourages further inquiry. (In the immediate post-war years in newly independent Croatia a historian could be fired for openly questioning the truth of the officially recognized national myths. It is still so in Greece, and to some extent in Bulgaria and Albania.) Regarding the negative attitude towards neighbors (including mythology-based territorial claims), it tolerates, if it does not straightforwardly recommend, sacrificing a cooperative attitude to the construction and affirmation of national identity. The Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic used the cultural myth of Kosovo at the peak of his political campaign—on the occasion of the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, at the mass meeting at Kosovo Polje on 28 June 1989— and the appeal to cultural myth remained one of the most powerful propaganda weapons in the terrible war that ensued.

  • 3 Quoted after Nicholas V. Ryazanovsky, ‘Prince N. S. Trubetzkoy’s Europe and Mankind, in Collected (...)

10Another, closely related, means of justifying the invidious attitude is the invention of special historical and/or religious missions for one’s people, as mentioned in chapter two. The nationalist ideologues of smaller peoples tend to picture them as guardians of some more widely valued heritage (for example, in the Balkans, Christian values are presented as in need of defense against Muslims, and in Poland the values of the Catholic West are presented as in need of defense against the Orthodox-cum-Muslim East). Larger nations, such as the Germans, the Russians, and the Han Chinese, have produced ideologies of a messianic role—ethnic, racial, or religious—on a continental or global scale. Let me illustrate this with a particularly worrisome example. A central topic in Russian culture for two centuries has been the so-called Russian Idea, a syndrome of views and attitudes about the special role Russia has been called upon to play in world history. Many leading intellectuals—such as the creator of contemporary phonology, Prince Trubetzkoy, the biologist Gumilev (son of the poet Anna Akhmatova), and the art historian Losev—have invented theories about the special character of the Russian people and the beastly nature of their enemies, East or West. In keeping with the general tone of the debate, the linguist Prince Trubetzkoy describes the West—the civilization he calls ‘Romano-Germanic’—as a “wild beast greedily gnashing its teeth”. In such a perspective, cultural russification and Orthodox proselytizing are justified as bringing moral, cultural, and religious salvation to backward neighbors.3 Let me quote Vera Tolz on the impact of this kind of thought on the contemporary Russian intellectual and political scene: “These thinkers of the past are now viewed as if they were contemporaries and as teachers, to whom today’s intellectuals should turn in their search for spiritual and ideological inspiration” (Tolz, 1998, 994). Politicians apparently follow suit, each picking his own preferred messianic prophet. (Tolz also gives a useful guide to the range of views in her article.)

11Such messianic myths are closely akin to historical mythologies, except that the reference to the past is replaced (or supplemented) by one to the future. Taken as a whole, mythological narratives are perhaps the most important vehicles of justification—prudential, moral, and religious—for invidious nationalism, and other kinds of radical nationalism.

12It is important to bear in mind both the nastiness of typical national mythologies, and the importance of their role, if one wants to enter the contemporary debate about whether they should be tolerated. A small but distinguished group of political thinkers—Tamir, MacCormick, and, with reservations, Miller— tend to defend them. They assume both that such mythologies are benign, and that their falsehood is morally irrelevant; moreover, since they foster national solidarity, they are to be publicly supported. Miller says that “it seems to follow [from the falsity of mythology] that there can be no justification for giving national loyalties any role in our ethical and political thinking”. But then he enters a caveat: “But this conclusion is too quick. Rather than dismissing nationality out of hand once we discover that national identities contain elements of myth, we should ask what part these myths play in building and sustaining nations” (Miller, 1995, 36). Other authors—for instance, MacCormick (1982)—draw a comparison between mythological belief in the common origin of a nation and the false belief an adoptive child might have about being the biological child of his or her (in fact foster) parents. The latter is morally at least neutral, although false, so why not the former?

  • 4 Contemporary Bulgaria, Serbia, and Croatia offer plenty of evidence of this practice.

13Note that this line assumes that national mythologies are at their core benign falsehoods, to be integrated easily into a liberal ideology. This is factually wrong: mythologies come down from a savage and cruel past and bear its imprint: normally, they are far from benign in what they suggest or command. Our authors are also imprudent: the false mythologies show their bite in many real-life situations, for example when historians begin to discover their falsehood. Since national identity counts higher than mere factual truth, such historians are silenced by nationalist governments.4 The theoretical problem for the would-be liberal nationalist is to formulate principles that would condemn such practices while making room for the moral centrality of community values (which include an appeal to constitutive myths). I do not see how this could be done: if you let the myths in, the nastiness obtains an ideological justification; if you leave them out, you tamper with the constitutive framework in the name of principles that you yourself see as foreign to your community.

14At this juncture, the intellectual problem concerns how one might justify this narrow focusing of one’s tendresses in the face of moral universalism. The short answer, that this is how one feels and that the heart is not to be swayed by arguments, has something to it, but it is not sufficient: we would not accept this kind of excuse for racism or sexism, for example, in matters of promotion at work. It is here that a serious theoretical debate is needed.

15The invidious nationalist obviously cannot justify his attitude by any kind of respectable theorizing, since theoretical justification must in principle be general. The most drastic form of invidiousness tends to be justified in the most drastic ways. The discriminatory variety is the most poisonous. It is embarrassing for nationalist intellectuals, so they often mask it behind provisos stating that a particular group is too wild, cruel, or depraved for cultural development. To quote a famous case from Hungarian lore, human beings have national rights, but ‘Slovaks are not human beings’ (Tot nem ember). This attitude proved very costly to Hungary after the end of the First World War (see, for instance, Gerő, 1999, and I. Bibó, 1986). There is nothing to discuss with those holding such attitudes.

16This dismissal is sometimes met by a reaction based on intellectual curiosity: maybe there is a way the invidious nationalist can defend his claims. For instance, Professor Thomas Simon kindly pointed out to me in a written communication that there is “a distinction between justifying only a particular nation and justifying all nations of the same kind”. In the abstract world of ideas perhaps there is such a possibility, but it presupposes the existence of superior and inferior ethno-cultural groups, such that the difference would decisively reflect upon their right to a state (to go to extremes, there might be ethno-nations which deemed such absolutely condemnable practices as cannibalism, child abuse, or shooting snuff movies as essential to their identity, and others which were a priori on the good side of the moral fence). In reality, no matter how hard I try, I see no way of defending such discrimination.

17Pro-nationalist philosophers sometimes try to excuse even invidious nationalism, mainly by its allegedly valuable fruits. An ethno-national community is valuable since it is the natural encompassing framework of various cultural traditions which produce and transmit important meanings and values. Also, a unitary cultural framework ensures solidarity between members. An ethno-national community is essential for the flourishing of its members. We shall meet these excuses in the chapters to follow in a more respectable framework, namely, the defense of even-handed nationalism, where it will be argued that they do not succeed.


18It would be difficult to say which of the two varieties of nationalism dealt with so far is more typical. Radical, invidious nationalists and many critics of nationalism take the even-handed (but still tough) variety to be atypical; the former are sometimes prone to accuse the latter of being almost traitors to nationalist ideals. On the other hand, the even-handed ones, and also the ultra-moderates, view the extremist, somewhat ugly features of radical nationalism as ‘accretions’, adventitious traits foreign to the ‘essence’ of nationalism. As the ultra-moderate Miller puts it (Miller, 1992, 87), “I separate the idea of nationality itself from various accretions that have given nationalism a bad name.” Some authors on the opposite side even define nationalism so as to exclude the very possibility of universalizing. The British historian John Breuilly proposes a definition of nationalist political doctrine according to which it is “built upon three basic assertions:

  1. There exists a nation with an explicit and peculiar character.
  2. The interests and values of this nation take priority over all other interests and values.
  3. The nation must be as independent as possible. This usually requires at least the attainment of political sovereignty.”
    (Breuilly, 1982, 3)
  • 5 None of these authors uses another term, such as ‘patriotism’, to denote a supposedly tamer kind; (...)

19He is followed by the sociologist John A. Hall: “Nationalism is considered here very conventionally. It is the belief in the primacy of a particular nation, real or constructed” (Hall, 1995, 9). The American sociologist Michael Mann says that “[nationalism is an ideology whereby a nation believes it possesses distinct claims to virtue—claims which may be used to legitimize aggressive action against other nations” (Mann, 1995, 44).5 Which side is right, if any?

20It is good to avoid essentialist talk if possible, so let us rather ask a more practical question: which form of nationalism is more stable, psychologically, socially, and politically? If one is already a nationalist, which variety will be less of a headache, and supply a more stable and credible political stance? It seems to me that radical nationalism fits the bill: Eric (see chapter two) would have fewer problems than John when reflecting about his own political attitudes. The self-assumed willingness of the even-handed nationalist to take an impersonal stance, and to step into another’s shoes, imposes obligations and liabilities which might cause serious worries.

21First, remember that the even-handed (but still rather tough) nationalist has to perform a balancing act: he should at the same time strongly privilege his own people and culture, and, in a more impersonal vein, demand that others privilege theirs. John has to be partial to things Lavinian—say, Lavinian music—but at the same time ask Paul the Carpathian to privilege things Carpathian. Now, what reason can he give? He cannot rationally claim that Lavinian music (customs, morals) is simply better than the Carpathian variety, since he would then be asking Paul to privilege music that is of lower quality in absolute terms than the Lavinian kind. His only way out is to admit that he prefers Lavinian music (customs, morals) because, and only because, it is his own. This provides the requisite balancing, but would be psychologically difficult for many people. For some things (art, morals) it is especially hard to wholeheartedly furnish an endorsement as an object of high esteem solely on the ground that they belong to one’s community. Some people can do it, by a kind of natural instinct (like loving one’s own child simply because it is one’s own), but many tend to feel and think in more absolutist terms. In many cases, therefore, the relativized, balanced love of home-spun lore will tend to transform itself: either it will wither away (John will end up preferring Bach and Beethoven to mediocre Lavinian composers), or it will stabilize itself in an absolutist fashion (John will end up loving only Lavinian composers and claiming that they are in truth much better than those foreigners Bach and Beethoven). Let me quote D. McCabe (he is referring to an even-handed nationalist, the philosopher Oldenquist):

Patriotism requires, then, that one believe one’s nation is better, and for this reason deserves more. But how can a patriot believe this without also believing that other nations are not as good, and for this reason deserve less? This seems a decidedly negative judgment about other nations (and one about which most patriots must be in error if there do exist objective criteria for the merits of a nation). Thus, loyalty patriotism, as Oldenquist describes it, will inevitably involve a negative judgment about other nations. (McCabe, 1997, 207)

22Secondly, while balancing might be merely difficult in situations of calm reflection, it often becomes impossible when it comes to action. Remember that ethno-national communities are typically in competition, sometimes rather intense. In a competitive situation, the balanced attitude (John fighting for Lavinian interests, and at the same time congratulating Paul for fighting against them, in the interest of his people) might be a chivalrous and noble one, but it is highly unstable and difficult to uphold. If I may caricature it, one is reminded of the Maharishi Yogi’s offer to make every nation invincible to all others (advertised in The Herald Tribune throughout November 1998), the kind of situation the universalizing nationalist should wish for with the universalist half of his heart, and hate with the particularistic half. His universalistic pronouncements in situations of conflict will tend to become merely lip service paid to abstract ideals, but his deeds will reveal him as a radical. Even if this does not happen, one has to admit that the overall radical attitude enables its holder to cope with the situation in a more efficient and simple way. Let me offer one historical example, from the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the mid-nineteenth century, after a humiliating defeat, the Austrians showed a readiness to grant Hungarians a larger portion of autonomy than ever before; Hungarian liberal politicians jumped at the opportunity, and the wise and diplomatic liberal Ferenc Deak delineated the historic Compromise of 1867, which gave Hungarians the right to home rule over a vast area of their historical territory. When other peoples on the same territory, prominently the Croats, demanded similar arrangements, Deak was ready to grant it; however, the radical nationalists won the day, and other nationalities never got from the Hungarians the same rights the Hungarians had extracted from the Austrians. Nasty nationalism had won out over the even-handed variety (see A. Molnár’s biography of Deák [1999]).

23Let me add an anecdotal observation. The main pro-nationalist line of argument we shall be dealing with has been elaborated by Isaiah Berlin, a Baltic Jew living in Britain and a deeply cosmopolitan thinker. Other prominent philosophical pro-nationalists that I know, or know about, resemble Berlin in being basically cosmopolitans, each living in a country that is not ethnically theirs (or, at least in the ethnically ‘wrong’ region within a given state), and teaching throughout their life in a foreign language. Some, such as Yael Tamir, although living in the ‘right’ country, are activists in what are basically anti-nationalist movements. None of them, I fear, would be any good as a ‘nationalist-in-the-street’ (which is, of course, intended as a compliment).

24To return to our initial question, if radical nationalism is more stable and ‘natural’, given human nature, one should perhaps concede to its proponents that its typical features are not mere ‘accretions’ or ‘excrescences’, but manifest the psychological and social ‘nature’ of nationalism in a more clear and consistent way than the even-handed variety. Indeed, the universalistic bent of even-handed nationalism comes to seem a foreign, external limitation imposed upon the original nationalist sentiment in the interest of taming it. There is nothing bad about such a combination—anti-trust laws do the same thing, limiting natural greed by the requirements of minimal fairness—but it does seem to be less typical of nationalism than the pure, radical variety. Nationalism—like racism and sexism—is a form of partiality in matters cultural and political (in contradistinction to partiality in personal, private matters, usually associated with love, care for one’s family, and the like). Now, a strong, wholehearted partiality is more typical than a weak-kneed, moderate one. As already mentioned, it is the universalistic constraint that is a ‘foreign accretion’ in the pure heart of nationalism, which in itself is only a strong partiality for one’s (ethno-)nation. If this is true, our willingness to debate nationalism at length in its even-handed, more presentable variety, is something of a concession to the nationalist.


1 This is the point of MacIntyre’s defense of serious, anti-cosmopolitan patriotism.

2 In Le nationalisme français, ed. Girardet (Paris: Seuil, 1983), p. 55.

3 Quoted after Nicholas V. Ryazanovsky, ‘Prince N. S. Trubetzkoy’s Europe and Mankind, in Collected Writings (Los Angeles: Charles Schlacks, 1993), p. 118. Trubetzkoy’s general ideas about the nation were quoted with approval by the moderate A. Margalit. Trubetzkoy expressed the view that in the story of the Tower of Babel the Bible demonstrated a clear preference for the variety of languages and cultures over one language and culture. The fact that they had only one language and culture brought the tower builders to the boring emptiness that ended in the arrogant project of building the tower. In Trubetzkoy’s opinion, the “confounding of languages”—that is, the imposition of cultural variety—is not a curse or a punishment, but a solution to the problem of the sin that results from cultural homogeneity.

4 Contemporary Bulgaria, Serbia, and Croatia offer plenty of evidence of this practice.

5 None of these authors uses another term, such as ‘patriotism’, to denote a supposedly tamer kind; they just assume that any pro-national attitudes worthy of discussion are bound to be of the nasty variety.

© Central European University Press, 2001

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