Nationalism has acquired something of a bad name over the last few decades. The word “nationalist” has become little more than a synonym for racism and xenophobia, fueled by ignorance and hate. In Western society, it’s often associated with white supremacy and the idea of excluding others. But nationalism is neither inherently good nor bad; it is only a concept that can be used to achieve good or evil ends, just like any other tool.
Despite nationalism’s bad reputation, the concept is just as influential as it’s ever been. We have recently seen movements for national independence among Brits, Scots, Catalans, Kurds and even, amusingly, some Californians. So is nationalism as evil as many believe?
A CENTURY OF NATIONALISM
The 20th century was all about nationalism- the good and the bad. The horror of Hitler’s Germany is probably the first example to pop into many of our minds when we think of nationalism, but this is far from a full representation. Nationalism over the last hundred years extended throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America in widespread campaigns for national independence.
Today there are officially 195 countries in the world – a number very much larger than the 60 or so that existed at the beginning of the 20th century. At that time, much of the world “belonged” to colonies that were ruled by European imperial powers. Naturally, colonized people resented this situation and yearned to rule themselves based on their own shared cultural values and traditions. After two world wars, European powers were struggling to maintain their empires and local nationalism allowed dozens of countries to declare independence.
While the struggle for independence often involved unfortunate violence, few of us today would criticize decolonization, and the right of a community to govern itself. Violence is a matter of implementation, and not inherent in nationalist ideals, as illustrated by the example of India.
INDIAN INDEPENDENCE AND MAHATMA GANDHI
The greatest name in the struggle for decolonization must be that of Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi. Seen now as an almost saintly figure, Gandhi is considered the “Father of India” and his birthday is celebrated as a national holiday. Gandhi was India’s most influential nationalist, leading India to independence from the British Empire through the practice of civil disobedience. Non-violence was central to Gandhi’s methods, focusing instead on petitions, boycotts, fasting, marches, and non-compliance with the regime.
Nationalism is often criticized by self-professed “global citizens” as exclusionary, but Gandhi suggests that through self-expression of our regional and cultural identities can we serve the whole of humanity:
It is impossible for one to be internationalist without being a nationalist. Internationalism is possible only when nationalism becomes a fact, i.e., when peoples belonging to different countries have organized themselves and are able to act as one man. It is not nationalism that is evil, it is the narrowness, selfishness, exclusiveness which is the bane of modern nations which is evil.
Each wants to profit at the expense of, and rise on the ruin of, the other. Indian nationalism has struck a different path. It wants to organize itself or to find full self-expression for the benefit and service of humanity at large… God having cast my lot in the midst of the people of India, I should be untrue to my Maker if I failed to serve them. If I do not know how to serve them I shall never know how to serve humanity. And I cannot possibly go wrong so long as I do not harm other nations in the act of serving my county.
Gandhi was ultimately assassinated by an Indian nationalist in a rival faction, who disagreed with his methods – a stark illustration of the double-edged nature of nationalism.
THE RISE OF CIVIC NATIONALISM
While it’s true that nationalist ideologies have often been based on xenophobia, race and other factors that we find distasteful in modern society, the U.S.A. was perhaps the first country to build an identity based on civic nationalism, under the motto of E Pluribus Unum. The idea of agreed citizenry as the core of nation was first discussed by French philosopher and historian Ernest Renan in 1882. Renan dismissed race, language, religion and geography as the basis of the nation, instead saying:
A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things which, properly speaking, are really one and the same constitute this soul, this spiritual principle. One is the past, the other is the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present consent, the desire to live together, the desire to continue to invest in the heritage that we have jointly received.
A civic notion of nationality is increasingly prominent across the world; in Australia, Canada, Europe and even some relatively ethnically homogenous countries like South Korea.
WHAT IS THE FUTURE OF THE NATION-STATE?
The nation may or may not be the best societal structure for civilization, but it is wrong to demonize nationalism as a fundamentally evil ideology. How nationalism is expressed is a matter of choice.
Previously dismissed as a conspiracy theory, the 2016 presidential election brought the theory of “globalism” into common parlance – the idea of working toward a global society (and thereby a world government), at the expense of individual countries. With supra-national entities such as the European Union already well on the way toward political and military (if not cultural) regional unification, one possibility is that all nations will gradually merge into such blocs, eventually losing individual identity in favor of global citizenship.
But even after a century of decolonization, there are still communities pushing to get their independence, with territory divided into ever smaller chunks (I once had a professor who theorized that this trend of decentralization would eventually lead to a world of city-states). As tension rises between Globalism and Nationalism, is the 21st century going to centre on a clash between these two models of human civilization?