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Nationalism and Beyond

Nenad Miscevic

Part One. Nationalism as a political program

Chapter seven. How successful is the nation-state?

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1We now turn to the line of thought that stresses various social and moral successes of modern nation-states and attributes them to their ethno-national orientation. So let our nationalist first make his speech.

We have witnessed more than two hundred years of the successful formation and spread of the nation-state. As a historical reminder, let me quote a great French historian of the nineteenth century, Jules Michelet; in spite of its somewhat sentimental tone, his view on the unification of France is typical of what any nationalist would like to say about the successful creation of an ethno-national state:

  • 1 The point seems obvious. Still, one hears reactions to particular nationalisms—for instance, from (...)

This unification of France, this destruction of the parochial spirit is often considered as the simple result of the conquest of provinces. But a conquest can glue together, chain together the hostile parts, never unite them: conquest and war have only opened provinces to each other, and have given to isolated populations an opportunity to meet each other; the quick and lively sympathy of Gallic genius, its social instinct, has done the rest of the work. What a strange event! These provinces, of differing climate, customs, and language have understood each other, fallen in love with each other, felt solidarity towards each other. (Michelet, 1996, 115)
Contemporary sociologists and philosophers express similar thoughts in a different rhetorical garb. They stress the advantages of nation-forming along ethno-national lines. By offering people a culture in language(s) they actually speak, by encouragement of the formation of more local elites, directly in contact with their electorate, and by promoting the capitalist mode of production, they enable mass democratization. As many sociologists, prominently Anderson and Gellner, have pointed out, democracy and nationalism go together. Let me paint in more detail the advantages offered by ethnic ties, such as the ties of an actually spoken common language. Some of the ties can simply serve as convenient signs helping to find the right partner for interaction (for example, if you are an immigrant worker in a far-away country, the cheapest and best thing to do is to look for your compatriots. More importantly, there are substantial advantages offered by national ties, which are nowadays discussed in the literature on the rationality of nationalism. The community of language offers obvious opportunities for communication, and the community of culture and tradition opens routes for exchange (see Coleman, 1995; Hardin, 1985). Even at this very general level one can see that such opportunities are not offered by, say, ties of age, gender, or profession. Most importantly, no matter how great a number of persons is linked to us with such ties, the community based upon them cannot become a political community since it is not capable of autonomy and of reproductive sufficiency (obviously, a community of teenagers founded upon the solidarity of age does not survive more than a few years, a community of philosophy teachers is not economically self-sufficient, and so on.) In contrast, the ethnic network is often endowed with a size and variety which allow the constitution of a durable political community, self-sufficient and capable of reproducing itself.1
A unitary language offers opportunities for a unified market and economic development, which usually result in more democracy and more opportunities. The importance of such links has been noted by the likes of Gellner and Anderson.
Not only has the nation-state been successful in the past, but also it promises to be essential for the moral life of communities in the future; it is the only political form capable of protecting communities from the threats of globalization, both from the cynical and unscrupulous exploitation orchestrated by transnational and multinational companies, and the elitist cultural cosmopolitanism that leaves to the masses only a bland, ‘McDonaldized’ pseudo-culture (see Rorty, 1998).
You might retort that nationalism has also produced a lot of evil. But nationalism should not be judged by the excesses of some nationalists. Here is a formulation from Schnapper: “Once a political order is organized by nations, wars become national. This does not mean that the national principle as such is responsible for outbursts of conflict. When political order is organized in nations, wars are national; while if grounded in dynastic religious or imperial principles, wars are dynastic, religious, or imperial” (Schnapper, 1994, 12-13 [my translation]). Of course, she does not mean ethno-nation, but we can extend her point to ethno-nations as well. Indeed, very often, nationalism is innocent and its excesses are a natural reaction to the utmost oppression. Also, as Gellner has pointed out, once a community achieves the status of a nation-state, the initial excesses tend to disappear; they are just ugly excrescences, not essential to nationalism. The overall track record of nationalism is very successful and promising.


  • 2 It is used by many anti-nationalists (most prominently by Buchanan [1991, 329]).

2Let me pass directly to criticism. The most general consideration against the nationalist in this context is Gellner’s reminder about overcrowding,2 which we discussed in chapter five on self-determination. Nationalist policies cannot be generalized and used in the long run because there is a natural limit to their viability. Remember, our even-handed nationalist is proposing his principles as generally valid and obligatory; if a proposal is impossible to actualize, it cannot be morally binding. If it is known to be impossible it should not be seriously proposed and advertised by political thinkers.

3Consider now the particular points made by our nationalist. As regards the first—two hundred years of alleged success—it is not clear that the successful formation of national states has been achieved by means that are themselves morally in the clear. Some of the most politically successful nation-states have been formed by the use of military and police force—including massive massacres, ethnic cleansing, decades of severe oppression—that makes the result a moral failure. In spite of the known facts, nationalist historians have tried to invent explanations designed to preserve the appearance of spontaneous success, as the quotation from Michelet amply shows. Michelet probably knew that provinces had been conquered by force, “opened” to each other not by friendship but by police oppression, that people in the greater part of France in his own time did not speak French, but various dialects or languages (‘patois’) that had little to do with the “general, universal spirit of the country”, and that the most brutal methods had to be applied to vanquish the “fatality of particular places” and replace it with the unitary, centralized will of the Paris government. It is obvious that such nationalist violence in the service of the creation and preservation of nation-states is not a thing of the past; witness the examples of the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. It is the burden of the nationalist to show that such massive violent episodes are not endemic to nationalism, given that nationalist outbursts take exactly this shape; no proof of innocence has been offered, and we have grave reasons to doubt that such can be offered. Let me quote, as a reminder, the beginning of the summary of the results of nationalist conflict in the former Yugoslavia by Timothy Garton Ash, an impartial and knowledgeable observer:

In the last decade of the twentieth century, this European country has been torn apart. At least 150,000, and perhaps as many as 250,000, men, women and children have died in the process. And how they have died: with their eyes gouged out or their throats cut with rusty knives, women after deliberate ethnic rape, men with their own severed genitalia stuffed into their mouths. More than two million former Yugoslavs have been driven from their homes by other former Yugoslavs, many deprived of everything but what they could carry in precipitous flight. (Garton Ash, 1999)

4In short, the violence that often accompanies nationalist uprisings counts heavily against the very idea of nationalism being a moral and political success. To stay for a while with the threatening realities of actual nationalism-in-the-street (as opposed to the sensitive and civilized nationalism of academics), the dream of the homogeneous ethno-national state trumpeted by the usual secessionist propaganda is a tantalizing illusion. Very often, the goal appears very close at hand: one just needs a bit of political will and stamina, and the state will be created in all its sublime purity! Nationalists concentrate their propaganda upon the easy tasks and downplay the difficult ones (ethnically homogeneous Croatia is a much easier project—although still quite costly— than ethnically homogeneous Bosnia, or even ethnically homogeneous regions of Bosnia; however, those aspiring to an ethnic Croatian state knew they would have to come to grips with the difficult problem sooner or later). The tantalizing quality of the goal might be partly responsible for the passion, brutality, and readiness to sacrifice oneself and others required in order to achieve it. (Economists would speak of ‘sunk costs’ in this context: given that so much has already been invested in the task, it is hard to give up, even if the odds seem less and less favorable.)

5Consider next the Schnapper argument concerning the permanence of conflicts. It is not valid: from the fact that violence and injustice took non-national forms in a more distant past—for instance, imperial or religious ones—it does not follow that a nation is innocent when they do take national form. The Catholic Church is not innocent in relation to crusades and religious wars, and to claim that ‘the Church as such’ is indeed innocent is to give up dealing with concrete realities in favor of whitewashed abstract ones. Similarly, to claim in relation to nationalistic wars that they have nothing to do with ‘the national as such’ is to postulate an unrealistically abstract item in order to exculpate the existing ones.

6What about democracy? In chapter eight we shall raise the principled question about the relationship between democratic and nationalistic principles. Here we shall confine ourselves to reviewing the historical facts. Do democracy and nationalism go together sufficiently often to warrant the nationalist’s moral optimism? Has nationalism consistently promoted democracy? The alternative reading of the same history would have it differently: in countries which had already sufficiently developed conditions for democracy, capitalist or proto-capitalist economies, educated local elites, and other preconditions for democratic public life, national liberation resulted in a democratic form of government. Countries not satisfying these conditions did not profit from nationalism—on the contrary. To take the best-known example: the history of the first half of the twentieth century in Central and Eastern Europe is the history of quasi-fascist or fascist governments arising from nationalistic outbursts partly causing and partly following the dissolution of multi-ethnic empires. The newly created states in the region are now doing their best to shrug off Western pressure to recognize minority rights, one of the cornerstones of contemporary democracy. (Take the example of Bulgaria: the ruling party, the UDF, and its allies believe that there are no minorities in Bulgaria, while foreign journalists claim that the signing of the Convention for Minorities’ Rights is simply a prerequisite for Bulgaria’s business hopes in Europe.) The activists of minority parties are being arrested, and the parties themselves are considered illegal. The pattern is of course general, and Bulgaria is just following suit. It seems that there is no intrinsic link between nationalism and democracy.The point is often made that the fever of nationalism disappears once a state is created. From Slovenia and Croatia to South Caucasus the same pattern of cooling off is being observed. But is the improvement a result of nationalism? Hardly. The appeal to Gellner’s authority in matters of the disappearance of initial nationalist excesses is not legitimate. Gellner’s overarching point is that the social function of nationalist ideology has little to do with nation, but a lot to do with capitalism, economics, and distribution of power and that therefore the excesses disappear once the nation-state is formed. It cannot therefore be legitimately used to promote nationalist principles as the cornerstone of durable politics.

7There is a further problem for the nationalist appealing to the success of the contemporary nation-state. Is it really ethno-national in the sense that interests our nationalist? One could argue that many of the most successful states of the contemporary world are not typically ethno-national: Switzerland and the United States are certainly not a nationalist’s paradise (these are two countries in which it is not even clear what group counts as a nation). Moreover, other successful states that are traditionally bound to a particular culture, say Germany and France, have become culturally pluralistic to the extent that hardly justifies using their example as a paradigm for nationalist policies of any kind.

8The further point concerns the worldwide spread of the nation-state as the dominant political form. It should offer the ethno-nationalist no ground for pride, since most states outside Europe and North America are not ethno-national states in his sense, and far less so than the Western countries mentioned in the previous paragraph. In Africa and Asia, the territories of most states typically cut across ethnic boundaries, so that local nationalist writers bitterly complain that the states are a-national or even anti-national (in the relevant sense of ethno-nationality). In Latin America, the nations emerged early and quickly out of artificial territorial divisions, quite in contrast to the usual assumptions of nationalist sociologists about the original and irreducible character of nation.

9The thoughtful nationalist should be well aware of a further difficulty that awaits him if he appeals to socio-economic considerations. Average-size nation-states were perhaps ideal in the past, given the necessary resources and means of communication. Note that the model of the world as consisting of closed sovereign states was promoted as the dominant legal model as early as 1648, the year of the Peace of Westphalia. Since those times, both the world economy and the technology of war, industry, and communications have changed drastically. Why should we suppose that the old form is going to be successful in the coming millennium?

10The nationalist appeals to the threats of globalization. Consider first the danger from transnational and multinational companies. I agree that the danger is real. But is isolationism the only or the only proper response? Many authors feel that it is not, that global dangers require global democratic control.

11What about elitist and assimilationist cultural cosmopolitanism? We shall dedicate a whole chapter to the issue, but here is a quick reminder of a nice example of cosmopolitanism in the arts: the Italian conductor Claudio Abbado, when principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, made the orchestra play much more French music—not Italian—than before, especially Ravel, whose preponderant taste was famously for Spanish music. What is wrong with that? Is this really part of an assimilationist aggression? Should only Spanish musicians perform Spanish-sounding music? Should Ravel be censured for his love of a ‘foreign’ tradition? High culture belongs to the world, and it would be barbaric to criticize it for that. (I shall expand upon this and the following point in the final chapter of the book.) Consider now the bland, ‘McDonaldized’ pseudo-culture. Compare it with national mass ‘culture’: say a McDonald’s restaurant with a Bavarian Bierstube, and soap operas with the savage customs often accompanying important football matches in the UK, Italy, and Croatia. For my part, I prefer soap opera and Disney to the bloody fights of nationalistic football fans. All in all, alleged successes appear to be rather thin on the ground. The moral failures of nationalism in this century seem to have been much more serious than its successes, and its promise does not look much better.

12This ends our all too brief discussion of the more narrowly political arguments in favor of the nationalist program. We started with the line that most often comes to mind when speaking of new nations, that is, the appeal to the right of self-determination. The right has been enshrined in important documents of the international community, but only under rather strict conditions. It turns out that it is not of much help to the nationalist in its general form. Next, we considered its most plausible sub-variant, that is, the right to collective self-defense in the context of ongoing injustice. There it did sound justified, but on non-nationalistic grounds, those of liberty and equality. On the factual side, again, it seems that the members of a given group are probably going to be ready to struggle for a separate nation-state mostly in situations of general discrimination and of serious threat, where exactly such non-nationalistic considerations justify their struggle. Finally, justification is made in terms of the lesser evil: secession is a remedy and nothing more. It cures the nationalist evil (on the aggressor’s side) with a nationalist response (on the side of the victim); a prevention of nationalist excesses would in general be a much better solution, if obtainable. Finally, we considered the claims of nationalists concerning the spectacular historical successes of their program, coupled with promises that success will stay with them. It turned out that these reasons might appear persuasive at first glance, but they do not really hold water.


1 The point seems obvious. Still, one hears reactions to particular nationalisms—for instance, from feminist activists—which implicitly deny it. Here is a typical expression of wonder occasioned by the dissolution of Yugoslavia: “Why were Croatian mothers who lost their children in war still voting for the nationalist government? Why were they not showing more solidarity with Serbian mothers in the same kind of situations than with the nationalist army officers who were partially guilty of their loss?” The question has a certain psychological plausibility, but the political answer is clear: the solidarity of grief between mothers on the opposing sides of the divide in a nationalist war has no relevance in determining the shape of a political, state-like community to which they can possibly aspire to belong.

2 It is used by many anti-nationalists (most prominently by Buchanan [1991, 329]).

© Central European University Press, 2001

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