>Questions about Nationalism


  1. What is Nationalism?
  2. Does it change between different countries? If so why?
  3. Is it true that as Bertrand Russell said “the highly educated minority in both countries is, on the whole, free from this unfortunate passion”?
  4. Why do political parties that espouse nationalism tend to drift to the extremes?
  5. Should we encourage it in politics or discourage it?


  • >Graham Bennett: Is Nationalism when a Government has a more hands on approach to running business and industry in a country?

  • >No that's state intervention, but you mean 'nationalisation', which is when Government owns and runs business. Nationalism is effectively the belief that the nation (which of course can be self-defined by different people) is the central principle of political organisation. It's based on 2 core assumptions: that humankind is naturally divided into distinct nations; and that the nation is a political community. But there are many forms of nationalism, and at the extremes it becomes racism.

  • >Nationalism is one of many means (and a comparatively recent one at that) devised by mankind of dividing itself: Them (bad) and Us (good). It has and does occur along the lines of tribe, intellect, race, gender, nationality, preferred pop band, class and so on and on to the extent that it's difficult not to see it as part of human nature. In fact, if you look at certain respected works of society and anthropology (Said's 'Orientalism' and Mary Douglas' 'Purity and Danger' spring immediately to mind) the distinction between a select, exclusive 'self' and numerous 'others' is an oft-repeated and effective (however destructive) aid to social cohesion. 'Self' is defined, in other words, in opposition to the characteristics of the 'other'; physically or mentally categorising 'others' (other nations as somehow inferior or possessing inferior qualities) helps positively define the 'self'. Nationalism is part of that.In this light, Russell (and I like Russell, I really do) is merely proving my point. "A HIGHLY-EDUCATED MINORITY" ('self' of which he doubtless includes himself) is free from an 'unfortunate passion' which the majority ('others') possess. He might be rejecting nationalism, but that's pretty irrelevant when you consider that he's actually, by dividing and categorising an intellectual elite in opposition to an 'unfortunate' and 'passionate' (read irrational?) majority, drawing from exactly the same well of categorisation, exclusion and division. I actually prefer Einstein's quote ('nationalism is an infantile disease; it is the measles of mankind'): more poetic and, I have to say, not self-defeating when subject to the same criticism I have placed Russell under. Is Russell essentially right, that clever people aren't nationalists? I don't know, but I do know (as evinced by his own quote) that they can be susceptible to the same disease of which nationalism itself is only a symptom – that of tendency to exclusivity and division.

  • >Nationalism can indeed take many forms – a racial superstate towards militaristic and totalitarian ends (Nazism), protection of common economic interests (still a key trend of much trade unionism), defensive preservation of national autonomy in a globalising world (Switzerland has always been very good at this) and so on and on. As I say, however, it's just s symptom of a deeper human tendency to divide and categorise into 'self' and 'other'. It is simply because political parties who openly embrace nationalism as a key tenet have to confront these divisions head on and make sense of them (who is included in the 'self'? How do we confront the external 'other' and those excluded from the nation ['self'] who yet live within its bounds? And so on and on). It's not difficult to see how this can lead to a multi-tiered legal code with differing degrees of protection and rights (the loss of the rule of law which can, if it is to remain true, acknowledge no 'self' and 'other'), competition and even warfare with 'other' nations or those excluded from it. It is, in short, divisive and therefore extremist and potentially violent.Now, the flipside of this is that while nationalism (like racism, sexism or even Russell's 'highly-educated minority') excludes, it must also include. Nationalism can indeed have positive effects (patriotism, collective sacrifice in the face of adversity and so on) and even the act of exclusion can have positive benefits for the included (Douglas' wonderful thesis – a favourite of mine – that dirt is 'matter out of place' and by rearranging the 'other' within their ranks communities and nations redefine and reaffirm the positive 'self' is informative here). There is nothing wrong with simple patriotism; for example, with people taking pride in their country and its achievements, in gentle competition within equally-applied laws (football matches or great artists, for example). Like any community, they invoke collective spirit and belonging and so on that can be very useful and healthy. The problem comes when nationalism is fully invoked as a serious and driving political doctrine – this reveals its inherent exclusiveness, its divisiveness and the unpleasant internal and external consequences of this, where other nations not treated as the other lot playing by the same rule of law (be that football rules or international law), but as inferior and/or threatening ‘others’ to be excluded, controlled or competed with even unto war and destruction. This is what happens when its inherent exclusivity and division is taken to its logical extremes. It is not an attractive or desirable political philosophy; it is, I think, a terribly dangerous one.

  • >You see the problem as I see it is a distinct blur between Patriotism and Nationalism. You suggest that the former is good, while the latter is usually bad, yet you also give examples of non-extreme forms of nationalism that would not, by consensus, be seen as 'bad' e.g. the Swiss nationalism you referred to.In fact you could take it entirely the other way around. Your argument is a close parrallel of that argued by Ted Gurr and Group Mobilisation theorists, who say that groups form their own identities, often in that they are 'not' another group. And this escalates the chances of conflict. But why is it that Nationalism fosters this group identity any more than Patriotism does? If you take my definition of Nationalism then Nationalists may see the nation as merely a political and administrative unit, perhaps no different to the company you work within. Yet Patriotism is more emotional. It is a psychological attachment to one's nation/country, and thus underpins the more radical forms of Nationalism.

  • >Yes, I think that's a perfectly fair point. Can nationalism exist without a degree of patriotism, however; or, looking at it another way, must patriotism in itself feed nationalism?Nationalism, as you say, might not be dangerous but, if underpinned by a strong sense of patriotism, it clearly has the potential to be so.

  • >Yes it's all about balance I suppose. So that brings us onto the next question: why is it that nationalism changes between countries?I think part of the answer is that that balance changes. Some countries have more patriotism than nationalism (the UK and Luxembourg might fall under those brackets), while others, particularly in post-colonial countries, might have more nationalism than Patriotism. However I think the big reason for differences between countries is history. Correct me if I'm wrong but Nationalism seems to gain much worse press in Europe than America. I would argue that that's because of all the nationalistic powers we've fought over the years in Europe, and the tendency of those groups to provoke hostilities. Whilst, to put it simply, in America nationalism simply hasn't caused as much death. And therefore the President of the USA is encouraged to say things like "I love America" and "God Bless America" etc, whereas if European leaders say it the press photos the person saying it and edits a couple of SS figures in to stand behind the speaker. In addition, because of our colonial past it can sound a little arrogant for a leader to praise his/her country too much.And then of course the most blatant reason why it differs between countries is because it means different things to different people. And state leaders are in unique positions to promote their personal views about nationalism.

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