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Nationalism and Beyond

Nenad Miscevic

Part One. Nationalism as a political program

Chapter six. The right to self-defense

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1Since the most plausible ground for the exercise of a group’s right to self-determination is a direct threat to it, let us focus upon that. Indeed, the most powerful pro-nationalist argument in favor of the right to self-determination and secession is the one from the right to self-defense, which has won the hearts of millions of people all around the world. Some prominent writers, from M. Weber to M. Walzer, have even tried to define a nation in terms of its willingness to struggle, of a commitment to independence (Walzer, 1985). In using it, the nationalist appeals to the plight of stateless and oppressed ethno-national groups, such as the Albanians of Kosovo. Here the survival of the group is literally the condition of survival of many of its members.

2Let us therefore return to our Lavinian model. Remember that within the Empire (see chapter five) Lavinians had been relatively discriminated against. Imagine that they have resented what they saw as discrimination, and that their leading public figures have started to resist the exclusive use of Carpathian, and at the same time to demand more authority for the Lavinian political sub-unit. A few of them have been arrested, massive public demonstrations followed, the imperial police reacted with force, and very soon sparks of violence started spreading over Lavinian territory. At that point, Lavinian intellectuals started talking of the need for self-defense. We might as well let our fictional hero, John, take the floor:

Let me give you the general line on the issue. The world is a nasty place for a people to live in if it doesn’t have its own state: throughout history, ethno-cultural communities with no state to protect their members and foster their culture have been the victims of those who had one. Consider stateless nations in our contemporary world. Jews were victimized before creating their own national state. Kurds and most Armenians are still stateless, and look at the consequences! In situations of the kind facing the Kurds practically all members of the community would demand the right to create a nation-state; and most liberally minded people would agree to their demands.
We should therefore distinguish between the active, provoking nationalism of the oppressors and the reactive, self-defensive nationalism of the oppressed. The latter have a right to self-defense; and the collective right to it is grounded in the immediate, clear danger to each individual just because he or she is a member of an oppressed group. Reactive nationalism offers the only solution, and not a bad one at that. Let me illustrate the point with one more example. One often defends the expression of particularistic attitudes—say, Black and Aboriginal pride in contrast to white supremacy, and feminist pride about being a woman in contrast with macho pride. Appeals to racial solidarity are not always condemned, and can sometimes be morally praiseworthy. If a black leader—call him Mohammed X—declares: “I am black and I am proud, and my wife is black and I am proud to have a black wife” most liberals would hardly find such a statement objectionable, and many will value it. Some defenders propose that this is grounded on a shared history of a kind that makes partiality morally appropriate—namely, a shared history of suffering evil because of one’s racial belonging (Hurka, 1997, 152). The same applies to membership of a persecuted ethno-national community. Let me also point out that the victims of discrimination on ethnic grounds often find it especially insulting and demeaning; a criticism on the grounds of one’s looks, or tastes, or various convictions is often less resented than a derogatory remark about one’s ethnic origin. The right to defend oneself should be proportionate to the strength of the offense or threat, including the degree of subjective hurtfulness of the offense. In short, nationalist attitudes are justified in such situations in the same way racial pride and a feminist stance are.
The same kind of reasoning is valid, with slightly changed parameters, in the case of more distant threats, like those involved in globalization. Given that the threat is not so dramatic as in the case of immediate persecution, our reaction should be proportionately calmer, but no less firm for all that. Globalization threatens the survival of national communities and therefore has to be fought by the arms forged in more traditional episodes of defense “against the envy of less happier lands” (as Shakespeare put it in John of Gaunt’s praise of England, Richard II 2.1.49). Isolationism above all is a good antidote to globalization, coupled with a reaffirmation of the sense of national identity. These general considerations are equally valid in particular areas. Take the most essential ingredient of a people’s culture, its language. It has to be defended against threats of all sorts and defended by administrative means. To summarize, a reactive nationalism is the only relevant answer to the real threats posed to a given community by inimical surroundings, threats with which the contemporary scene abounds.
Reactive nationalism is justified since it prevents impending injustices and secures the future of the oppressed group. Analogously, one could justify the nationalist reaction against past injustice. Consider the Baltic states, which were occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union, and subjected to forced Russification. The injustice that has been committed cannot be undone by any other means than their secession; indeed, this point was conceded by the international community when these countries did secede. In short, there are cases in which the establishment of a nation-state is the only way to redress a past injustice and ensure a viable future for an ethno-national community. Also, given the permanent threat from their neighbors, it might be the case that a measure of external isolationism and internal homogenizing is the only answer. In such cases nationalism offers the best, nay, the only solution.


3Let us grant the nationalist that his argument indeed sounds persuasive, at least in dramatic cases. Confronted with the suffering of persecuted communities many of us feel it imperative that people from such communities should be protected, that communities themselves should be preserved as well, and that the most expedient way to do it is to grant them the right to secession and to full sovereignly. Similarly, confronted with the hidden threat of domination implicit in globalization, one feels the pull of isolationism, indeed a moral pull. The most severe critics of nationalism agree that self-defense justifies secession. In their view, the nationalist claims of the members of an ethnic group are prima facie justified on the non-nationalistic grounds of general equality and fairness, when the members are being systematically disadvantaged because they belong to the group. Here is a typical view listing the conditions on which the argument for secession from cultural preservation can be successful:

(1) The culture in question must in fact be imperiled. (2) Less disruptive ways of preserving the culture (e.g., special minority group rights within the existing state) must be unavailable or inadequate. (3) The culture in question must meet minimal standards of justice (unlike Nazi culture or the culture of the Red Khmers). (4) The seceding cultural group must not be seeking independence in order to establish an illiberal state, that is, one which fails to uphold basic individual civil and political rights, and from which free exit is denied. (5) Neither the state nor any third party can have a valid claim to the seceding territory. (Buchanan, 1995, 364)

4I more or less agree with this diagnosis. Note, however, that the nationalist’s proposed recipe, no matter how noble its rhetoric sounds, is to cure nationalism with more nationalism. It is reminiscent of homeopathic medicine, so I shall call it the Homeopathic Strategy. Not all homeopathic cures are bad: Alexis de Tocqueville has famously shown that evils produced by granting certain freedoms to people can be cured by allowing more freedoms, that the egoism of one group is often successfully blocked by the egoism of another, and so on, with all kinds of checks and balances. We have therefore to assess the particular strategy on its own merits. It is indeed obviously valid in the most dramatic cases, in which no other cure is available, that is, when the members of the group are physically threatened. If the life or basic well-being of each particular Lavinian is at risk just because he or she is a Lavinian, and there is no way one can negotiate a solution with those who threaten them, one feels that secession is in order.

  • 1 Consider a parallel case of immigrant minorities and estrangement due to their imposed, unwilled i (...)

5However, let us consider where the obviousness comes from. One source is certainly the fact that the basic and universal rights of, for example, each individual Kurd are at stake, merely because he or she belongs to a given community. For many people this is the strongest source of the feeling that any viable solution, including the secessionist one, is better than the status quo. A second source is the feeling that injustice has been perpetrated against individual Kurds and that redress is in order. This second source again has little to do with the value of a national community as such; it is rather rooted in universalistic considerations. If these two sources were to dry up, not much justification would be left. Indeed, if—as is rather improbable—the threatening larger state(s) were to credibly withdraw the threat, grant Kurds a degree of autonomy, make considerable amends (including solemn repentance by the head of state), would not the case for Kurdish secession be drastically diminished? Abbas Vali, of the University of Wales, a prominent commentator on the Kurdish problem, claims that the very roots of the problem lie with the nationalism of others: “Kurdish nationalism and Kurdish national identity are products of modernity, following the emergence of centralized territorial states in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. The Kemalist state in Turkey and the Pahlavi state in Iran legitimized the violent processes of territorial centralization” [Vali, 1996, 26]. Indeed, what would remain from this case would certainly have more to do with a feeling that past injustices cannot be so easily forgotten than any other independent source.1

6This small imaginative experiment points to three principled weaknesses of the Homeopathic Strategy as a means of defending nationalist claims. The first weakness is that its main source of persuasiveness has nothing to do with an ethno-national community as such; its appeal rests to a large extent upon our solidarity with persecuted individuals, whose individual universal rights have been put in jeopardy. This strategy works only when the protection of such rights happens to coincide with the protection of an ethno-national community as a whole. In practice, one will have to distinguish at least between traditional nation-states which might either wish to continue as they are or to renounce a part of their sovereignty to transnational bodies (UK, France, and Germany in relation to the EU), relatively new nation-states (Slovenia, Croatia), aspiring groups (Kurds) which are in dire need, and less urgent potential candidates (Flamands, Quebecois, Basques). Given the urgency of the Kurdish-type situation, one would do well to heed the demands of the oppressed for security and survival by whatever means; there is no time to work out sophisticated alternatives. For every other type a search is in order, without guarantee that a single solution, including the nationalist one, would be best for all. Similarly with more particular dangers or alleged dangers, for example, the disappearance of a minority language provoked by spontaneous defection of the speakers, who opt for the majority language for reasons of convenience. Here the mere fact that the survival of a trait (a language) is in danger tells us nothing about the required course of action, unless supplemented by an argument showing that the trait is more valuable than respect for the will of the individual defectors (those who do not care about speaking the particular language any more). Such arguments have of course been offered by nationalists, and we shall discuss them in the second part of the book.

7The second weakness is that the Homeopathic Strategy presupposes the availability of situations in which the nationalism of the threatened group is justified by the attitude of the threatening one. The usual source of threat is the active nationalism on the opposite side. Separatist reactive nationalisms of small nations are justified in the teeth of the unifying active nationalism of big ones. Even in cases in which active nationalism is not the only agent, it is nevertheless prominent: much of the fear of globalization derives from the suspicion that particular peoples and states—for instance, the United States—are the real winners in the game. This dependence on active nationalism is the sore point of the strategy: it implies that the main reason why we need (reactive) nationalism for the oppressed is that there is already some (active) nationalism there, namely that of the oppressors.

8This brings us to the issue of justifying reactive attitudes in general. Compare our imagined statement by Mohammed X to the statement actually given to the press by the late Croatian president Tudjman a decade ago: “Thank God that my wife is not a Serbian or a Jew!” (with the implicit addendum: “but a Croat”). This statement seems unpardonable. Our moral intuitions speak in favor of Mohammed X and against Tudjman. Why? Some defenders propose that it is “a shared history of a kind that makes partiality morally appropriate—namely, a shared history of suffering evil because of one’s racial membership” (Hurka, 1997, 152). This is only partly correct. No amount of past Croat suffering justifies Tudjman’s gaffe. Not only that, but a similar statement by Mohammed X (say, “Thank God that both I and my wife are black and not goddam gooks!”) would be equally condemnable. No past of racial oppression can justify this statement.

9We need a different tack. Here is a proposal: when hearing Mohammed X’s statement we spontaneously relativize its meaning to the context of oppression and inferiority. The relevant contrast assumed is between oppressed and downgraded blacks and privileged whites. Moreover, the pride statement is acceptable only as long as there is either a situation of inequality present, or its traces—fresh memories, feelings of injustice, hurt dignity—are still quite painfully active. This suggests that racial or national pride is ‘remedial’, that is, it is not justified outside a particular context of iniquitous asymmetry: no context-free value should be attached to it. (To put the simple point in philosophical jargon, it seems that intuitive judgments concerning the moral justification of verbal and other actions are tied to an implicit context of an assumed [imagined] scenario which in turn determines the relevant contrast class.)

10The opponent of nationalism is now free to point out two things: first, even in situations of acute suffering the ‘homeopathic cure’ may not work. Take Bosnia, where each separatism is justified with the nationalism of the other groups. The practical risk is obvious and well known: given the omnipresence of internal minorities (the ‘Russian doll’ phenomenon) the nationalism of the oppressed threatens to become as ugly as that of the oppressors: they in their turn thwart their internal minorities. Such therapy often resembles drastic chemotherapy that extirpates the cancer by destroying the organism itself.

11Secondly, and more importantly, in view of the risks of the Homeopathic Strategy the opponent may now propose that prevention is better than cure: if ugly active nationalism demands more nationalism, potentially equally ugly, to effect a cure, would it not be better to prevent the outbursts of active, initiating nationalism in the first place? Take the recent dramatic ethnic conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. Serbs and Croats in that state were extremely close neighbors, sharing the state, internal minorities, a lot of mixed families and individuals of mixed origin, with strong interactional ties at all levels, from global transportation highways to close collaboration in the business sphere. For three hundred years the Serbs of Krajina defended Croatian territory from Ottoman conquerors (in the service of the Habsburg Monarchy or the Venetian Republic). Culturally, the two peoples were extremely close, sharing (what is linguistically one) language, customs (including folk songs, traditions, superstitions), moral values as documented in literature, art, cinema, folk traditions, and a lot of high culture. The main difference was denominational, and that in a predominantly atheist society. Any recognizable civic community in the territory claimed by one ethnic nation would include a considerable number of the members of the other.

  • 2 Note also that even when the conflict was well on its way, the nationalist leaders at all levels o (...)

12Looking at the beginning of the recent conflict, once Milosevic opted for nationalist policies, the natural reaction was self-defense precisely along nationalist lines. But would it not have been better if the international community had checked the initial outbursts of Serbian nationalism? Remember the initial Serbian oppression of Kosovo Albanians in the 1980s. It gave force to both Serbian and Albanian nationalism, and a new plausibility to the initially dormant nationalistic separatism in the western part of Yugoslavia. Timely international pressure might have closed the nationalist option for Serbia, thereby also undercutting the reactive separatist claims of other Yugoslav ethno-nations. That would have been much better than waiting for a bloody, but ‘homeopathic’ nationalist solution of the equally bloody problem. Again, once the NATO bombing gave a chance to the Kosovar Albanians to establish the rudiments of the state, their first victims were members of the local Serbian minority, and the next were the local Roma. In short, the best route is not to acquiesce in the ongoing process of nationalist redress of nationalist wrongs, but to block the nationalist offensive before an equally nationalist defense becomes the only viable way. (The international and domestic outcry against Heider in Austria seems to me a good example of preventive action with a chance of success. It would be interesting to investigate why the public has reacted in time on this occasion. A somewhat pessimistic guess is that what is needed is a real and detailed similarity to a clearly recognizable paradigm of evil, namely Hitler: the same country, with the participation of actual ex-Nazi sympathizers, plus Haider’s explicit pro-Nazi statements. It seems that almost nothing short of this will seriously alarm the general public in time, before actual conflicts and massacres take place. In the case of Milosevic, on the contrary, the clear stereo- or prototypical signs of dangers were absent, and the West took its time to make the right decision.)2

13To mention less extreme cases, outbursts of minority demands for separation are not spontaneous expressions of a permanent and natural yearning, but most often the result of the failure of the majority to provide genuinely equal conditions for the members of the minority. In short, the failure of the Homeopathic Strategy should make us wary: even if we accept the right to secession and the creation of nation-states as a remedy for the time being, we should not accept the nation-state and the centrality of ethno-national culture as lasting best solutions. They generate new diseases, which then have to be cured with even more nationalism. What is the positive, constructive moral to be drawn from this discussion? Here is a proposal: we have seen that the basic intuitions in favor of according a distinct national state to persecuted communities derive from the non-nationalist, universalistic feeling that acute injustice is being done to individuals because of their belonging to the community. This kind of justification is not only not specifically nationalist, but it rests upon a strong sense of universal rights which is rather foreign to the original nationalist motivation. A similar kind of universalistic feeling, together with plain common sense, suggest that preventing nationalist excesses is preferable to curing them with more nationalism. But the prevention of active, aggressive nationalist outbursts should itself take place along non-nationalist lines: the fostering of understanding between ethnically and culturally diverse groups. After all, in most contemporary states ordinary people of different ethnic backgrounds live together, interact rather closely and occasionally intensely without spontaneously and insistently demanding to be separated. As already mentioned, this is evidence against the nationalist claim that normal life is impossible unless one is a member of one’s own national state. We should assume that people are ‘voting with their feet’ by staying together, in contrast to the isolationism implicit in a lot of pro-nationalist literature. Such cohabitation diminishes the natural fear and suspicion of what is ‘foreign’ to one. Fear and suspicion are the prime movers of mutual distrust. Also, it teaches individuals to recognize their common humanity under the guise of variation and difference; recognition that is itself of intrinsic moral value. The very fact of cohabitation is a good to be upheld, so the state should secure a stable and enduring framework for it. We shall return to this constructive picture at the close of part one.


1 Consider a parallel case of immigrant minorities and estrangement due to their imposed, unwilled isolation. Take working-class Arabs or Pakistanis in France or Great Britain. A young Arab woman living in Paris or London has little to gain by identifying herself with Muslim fundamentalist and extremist movements: she would hardly live a decent life by her own standards if such movements were in power. Any sympathy for the movements she might have is more probably due to utter estrangement in France, the feeling of being rejected by the core French society, than to any deep religious or identity-oriented need. The same seems to hold for Turkish youths in Germany, who feel permanently denied the chance of becoming socially equal members of the dominant society and respond to rejection by rejecting its values in turn.

2 Note also that even when the conflict was well on its way, the nationalist leaders at all levels of the hierarchy had to make a lot of effort to prevent peaceful solutions being imposed on the ordinary people involved in the conflict. Many conscripted soldiers—on all sides—were not willing to go all the way, not to speak of volunteers who lost their enthusiasm once they were sent outside their immediate home area: they had to be forced to participate in massacres or in torture in order to make it impossible for them to pull out once their initial motivation was gone. The ‘manipulation of future preferences’ (as the strategy is known in the specialist literature) has been happening at the highest level of state decision making as well: the Croatian Parliament has passed an act forbidding future leaders to enter into any kind of cooperation agreements with Balkan states, no matter how useful they might be, that involve the creation of supra-national communities on the model of the European Union.

© Central European University Press, 2001

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