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The Incoherences of Nationalism The Incoherences of Nationalism
by Dr. Lawrence Nannery
2013-02-01 09:53:03
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1. Nationalism is a concept that, within proper limits, is true, but outside those limits, untrue, and the source of half the world’s conflicts.

2. Nationalism reduces the citizen to his or her natural characteristics, and looks inward.

3. Nationalism is, like most religions, apt to get out of hand, overstep its own boundaries and ruin its own proper community.

4. In the current system of nation-states, Nationalism tends to small-mindedness and prejudice.

5. On the other side, Nationalism is unavoidable, since pride in one’s “people” is natural and inevitable.

6. The conclusion is that Nationalism can never be overcome completely, for it is part of the human condition. 

Nationalism is such a large topic, such a vague topic, and so dependent upon events that I must limit myself in this essay to a few fundamentals. 

The word “nation” derives from the Latin verb nascor, natus, whose first meaning is “to be born” or “to be begotten”.  One does not come into this world without belonging to the group that engendered you.  In her book, The Human Condition (Vita Activa), Hannah Arendt tells us all this at greater length.

Nationalism is ineradicable, because one belongs to a group of humans of the same nationality, without choosing it or applying for it.  Everyone in the world is a member of some group that is consanguineous.  One can also belong to groups that are said to be consanguineous, but are really socially constructed.  Since the true blood relation is much more common, it usually is functionally much more emotionally powerful than other social relations. 

But, in addition to being ineluctable, being a member of a nation is incoherent if one’s folk is part of a larger political group, because others have their own folkways. In preliterate societies folkways are all-important, because the ways of the folk exist in the hearts and minds of the currently living members of the group.  This tends to make them relatively unable to be absorbed into larger groups.  With modernity there is a much greater possibility of assimilation when the folkways have been nominalized, and persecution is not widespread. 

One’s birth status is all important only when there is no more inclusive groups that rivals it.  And there are many of such competing groups.  Some are: universal religions; imperialism; defeat in war; success in war; and political assimilation. 

In what follows I shall consider two dimensions of Nationalism, from the bottom, so to speak, and from the top. 

The first is the pure case of nationalism, in which a defined and small group of people decided to live alone among themselves, and to eschew relations with outsiders to the extent this is possible. 

Such an attitude, best stated in the words “Shinn Fein,” “ourselves alone,” in the Irish tongue, which betrays an attitude of mistrust of foreigners of all descriptions.  The only likely candidates for such an attitude are island dwellers, perhaps mountain folk, and sometimes areas of the world where no one desires to visit.

The first topic I will address will be the problem of the pure case of nationalism, which are commonly small nations and isolated nations, and typically, island nations. 

The list of such nations is not long, and many of them are island nations, but some are just on the fringes of continents and not particularly far out of the reach of strangers.  Certain examples are not true examples, such as Tasmania, which belongs to Australia, and Greenland, which has no permanent population and, in any case, belongs to Denmark. 

Let me list a few of the island nations.  Vanuatu, located near Hawaii; San Tomé and Principe, located very near Nigeria; the Falkland Islands, very far south along the coast of southern Argentina, with a population under 3,000; the Andaman Islands; the Maldives; the Seychelles; and Malta and Iceland.

Small nations that are perforce very nationalistic are, among others, all the Scandinavian nations.  Micro states include Vatican City; San Marino; Liechtenstein and Monaco.  This is not a complete list, nor is it meant to be. 

What I mean to convey is the following: all micro states are subject to pressure from large states, and many must, in order to forestall invasion, cooperate with the larger nation. I shall mention two cases, that of San Tomé and that of Finland.  

At the time when amazingly large deposits of the purest oil were discovered in Nigeria, some few decades ago, it was also found in the waters off San Tomé and Principe. Now, Nigeria is the most populous nation in Africa, with over 100 million residents.  The two islands have a sparse population and thus the per capita worth of their oil reserves are worth many many times what Nigeria’s population would receive.  The only way to forestall a takeover of their state was to cooperate with its enormous neighbor, since Nigeria had the power to take over the islands without difficulty.  So they agreed to split the proceeds with their much larger neighbor, in an exercise of practical wisdom. 

Finland’s case is even better known.  In 1940, with war in the air, Stalin demanded the right to build a vast naval station on Finland, across the Bay of Finland.  The Finns refused, citing national sovereignty, but it availed little, since the USSR was so much larger a nation-state. The Finns resisted doughtily, but the Soviets won the war and got their naval station. 

In fact, if Stalin had not decapitated the officer corps of the Soviet Army in the years before this invasion, the war would have probably gone better for the Russians. 

A similar example could be the wars that the USA waged against Mexico, the result of which was not only the expansion to the Pacific all Americans thought was their right, but also a great boon to the slaveocracy of the Southern states. 

The lesson taught here is that microstates must hew to a narrower standard of freedom, since the larger states could, if they wished, conquer them.  Therefore the phrase that claims that we are “ourselves alone” is not literally true for microstates under most conditions. 

For the balance of this essay I will confine myself to the relations between dynastic Empires of the modern age in Europe and their subject populations and to the break up of Empires in the 20th century, and the self-determination of formerly subject populations, such as the “devolution” now practiced in Scotland, still nominally a member of the British Empire, but, so far as the average citizen experiences it, a free nation in all domestic affairs.  

Let me begin with one example: what actually took place in France between the years between 1789 and 1815. 

Having been for a long time the most powerful state in Europe under powerful monarchs, revolutionary France found itself breaking out of traditional boundaries and at war with all the other European powers, and, under the charismatic leadership of Napoleon this trend accelerated and soon, with wonderful celerity, invading and defeating state after state in a long series.  One can say that France under Napoleon went from being a nationalist unit to an imperial one.  It was Napoleon who overthrew the Directory (the last of the popular governments) and gathered all power to himself.  He had an infinite lust for power, and imagined himself in a Roman toga, rival to the Caesars.  Thus he was the primary imperialist of his age.  But gradually, despite a long series of victories over German and Italian foes, he found that closure had eluded him.  His final push, against Russia, proved his downfall, thus making of Russia a nationalist foe!  The exercise was repeated in Spain.  The pincer movement of England on the one side and Russia on the other led to Waterloo.

What this means is the impossibility of defining “nationalism” eo ipso.  Events dictate these definitions, and there is no telling who will be the imperialist, who the nationalist, in the next phase of history.

It seems that there are three basic models of the relation between a national group that is not able to be assimilated by the dominant group of a nation state. 

The first strategy is to claim that the newly conquered peoples will be made into citizens in every sense by the superior power.  This was the French model of Imperial expansionism in North Africa.  All the Arab schoolchildren are to be treated as though they were born in France itself.  Provision was made after 1870 for representation of these newly-minted citizens in the national legislature, it was never a realistic solution for either party, despite some heroic efforts to make it happen.  The real reason was that the nations were too much different to assent to assimilation in a foreign land with foreign ways very different from the subject nation’s. 

The Algerian men who fought in World War II were not likely to give up their idea that they had earned a right to self-determination, a common opinion in nations that had been subject to occupation by French.  Moreover, in a moment resembling The Sicilian Vespers, atrocities broke out in Algiers and many surrounding towns, the Algerian population fell upon the pied noirs and cut their throats.  Retaliation on the part of the pied noirs was more bloody, if anything, and no solution could ever be found to the dilemma this revealed, even though the governments in Paris tried out all kinds of tactics, from repression to accommodation, to verbal agreements that carried no power with them. 

It is fair to say that if too much is expected in the way of assimilation, this is an ineffective formula for keeping the peace of Imperialism.

A second model of assimilation, if it is permissible to use that word, is the one practiced by the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the first World War.  Having been reduced from the Holy Roman Empire to a state with two dominant groups, there was no other way to succeed in keeping it united than to give equal legislative power to both, with separate organs of government.

A similar idea was arrived at by the Bolshevik insurgents in Russia a little earlier.  In a work written by Joseph Stalin at the request of Lenin, he outlined the proper relations between national groups that had long residencies in various regions of the far flung empire.  National language, religion and customs were to be preserved, but as citizens the populations of these regions had to defer to the national government that would arise in all matters that transcended local interests, such as foreign policy and transregional projects, such as the roads and railroads.  Later, after World War II, many nations in East Europe were subjected to a remaking of their governments along Stalinist lines.  This certainly contradicted Stalin’s original, generous proposal of three decades before.  The experience of the Nazi invasion had shown that most non-Russians could not be trusted. The tide had turned against persuasion, both in the East and in the West.

It is not an afterthought, but Bolivar and others liberated all the nations of Latin America in imitation of both the American and French revolutions.    It is sad to say it, but even to this day these nations are not true democracies, since the population lives under the rule of aristocrats who do not want to have more than a few trappings of democracy.  After 1945, in the midst of the “Cold War” this lack of development was caused by the interference of the United States, and sometimes of Great Britain. 

A third model is that of the United States of America, which has always been expansionist and assimilationist.  In the beginning, the lands of the Americas were severely underpopulated, and immigration was encouraged by all the governments in the Americas.  To be an “American” is to swear loyalty to a set of ideas, and one’s birth has nothing to do with it.

Another line of argument would contrast the kinds of empire that are built on a nationalist basis.  It ranges from that of Napoleon, who found himself Emperor of a nation-state, and, since there was so little resistance from neighboring powers, he decided to become a new Caesar, and unify all of Europe. 

A most brilliant military tactician, he won battle after battle, until he found himself in 1812 at Gibraltar in the south, with all Europe at his feet all the way to the borders of Russia.  By this point his nationalism had transmuted itself into imperialism. 

But the war was far from over.  The English supported guerrilla warfare in Spain, and the Russians retreated further and further until he found himself in possession of Moscow by default.  Here he stewed, for no plenipotentiary appeared to sign a treaty of surrender.  The Russians knew their own country, and waited for General Winter to do his work. 

Napoleon realized too late that he was caught in a trap, and in October he escaped by fast sleds all the way back to the Louvre, but his army, the greatest army in the world, more than 650,000 strong, with all the latest tactics and battle gear, was virtually eliminated in the snows of late 1812. 

This sad end was condign, and by 1814 Napoleon had to surrender to his adversaries. 

In 1815 the Congress of Vienna plotted the future of Europe, and it looked to be monarchist, reactionary, and counter-nationalist.  Reaction was the order of the day, but revolutions in France in 1848 and 1870 heralded the fact that a modern nation had been built by Revolutionary France in the 1790’s.

France had gone from the most powerful state in Europe as a monarchy to a revolutionary democracy, built on Roman and Greek notions, to a settled nation-state with overseas possessions, and, after the Putsch that overthrew the Directory to an expansionist power, paying no attention to nationhood, to that of a great power, to defeat, all in a few years. 

An opposite case is provided by the history of the United States of America.  Beginning as an English colony on the Eastern shores of the continent, the lust for land caused all manner of men to move west, where land was for the taking.  The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had foreseen expansion, setting rules for the creation of local governments of the United States under specific conditions, and land sales made states like Ohio, Indiana and Illinois the first “breadbasket” of the new nation by 1820. 

At this time the notion of “Manifest Destiny” took hold, meaning that the nation had a divine right to expand all the way to the Pacific Ocean.  The Mexican War of 1845 was predicated on this belief, and all of the Southwest was ceded to the new nation. In “America” there has always been a very proud and nationalistic citizenry. 

But after the 1820’s the nation turned sour, for the slaveocracy in the southern states believed (on the basis of the “labor theory of value”) that its economy was more efficient and productive than that of the Northern states.  Since the Northerners also believed in the labor theory of value, they saw the new aggressive slaveowning class a distinct threat to them.  Various compromises were worked out, but by the 1850’s open conflicts broke out.  In the late 1850’s the Supreme Court declared that slavery could not be restricted in any way throughout the length and breadth of the land, and war was inevitable, inevitable because the small farmer, who constituted the majority of the population felt threatened for his family, whom he assumed would be driven to the level of the Negro slaves. 

The war lasted exactly four years, and after 1865 the Southern regions were backwaters compared to most of the rest of the nation. 

Soon the USA had become an imperialist nation in the common sense of the term.  Alaska was purchased in 1867; Hawaii and the Philippines and Cuba and Puerto Rico were annexed as colonies in 1898, as the result of the war with Spain.  Other possessions were picked up by the bye, such as the American Virgin Islands and American Samoa. 

The Spanish colonies and nation-states began to call the USA “the Colossus of the North”.  And it is obvious that the USA had become a world power by 1900. 

Three chapters followed.  Interventions in World War I and II, and, third, a long series of peripheral wars in many places on the globe, in order to “contain” regional powers that the US was hostile to, usually on an ideological basis.  In all these endeavors the US was partly successful, and suffered little in comparison to the other nations in these conflicts.  

What a lucky nation it is!  A documentary film I saw some years ago contained the following scene.  A French woman in her 40’s or 50’s speaks into the camera.  She relates that under the German occupation from 1940 to 1944 the people of her town were universally miserable, and were treated very hostilely by the occupiers.  Her mother consoled her with the thought, “don’t worry, the Americans will come and liberate us.”  And it came true. 

This is a remarkable fact.  In both of the greatest wars in all history, the USA was not initially a party to the conflicts.  While the other powers wore one another out, the Americans refused to enter the war, partly out of a sense of superiority and partly out of a strong legalistic bent.  When they did enter these wars, the effect was to inject a vast new and fresh army into the conflict on one side, and tip the scales in their allies’ favor.  Casualties were comparatively light.

In 1945 the USA strode the world, except where Stalin strode the world, and later where Mao Tse Tung strode the world. The Cold War that ensued caused a serious change in the nation’s psyche.  Now it was the leading reactionary power, and all the many wars it engaged in soured many of the citizens, and corrupted the judgment of the military and political leaders.  First it was Korea, then it was Vietnam, then on and on, until an entire apparatus of spying and manipulation dominated the many departments and agencies of foreign policy, always with the aim in view of manipulating the small developing nations to be agents of US desires, no matter how injurious to the ally. Usually the game is to aid and comfort every rich and reactionary elite in any given nation, no matter how unworthy of power the elite may be.  

Even to this day there has been no end to this.  Kissinger and Nixon murdered so many idealists that they actually ruined all the nations concerned.  Everyone who was a reactionary, or a Fascist, could rely on support from these doctors of death.  As a result the resurrection of aristocratic Fascism rose as from the dead in all the peripheral regions, from Greece to Argentina and Chile to parts of Yugoslavia and Iran.  A very grim record indeed.  And all of it justified by the slogan of “freedom”!

It is difficult to say which of these cases is the happier one.  Nations sometimes grow into empires, and empires generally have devious amd surreptitious means of control.  The extent of the security bureaucracies commanded by the US government grows every ten years to greater and greater degrees, which also means to more and more absurd degrees.  No babushka in Siberia can go out at dawn to milk her cow, that a satellite hovering overhead will record the fact, all in the pursuit of security for the dominant power in the world.  No one could have predicted this paradox in previous generations: the world’s most secure power, whose ideology is “freedom” and nothing more, spends its substance anticipating every move of every suspected, possible, sub rosa, and fictitious enemy.  Since none of these suspect states is comparable to the USA in power or wealth, it is not a mission worthy of a great power.

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Emanuel Paparella2013-02-01 12:17:05
This is an interesting and thought provoking piece, Larry. As an initial reaction and dialogue I would agree that there are formidable incoherencies within the concept of nationalism but I also wonder about the incoherencies of internationalism. As Thanos has well pointed out in his introduction, take the case of China which is presently governed via an international ideology called Communism, a Western import to be sure, as much as some would like to collapse Confucianism into it, but the political strategies that China pursues are all tinged by the most rabid nationalism, which come to think of it is also a Western import. A paradox perhaps that only the oriental mind can grasp? I wonder.

Leah Sellers2013-02-02 06:53:04
Dear Mr. Lawrence,
Really enjoyed your very thought provoking article.
I have always seen Nationalism as just a larger, and more complex version of Tribalism.
We Human Beings are still dancing and mesmerizingly chanting to ancient drum beats around primordial communal Fires.

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