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Nationalism and Beyond

Nenad Miscevic

Part Two. Identity, Culture, And Tradition

Chapter eighteen. Ultra-moderate nationalism

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1At this juncture we face the following risk. The authors we have been abundantly quoting as defenders of nationalism might collectively protest against such treatment. ‘Look’, they might say, ‘this is a misunderstanding or worse. When you talk about nationalism you mean a nasty, illiberal variety, and of course this variety is easy to refute. Our nationalism has nothing to do with such savage views: it is a liberal, even cosmopolitan nationalism, far from the savagery of Balkan nationalisms.’ Indeed, the nationalism we have discussed until now has been quite illiberal. These authors would, in a way, be right, and I have been apologizing all the way for lumping their arguments together with those of much tougher nationalists, who themselves offer no arguments whatsoever (although the philosophers in their more energetic moments come closer to the usual classical, but even-handed nationalism). They are also right about their views being more difficult to refute. They replace relatively radical nationalism with a very moderate variant, and, of course, moderate views are easier to defend, provided they are consistent. We now have to consider the nowadays popular attempt to mix elements of nationalism with elements of liberalism. This proposes a compromise between nationalism and liberalism which would preserve nationalist ideals within the liberal framework. Such a compromise might seem to combine the advantages of both— the more abstract moral appeal of liberalism and the emotional, identity-based appeal of nationalism—without bringing in the disadvantages of each. For less-developed countries suffering under the rule of illiberal nationalists, the compromise seems to promise a viable future: their citizens could retain the deep-rooted national values and struggle to establish a liberal political framework—acceptable to the developed countries—into which they could fit their nationalist ideals, purged of any ugly and invidious features. I shall take as my guide to such a compromise—and subsequently as the target of my (regrettably brief and sketchy) criticism—the excellent work of Yael Tamir (1993). Her attempt is marked by a rare mixture of intelligence, sincerity, and seriousness of purpose, and a better guide is difficult to imagine. I shall argue that, in the end, it probably fails, but I am convinced that her effort is the best that one can make in this direction. I shall also take into account other compatibilists, above all MacCormick (1992) and Miller (1995). Despite the initial appeal of the compatibilist proposal, I wish to suggest that liberalism and nationalism are not compatible.

2Remember that the distinguishing feature of liberalism is its emphasis on the moral autonomy of the individual. This goes hand in hand with the principled demand for the neutrality of institutional structures with regard to particular conceptions of the good, or, as some put it, the ‘exclusion of ideals’ concerning ways of life worth living. Its anthropological underpinning is the individualistic image of the self as the ultimate moral agent, and an equally individualistic image of social groups: group membership should ideally be self-chosen. Involuntary groups can derive legitimacy from the fiction of an idealized contract or consent. Now, the issues about conceptual compatibilities are notoriously difficult, especially in political philosophy, where concepts are rather flexible and open. A determined compatibilist can always try stretching and watering-down his or her two apparently incompatible concepts, with a fair chance of making the result look coherent.

3Consider briefly where the clash between liberalism and typical nationalism comes from. The typical, classical nationalist claims at least the following. There are ethnic-national values which are independent of the choice of individual members of the ethnic-national group, and nevertheless binding. The values generate obligations (duties) for members in respect of the values. In the narrowly political sphere the foremost value is the political autonomy of the community, normally described in terms of statehood. In the wider cultural sphere, it is the (alleged) intrinsic value of the national tradition. Ethno-national obligations trump most other obligations (the word ‘most’ is vague, but so is the concept of nationalism). Among the narrowly political obligations the paramount one is to create an autonomous political structure, most standardly an ethnic-national state. (In federal, multinational states the aspiration to a separate state is the stereotypical mark of nationalist parties in contrast to anti-nationalist, federalist parties.)

4Here is an example in which the priorities dictated by nationalism—the high standing of national value in culture— clearly clash with liberal values. In chapter three—on invidious nationalism—we mentioned that 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, wide of the mark, or, to put it nicely, ‘mythological’; secondly, they are invidious to actual neighbors, implying their baseness, cowardice, or lack of culture, and insist on the contrasting virtues of their own people; they also typically mention glorious victories over the 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 acquisitions to be restored. Classical nationalism takes such elements to be constitutive of the identity of the people in question. 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. 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 identity.

5Another illustration concerns the relation between the values of civic and of ethnic patriotism. Very schematically, for the classical nationalist the basic kind is ethnic patriotism: Lavinians should love their country because it is the Lavinian country. For the classical liberal, civic patriotism comes first. Now we should dig deeper, looking for the ground of moral and political justification. Here, the most salient contrast concerns the grounds of (alleged) rights and obligations. According to the nationalist, the obligation to promote national values derives from the (alleged normative) facts about collective tradition and collective identity, and consequently does not derive from, and is in principle not dependent upon, the actual judgments and preferences of individuals.

6The issue to be addressed now is: which of these features must be weakened, and to what extent, to fit nationalism into a liberal framework? Some features can be modified, some perhaps given up, but I assume that giving up all or most of the features would deprive the compromise of any legitimate aspiration to the title of ‘nationalism’. This point is important for daily politics. Just calling the compromise ‘nationalist’ will not fool sincere nationalists, nor win them over to the liberal side. A sincere and intelligent illiberal nationalist politician can easily point out the weak and—from his standpoint—almost treacherous aspects of the resulting compromise. It is at most a comfort to the as yet undecided, clothing their indecision in acceptable rhetoric.


  • 1 I shall have to be brief. I hope to enlarge upon each point on a later occasion. In particular, I (...)

7I shall describe the weakenings that have been proposed in the literature, and briefly suggest why each of them is essential from a liberal standpoint. Let me call the sought-after accommodation simply ‘the Compromise’.1

8Let me first set aside two obvious dead-ends, proposals that sometimes surface in discussions and are based on the views of nationalism I rejected at the outset. The first proposal builds upon the view that nationalism reduces to a pattern of behavior: if a liberal can recommend some behaviors usually recommended by the nationalist—for example, struggle for national independence—that already counts as a compromise. This is a non-starter: the coincidence of some aspects of behavior is not a valid indicator of the identity of reasons and motivations, and it is the latter that count. The second proposal is symmetrical with the first: it assumes that the inner, sentimental attitude is sufficient for nationalism, and paints a picture of a hybrid: a person who is nationalist by sentiment only and liberal by beliefs and practice. It founders on its inadequacy: if the sentiment is politically inert it falls out of the political debate; if it is not, the person depicted is either a dramatically divided soul or a hypocrite. I turn now to more promising proposals.

9The first weakening of classical nationalism on the road towards the compromise with liberalism concerns the force of the national claims. The liberal framework takes some values or obligations to be absolute: human rights are a case in point. Confronted with them, national claims lose their status as trumps. Moreover, the framework accords a high value to the contingent needs and interests of individuals, regardless of their membership of a particular (say, ethnic) group, which therefore may rightfully block nationalist aspirations. Tamir quotes with approval the advice given by Mazzini: if your deed favors your country but injures humanity, desist (Tamir, 1993, 115). In short, national claims are, within the Compromise, only compelling prima facie.

10A dramatic weakening awaits the paradigm nationalist claim to statehood. Tamir and other proponents express their satisfaction with much less than a state, say, with some political autonomy for a given cultural/national group. Contrast this with authors, from Weber to Gellner, who define nationalism as a statist ideology. It is hard to see what justifies the readiness to go on calling the weakened claim ‘nationalistic’. I will return to this point in the next section.

11Let me briefly mention ethno-national mythologies. How should our benevolent compatibilist—who sincerely wants to accommodate his or her nationalism within a liberal framework—go about accommodating their central role in the creation and sustaining of national identity? Many would-be liberal nationalist authors—such as Tamir, MacCormick, and, with reservations, Miller—tend to assume both that such mythologies are benign and that their falsehood is morally irrelevant. Miller draws a comparison between the mythological belief in a common origin and the false belief an adoptive child might have about being the biological child of his or her parents. The latter is morally at least neutral, although false, so why not the former? This is the best kind of compromise available: the nationalist soul of the Compromise cannot give up the very substance of the cultural tradition. Notice that this line says nothing about the less benign beliefs that may form part of national mythologies; we shall return to this in our criticism of the Compromise.

  • 2 To see how it works with a concrete example, compare Leydet (1992) on the Canadian situation.

12Consider now the status of ethno-national versus civic patriotism. The liberal framework dictates that we view the state instrumentally, as a means to a ‘comfortable life’, as one prominent liberal nationalist puts it (Nielsen, 1992, 171). But now the would-be liberal nationalist has a hard choice: what is he or she to recommend to his or her fellow patriots? Should they be loyal primarily to the liberal constitution, or to its contingent ethnic underpinning? Tamir’s case is dramatic and illustrative: what should a Jewish (would-be) liberal nationalist recommend to the citizens of her deeply divided country? Now, given the primacy of liberal values, it seems that the right choice is to subordinate ethnic patriotism to civic loyalty to the common constitution, the civic patriotism of the republican variety. This is precisely Tamir’s choice, which I applaud very much. Let me then summarize the political recommendation of the Compromise.2

13(1C) Ethno-national claims have only prima facie strength, and cannot trump other valves.

14(2C) Legitimate ethno-national claims do not in themselves amount to the right to have a state. (In Tamir’s version they mostly reach the level of cultural autonomy.)

15(3C) Ethno-national patriotism is subordinate to civic patriotism, which has little or nothing to do with ethnic criteria.

16(4C) Ethno-national mythologies are to be tolerated only if benign and inoffensive, being thereby morally permissible in spite of their falsity.

17(5C) Any legitimacy ethno-national claims have derives from the choice of the individuals concerned. (In Tamir’s version, the only relevant right that is explicitly guaranteed is the individual’s right to take some permissible ethno-nationalist obligation upon himself, and any obligation thus generated will be a freely assumed one.)

18This ends the brief presentation of the Compromise.


19We have now reached the most difficult question: To what extent is the Compromise still nationalist? If it is not, is the very idea of ‘liberal nationalism’ coherent at all? Given the vagueness of political concepts, the dispute might appear merely verbal. After all, why not grant to the Compromise the epithets ‘liberal’ and ‘nationalistic’? Well, there are limits: one cannot steer completely away from classical nationalism, the paradigm instance of the concept, and still be nationalist, otherwise the concept becomes emptied altogether. Given the difficulty of adjudicating in such delicate conceptual—and political—matters, I propose only to take some initial steps: I shall try to show that the negative answer is at least prima facie the most plausible one, but I have to leave the detailed defense for another occasion.

20Let us start with a relatively easy matter. Our would-be liberal nationalists assume—by (3C)—that national mythologies are benign falsehoods, to be easily integrated into a liberal ideology. But we have shown in chapter three on invidious nationalism that they are 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: false mythologies show their bite in many actual situations, for example, when historians begin to discover their falsehood. The problem for the would-be liberal nationalist is then to formulate principles that would condemn such practices, while at the same time allowing the moral centrality of community values (which include an appeal to the constitutive myths). I do not see how this could be done.

21Let me now remind the reader that the five theses comprising the Compromise are a far cry from any of the central cases of nationalism. To start with more practical considerations, (1C) deprives the Compromise of clear-cut answers to burning political questions. Whereas classical nationalism told one where one should put one’s heart, the Compromise claims only that ethno-nationalist interest is one legitimate interest among many. No clear guide to action is thereby given. Furthermore, the Compromiser who (by 2C) gives up the right to a sovereign ethnic state certainly falls out of the prototype of a nationalist.

22Notice that the problem arises from the principled source: as mentioned, the contrast between the prima facie and the ultimate, trump-like status of national claims is politically the most salient divide between classical and would-be liberal nationalism. If the nationalist also proposes to purge national mythologies of elements offensive to liberal tastes—to minorities, members of neighboring ethnic groups, possibly to women, to mention the most salient recipients—he or she will be left with little to substantiate his or her allegiance to specific ethno-national traditions. (Not to mention the fact that the whole idea of condoning false beliefs for their identity-building function is logically and pragmatically fishy. One wonders whether the Compromiser believes in the mythology. If yes, he or she cannot admit that it is false. If not, and he or she nevertheless manages to preserve his or her ethno-national identity, then mythology is not necessary for identity; why then insist that others should be left with their illusions for the sake of preserving their identity?)

23Furthermore (concerning thesis [5C]), the permission the Compromiser grants one to take on some ethnically oriented obligation is not in itself nationalist. It is like the permission a tolerant lawgiver gives to members of some religious group; if they want to take special burdens upon themselves they are free to do so. The Compromiser is thereby as little committed to nationalism as the tolerant lawgiver is committed to endorsing the religion he tolerates.

24Now, add together all these features—deriving from (1C) to (5C)—and consult your intuition: is there anything left worthy of being considered nationalist? I am inclined to answer in the negative.

25The following objection is sometimes raised: if the Compromise is geared primarily to ‘cultural’ nationalism, could it not preserve both its aspects by judiciously assigning them to separate domains: liberalism in the political domain, nationalism in the cultural one? It is here that the strictures against the indiscriminate use of the term ‘cultural nationalism’ apply. A classical nationalist in culture is as much committed to the primacy of the national as the classical nationalist in politics is: like Flavia from our fictional example (see chapter two), he or she recommends Lavinian works primarily because they are Lavinian, not for their aesthetic merit. (The phrase ‘the value of a particular culture’ is ambiguous between a universalist and an indexical reading and our objector ultimately trades on this ambiguity.) The Compromiser should decide whether to go along with Flavia or not. If he or she does, that will clash with a liberal attitude about artistic tastes. If he or she does not, he or she can recommend the native tradition either for its intrinsic merit—in which case purely national considerations are out—or can merely condone the preferences for the native, in which case he or she is merely tolerant and his or her moral and aesthetic attitude is no different from that of some benevolent stranger.

26Let me now pass to the fundamental philosophical issue. What is the ultimate ground of these (weakly) pro-national permissions and rights granted by the Compromise? Is it their intrinsic nation-related quality; the fact that they are related to alleged ethno-national values? That would be the ground endorsed and applauded by the nationalist. Or is it rather the fact that granting the rights satisfies the legitimate preferences of the individuals in question? It is this latter suggestion that the Compromiser puts forward. Moreover, he or she assumes that the preferences are legitimate mainly because they are, first, held by individuals and, secondly, centrally and deeply important for those individuals. The obligations people assume on the basis of these rights are binding because they are assumed by individuals, not vice versa. Their ultimate ground is the value of “the activist and participative character of full autonomy” (MacCormick, 1991, 15), where ‘autonomy’ refers ultimately to the autonomous liberty of the individual. In this way liberals and nationalists can locally come close in practice; in an ethnically homogeneous, highly civilized community (like French-speaking Canada), along lines that are by now familiar, the democratically formed constitution forcefully promotes national values with the consensus of the vast majority, whereby the rights and interests of the minority are protected. The liberal would accept such a constitution on liberal grounds since it enshrines the values that most of the individuals concerned would subscribe to, and protects the values of the dissenting minority. The nationalist would endorse it on his or her own distinctive grounds, that is, since it gives voice to precisely those values he or she finds binding (and he or she would excuse the concessions to non-nationals on pragmatic—their not being threatening to national interests—or other non-principled grounds). The two kinds of grounds, however, remain distinct and, in my view at least, clearly contrasted.

27I conclude provisionally that liberalism and ethno-nationalism—as global political frameworks and global programs— seem to be fundamentally opposed and irreconcilable. It is not the accidental ‘excesses’ of nationalism that appear to be responsible for the clash, but the very scaffolding of its fundamental ideas. This was the traditional view of the liberal critics of ethno-nationalism, and I can find no convincing arguments to the contrary. I am aware that my sample of liberal nationalist proposals has been rather narrow—although composed of items of very high quality—and my discussion of it all too sketchy. But I hope I have not been unjust or invidious towards the nationalist (even a most benevolent one), and that I have only reconstructed and explicated the assumptions he or she is conceptually committed to. To reiterate, I explicitly endorse and defend the weaker thesis that the reasons proposed in favor of compatibilism are not clinching enough to overthrow the traditional incompatibilist views, and I am tempted to recommend also the stronger thesis—which would need a lot more arguing for—that liberalism and nationalism are in fact incompatible.


1 I shall have to be brief. I hope to enlarge upon each point on a later occasion. In particular, I regret that I cannot do full justice here to Tamir’s rich and sophisticated argumentation.

2 To see how it works with a concrete example, compare Leydet (1992) on the Canadian situation.

© Central European University Press, 2001

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