Nationalism and Nations

Ethical Perspectives 1 (3):104-122 (1994)
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Abstract

No one will deny that the history of the last two centuries is incomprehensible without some insight into the meaning of nationalism. In the modern world, references to ‘nation’ and ‘national feelings’ are political forces of the first order that have played a much greater role than have references to other ideas that had raised expectations among political thinkers. Nevertheless, it is not a simple matter to define nation and nationalism; the terms have a weak analytical and explanatory power. We lack a definition that would allow us to determine unequivocally and objectively whether or not we have to do with a nation. Many objective criteria for identification are proffered individually or in combination. None, however, has been consistently satisfactory.A first superficial examination shows that nationalism has a chameleon-like character. It is presented, and we experience it, as a liberating force freeing individuals and peoples from social and political serfdom. Linked to this liberal ‘Risorgimento-nationalism’, which coincided with the political emancipation of the bourgeoisie, was the hope for a better future, for economic prosperity and for the reification of such universal values as human rights, equality, justice and the constitutional democratic rule of law. Yet nationalism has also appeared to include an imperialistic tendency towards domination, belligerent aggression and expansion, racism and exclusion, authoritarianism and rightist radicalism, a blind and infatuated cult of ones’ own. International conflicts were fought and legitimized in the name of nations’ ‘natural’ borders, in terms of return to the homeland, of irredentism.Seen thus, there seems to be two nationalisms: one liberal, liberating nationalism of peoples and another official or state nationalism that proceeds from the nation state and serves its needs. The question is whether this superficial distinction gains any insight. Often, once national liberation has been accomplished and the nation state established, nationalism of peoples is mobilized by and for state nationalism. Nor should we forget that the nationalism of peoples has from the start the establishment of its own nation state as its goal. From this it is evident that our understanding of nationalism is hindered by its seldom being observable in a pure state. It is nearly always linked to other political, social, and religious ideas and values which in turn strengthens its grasp on hearts and minds

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