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Nationalism and Beyond

Nenad Miscevic

Part One. Nationalism as a political program

Chapter four. The even-handed nationalist: summarizing the argument

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1The lesson from the previous chapter is clear: there is not much to debate with Eric the Lavinian, our convinced invidious nationalist. The best one can do by way of rational argument is to appeal to his ordinary sense of justice, and to try to make him understand that the usual principles of fairness valid for individuals also hold for groups. Things stand differently with the nationalist who is ready to universalize his advice and give it in an impartial fashion to all peoples, the one we have called the ‘even-handed nationalist’ and personified as John the Lavinian, Eric’s fictional co-national. In the opinion of such a nationalist, every human being ought to be specially loyal to his or her co-nationals, and this requires that every human being believes that his or her community is better than the others (as proposed, for instance, by prominent American pro-nationalist A. Oldenquist, 1982, 191). This readiness to extend the nationalist claims to each and every people makes the view fit for serious moral debate. The possibility of such a debate presupposes only agreement about the minimal common principle, in this case the universality of rights and duties: what is valid for one nation in virtue of being a nation must be valid for all, barring weighty reasons for special treatment. The even-handed nationalist remains radical about the internal working of the national community and its state; he is ‘moderate’ only in the sense of projecting his radical views upon each and every national community. Let me remind the reader once again of the basic claims that our nationalist is supposed to defend, to the effect that the preservation of a given ethno-national culture—in a relatively pure state—is a goal independent of the will of the members of the culture, and ought to be assured by adequate means. The community therefore has to assume the political form of a full sovereign, ethno-national state. Once a national state has been formed, and the dominant ethnic community has established itself as its ‘rightful owner’, it has to guard its full sovereignty. It has a duty to promote the ethno-national culture of its owners; this duty is taken to have the value of a trump and to override considerations of both individual interest (most dramatically with the demand that an individual should die for his or her fatherland if necessary) and of pragmatic collective utility.

2Why do these claims require a defense? For one thing, many sociologists claim that nations are ‘imagined’ or ‘constructed’ communities (Anderson, 1991), and some thoughtful nationalist philosophers tend to agree (Miller, 1995). In ordinary life people do not think one has special obligations towards people whom one merely imagines to be one’s relatives or friends. (Once you discover that your self-proclaimed nephew is in fact not a relative of yours, you also discover you do not have any kind of responsibility towards him.) To the extent that nations are imaginary the alleged obligations they would impose also seem to be merely imagined or constructed. This is just a beginning.

3Even if nations are not merely imagined communities, their demands appear to clash—some in principle, some under normal circumstances—with various values that people tend to accept. Some of these values are considered essential to liberal-democratic societies, while others are important for the flourishing of culture and creativity. The main values in the first group are autonomy and benevolent impartiality. To start with the latter, impartiality demands equal moral concern and respect—at least in morally central matters—for each human being. Of course, exceptions can be made, but the burden is on those who demand special treatment. As Oldenquist puts it, nationalism is a ‘group egoism’: as a group egoist I prize what benefits what is mine—my family, workplace, ethnic group, country, and species. Consequently, group egoism, unlike egoism proper, is social because what is mine can also be yours and therefore ours (Oldenquist, 1997). Nationalism naturally demands partiality, so it should defend its claims against impartiality. Furthermore, special duties towards one’s ethno-national culture can—and often do—interfere with one’s right to autonomy (if I want to become a Buddhist, the only one in my community where the preponderant religion is a completely different one, I should be granted the right to do so, and not thought to violate some special duty to the community). If these duties are construed very strictly they can interfere with other individual rights, for example, the right to privacy. In contrast, the contemporary moral sensibility favors individualism as the basis of morality and politics. Political liberalism bears testimony to this, but there is also more palpable evidence in favor of it. In many areas of social life the freedom to choose one’s identification and belonging is seen as a sacrosanct right. Not only the choice of partner, but also those of profession, confessional and political persuasion, and belonging are in principle a matter of free decision.

  • 1 Personal communication.

4An additional point can be made using the example of an important area of non-voluntary belonging, such as gender. One is born male or female, and this belonging is largely non-voluntary. However, some people in contemporary Western cultures think that this biologically determined belonging needs social remodeling. This is sometimes captured in terms of the distinction between sex, which is merely biological, and gender, which is seen as a matter of social belonging. As Thomas Simon puts it,1 the assumption that gender is a ‘natural kind’ has been questioned. Gender-specific roles and behaviors associated with sexuality are seen by some as being in need of a radical rearrangement in the interest of equality and freedom of choice. The givens of sexual identity and the ‘almost givens’ of gender identity are being questioned in the name of freely assumed roles and freely chosen belonging. But if such a general and heavily influential belonging as that of sexuality is being questioned in the name of individual rights, it seems that less general and influential memberships should be capable of remodeling in the light of individual needs and wishes.

5We have placed in the first group of values autonomy and impartiality. The values in the second group prominently include unconstrained creativity: telling writers or musicians or philosophers that they have a special duty to promote the national heritage interferes with the freedom of creation. (Of course, they should have the right to promote their national heritage, but the issue here is whether they have a duty to do so.) Another value is diversity, which we will discuss at length in part two.

6Between these two groups are the values that seem to arise from the needs of people living under ordinary circumstances. Under normal circumstances, in many modern states citizens of different ethnic backgrounds live together, and very often value this kind of life. (If you need a vivid illustration, remember that the winning French football team at the World Cup in 1998 was multicultural indeed, with the Arab Zidane as the star: even President Chirac praised its ethnic pluralism!) Politically, the original nation-centered model of the ethno-national state has undergone significant changes. In the first stage, in most parts of the Western world, it has been replaced by the so-called national state that is only weakly beholden to its ethnic origin, if at all. Contemporary liberal democracies are not run on ethnic principles, despite the fact that the official language in most of them is the language of its ethno-cultural majority. As W. Kymlicka puts it in his recent work, they are national only in a very ‘thin’ sense of linguistic dominance; their political specificities are a matter of institutional arrangements and not of ethnic culture. Even this weakly or thinly ‘national’ state is being questioned by the realities of both international cooperation and sub-state communities. This very fact of cohabitation seems to be a good that should be upheld, and a means of conflict prevention, something nationalism is not very good at.

7Nationalist claims need a strong defense in order to pass the moral test. Note that one cannot defend them just on the basis of mere attachment to one’s community or the nationalist (or patriotic) sentiment of love of one’s people and country. Of course, if such a sentiment is not coupled with hatred toward others, it is morally in the clear (I shall later argue that it would be better if it were tempered with more general cosmopolitan leanings, but in itself it is certainly morally permissible). However, one’s sentiment does not justify the demand that others should share it, that is, that it should be a norm for all members of the community (‘Lavinia, love it or leave it!’). It certainly does not even come near to justifying the demand for a specific state-organization which should transform mere attachment into a politically organized form of life. Note that nationalism is rather demanding, so that its defense requires a lot of argumentation.

8Thoughtful pro-nationalist writers have put forward several lines of thought in defense of such nationalism. They form the main topic of this book. Of course, each proposed line of thought allows for a very wide range of variation and in the literature is often combined—or rather entangled—with others, sometimes in a single paragraph or even a phrase; I shall insist upon isolating the main lines of thought and treat each such line as a single argument, so that the debate becomes more perspicuous. I beg the reader to retain in mind the rather protean nature of their incarnations. I shall also quote the extant literature to give readers who might not have looked at all the material a feeling of what these lines of thought look like ‘in the wild’. I hasten to add that not all the writers whom I quote endorse all the nationalist claims, at least not in the form presented at the beginning of this chapter. Some replace the desideratum of the full sovereignty of the state with a weaker demand for some kind of political autonomy; others weaken the demand for purity of national culture to the claim that it should be preserved in a ‘recognizable form’. (I shall say more about these weaker variants in chapter eight on so-called liberal nationalism.) Worst of all, many nationalist writers—especially in the heat of political debate, where their rhetoric is at its most effective—oscillate, freely and without warning, between weak and strong varieties, which makes discussion more involved than it should be. Our even-handed nationalist is an ‘ideal type’, not to be identified with any of the authors quoted.


  • 2 I am following the lead of Judith Lichtenberg in her contribution to McKim and McMahon (1997). Her (...)

9In this chapter I shall briefly systematize the proposed lines of thought, leaving room for many simplifications.2 I hope that simplifying and therefore more orderly expositions will not only make the issue clearer, but also help the reader who is not a professional philosopher, but who wants to find his or her way in the creative jungle of the literature. In subsequent chapters I discuss and criticize the proposed lines of thought in the hope of showing that they are ultimately not valid. I divide them roughly into two groups. The arguments in the first group appeal to (actual or alleged) circumstances which supposedly make nationalistic policies reasonable (or permissible or even mandatory), such as the fact that a large part of the contemporary world is organized in nation-states, so that each new aspiring nationalistic group is following an established pattern, or, to take a more special case, the circumstances of group self-defense or the redress of past injustice. Let me give each a name, and present a brief summary.

10The first group is geared to more narrowly political (and moral) considerations.

111. The argument from (the right to) self-determination. A group of people of sufficient size has a prima facie right to govern iteself, and decide about future membership, if the members of the group so wish. It is fundamentally the democratic will of the members themselves that grounds the right to an ethno-national state and to ethno-centric cultural institutions and practices. The argument presents the justification of (ethno-) national claims as deriving from the will of the members of the nation. (It is not very suitable for those typical nationalists, who see the demands of the nation as being independent of choices of individuals, and prior to them.)

122. The argument from the right to self-defense and to the redress of past injustices. If the Lavinians are oppressed by the Tribals so that every Lavinian is worse off than most Tribals, simply in virtue of being Lavinian, then the Lavinian nationalist claims—directed to the preservation of Lavinian identity through the acquisition of political autonomy or even sovereignty, and the creation of Lavinian-centered cultural life—are morally plausible, even compelling. In this context M. Walzer rightly insists upon the role of the state in offering security to its citizens, and points out that any imaginable successor to the national state will have to do the same. For all state-like entities

must guarantee the physical and cultural survival of their members. It is not because of some historical misunderstanding that Jews, Armenians, Palestinians, Kurds, Estonians, and Tibetans lay claim to and even fight for sovereign statehood. And once any of these peoples (or others like them) join a state, its purposes are bound to be the same as those of the preceding national movement: to assure the survival of this group of men and women and to foster and reproduce its cultural life. (Walzer, 1995a, 247)

13The examples he gives, Jews, Armenians and the rest, are prime examples of groups of people whose members have been denied elementary human rights because of their ethnic belonging. Of course, every decent state must “guarantee the physical and cultural survival of its members” (if ‘cultural survival’ means that the members will at least be left alone and not be interfered with in their cultural pursuits). In the case of these unfortunate peoples, the struggle for a state coincides with the struggle for a minimally decent life. Groups that are on the defensive tend to have our moral sympathies. Their claims, even when strongly partial, are evaluated by us, the onlookers, in the context of the unmerited inequality, and thereby made acceptable.

143. The argument from success. The nation-state has been successful in the past, promoting equality and democracy. It also promises to be essential for the moral life of communities in the future since it is the only political form capable of protecting communities from the threats of globalization and assimilationism. End of first group.

15The arguments in the second group defend the assumption that national communities have a high value (often a value that is non-instrumental, that is, not a means for some independent, valued end), independently of the wishes and choices of their individual members. They also depict the community as the source or the unique transmission device that connects members to these values. In particular, the nationalist tries to establish that the (ethno-) national state and institutionally protected (ethno-) national culture is a good independent of the individual will of the members. (In terms of the communitarianism/individualism divide that separates philosophers who write about the nation, they all thus belong to the communitarian side.) Let me illustrate the general tenor of the group with a quote from Oldenquist:

This talk about non-instrumental value is intended to characterize how a majority of thoughtful people already regard tribes and cultures, namely that they do not think of them solely in cost-benefit terms and prefer not to see their total assimilation. And thinking this way can lead one to see merit in independence when the people themselves want it. This is because independence is seen as both a safeguard and a consequence of the flourishing of a culture; when a culture is politically independent its dilution and disappearance are less likely. (Oldenquist, 1997)

16The nationalist ascribes an especially high value to the ‘national culture’; more precisely, he takes culture(s) to be essentially determined by ethno-national belonging. His arguments thus center around the value of the national community and its culture, and are organized around its various aspects. For instance, he ascribes intrinsic value to each particular national community as such on grounds of the general value of culture, particularly the value it can have as a transmitter of morality. Furthermore, value is ascribed to the fact that members of a cultural community are particularly close to each other. Finally, an original value can be ascribed to the totality of ‘ethno-national’ cultures, and a particular national community receives standing from the contribution it makes to the overall diversity of the achievements of mankind. Once the high value of community is established, the line of thought leads to duties the members have to their community, precisely because it is so valuable. In short, the nationalist tries to establish that the ethno-national state and institutionally protected (ethno-)national culture is a good independent of the individual will of the members. This line of thought has a long and illustrious history, and important changes have occurred along the way. Half a century ago it was customary to link nationalistic views to organicist metaphors of society. Isaiah Berlin, writing as late as the early 1970s, proposed as part of his definition of nationalism that it is the conviction that men belong to a particular human group, and that “the characters of the individuals who compose the group are shaped by, and cannot be understood apart from, those of the group” (Berlin, 1972, 341). Furthermore, according to Berlin, the nationalist claims that “the pattern of life in a society is similar to that of a biological organism”, and that the needs of this ‘organism’ determine the supreme goal of all of its members. One can recognize in this combination of the idea of national character shaping the characters of individuals and the idea of organic unity, the more psychologically and biologically oriented descendants of the older discourse of the ‘spirit of the people’. Contemporary defenders of nationalism, above all its philosophical defenders, do not use this language any more: these days it is hard to find the organicist metaphor, and almost impossible to find the metaphor of ‘national character’ so popular in the first half of the twentieth century. Where have all the metaphors gone? What has happened to them? The answer is obvious: they have all been replaced by one master-metaphor: that of national identity. As Anderson puts it, the notion of national identity is a ‘moral substitute’ for the ideal of national character: “The narrower conception of identity fitted this role well, suggesting a more intimate, idealized bond than the gross links of daily custom” (Anderson, 1991b, 7). The idea of organic unity shaping the life of each of its individuals-cells is easily translated into identity-talk: the national identity of the group is essential for the personal identity of each of its members. Identity-talk also inherits connotations of solidarity and extended sympathy: if belonging together with other Croats is essential for who I am, then the destiny of each of my fellow Croats seems to be a ‘part’ of my own destiny, and caring about it seems inseparable from caring about my own person. Let me stress that ‘national’ in this context does not refer primarily to statist-civic nationality, but to a cultural and/or ethnic belonging.

174. The argument from intrinsic value and cultural proximity. Each ethno-national community is valuable in itself since it is the natural encompassing framework of various cultural traditions which produce and transmit important meanings and values. It also provides a special cultural proximity between its members. Persons who are closer to the agent in this cultural sense are also morally closer: the agent has special obligations to them. The underlying traits of the ethno-nation make for considerable proximity, and thus their carriers constitute a network of mutually close agents, also in the moral sense. The network is therefore a moral community, with special, very strong ties of obligation. A prominent obligation of each individual concerns the underlying traits of the ethnic community, above all language and customs: they ought to be cherished, protected, preserved, and reinforced. From this obligation the nationalist finally derives the community’s right to have its state dictate the political and cultural duties of its citizens.

185. The argument from flourishing. The ethno-national community is essential for the flourishing of each of its members. In particular, only within such a community can an individual acquire concepts and values crucial for understanding cultural life and, especially, his own life. Our nationalist assumes that an individual’s choices essentially depend upon the framework of values, which is itself not chosen. The communitarian draws attention to the importance of the background circumstances and moral context which inform and make intelligible those choices, but which are themselves unchosen (as British philosophers Horton and Mendus put it, after McIntyre).

  • 3 Taylor himself is ambivalent about the national format of morality; sometimes he writes as if he i (...)

196. The argument from moral understanding. A particularly important variety of value is moral value. Rich, ‘thick’ moral values are discernible only within particular traditions, to those who have wholeheartedly endorsed the norms and standards of the given tradition. As Charles Taylor puts it, “The language we have come to accept articulates the issues of the good for us”; furthermore, “we first learn our languages of moral and spiritual discernment by being brought into an ongoing conversation of those that bring us up” (Taylor, 1989, 35). The nation offers the natural framework for moral traditions, and thereby for moral understanding; it is the primary school of morals.3

207. The argument from identity. The very identity of persons depends on their participation in communal life. The communal enterprise is a process whose

root is involvement with others: other generations, other sorts of persons whose differences are significant because they contribute to the whole upon which our particular sense of self depends. Thus mutual interdependency is the foundational floor of citizenship ... outside a linguistic community of shared practices, there would be biological homo sapiens as logical abstraction, but there could not be human beings. (Crowley, The Self, the Individual and the Community [Oxford, 1987], quoted by Kymlicka [1992, 174])

21In chapter two, I quoted MacCormick to the effect that the biological facts of birth and early nourishment and the socio-psychological facts of our education and socialization are essential to our constitution as persons. In his view, we become what we are because of the social settings and contexts in which we are brought up. Given that identity is a precondition of morality and flourishing, prior to the individual will (which, in contrast, depends upon a mature and stable identity), the communal conditions of identity have to be preserved and developed. The fundamental claims we have already listed seem vindicated by this need.

228. The argument from diversity. Each national culture makes its contribution to the diversity of human cultures. “The ‘physiognomies’ of cultures are unique: each presents a wonderful exfoliation of human potentialities in its own time and place and environment. We are forbidden to make judgments of comparative value, for that is measuring the incommensurable”, writes the most famous contemporary proponent of the idea, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin (interpreting Herder, who apparently first thought of it) (Berlin, 1976, 206). The carrier of basic value is thus the totality of cultures, from which each national culture that contributes to the totality derives its own value. Berlin’s disciple Avishai Margalit states that “the idea is that people make use of different styles to express their humanity. The styles are generally determined by the form of life to which they belong. There are people who express themselves ‘Frenchly’, while others have forms of life that are expressed ‘Koreanly’ or ...’Icelandicly’” (Margalit, 1997, 80). The plurality of styles can be preserved and enhanced by tying the styles to an ethno-national ‘form of life’. The argument ascribes a value—either general or particularly moral, or both—to each culture from the pluralistic viewpoint of the totality of cultures available. Assuming that the (ethno-)nation is the natural unit of culture, the preservation of cultural diversity amounts to institutionally protecting the (ethno-)national culture.

23I am using both ‘arguments’ and ‘lines of thought’ because the items described really are arguments in a very vague sense; usually presented by the authors themselves as general considerations in favor of the nationalist’s claims, not as isolated, watertight arguments in the logician’s sense. As already mentioned, the lines of thought in the second group form a whole; they all start from the value of culture, moral and general, then focus upon ethno-national culture in order to derive the centrality claim; finally, they pass from the alleged centrality of ethno-national culture to the need for a statist institutional structure to protect it. Since their main points are all linked to the primacy of community life in relation to that of the individual, they all belong in the communitarian tradition whose magic words are ‘community’ and ‘identity’. A recurrent theme is the importance of non-chosen, non-voluntary belonging. Here is a typical quote, taken from an influential paper by A. Margalit and J. Raz:

Qualification for membership is usually determined by non-voluntary criteria. One cannot choose to belong. One belongs because of who one is. One can come to belong to such groups, but only by changing, for example, by adopting their culture, changing one’s tastes and habits accordingly—a very slow process indeed. The fact that these are groups, membership of which is a matter of belonging and not of accomplishment, makes them suitable for their role as primary foci of identification. Identification is more secure, less liable to be threatened, if it does not depend on accomplishment. Although accomplishments play their role in people’s sense of their own identity, it would seem that at the most fundamental level our sense of our own identity depends on criteria of belonging rather than on those of accomplishment. Secure identification at that level is particularly important to one’s well-being. (Margalit and Raz, 1990, 447)

24I shall criticize all eight ‘lines of thought’ in the chapters to follow: this criticism will form the main part of the book. Along the way I shall sketch further and independent criticisms of nationalism, as well as the general outlines of a more cosmopolitan alternative to nationalism. I shall argue from general moral grounds, as well as from the actual plurality and interaction of different ethnic communities, that a cosmopolitan pluralist culture is the best means of actualizing the values in question. Given that a cosmopolitan pluralist culture is only possible within a broadly transnational, cosmopolitan political framework, it follows that such a framework is a good. I shall try to show that such a framework is not contraindicated on the basis of independent considerations, and that therefore there is a prima facie duty to work on the establishment of such a framework.

25The format of discussion will be as follows: after a brief introduction of the main topic at the beginning of each chapter, I shall give the floor to the nationalist so that he can summarize the main pro-nationalist line on the particular topic put forward in the literature. The point of this literary device is to spare the reader the subtle distinctions between various real pro-nationalist authors, and to present a unitary nationalistic proposal. (Those who want to enter the maze of the literature, or to check the accuracy of my presentation, can find some guidance in the footnotes.) After the nationalist presentation comes the criticism. I shall first concentrate upon the narrow signification of the speech, and criticize it in a purely theoretical manner; towards the end of each chapter, however, I warn against wider, more distant, but problematic implications of the speech, if such are to be detected. Such an adversarial manner of presenting the issue should help the reader both to see the general principles at work on each side, and to form his or her own opinion.


1 Personal communication.

2 I am following the lead of Judith Lichtenberg in her contribution to McKim and McMahon (1997). Her taxonomy of nationalist arguments gave me an idea of how to organize this book, although my own taxonomy differs slightly from hers.

3 Taylor himself is ambivalent about the national format of morality; sometimes he writes as if he is ready to endorse it, sometimes he distances himself. Many pro-nationalist writers freely appeal to his work in defense of their views.

© Central European University Press, 2001

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