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Toward a Critical Nationalism

Stefán Snaevarr

A critical nationalist emphasizes the limitations of nationalism; she thinks that the rights of nations are usually overridden by the rights of individuals and universal human rights.

It seems that lot of people outside the US feel that the Americans have become much too patriotic and nationalistic as a result of the foul attacks on the Pentagon and the Twin Towers. As in many times throughout history, these certainly are times when critical reflection on nationalism is urgently needed. I propose that by all means be a nationalist, but please, be a critical one!

This idea is inspired by Karl Popper's theory of critical rationalism, put forth his seminal book, The Open Society and its Enemies. This famous philosopher maintained that a critical rationalist regards critical thinking as the foundation of rationality. At the same time, he is critical of the potentials of reason; he knows that reason has its limits. An uncritical rationalist, on the other hand, thinks that reason is comprehensive, it is almighty and all-powerful.

Popper was no friend of nationalism, which he thought was the enemy of critical reason. Nevertheless, I want to borrow the formal structure of critical rationalism and use it for my own conception of a critical nationalism. A critical nationalist emphasizes the limitations of nationalism; she thinks that the rights of nations are usually overridden by the rights of individuals and universal human rights. Second, she open to criticism of nationalism, including her own brand of nationalism. Third, she is critical in the sense that she is critical of her own nation, not least of any chauvinistic, imperialistic or racist tendency that nation might have. Her role models are the prophets of the Old Testament, who criticised their countrymen in order to make them mend their ways. Her feelings for her own country are emotional ambivalence.

Popper maintains that uncritical or comprehensive rationalism tends to have totalitarian or authoritarian implications. In my view, the same holds for uncritical or comprehensive nationalism. An uncritical nationalist is chauvinistic; he believes his own nation is above reproach and much better than any other nation. His nationalism is also comprehensive; the interests of his nation override the rights of the individuals. The Nazis are a good example of such a comprehensive nationalists, cf. their slogan "You are nothing, your nation is everything" ("Du bist nichts, dein Volk alles").

Now there are those who say that nationalism usually ends up by being chauvinistic, so why not be just critical and drop the nationalist bit? In order to answer this question I will use the better part of this essay to respond to various criticism of nationalism. As part of that response, I will discuss Ernst Gellner's conception of nationalism.

Gellner was one of world's leading experts on the issue of nationalism and an ideological ally of Karl Popper. Just like Popper, Gellner was a Central-European Jewish refugee, who settled in England. Just as Popper, he took a bleak view of nationalism. In his famous book Nations and Nationalism he maintained that nationalism is first and foremost a political principle, which holds that the political and national unit should be congruent.

If I understand Gellner correctly, he was saying that a nationalist is a person, who thinks that for each nation there should a separate state. Usually, such a person thinks that every nation should have the right of self-determination. However, the difficulties of implementing this principle are well known; who should determine the fate of Northern Ireland, the Northern Irish alone or the whole population of Ireland? Do the Quebecois have a right of self-determination, but not the Native Americans living in Quebec? Or does the right to determine the faith of Quebec lie in the hands of all Canadians? So if we accept Gellner's ideas, nationalism seems to be a pretty irrational idea, "a useless passion" ("un passion inutile"), to abuse a quotation from Jean-Paul Sartre.

The trouble is that there have been scores of nationalists whose ideas do not fit Gellner's scheme of things. The 18th century German scholar Johann Gottfried Herder is a case in point. He was arguably the first ideologist of nationalism in general. According to him, it is a common language, which makes a group of people a nation. Language moulds our thinking, and every language creates a special way of thinking, a unique national culture. He stressed the necessity of defending German culture against French influence, not because of any animosity towards the French, but because of his love of cultural diversity (those who abhor American cultural influence could learn a thing of two from this old German thinker).

Herder maintained that one ought to defend and strengthen German culture. He urged the Germans to recognise each other as fellow countrymen. But he did not regard German unification as an all-important goal; he was concerned with cultural unity, not the unity of a national state. Furthermore, he did not like Prussia one bit because of its authoritarian ways, and he was actually rather philosemitic. This shows that German nationalism does not have to be authoritarian or anti-Semitic.

So Herder was a nationalist, but he was definitely no chauvinist. His nationalism certainly does not conform to Gellner's conception of nationalism, the reason being that the establishment of a national state was not necessarily his overall goal. So either we admit that Gellner's conception is much too narrow, or we dogmatically accept it as correct, and by fiat decide that Herder was not a nationalist.

But Gellner's understanding of nationalism then becomes an empty dogma. It is better to reject Gellner's conception and define "nationalism", for instance, as "the idea that maintains that national identities and national cultures are worth preserving and/or strengthening". Both the critical and uncritical brands of nationalism ought to be subsumable under this definition. This holds both for those types of nationalism, which stress national self-determination, and those that do not. They are equally subsumable under the definition.

The nationalists who puts emphasis on self-determination could say that giving every nation its own state is the best way to ensure the preserving and strengthening of national cultures and identities. Be that as it may, I am not certain if we can find any really satisfactory definition of "nationalism". My hunch is that there is no "nationalism" with a capital "N". Rather, there seem to be different but interrelated types of nationalism. The critical and the chauvinistic types are obviously different. Furthermore, something similar seems to hold for the notion of a nation. It obviously has unclear, blurry edges.

Are the Americans really a nation or are they a union of nations? Are the Belorussians a separate nation and not just a type of Russians? The critics of nationalism could say that nations are just the figments of our imagination. There is no such thing as a nation � or even such a thing as "society" � only individuals really exist. A society is just the sum of certain individuals, who then delude themselves into believing that the society, for instance a national society, really exists.

But these critics do not realise that we could just as well maintain that there is no such thing as the individual. We could ask the question whether we labour under some gigantic illusion about ourselves being individuals, while we in actual fact are just the sum of the co-operation of certain atoms. And is the grumpy old egghead, who is writing this essay, really the same person as the sweet, babbling infant he was 45 years ago?

I doubt that I am saying anything less informative when I say that Pierre and Jean belong to the common category of Frenchmen than if I say that today's version of me belongs to the same category (my person) as the aforementioned babbling baby. True, there is a subjective moment in the perception of oneself as belonging to a nation. But there is also such a moment in the perception of oneself as being a continuous person.

To make matters worse for the individualist, the idea of the individual as separated from his community is a modern conception of things. In most, possibly all, "primitve" or premodern societies (for instance the Scottish tribal societies of old), one cannot imagine this to be the case.

Be that as it may, human kind seem to be a social, even a tribal, animal, so feeling attached to one's community, tribe or nation could be a pretty natural thing. If that is the case, why not make the best of it, cultivate the feeling of attachment and be critical at the same time?

As suggested, nationalism has some excellent qualities. It can in the first place give us a feeling of togetherness in a cold and atomistic world (as can religion and tribalism). Being critical and universalistic usually means taking a very abstract stance, a stance which tends not to be emotionally fulfilling. Also, nationalism can save local cultures from extinction. The erosion of national and tribal feelings can lead to the disappearance of local cultures and languages.

It has been said that the diversity of cultures is as important for the common human civilization as the diversity in the bio-sphere is for the ecological system. One of the reasons for this is that there is a lot of knowledge and wisdom in each culture. When a culture disappears, potential answers to the common problems of humanity vanish. Thus, the existence of local cultures serves global civilization. Therefore, there need be no contradiction between universalistic and nationalistic perspectives, the critical and the national.

Nationalism can be critical. It does not have to be chauvinistic, and it can help us preserve local cultures.

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