Nation, fatherland, and national consciousness

Critics of the concept of self-determination argue that it gives certain groups the right to become nations and establish national states – which fosters nationalism; and they argue that nationalism is anti-progressive, aggressive, oppressive and war-prone, and that it should be wholly suppressed for the progress of civilization. This contrasts with the fact that the ideal of nationhood and the claim to national identity – springing from Western political ideas – are spreading all over the world. Liberation of the Third World is inevitably being realized through the creation of national states; but in some parts of the world it is evident that the problems and territorial conflicts of emerging nations will remain in dispute, and steps to prevent this, in whatever degree, call for means that are fundamentally opposed to the concept of freedom.

The relationship between the concepts of self-determination and nationhood and of democratic ideals of freedom implies the following equation: democratic freedom equals self-determination equals the nation state. On the other hand, nation state equals nationalism equals fascism and war. No doubt there must be grave errors to be found in both these equations.

Past and present meanings of the terms nation, fatherland, country, will be defined only so far as they are relevant to the argument. A nation is a social community larger than the earlier, more primitive communities; its aim is political in that it aspires to well-defined territory, organized so that national consciousness is shared by most if not all of the community. Common history, language and economic interests are often cited as criteria in the definition of a nation. But a historical background is not necessarily and in all cases a good framework; language has in many instances been a determining force – and with the increase of mass-communication its significance grows – but it is not always a decisive factor. An economic community of interests may strengthen a state, or the intention to form one, but this is not necessarily so – under certain circumstances, for instance with a favourable balance of power, communities with a weak or failing economy may survive as nations and states. It is not possible to give definite answers in deciding what are the desirable conditions or the right directions for nation-forming, or which of the conflicting aspirations are the right ones: whether a large, comprehensive unit is better than a smaller, more, homogeneous one; whether historical claims are more desirable than ethnic or linguistic ones – in the dissolution of realms or colonial empires, it is not possible to determine whether the old, historic, administrative frontiers are more or less expedient than tribal, ethnic or linguistic borders. In a given case, the complex interrelationship of several factors will determine the actual way in which a nation may evolve. However, in specific situations it is possible for an objective and alert observer to predict the outcome.

Thus interpreted, a nation is not an absolute, everlasting phenomenon; nor is it a form of community that necessarily results from man’s biological, psychological and social make-up. Many ages and empires have passed without their people having any conception of nationhood – though one should remember that they were largely under a continuous chain of despots and oligarchies, and power was regarded as a cosmic rather than a man-made creation; and the larger and more complex the unchecked political power, the less possible for a concept of nationhood to emerge. However, long before the revolutions of modern times there were communities with a public consciousness similar to present-day national consciousness. These were communities with considerable internal self-government and external independence, and their people were relatively active politically: for example, the city states of antiquity, tribal kingdoms, medieval cities and larger republics, peasant cantons and feudal kingdoms. So the relationship between the forming of relatively free, political communities and the emergence of the concept of nation and fatherland is not entirely new. The great difference is that in these past “nations” there was a narrower, aristocratic, semi-democratic concept of liberty and national consciousness confined to the elect and the privileged. It meant a common consciousness conflicting with various other loyalties and demands, such as those of the family, the clan, the tribe, the city, or religion – any of which could come to the fore to take precedence over national loyalty. As may be learnt from Plutarch, there was an elaborate ancient moral code supporting and fostering the sense of duty to one’s country and calling for resistance and self-sacrifice for its sake.

Nationhood as we conceive it today first appeared in the terminology of the French Revolution and other mass uprisings against monarchy and aristocracy. The first concepts of nationhood and national consciousness were not born at the time of the French Revolution, but they merged then into the modern ideal of liberty which proclaimed the equality and equal dignity of all men. These ideals became so widely accepted as to become an all-embracing mass phenomenon, unlike the former limited aristocratic, semi-democratic national sentiments.

A new consciousness of common loyalty replaced the vacuum left by old loyalties to ruler and oligarchy, a concept symbolized by the nation based on the ideal of fatherland.

This means that this modern national consciousness, new in form, and aiming to dominate the political community, did have certain – though different – preliminary bonds of community. In fact, in the history of mankind ancient and vital forms of loyalty gradually merged into the single great stream of national consciousness: loyalties to the tribe or clan, the citizen’s loyalties to his town or birthplace, loyalties to religious and military leaders, and those of the subject for his ruler, all formed its tributaries. The feelings for the homeland as they existed in the politically active, aristocratic and semi-democratic communities, feelings already discussed, became a natural part of the greater stream of national loyalty, simply by embracing the masses. Religious and social loyalties and those to political movements and parties contributed to the emergence of the nation state and national loyalty – as still happens today;

This diverse heritage, together with the way in which political consciousness has become democratized and popularized, welds the national consciousness of today into a frightening force; a force that is not likely to grow less in the near future. For the great majority of people in countries with modern mass opinion, and for many others, the strongest communal tie outside that of the family is to the nation, strong enough to evoke loyalty and self-sacrifice. They are feelings that exist regardless of power, social or political interests, of claims for domination or distorted ideologies, and they are not the result of them. Naturally such sociological aspects of nationhood and national consciousness do not justify an ideology based on nationalism, but as they are facts they cannot be dismissed by the repudiation of any such ideology.

The question, then, is: what are the causes of this dangerous aspect of nationalism – the dominating and aggressive elements – that came into being with communities based on political freedom, and in the context of national consciousness?

Positions of domination and submission among nations

The building and maintenance of a political framework, a political organization, a “state” is the main feature in the forming of national communities. Through this the nation and nation state have to become aware of the complexities, organizational and otherwise, that are typical of all communities, and especially the politically active ones. Problems, aims, plans, actions, successes and failures all become communal issues. Individuals feel a sense of loyalty and belonging to the community, a sense of solidarity with other members that have both positive and negative sides. Identities and conflicts of interest may develop within the community; its existence may be threatened; it may be exposed to insults and injustices; it may have demands and claims against other communities, or vice versa. Problems of power may arise: power relationships may produce situations that entire national communities and their corresponding states have to face, differences in power bringing fears for survival, aggressive emotions, distinct feelings of inferiority or superiority, and above all the problem of domination and subjugation.

It is here that the essential difference lies between free nations, in the modern sense of the word, trying to form their states on the ideal of liberty and dignity for all, and those earlier nations not based on these principles – the slave-holding city states, tribal kingdoms, aristocratic republics and feudal kingdoms – which also proudly regarded themselves as free. For the nations of the past, force, oppression, wars of survival, conquests and brutal acts of revenge over insulted pride did not conflict in the least with patriotic and national feelings. A citizen of Athens, as a free citizen, could without qualm do with his slave as he pleased. For a German prince, the freedom of the German nation contained the right – libertas Germanica – for him to sell his subjects as soldiers to foreign princes.

A Hungarian nobleman of the eighteenth century could feel bitter over lost Hungarian “national freedom” when his emperor in Vienna tried to reduce the burdens of the Hungarian serfs. These communities, so jealously guarding their communal and individual liberties, challenged other, similar communities to chivalric battles, or wars of life and death, and conquered, annihilated, oppressed, punished or simply subjugated and absorbed their opponents, without any of these actions contradicting the fundamental principles of their aristocratic and, within limitations, democratic existence. But these actions are not acceptable to modern nations that protest against all forms of tyranny and proclaim equal freedom and dignity for all.

In this lies the most decisive problem in the formation of modern states, and in their inner tension. The state as the historical organ of power, domination and war, is shifting towards a social organization based on free consent and agreement from one that has been based on dominance and aggression, so that certain forms of confrontation, primarily those based on domination and oppression, should cease in accordance with the Marxian dictum that “no nation can be free whilst oppressing others”. But situations do arise where power relations, domination, war and fears for survival are apt to revive the temptations to use traditional means of dominance and force, even in free nations and states with the modern ideal of liberty. As previously mentioned, this can be seen in the development of European states in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There were instances when developed countries inherited slaves, conquests and colonies from their monarchic or aristocratic predecessors, or acquired them through their own ambitious militant politicians or enterprising citizens. Some nations found themselves facing minorities within their boundaries who had their own national consciousness and ambitions. In other cases, as a result of historic events, wars and subsequent peace settlements, nations became rulers over conquered territories with national minorities, or conflicts arose right at the start of a nation’s formation concerning border territories with mixed populations. Or certain communities would dominate ones already existing, breeding hostility and competition for the leading role in forming the nation.

Modern democratic nations who are supposed to be establishing a society based on the ideals of liberty and equal dignity for all men should have solved, and still ought to solve these problems in accordance with the principles of liberty, equality before the law, respect for the sovereignty of the people and the principle of self-determination. On these grounds, all slavery and exploitation should have been abolished, conquered territories and colonies liberated; and disputes concerning the formation of states and nations, as well as other territorial and border problems, could have been solved by unbiased, objective methods. Nonetheless, the question as to how well a nation is able to comply with these requirements and how far it gives in to atavistic temptations of domination by force, depends on a complex interaction of many factors.

Factors prompting aggression and domination in the behaviour of nations

Amongst the factors leading to aggressive and dominating behaviour in nations, the level of progress reached in regard to the concept of liberty and the practical application of rights granted by liberty is the primary and most decisive factor in nations already formed and those in the process of formation. It is influenced by the nation’s history and its political and social maturity. The interpretation and assessment of liberty by a nation covers a wide scale.

At one end of this scale are the nations that are most developed politically, with long-established traditions, formidable experience, and continuous practice of freedom. For them nation-forming is a process similar and parallel to that of a social organization based on the principle of liberty and human dignity without discrimination. The basis is that a people evolves into a modern nation because of undergoing a process of democratization and becoming conscious of its sovereignty within its borders; and despite all their dictatorial, imperialistic, exploiting, colonizing interludes, this basis of modern nationhood has remained unharmed.

At the centre of the scale are those countries where patriotism and the demand for liberty comes from the narrower aristocratic, oligarchic, privileged or intellectual strata, trying to keep pace with the example of more developed countries, and not from the still comparatively passive masses, who are not mature enough to formulate or aspire towards national freedom. This was the case in Central and Eastern Europe at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and it is still prevalent in various parts of the world, today.

Finally, at the other end of the scale are those countries where the ruler himself is the initiator of movements to “arouse national sentiments”, while the masses are still totally passive. This is how European monarchs tried to arouse their people against Napoleon, and it is how rulers, wherever they exist in the Third World, are trying to do it today. The degree to which a ruler or oligarchy sees the superiority of developed countries in terms of power rather than greater liberty for the people, determines the character of their initiatives and how far the national consciousness becomes manifest in power, domination and militancy. Depending on this, national sentiments may be more restricted or may embrace all the wider aspects of freedom. This may explain why, in the last two hundred years throughout the world, the aspiration for nationhood has been spreading faster and more forcefully than that of reorganizing society according to the principles of liberty and equality of human dignity. The two concepts appear to have become almost separated, although the existence of the former for any length of time is hard to conceive without the latter. Such paradoxical situations could never grow from spontaneous processes of evolving into a nation, and in any of the recent examples of national movements with a diminishing or even hostile attitude to freedom the ups and downs may end only when the nation finally joins the truly free ones at the upper end of the scale.

The degree of consciousness of freedom is not the only determining element in the temptation to display dominating and militant attitudes. Other contributing factors are the economic and power relationships which accompany efforts to realize concepts of freedom; the sacrifices demanded in giving up positions of power, economic interest and long-established territorial possessions; and ingrained feelings of superiority. Greatness of power and a reluctance to make sacrifices have induced even some of the developed and freedom-loving nations to oppress, dominate, absorb or annihilate far weaker and smaller communities; and, especially when there were racial, cultural or economic differences, it has not been difficult for the superior power to regard the doctrines of liberty as inapplicable, or to postpone applying them “for the time being” – which in fact often meant for several generations. Frequently the apostles of freedom and humanitarianism arrived on the scene far too late. In the case of the American War of Independence – an example to the whole world – it was possible simultaneously for it to reach victory while it was still considered the wrong time to abolish the gravest of human oppressions, negro slavery. Similarly, for more than a century after the proclamation of human rights, the most developed European countries could regard the domination of underdeveloped peoples through colonial rule as a natural relationship.

In the inevitable process of decolonization the concepts of liberty should not be over or underestimated; nor should the role of power and economic relations. Some state of power relations was necessary for the process to begin, but once established the ruling country’s concept of liberty became decisive. This has already been shown in comparing the attitudes to decolonization of the more developed Western countries with that of the Portuguese.

The experiences of national communities during their formation are also important: the political conflicts, insults, injustices and oppressions. For example, the revolutionary terror that irreparably damaged the outlook for liberty in France and the French Revolution’s reputation throughout Europe was caused by reactionary forces attacking the Revolution; and in self-defence, this caused the revolutionary regime to develop into wars of conquest and a fight for survival, and became fearful of the collective frenzy of victories. These evoked opposing national sentiments and, with experiences of power, oppression, insults and war, united the national consciousness within the attacked and subjugated communities.

There are many other examples that show how, in the life of a community or nation, the more traumatic their experiences, the more they are inclined to seek security in intolerant and oppressive behaviour; and the less they have experienced injustice, humiliation, attack, oppression, war, threat of annihilation, the more they are willing to accept sacrifices for the ideals of freedom.

The forming of boundaries in evolving nations has also contributed to domination: neighbouring nations competing over border territories and vying for the loyalty of the populations concerned; or existing states, national units, federations and their members in conflict over which should be the protagonist in the formation of a nation. For example, from the beginning of the nineteenth century onwards there were three contestants as to which nation the Slovakian-speaking population should belong, living as it was in the Kingdom of Hungary under an Austrian emperor. (When someone praised the patriotism of one of his subjects, the Emperor Franz Joseph asked, with some embarrassment, “Patriotism towards whom?”) The Hapsburg realm wanted to modernize itself by becoming an Austrian nation, while inheriting the prestige and authority of the Holy Roman Empire which had been for many centuries associated with it. This might have been possible had it been a centralized state for as long as, say, France; but the Austrian efforts at centralization were barely a hundred years old, while the title of the Austrian Empire was a creation of 1804. The Kingdom of Hungary, on the other hand, with its eight hundred years of history, and its strong awareness of a common destiny, wanted to create a Hungarian nation within its historic territory. This could have happened if the country had remained independent, had democratized itself at the appropriate time, and had not tried, like France, to make the country unilingual – which was done in an effort to regain independence and to prove the language competitive with the German. The Slovaks, too, could have formed a nation, had they had an historically developed political framework, but they had none. They tried to compensate for this lack by spreading a sense of belonging to the great Slavonic family of nations, which they regarded as more formidable than the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary, both in dispute over their claims for independent nationhood.

The three competing claims resulted in a long and complex struggle. At first, the Austrians got their way over the Hungarians and Slovaks; and then the Hungarian viewpoint was victorious over the Austrians and the Slovaks; finally the Slovaks, with the help of the Czechs, triumphed over the Austrians and the Hungarians, but simultaneously developed a similar struggle with the Czechs over the same problem. Further complications arose through numerous problems and disputes over the demarcation of authority. Both singly and collectively these problems gave ample opportunity for the national formations and movements to become imbued with a spirit that aspired to power and militancy.

It is these divergent factors that determine the extent of aggression and dominance in the process of nation-forming within the modern ideals of liberty. On the one hand we find nations with a serious concept of liberty and a relatively equal balance of power, confronting each other without suffering from the nightmares of annihilation, without notable border conflicts, settling their problems as stylishly as did Sweden and Norway, or Denmark and Iceland. On the other hand we see that political backwardness, an uneven balance of powers, experiences breeding fear, a distorted collective mentality or complex territorial and border problems can magnify conflicts between nations almost to the point of genocide. All these more or less dangerous manifestations of aggression and dominance may be summarized under the term “nationalism”. But nationalism cannot be regarded simply as an aggregate of actual manifestations, since it also represents a set of ideas, an ideology.

(Reprinted from Chapter 5 of The Paralysis of International Institutions and the Remedies. London: The Harvester Press, 1976.)

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