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Nationalism:
Past Neglect and Present Power

Original Article By: Isaiah Berlin
The Proper Study of Mankind An Anthology of Essays
Major Topic: Philosophy
Minor Topic: History

Précis:

         In the study of the history of ideas it is fun to discover the origin, change and development of the ideas we hold today. In the 19th century a new rise in the study of history led to a feeling of progress and a change in life and society which generated a hope for a better future. There was a hope that science and mathematics could be applied to and solve all social problems.

         One notion or movement within this sense of progress was nationalism. It was so completely entrenched in all the societies of Europe that no one at the time thought that its influence could (let alone would) increase any more and certainly not to anything like what the world witnessed in the 20th century.

         Rather, most theorists seemed to think that nationalism would decline in influence and importance. It was believed that when states became one with their nations then there would not be any more need for nationalism as a mood or as a body of ideas. Many believed that the reality of strong, free and self-governing nation-states would trump the notion of nationalism and make it obsolete. Belonging to a nation-state seemed to be a good idea even a great idea – almost everyone agreed but the type of nationalism that claimed the interests of the nation-state to be the highest values for all members, seemed to be a dying ideology.

         Most believed that strong nationalism appeared to be a reaction against past dominations: a temporary phenomena that would pass in a generation or two. No one, the author claims, believed that nationalism would rise to be so powerful a force as it did in the 20th century. This, the author, finds puzzling. How could the future have been so hidden from the best and brightest – from all – of the people in the 19th century?

         To answer, the author first proceeds to define 'nationalism.' It is not a national sentiment or consciousness. These are too broad to serve as part of a useful definition. Nationalism can be defined by the presence of four convictions: (1) that men belong to a clearly differentiable group and that the differentiae pattern the group's goals and ideals. (2) That the goals of the nation are (or ought to be) supreme for all. That the individual is not essential; only the nation is and only from the nation can an individual find meaning and purpose. (3) That these goals, values and purposes of the nation belong to the individual and are always right because they are the individual's and the nation's together. (4) That those who disagree must be crushed or forced to capitulate and only in this way can the nation realize its true being and end. If it be that others hold the same about their nations then it is further believed that one's own nation is a master race or possesses a higher truth or has risen to the highest cultural level. That these 'facts' demonstrate that others are, in fact, made to serve.

         These convictions have been made to serve many institutions but none have found them so potently dangerous as the nation. Nationalism, born in the 18th century, became supercharged when wed to statism: the notion that the government is (or ought to be) supreme in all parts of life.

         Nationalism may be the reaction of a society to some bruised collective ego, but that cannot be the whole explanation since such slights are all over history without the necessary development of nationalism. The humiliation, real or imagined, of a society is a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition for the development of nationalism. The society must also have two more factors present. The first factor is a group who is looking to find a new idea to entice social bonding – such a group is often a newly disaffected group that in former times had more clout. The second factor is that the society must already have some sense of nationhood, that is an 'us verse them' category.

         In the rise of nationalism the disaffected group's first step is to question the existing laws and institutions of the society. If successful, this leads to a new sentiment of man and society focused on change and dynamism rather than on the absolute truth and universality of the past. Rationality is scorned and the collective will is praised.

         A hurt or traumatized society in which a new communal bond is being developed has set the stage for the worst kind of nationalism. History has shown that many nations have taken this path but not all have taken it to an extreme. Nobody in the 19th century had foreseen anything like the 20th century's nationalism. Why?

         Why did everyone, including both liberals and Marxists, seem to believe that nationalism would soon disappear? The author's thesis is: “What, I think, was ignored was the fact... that the destruction of traditional hierarchies and orders of social life, in which men's loyalties were deeply involved, by the centralisation and bureaucratic 'rationalisation' which industrial progress required and generated, deprived great numbers of men of social and emotional security, produced the notorious phenomena of alienation, spiritual homelessness and growing anomie, and needed the creation, by deliberate social policy, of psychological equivalents for the lost cultural, political, religious bonds which served to maintain the older order.... But for the majority the vacuum was filled neither by professional associations, nor by political parties, nor by the old revolutionary myths... but by the old traditional bonds – language, the soil, historical memories real and imaginary – and by institutions or leaders functioning as incarnations of men's conceptions of themselves as a community, a Gemeinshaft – symbols and agencies which proved far more powerful than either socialist or enlightened liberals wished to believe.” (page 600)

         In essence, the idea of nationalism absolved the hurt suffered. Modern nationalism has used the dislocation caused by modernization as its foundation.

         There are other possible reason for why people did not see the possible paths of nationalism. (1) The idea of Whig history in which there is an inevitable progress towards a better future. (2) The Europocentric nature of European intellectuals which could not fathom that 'lower' races or cultures would ever develop a common sense of nationhood – they were barbarians and fit only to serve – was a common sentiment.

         Today it seems that a movement will not succeed without a vein of nationalism in it.

Added on: 2009-05-28 01:27:21
Précis by: James Jeff McLaren
© 2008 - 2017, James Jeff McLaren