To many in the so-called progressive left ‘nationalism’ is a sort of bogeyman, associated with fascism, violence, and the contemporary surge in populism. Yet, historically, nationalism has rooted out of the very same seed that modern egalitarianism, liberalism, and republicanism have; the French Revolution. It is her Enlightenment ideas that made a rejection of the King, of the Divinely appointed monarch, of the natural order, seem like a realistic possibility. Of course, the Americans have done it earlier, but not only were they largely inspired by the writings of the French, they were mere colonials – those ideas becoming a real threat in the Old Continent was the real deal.
Much like many ideas of the Enlightenment, nationalism, too, is not some kind of an eternal, immutable truth. The French were inspired by the nation (and so were the Poles, the Spanish, and the Germans around the same period, sooner or later) to fight for the Revolution, but most of the sans-culottes probably could not quite define what a nation is, nor why it is a good thing – all they knew is that they all belong to the French nation and that this nation is more important than the King.
In the modern day, many people seem to have realised that; that the nation is a largely modern, arbitrary construct. Any historian would tell you that to really speak of any large-scale nationalism prior to the 18th century is absurd, that there were no nation-states; merely states, with the possible exception of some individual, not very significant at the time examples, like the Hellenic city-states. While other imperfect ideas of the Enlightenment, like equality and liberty, have gained a lot of ground, nationalism largely fell out of favour. It is seen as the new Attila, an agent of hatred, division, and destruction, who comes to burn and conquer all that is foreign to itself; an enemy of the brave new tolerant world order.
But just as Attila united the Western Roman Empire for one last glorious stand against a powerful foe, so can the nation unite us and make us capable of achieving new heights. To explain this, however, one needs to understand quite what a nation is.
What is a nation?
As we established earlier, most people who consider themselves to be a part of a nation will not be able to strictly define it, and indeed it is difficult to find a strict definition. This, however, does not make the word any less meaningful – just like some may disagree whether a hot-dog is a sandwich or not, they can still use the word ’sandwich’ perfectly reasonably in most other circumstances. A ‘nation’ is like a language game; only the participants of the game know its rules, and so only those within a given nation know who else belongs to that nation, and it is impossible to understand said rules without playing the game – without being a part of that nation. Only a Frenchman quite knows what makes a Frenchman, just as only an Italian knows quite what makes an Italian, even if they cannot strictly define it. They can try – a real German is hardworking, a real Italian proud – but they cannot do so exhaustingly. A nation does not need a strict definition. A vague definition, however, can be given – it is anything which unites a certain group of people enough for them to call themselves a ‘nation’. s
We typically think of nations as nation-states: the English nation, the Russian nation, et cetera. However, this does not have to be the case. Especially recently, we see an occurrence of nations which are not based around countries. White nationalism is the buzzphrase of the day; white nationalists see anybody white as a part of their nation, regardless of the state they come from (admittedly the two overlap, but it is nonetheless an important distinction). There is also black nationalism, in the same vein. There is even a prominent movement of LGBT nationalism – people who see their sexual orientation an important enough aspect of their identity to form a nation around it (and are rarely condemned for doing so, unlike those who unite around a nation-state). This is not merely a modern phenomenon – the nationalists of the French Revolution cried “liberte, egalite, fraternite” – anybody who joined them in this shout was a French nationalist. For them, the nation of the French Revolution was based on values, not a state. A French sans-culotte of the time would not deem a French émigré residing in Prussia their fellow national.
In that, we know that a nation is whatever unites a group of people enough for them to call it a nation, and only those within said nation know when is it quite enough to use the word ‘nation’, even if they cannot strictly define it. Very well. Surely, then, this means everything can be a nation? Our workplace, our school, our friends’ group, even the whole world, which is united in being human?
Sure, you can start using the word ‘nation’ to describe your workplace, but few would be genuine in doing so. It is a word easily abused, and can be verified only through one’s actions – how much selfless sacrifice would you be willing to for what you call nation? Nobody would die for their employer, perhaps unless they’re good mates, but then it’s about friendship rather than nationalism.
What about one’s family? Many would die for their family, and families have a lot in common – their blood. And I would say, that yes, a family is a kind of a nation. It is a small, and very closely-knit nation, one built into our genes, a natural one, so a special kind of nation, but a nation nonetheless. That said, any nation is natural – it is only natural that we care more about those that we have more in common with.
This is why ethnonationalism is such a popular kind of nationalism. It resembles the family; it grounds the nation in blood ties, as the family is grounded. This is, however, a limited view, as I will go on to explain.
What makes a nation?
The reason why an average Russian would speak of the ’Russian nation’, but would not refer to their workplace as a nation, is because they do not have enough in common. This is, also, why most nations are nation-states. The Russian shares with their fellow Russian the same language, the same history, the same culture, the same customs, the same religion, the same ethnicity, the same upbringing, largely the same values, the same soil, the same issues, the same politics… One could go on. This is an extremely powerful and real bond, much more powerful than simply sharing a workplace.
This is also the reason why, I think, nationalism is nowadays seen as senseless in much of the west. People do not play the game of an English nation, because there is not much to play with. Many of the aforementioned bonds are eroded, or non-existent. Englishmen no longer share an upbringing, as many were brought up abroad and the schooling systems and customs in which children are brought up differ vastly from London to Cornwall, from ethnicity to ethnicity, from religion to religion. Many speak very different dialects of English, with Essex slang being completely unlike the Queen’s English. Most of all, however, many people know remarkably little about English history and feel completely disconnected from it. From my experience, it is common history that drives people together the most – the fact that both you and your fellow national both have ancestors who fought in the same wars, died together for the same ideals, that you have your identity, freedom, and home because the soil you live on was paid for with their blood arouses feelings unlike anything else.
This is also, why, each nation is different. Russians are united by a different language and history than the French and the Poles and the English and the Germans. The Germans, for one, are largely not proud of their history at all – they do not want to unite around it. The nations have different values and customs, too – the English are historically very much about personal liberty, while the Poles are historically very religious.
Perhaps another element comes into it. In English, we only have the words ‘nation’ and ‘country’, but in Slavic languages (and perhaps many other, I just happen not to know them) there is a clear distinction between narod, nacja, panstwo or stan, and kraj. Hence, when speaking English, we naturally tie nationhood to a state, and the concepts of nationhood and citizenship become synonymous, but there are important distinctions to be made between the people who are legally citizens (narod), those who are nationals of a country (nacja), the legal entity of a state (stan), and the land on which a nation lives (kraj).
At this point, we established what is a nation, what can be a nation, and why nation-states tend to be nations. But the political question of the day is – why be in a nation?