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Last Updated: 10/07/2009Nationalism in Question
This articles questions the definition of nationalism and the social constructs that redefine it today. The author argues that nationalism is commonly understood in a dualistic dichotomy – either positive or negative. This is partly a problem of the different contextual circumstances within which nationalism occurs, and partly a response to the challenges of understanding such a complex and dynamic phenomenon. Three dualisms are discussed: West vs the rest; civic vs ethnic; and liberal vs illiberal nationalism. This paper argues that these popular analytical simplifications map hide the wider positive/negative poles and also mask the exclusionary dimension.
Introduction: Mapping the ‘goody’ versus ‘baddy’ debate
Nationalism, according to Isaiah Berlin, has become one of the most influential phenomena of the past two hundred years. This essay will discuss, and critically analyse Tom Nairn’s suggestion that: “all nationalism is both healthy and morbid. Both progress and regress are inscribed in its genetic code from the start.” In describing nationalism as such, Nairn attempted to reconcile the view that nationalism is a ‘negative’ thing with the view that it always has both ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ dimensions. In doing so he was also answering the (somewhat rhetorical) question: "can you have the good consequences of nationalism - love of country, national solidarity, willingness to sacrifice yourself for one’s nation - without the malign ones as well- intolerance, violence and conquest?" This shifted away from identifying clear binary typologies, while still allowing the exploration of ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ aspects. By returning to a more dualistic approach, this essay will support Nairn’s statement, isolating and analysing the ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ poles inherent within all nationalism. To do this, it will a) describe each dualism - (both the ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ poles), and b) explain why such a separation is flawed. The essay will not explore nationalism as ‘healthy’ or ‘morbid’, as nationalism cannot be reduced to a purely psychological/medical level. Therefore any psychological dimension will be subsumed into the wider ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ terminology.
While Nairn is correct in finding nationalism as morally ambiguous, this essay will argue that he fails to put adequate weighting on the significance of the ‘negative’ aspects, while running the danger of legitimising nationalism through some (often coincidental) ‘positive’ aspects. By giving the appearance of ‘balance’ which appeals to the academic goal of objectivity, he also seemingly suggests that nationalism is a concept worth sustaining. This essay concludes that such a view is problematic because of the undercurrent of exclusivity running through all nationalism which tip the scales convincingly to the side of ‘negative’.
In order to understand the ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ poles of nationalism, it is useful to look at its different definitions. Hearn presents the ‘positive’ view that "[n]ationalism is the making of combined claims, on behalf of a population, to identity, to jurisdiction and to territory." Conversely, one significant early interpretation of nationalism has a ‘negative’ undertone: "Nationalism connotes a tendency to place a particularly excessive, exaggerated and exclusive emphasis on the value of the nation at the expense of other values, which leads to a vain and importunate overestimation of one’s own nation and thus to a detraction of others" [emphasis added]. While at first these appear contradictory, such definitions emphasise the inherent ‘negative’/’positive’ dichotomy. Nairn would point out that the first suggests the exclusion of those not making ‘combined claims’, and that the corollary of the second is a sense of belonging, of purpose and pride, so supporting his conception of nationalism as at once ‘negative’ and ‘positive’.
Lastly, attempts to situate nationalism have been problematic for at least three reasons: first, there has been a tendency to rely on a highly dualistic (and therefore simplistic) methodology to simplify nationalism’s bewildering complexity, second there is an overt enthusiasm to attach other, meaning-laden edifices to nationalism, and third, ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ are subjective terms.
"The West and ‘the rest’"
The first writers on nationalism were keen, unlike Nairn, to distinguish between essentially ‘good’ and essentially ‘bad’ forms, with little concern for understanding its true moral ambiguity. These first dualisms were simplistic, emphasising both ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ features while functioning as ‘containers’ in which a gamete of other associated concepts helped to mould their characters. The first distinction, between the West and ‘the rest’ served merely to support traditional values of the colonial period, and in this way is both geographical as well as conceptual.
According to this view, nationalism took a specific historical trajectory in the West, but in other parts of the world, developed in direct reaction to, and in tandem with, the West. The distinction was two-fold. First, the West, its emergent nationalism drinking from the same cup as the Enlightenment, drew strongly on the notions of reason, equality and rationality, and so from the start took on a more benign character than the East. Second, the competitive nature of the state system also meant the East developed in direct reaction to the seemingly threatening achievements of the West. This reactive theme amongst non-Western nations was further compounded by a lack of development, and an acknowledgment of their ‘backwardness’ that demanded an absolute resolve to progress. Everyone it seemed, wanted to get on the Western bandwagon. To Kohn at least, the West therefore represented the end of a teleological process of reaching nationalist maturity.
The assumptions that underpin such a judgemental position are not far beneath the surface. Along the East-West axis in particular, attempts to isolate different forms of nationalism are often tinged with views of the Other and a sense of Western superiority. As Said argues ‘Orientalism’ is a "corporate institution…for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient". Biased and simplistic conceptions of the Other, according to Said, are interwoven with academic discourse and often replace more complex realities on the ground that would show both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ aspects. There are further difficulties. The nationalist characteristics supposedly unique to the East - emotions and irrationality - are often prevalent in the West, particularly in relation to outsiders. For instance, in Europe, racism has seen a considerable revival in the form of Far Right political parties in recent years. In more mainstream politics, the continued and emotional fears of the nation being ‘swamped’ by immigrants in ‘our’ workplaces shows a much more emotional side to the Western psyche than Kohn would have us believe. Additionally, national sentiments still figure highly at times of war, during sporting events against other national teams, and at commemorative functions. Such an overlap in these elements supports Nairn’s assertion that nationalism is simultaneously ‘negative’ and ‘positive’.
Greater precision is therefore needed. First, perhaps it is more accurate to speak of a ‘more political’ or ‘more cultural’ emphasis within the broad spatial Western/non-Western ‘containers’ outlined above. This is more than just playing with semantics. Shying away from the idea that feelings of inferiority alone were sufficient to sustain non-Western nationalism, ‘political’ and ‘cultural’ nationalisms focus in particular on finding engines for nationalism within politics, or in its absence, culture. The political West, then, has a nationalism centred round the political system and principles of democracy, while the cultural non-Western forms that, turn to culture, ancestry and belonging to find meaning in the absence of a political system permitting the expression of the people.
Second, this new dualism throws up its own challenges, as the link between democracy and political nationalism is contested. Struggles for democracy, whether in Eighteenth Century Europe or the post-Communist arena came out of demands for self-determination within nations previously under despotic rule. It was argued that this demand for freedom was therefore inseparable from nationalism. However nationalism, its structure dependent on boundaries, is clearly inward looking and exclusive to those who are considered outside the borders. Democracy meanwhile presents an altogether different image- favouring diversity and difference on the grounds that such a political system only works when there are multiple views and choices. In short then, ‘the two principles are contradictory’ because nationalism ‘tends to be exclusive whereas democracy is inclusive.’ If nationalism can claim no credit from democracy, then political nationalism as a ‘positive’ concept becomes difficult to sustain.
Third, this suggests the political and cultural dualisms, like the West and the rest before them, do not represent anything other than highly problematic trends. As one introductory text explains, "[n]ations that are purportedly models of the political form of nationalism appear both (positively) to exhibit a signal pride in the achievements of ‘their’ own culture, and (negatively) to experience recurring anxieties about their health, security, even viability." In short, the political unity of this nationalism requires cultural unity. With such considerable overlap, it is difficult to see the distinctions as amounting to anything more than a question of emphasis- often on the ‘positive’ aspects of ‘our’ nationalism, and the ‘negative’ aspects of ‘their’ nationalism. In such a context, Nairn is right in presenting nationalism as having both ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ aspects.
"Civic versus ethnic nationalism"
If the idea of a Western political versus a non-Western cultural nationalism is therefore flawed, then where do we turn to find ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ poles of reference? Recent authors such as Ignatieff have brought a new perspective into the debate by proposing a civic conception of the nation that de-emphasises the need for a common ancestry and so limits its inherent exclusivity.In such ‘civic’ nationalism, it is argued that it is the individual, standing alone and decoupled from ancestry that is, or rather should be the primary referent within nationalism. It says that nationalism is not bad per se, but that it is necessary to emphasise rights, equality and plurality while ignoring ethnic homogeneity, race, blood and language. This conception of civic citizenship, rather than membership through ancestry, allows a more inclusive nationalism between ‘a community of equal, rights-bearing citizens, united in patriotic attachment to a shared set of political practices and values’. The outsider, long the source of contention in other nationalism, may join provided they take on the political values of their hosts. Citizenship, therefore, stems from the place of residence being within the national borders according to the principle of ‘ius soli’. This allows considerable diversity, as well as a "shared national culture", but crucially, does not require impossible demands on the immigrant or the outsider.
However, critics point out that many nations that make no demand of ancestry nonetheless place considerable weighting on the need for cultural homogeneity as well as the civic norms of the patria - "a community of laws and institutions with a single political will." To take account of this difference, Kellas therefore further sub-divides civic nationalism into two camps, ‘social nationalism’ and ‘official nationalism’. Social nationalism is "a nation which defines itself by social ties and culture rather than by common descent", whereas official nationalism is "a nationalism of the state, encompassing all those legally entitled to be citizens, irrespective of their ethnicity, national identity and culture." The former blurs the distinction between true ethnic nationalism, and civic nationalism in that it both preserves the national identity while also maintaining its inclusivity, such as in Catalonia or Russia. In these cases, it is argued, the cultural element complements and strengthens the citizen because of a heightened sense of dignity beyond the individuals civic identity. The latter meanwhile achieves the same end but requires only political allegiance, such as in the US or UK, where different ethnicities, (and in the case of the UK different nations), live side by side in one state. Further, in the US example, according to Nodia, nationalism is hidden behind patriotism for institutions and the achievements of a democratic ‘American way of life’, which has ample room for ethnic diversity. According to Fine, the "basic difference between ‘ethnic’ and ‘civic’ forms of nationalism is that in the latter case it is the state which defines the nation, while in the former it is the nation which defines the state." This is ultimately a question of moral authority- which has the greater legitimacy? In Enlightenment thinking, from which civic nationalism stems, the democratic state is the higher, because it is bestowed legitimacy from the people to serve their best interest on their behalf, regardless of ethnicity. In this sense it is blind to ethnicity. On the other hand, ethnic nationalism looks more to the nation and so has no such limitation.
There are other, equally important differences with ethnic nationalism. Ethnic nationalism looks more to the past- to ancestry and, (through shared history) nature. Such a community, because it demands common descent, is closed- citizenship only being acquired by blood and the ‘rite’ of birth according to the law of ‘ius sanguinis’. The classic examples of such differentiation are the French and German cases. In France, tradition dictates that citizenship is based on will and culture- the "nation’s existence…is a daily plebiscite", which permits the inclusion and assimilation of outsiders. On the other hand, the traditional opposing example of Germany puts the emphasis on a national spirit, handed down by an exclusive bloodline and rooted, as it were, into the very soil of Germany. Needless to say, such different conceptions of the nation have a marked effect on their level of exclusivity.
While there are many ‘positive’ advantages of civic nationalism over ethnic nationalism, civic nationalism, for all its notional inclusivity, leaves many unanswered questions. Why, if citizenship ignores ethnicity, are ethnic minorities still substantially excluded from politics and positions of power? Why is racism and segregation still commonplace throughout so called ‘civic’ nations? This non-civic undertone extends to issues well beyond that of nationalism- gender, sexuality, age, religion and class all pose challenges to the notion of the individual as equal before the state. In short, just because the state, codified by law, may take an inclusive and objective view of what constitutes allegiance to the nation, the nation itself may be significantly influenced by other non-civic factors that are deeply exclusionary. Once again, this highlights the disconnect between the honourable principles of nationalism and the reality on the ground, a distinction that is furthered by scholars of a liberal bent.
"Liberal versus illiberal nationalism"
In the Eighteenth Century, the liberal democratic project and its call for equality between individuals was considered synonymous with the nationalist project. Later, with the failure of the 1918 Declaration and the excesses of WWII, there was recognition of the tension between the peacefulness of liberalism and the aggressiveness of nationalism. More recently, liberal authors have called for a return to limiting nationalism by considering it equally to other concepts of liberal value. This is contrasted with the illiberal brand of nationalism, which places the nation as the primary, if not the only referent for the individual and society.
Liberal nationalism should therefore be ‘moderate in ambition and temperament, valuing loyalty to and identification with the nation but not in excess, and not to the extent that this would override other values and commitments.’ It is this sense of perspective that balances "particularism (loyalty to…[the]…nation) with universalism (a recognition that all have rights of various kinds)." This legitimacy ensures that liberal nationalism must not impinge unduly on the interests of others. Combined with this, there also needs to be recognition of the difficulty that lies in attempting to pair the individuality of liberalism with the solidarity of nationalism, and an effective state system of ensuring the rights of the citizen.
However, the core problem with the liberal approach lies in its assumptions that the nation is ‘natural’ when, "on the theoretical level, nothing in the liberal principle requires an acceptance of the principle of nationhood at all." Liberalists argue that the familiarity of the nation allows the individual in society to function, where otherwise they would be adrift "in a moral and social wilderness". Miller goes further, arguing that conceptualisation of any other unit is impossible. However, these views rarely question the logic of taking the national level as a useful referent. We develop primarily at the family and local level, with an individual’s context having little direct relevance to an abstract nation. As one scholar describes, it "is just not credible that the significant threshold in this matter, where compassion and solitude will go no further, lies somewhere beyond several hundred million people." It is therefore not at all clear why the national level is the only possible cognitive level of Anderson’s "imagined community". Indeed, it is often the non-national elements that provide personal identity, such as wife, husband, sister, son and so on that really bring a sense of belonging and purpose. Separately, nationalism sits in direct opposition to liberalism in the sense that while liberal thinking assumes equal rights between individuals simply by virtue of being human, nationalism introduces the idea that there is superiority and inferiority between individuals of different states. If this is true, maybe the exclusionary dimension of nationalism is more apparent than liberal writers want to believe.
Conclusion: Re-centering on the exclusionary dimension
In describing nationalism as having a "Janus face", one turned to the ‘positive’ side of nationalism, and by inference one turned to a ‘negative’, darker side, Nairn correctly placed nationalism as the ultimate mixed blessing, capable of both good and evil. This essay has attempted to show the inescapable dichotomies of nationalism that, once scholars have tried to separate, to divide and categorise, only serves to highlight the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ themes that run throughout. And just as these theorists have assumed that society is a homogenous group, they have assumed (wrongly) that their nationalisms are either all ‘negative’ and all ‘positive’. In other words, the mission of nationalist scholars to differentiate and judge, has merely served to expose the similarities- ‘positive’ and ‘negative’- that are inherent to all nationalism. Far better to treat "[n]ationalism"…as Fine argues, as…"a fickle beast. In its best moods it liberates human beings from colonial oppression and unites people previously fragmented, but it also excludes those deemed not to belong and demands the active assent of its ‘own’ nationals."
Nonetheless, the chief challenge that nationalism poses is its ‘negative’ side. No one doubts its extraordinary capacity to unite, to bond and provide a sense of direction. However, as Nairn argues, the instant an ‘in-group’ is formed there must by definition also be an ‘out-group’ created. This exclusionary dimension is present on every level of analysis. On the international level, it divides and polarises nation-states which can (but importantly not always) lead to conflict. According to Halliday, nationalism makes "unreconcilable claims to territory…[as well as being]…responsible for world wars, ethnic massacres, genocide, and unending low-level crises across the world." On the sub-state level it encourages intolerance of diversity, and possibly even dictatorship. With its emphasis on homogeneity, even in civic nations, nationalism struggles to make space for the pluralism of the modern world. Ethnic minorities and immigrants often struggle to be included, particularly when they are further ostracised by parallel discourses of race. On the individual level nationalism encourages a closed mindset and perspective, a psychology that irrationally places one nation over another regardless of reality. As George Bernard Shaw once said, nationalism "is your conviction that this country is superior to all others because you were born in it." It makes little difference that "the nation is a remarkably elastic entity, whose parameters can contract or expand depending on how it is defined" - it is still a moral dichotomy. Regardless of whether these ‘negative’ points are emphasized, as in some vague conception of ethnic nationalism, or deemphasized, as in civic nationalism, this exclusionary ‘problem’ is terminal - the direct product of, and cause of, the ‘positive’ face.
It was not the purpose of this essay to question the validity of following an ideology that is socially constructed but it is now worth qualifying what has been argued. It can be taken as a given that "the nation is not a natural and unavoidable feature of social life." But, as Nodia counters, "the nation need not be rational in order to be real." It is difficult to know whether it is realistic to talk of a world where people draw their intellectual sustenance from post-modern discourses, including, as Avineri lists, the environment and gender issues. There is almost a sense that whatever reasoned arguments are presented against nationalism, its appeal is outside of the rational world, tied only loosely to logic and equity, and can therefore not be argued against. Similarly, Gellner points out that "while intellectuals comprehend that nationalism is mythic, the people need…myths". Therefore nationalism will be with us for some considerable period yet. The question now is how do we minimise the ‘negative’ aspects and turn the Janus face forever towards the ‘positive’? How do we ensure Janus turns not to the Roman God of war - Mars, but instead to Venus? That however, is beyond the scope of this essay.
 Berlin, I., Against The Current: Essays In The History Of Ideas. London: The Hogarth Press, 1979, p. 337.
 Nairn, T., The Break-Up Of Britain. (2nd Edn). London: New Left Books, 1981, pp. 347-8.
 Ignatieff, M., Benign Nationalism? The Possibilities Of The Civic Ideal. In: Mortimer, E., (ed), People, Nation And State: The Meaning Of Ethnicity And Nationalism. London: I. B. Taurus, 1999, p. 141.
 By way of demonstrating Nairns synthesis of good and bad nationalism into nationalism as inherently a dichotomy: "[n]ationalism comes in manifold forms, some benign and reassuring and others terrifying", which seemingly misses Nairns point about the universality of nationalisms moral vices and virtues. Calhoun, C., Nationalism. Bury St Edmunds: Open University Press, 1997, p. 3.
 This is not the same as arguing that there is only one type of nationalism, but that in the positive/negative plane, all nationalisms are one and it is just a question of emphasis which of the two is expressed.
 This is not to say that the medical dimension is unimportant. Indeed, in a pioneering article on this perspective, Kecmanovic tests the usefulness of regarding nationalism as a pschopathological condition, finding there to be useful comparisons to nationalism. Kecmanovic, D., Nationalism And Psychiatry. Medicine And War, 1994, Vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 127-8.
 Objectivity and subjectivity within studies of nationalism are highly problematic concepts. For instance, as discussed elsewhere in this essay, there is a tendency for western scholars to place ‘their’ nationalisms on a pedestal against inferior ‘foreign’ nationalisms.
 Hearn, J., Rethinking Nationalism: A Critical Introduction. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, p. 11.
 Boehm, M., Nationalism. In: Encyclopedia Of The Social Sciences. Vol. XI, New York: Macmillan, 1935, p. 231. The purpose of this essay is not to explore definitions of nationalism; this task is better done elsewhere. For a full discussion of definitions of nationalism see for instance: Hutchison, J., Smith, D., (eds), Nationalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994, pp. 15-46.
 It is easy to connote such positive words of ‘purpose and pride’, with nationalism itself being a positive thing. Arendt, for instance, sees this as possibly culminating in a ‘national mission’, usually of dangerous expansionism. Arendt, H., The Origins Of Totalitarianism. (3rd Edn). London: George And Unwin, 1967, p. 182.
 While not the first to use the term, ‘West and ‘the rest’’ has become synomonous with Huntingdon’s ‘The Clash…’. The East West dualism in the nationalism discourse merely fuels such binary oppositions in other fields such as international relations. Huntingdon, S., The Clash Of Civilisations And The Remaking Of World Order. London: Simon And Schuster, 1996, pp. 183-206.
 Spencer, P., Wollman, H., Nationalism: A Critical Introduction. London: Sage Publications, 2002, p. 97.
 Or as Kohn specifies, the ‘West and East’. Such an approach is flawed because it would place the emphasis on the geographical element. Meanwhile the West and ‘the rest’ indicates that it is the Western ideology that is crucial. Kohn, H., Nationalism: Its Meaning And History. New York: Anvil, 1965.
 Meanwhile, the East, it was argued, had no such political legacy, and so ‘their’ nationalism developed into an intransigent and often violent variety, uncontrolled by the legitimacy of democracy.
 Plamenatz, J., Two Types Of Nationalism, In: Kamenka, E., (ed), Nationalism: The Nature And Evolution Of An Idea. London: Edward Arnold, 1976, p. 34.
 Said, E., Orientalism: Western Conceptions Of The Orient. St Ives: Penguin, 1978, p. 3.
 Although perhaps it is testimony to the success of the Enlightenment that the political process has balanced such perspectives.
 Beetham, D., Boyle, K., Introducing Democracy- 80 Questions And Answers. London: Polity Press, 1995, p. 25.
 Spencer, P., Wollman, H., ibid., p. 101.
 Oommen, T., Citizenship And National Identity From Colonialism To Globalism. New Dehli: Sage, 1997, p. 35.
 Ignatieff, M., Blood And Belonging: Journeys Into The New Nationalism. London: Vintage, 1994. p. 3.
 Kellas, J., The Politics Of Nationalism And Ethnicity. (2nd ed), London: Macmillan, 1998, p. 65.
 Smith, A., National Identity. London: Penguin Books, 1991, p. 10.
 Greenfeld, L., Nationalism: Five Roads To Modernity. London: Harvard University Press, 1992, p. 490.
 Nodia, G., Nodia, G., Nationalism And Democracy, In: Diamond, L., Plattner, M., (eds), Nationalism, Ethnic Conflict and Democracy. London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. p. 15.
 Fine, R., Benign Nationalism? The Limits Of The Civic Ideal. In: Mortimer, E., (ed), People, Nation And State: The Meaning Of Ethnicity And Nationalism. London: I. B. Taurus, 1999, p. 152.
 Renan, E., What Is A Nation? In: Özkirimli, U., Theories Of Nationalism: A Critical Introduction. London: Macmillan, 2000, p. 35.
 Wilson’s Declaration of Fourteen Points towards the end of WWI demanded the right to self determination of post-war states. It was to form the basis of the League of Nations, but was to prove ineffectual in preventing WWII.
 Bogdanor, V., Overcoming The Twentieth Century: Democracy And Nationalism In Central And Eastern Europe, The Political Quarterly. 1995, Vol. 6, no. 1, p. 96.
 Tamir, Y., Liberal Nationalism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.
 Couture, J., Nielson, K., Seymour, M., Liberal Nationalism: Both Cosmopolitan And Rooted. Canadian Journal Of Philosophy. 1996, supplementary vol. 22, p. 579-662.
 Miller, D., On Nationality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 58.
 Geras, N., The Contract Of Mutual Indifference. London: Verso, 1998, p. 137.
 Anderson, B., Imagined Communities: Reflections On The Origins And The Spread Of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1991.
 Fukuyama, F., Comments On Nationalism And Democracy. In: Diamond, L., Plattner, M., (eds), Nationalism, Ethnic Conflict, And Democracy. London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1994, p. 24.
 Fine, R., op cit., p. 154.
 Halliday, F., The Perils Of Community: Reason And Unreason In Nationalist Ideology. Nations And Nationalism, 2000, Vol. 6, no. 2, p. 532.
 Shaw (1856 - 1950) actually said ‘Patriotism is your conviction…’ but this was a misuse of the word. Patriotism confers no sense of superiority over other nations, simply zealous support of the individuals own nation.
 Graham, D., Thompson, A., Theorizing Nationalism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, p. 134.
 Avineri, S., In: Diamond, L., Plattner, M., (eds), Nationalism, Ethnic Conflict, And Democracy. London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1994, p. 14.
Thomas Lawfield is a Masters candidate in Environmental Security & Peace at the UN mandated University for Peace, Costa Rica.