Nationalism Reconsidered

The origins of the First World War always seemed a little slippery to me and, in school, like most kids, I learned to memorize like a catechism, reciting without quite understanding, that the causes of the First World War were “nationalism, militarism and imperialism.” Throughout my education, I was taught that nationalism was a great bugaboo, the root of evil, worse than money, worse than a lust for power, worse, it seemed, than anything. To consider nationalism objectively, thinking that it might have pros as well as cons, seemed as insane as considering the pros and cons of cannibalism or infanticide.

Therefore, when I saw a book for sale with the title Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity, I was naturally intrigued and picked it up. I read it. Found many of its points very interesting some of which would become integrated into my own political thought. It must have only been recently released, because shortly after I read it I came across a review. Although I can’t say that I bought every word Greenfeld wrote, moreover, there were many portions I had to take on trust because I did not have the background to evaluate them, especially her chapter on Russia since I speak no Russian, I felt that she had opened my eyes to several important aspects of nationalism. The review, while making approving comments about her erudition, was so biting in its tone that it was quite clear that she had written something even more controversial than I had been aware of when I read it. I reread it to make sure I hadn’t missed the part where she advocated eating babies. After reading it a second time, I became convinced of the importance of at least one of her points.

I’m writing from memory since my copy is at the bottom of a box. If you had any clue how I live, you would certainly advise me to keep it there and not make a huge mess of my apartment trying to find it. Therefore, you will have to pardon me for working entirely from memory, a memory from about 1992 or 1993. In no way do I mean to summarize her book or do justice to her argument, I am simply highlighting the part that was useful to me.

Greenfeld says, among many other things, that sovereignty must be located in a body. In the days before nationalism, that sovereignty was located in the person of the king. With the rise of the concept of the nation, sovereignty became lodged in that entity. Without this concept, a sovereign nation, modern democracy, the self-government of the people, could not have arisen.

Ironically, I read this at a time that one of my two closest friends was getting drawn more and more towards anarchism. Compared to some of my friends, I am quite conservative, and this is the sticking point. Of course, I am not conservative in the sense that many people use the term: I support legal abortion; I support the right to marriage between people of the same sex; I support the right of people to change their sex; I believe that there are no significant differences among races; I believe in the right to full and equal citizenship of all people regardless of birth; I believe it is a benefit to the nation as a whole to have public education; I believe progressive taxation is necessary to avoid the condensation of wealth; and I could go on. Many of these positions put me at odds with conservatives and place me clearly left of the center. Yet the farther edges of the left leave me worried.

I have watched with trepidation as the left has a post-modernist and post-nationalist world as its goals. I know too many people on the left to not believe that they mean well. Still, I worry that their work will weaken democracy without securing the broader justice they believe they are seeking. In this regard, the populist right which believes the internationalist left is seeking to undermine democratic government is not entirely wrong. I do not believe that it is being directed from on high, as some sort of conspiracy of international bankers. I believe the left is acting in all honesty, but I think they are acting without caution and foresight. If they succeeding in weakening democratic self-government, the wealthy will be glad to take advantage of the weakness they created.

A disturbing development, is that the right in the U.S. is now embracing this sort of post-nationalist idea. There is no balance. The elites across the political spectrum are afraid of the masses.

The close connection between nationalism and democracy should give pause to the people on the extreme left, most of whom believe themselves to be anti-authoritarian.

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