Nations, Nation-States, and Nationalism

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From the G-File on The Dispatch

Dear Reader (may the road rise up to meet you, and may your pants never be see-through),

So I’m going to do something a little different today. Before I explain what I’m doing, I’ll explain the why.

I’ve been writing a lot about Conservatism 101 stuff over the last year or so because a lot of folks have liberated themselves from what it actually is—or was (I’m sure we’ll see lots of examples of that at CPAC this weekend). Well, a key part of this Great Forgetting is nationalism.  The Economist’s cover story this week is about the need to take “national conservatism” seriously. (To be clear, they don’t like it. But they also think it’s not going away.) Nationalism is being sold by some as an alternative to conservatism and by others not as a replacement but as the “true” conservatism. They often sound like nationalism is some prince-in-exile who needs to be restored to the throne. Nationalism is the forgotten, authentic, or “true” conservatism.

I think this is nonsense.

But I think confusion over nationalism extends beyond various quarters of the right. Here, for example, Politico’s democracy reporter Heidi Przybyla (who I like personally), makes the bizarre claim that if you think your rights come from God, you’re a “Christian nationalist.” I will audition for the annual World’s Biggest Understatement Award and simply say that this claim is … contestable. Meanwhile, the anti-Israel left has all manner of weird notions about nationalism, starting with the idea that a territory or region called by the Romans  “Palestine” (as a way to snub the Jews) was actually a country that existed there before Israel and was a Jew-free country before 1948. (Spoiler: It was neither Jew-free nor a country, and Israel was there first.) And, of course, Vladimir Putin and his fans have all manner of very hot takes on what nations are and what nationalism means.

So I want simply to clarify what nationalism is—and isn’t. Or at least clarify my own understanding of it. So I’m going to make a down payment on explaining some basic concepts, at least as I see them. If you’re not in the mood for such eggheady spelunking, that’s cool. I’ll talk to you next week.

I’ll start by asking a question: When does a country become a nation?

This might sound like a nonsense question, like “what’s the difference between a car and an automobile?” That’s because in everyday conversation, we use the two words interchangeably.

But if we’re going to be precise, there’s a real difference. A country is an area of land with a single government. A nation is a relatively coherent group of people who share a culture, language, ethnicity, or sense of common fate. The “Kurdish nation” is a thing, but the Kurds have no country (semiautonomous Iraqi Kurdistan notwithstanding). Scotland and England are two nations in one country. The nation of England is much older than the country of England. The “Heptarchy” of Anglo-Saxon England was made up of seven kingdoms (East AngliaEssexKentMerciaNorthumbriaSussex, and Wessex) until that was consolidated into four kingdoms in the eighth century. In 927, England became a unitary country under Æthelstan.

Again, terminology can get messy. But today we usually refer to countries as nation-states—the nation part describes the people, the state part describes the government. But technically speaking, not all countries are nation-states. The oldest form of polity—outside of clans, tribes, troops, etc.—are city-states. The ancient world was full of somewhat identifiable nations that were divided up into city-states: Uruk, Ur, Thebes, Memphis, and, of course Rome, come to mind. But more to the point, we still have some city-states—Monaco, Singapore, and the Vatican are independent city-states or countries, but they are not nation-states.

In short, it is important to keep in mind that the nation-state is a relatively recent invention, while the nation is much older. Indeed, most nation-states are pretty young.

You can meaningfully talk about the Greek nation going back thousands of years. But Greece didn’t become a formal and sovereign nation-state until 1832. Belgium, where Julius Caesar faced some of his most fierce opposition (“Of all the Gauls,” Caesar famously said “the Belgians are the bravest enemies I have ever faced”) became a country two years earlier, in 1830. Indeed, if you look at a map of Europe in the 1830s, the number of recognizable independent nations is comparatively small. There’s France, Spain, England and a few more. But there are no independent nation-states of Germany, Austria, Poland, Slovakia, Czechia, Bosnia, Romania, or Ukraine (then controlled by the Hapsburgs and Russians). Germany until the 19th century was a nation, but not a nation-state. It was chock-a-block with various little independent kingdoms and “states.” Russia and Austria-Hungary were “countries” or “states” but they were composed of near-countless nations or countries.

In 1946 there were 36 nations in the United Nations. By 1970 the number was 127. The roster didn’t expand nearly fourfold because a bunch of old countries decided to join the club for all the perks. Most became members once they became countries. This is one of the ironies of anti-colonialism. Lots of “post-colonial “countries are products of colonialism—i.e. many colonies were transformed into countries by their colonizers who created within them a sense of nationhood that hadn’t existed before. There’s a school of thought that the British created India. “India is a geographical term,” Churchill once said. “It is no more a united nation than the equator.” There’s a lot of debate about all that, but suffice it to say, there’s some truth to the idea.

What makes all of this even more otherworldly to the contemporary mind is that pretty much all of these countries, empires, and nation-states until very recently didn’t “belong” to the people. They belonged to a network of families, or dynasties, which operated a lot like the Mafia. Each family had its territory. Some of these territories had been in the family for centuries. But the families were constantly looking to acquire more territory, often through war, but sometimes through marriage or barter (and usually the marriages were a form of sealing the deal of the barter). For millennia, the authority of royal dynasties derived from the fact that they descended from some warlord. This is what Albert Jay Nock was getting at when he said, “The State’s criminality is nothing new and nothing to be wondered at,” he wrote. “It began when the first predatory group of men clustered together and formed the State, and it will continue as long as the State exists in the world, because the State is fundamentally an anti-social institution, fundamentally criminal. The idea that the State originated to serve any kind of social purpose is completely unhistorical. It originated in conquest and confiscation—that is to say, in crime.”

Anyway, the argument that “nationalism” is some ancient, natural, form of social organization is not very powerful. It’s not entirely wrong, either. But it depends on a lot of historical cherry-picking. Yoram Hazony, if memory serves, claims that the idea of the nation-state comes from Israel and then is super-charged after the Protestant Reformation. Okay, maybe. Why not? But also, so what? There’s a lot of history between ancient Israel and the 1600s, and very little of it supports the claim that the idea of nationalism—or even what you might call nation-ism (which is what I think Hazony often really means)—was very powerful. Certainly, all of those nations were still the playthings of kings and nobles.

Actual nationalism starts in the late 1700s in America—a pretty unique case—but really with the French Revolution. And it’s been unfolding ever since. Earlier I noted the irony of colonial powers creating anti-colonial new nations. That, after all, is the story of America. It took a long time for the founding generation to see itself as something other than British. If King George had respected their claims to their “ancient British rights and liberties,” it’s doubtful the United States would have become a nation, at least not for a long time.

German nationalism is a more relevant example. It was basically ignited by the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic occupiers who aroused a sense of nationhood among the disparate German people. Interestingly, to me at least, the first German nationalists weren’t really ethno-nationalists—race science was in its infancy back then—but linguistic nationalists. Vladimir Putin’s nationalism often looks a lot like this. He talks about all Russian speakers, including in the Baltics and elsewhere, as if they are simply Russians.

Indeed, Palestinian nationalism—and one day nationhood—is entirely a product of Israel’s existence. Had there been no Israel in 1948, “the Palestinians” would be Arabs living in Egypt, Jordan, etc.

Today, largely because of the atrophied vocabulary of contemporary politics, nationalism is cast as the opposite of liberalism. But that’s not how it worked. The age of nationalism was also the age of democracy and the age of liberalism. America’s Founders were nationalists, they were also liberals. Even in Europe, many—maybe even most—of the original nationalists were to one extent or other liberal in the classical sense (and in fairness to Hazony, despite his weird hatred of liberal theory, in practice he’s still a liberal in that he’s for democracy and the rule of law and all that stuff). Some liberal nationalists wanted democracy or “republicanism,” while others just wanted the rule of law, free speech, a free press, and the protection of property rights etc. Others didn’t care much about that stuff, preferring instead to restore the sovereignty of their own royal rulers. However, what united all of them, to one extent or another, was the idea their nation should be its own country. Bohemia for the Bohemians and that kind of thing.

This brings us to another term that needs to be illuminated: “popular sovereignty.” This is the idea that the people are the real owners of the country they live in (of course, who counts as “the people” can be an ugly question—just ask the Jews, Rohingya, Uyghurs, et al). Today popular sovereignty and democracy are pretty much synonymous, but that’s not how it started. Initially, democracy—often called republicanism, but that gets complicated too—was just one form of popular sovereignty.

During the 1800s there were plenty of nationalists whose idea of popular sovereignty meant being ruled by their own king or parliament of nobles, not some foreign ruler. Think of it this way: In Braveheart, Mel Gibson talks a lot about “freedom,” but he isn’t talking at all about democracy—he’s talking about national liberation. Popular sovereignty could mean democracy or republicanism, but it could just as easily mean, “We want one of our own to rule us.” Woodrow Wilson’s call for “self-determination” is often used by his apologists to suggest he favored democracy for everybody. But he didn’t. It could mean democracy, but it could also mean that empires be broken up into sovereign nation-states that governed themselves as they saw fit.

This thinking is alive and well today, by the way. Lots of apologists for Hamas, Iran, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, et al., often talk as if illiberal tyranny is just an authentic expression of these non-Western cultures and who are we to judge them, never mind impose our ideas on them?

So while all nationalists believe in popular sovereignty, not all nationalists believe in democracy. Adolf Hitler was a nationalist, he didn’t have much use for democracy. Even Stalin, a Georgian and promoter of international socialism, became a Soviet and a really Russian nationalist once in power. Nationalists, contrary to Hazony’s claims, can also be imperialists. Hitler wanted “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer,” but he also wanted to subjugate inferior peoples’ and nations. Xi Jinping is a nationalist and an imperialist; just ask the Tibetans and Uyghurs.

This raises another distinction. Hitler and Xi are ethnonationalists. Lots of liberal nationalists take great pains to insist—often accurately and rightly—that they are not ethno-nationalists. Liberal nationalists still believe in liberal democracy, to one extent or another. Ethnonationalists believe that the nation rightfully belongs to a single ethnicity, variously defined. Hitler’s nationalism was reserved for Germans (or Teutons or Aryans), Xi’s nationalism is less extreme, but he is a practitioner of Han supremacy. Mussolini was not an ethnonationalist, but he wasn’t a liberal nationalist either. Rather, he was a cultural nationalist. Biological racism is a poor fit for an ethnically polyglot country like Italy.

To the extent you can call Israel “nationalist,” it is also liberal. Claims that it is ethnonationalist fall apart when you consider that it is a very multiethnic country, with citizens of every hue and faith. The freest Arabs in the Middle East are Arab-Israeli citizens. The Jews of Israel, meanwhile, come from Europe, but also North Africa and elsewhere in the Middle East. Critics like to erase these inconvenient facts by insisting that the country is comprised of settler-colonial oppressors from Europe. But the majority aren’t of European descent. And the supermajority are Sabras—Israelis who were born in Israel. If you want to say it’s a religiously nationalist country, that’s a defensible claim. But you should acknowledge that its liberalism is a profound check on this aspect of its character. Israel is far more religiously tolerant than most of its neighbors.

I’ve thrown a lot of terminological distinctions at you. But there’s a false distinction I should address as well. The communist left in the 1920s and 1930s insisted that “nationalism” and “socialism” are opposites. This claim was rooted in the Soviet Union’s desire to have an uncontested monopoly on the concept and implementation of socialism. With the help of pronouncements like Stalin’s “Theory of Social Fascism,” the left claimed that any socialist movement that wasn’t loyal to Moscow, was “right-wing.” Sometimes they used the term “right-wing socialism.” With the rise of fascism and German national-socialism, this often got whittled down to “right-wing” or “nationalist.”

But in practice, extreme nationalist regimes were also socialist, and extreme socialist regimes inevitably became nationalist. Castro was a socialist. He was also a nationalist. Stalin was once an international socialist, but in order to stay in power he became a national-socialist (“socialism in one country,” “great patriotic war for mother Russia,” etc.). This is because socialism, like nationalism, has the same core logic. Any hindrance to the good of the collective, the people, the nation, is illegitimate. And therefore, for the good of the people, the state must have control of the means of production and the distribution of that product to ensure all of the people benefit. The distinction between socialism and nationalism on the ground is about marketing, not principle. Socialized medicine is nationalized health care.

This false distinction endures to this day, albeit in watered down form. I chuckle at the avowed nationalists of the right who rail against the “socialists” of the left, and vice versa, even as their proposed policies sound awfully similar. Elizabeth Warren’s version of economic justice looks a lot like various notions of “common good conservatism.” The distinctions between these combatants on either side of the horseshoe have less to do with policy or principle and more to do with which team can claim the power of Tribune of the People.

Let’s talk about today’s version(s) of nationalism. My first objection to nationalism is that absent qualifiers—like “liberal” or “benign”—nationalism (again like socialism) has no limiting principle. Nationalism purports to be concerned with what is good for “the nation.” Sounds good. But who defines good? One answer, not surprisingly offered by nationalist populists, is “the people.” But this is rhetorical mischief. Which people? What if the people are wrong? What if “the people” isn’t everyone but just a faction of the people? Liberal democracy has answers to these questions. That’s why the least offensive form of socialism is social democracy—because it concedes that socialism needs to be curtailed and constrained by democracy. I rarely hear nationalists make a similar concession.

Unqualified nationalism makes no such concessions. That’s why non-liberal nationalist systems almost invariably become statist, socialist, or dictatorial. Because the state or “the leader” ends up being the only legitimate expression of the will of the people. When the leader does things that lots of people object to, the leader insists that those people do not have the nation’s authentic interests at heart. When the legislature or the courts do something the leader doesn’t want, the leader insists they are corrupt in some way. The logic of nationalism, absent legal or constitutional guardrails, leads almost inexorably to the claim that one person is the true expression of the Nation or the People. This is why I have always seen nationalism as a modern-sounding backdoor to a kind of monarchism. After all, this was the objection made by royalists in the face of rising notions of popular sovereignty: The king knows best what is best for the people. That is the argument made by Putin, Xi, Hitler, Mussolini, and the countless czars, emperors, kings, and Caesars deposed by nationalism.

This is why I maintain that patriotism and nationalism are different things. I am aware that this can be a forced distinction etymologically, so I’ll put it this way: If patriotism doesn’t mean what I think it means, we need a word to mean what I mean by patriotism. Nationalism is an unfettered mystical claim about abstract concepts like “the people” or “the nation”—ill-suited for a multiethnic, religiously and culturally diverse liberal democratic nation grounded in a republican constitution. Meanwhile, patriotism, by my understanding, means fidelity to precisely these liberal and constitutional commitments. An American nationalist can—and often does—see the constitutional order as an impediment to the national will and therefore argue for overturning it or ignoring it. The patriot is loyal to that constitutional order and the ideals that inform it.

I know I’ve gone very long here. But I need to answer the question I started with: When does a nation become a country? My short answer is, when it successfully stands up a government that is recognized by the people, and later by other countries. (I’d like to say, when it democratically stands up a government, but democracy is not essential here.)

Which brings me to Ukraine and the treason of the nationalists.

In Putin’s tirades about Ukraine, he makes it clear that he subscribes to a pre-nationalist, pre-popular sovereignty, pre-modern theory of politics. He thinks that because Ukraine wasn’t a country in the ninth or 13th century it can’t be a country today—at least not if he doesn’t want it to be.

This is contrary to everything nationalists today claim to believe. And that is what is so disgusting about Putin’s purportedly nationalist amen choir. Putin is not a nationalist, he’s an imperialist. But the contemporary nationalists who wax righteous about rejecting the “imperialism” of the globalists and their institutions—the U.N., the EU, the World Bank, Davos, whatever—either cheer, mumble pro-forma objections, or simply stare at their shoes in silence as Putin attempts to erase a sovereign nation. The Ukrainians have their own language, their own culture, their own national history, and have been a nation for centuries. What they want to be is a country. And the allegedly nationalist Putinphiles are too ignorant or sycophantic to respect that desire because it conflicts with the ambition of a mass murderer and tyrant.

Putin’s apologists demonstrate that the real point of nationalism is the pursuit of power. Ideological nationalism is an attempt to provide a permission structure, to construct the slipperiest slope possible to their attainment of power. Nationalism, like “post-liberalism,” is an intellectual pretext, a means toward an end: power. After all, Putin is trampling every laudatory, beneficial, positive, historical aspect of nationalism—national and popular sovereignty, democracy, liberalism, etc.—but because he’s powerful (in their eyes) that’s okay. Because their nationalism was never really about nationalism; it was about power worship, at home, and abroad.

Various and Sundry

Canine update: The Fair Jessica is still out of town. So I’ve been home alone with the beasts for a while and everyone’s getting a little weird (and pushy). But some weirdness is weirder than others. Here’s a story. Sometimes, when the garbage is full I’ll tie up the bag and just put it outside the mudroom door at the top of the steps, figuring I’ll just take it to the cans when I next leave the house. I did that Monday morning. Sometimes, if I do this at night and forget, racoons will come and make a giant mess. But that usually doesn’t happen during the daytime. Anyway, I forgot about it and was working on my column. The dogs started barking at the back door. I got up and looked out the window and saw some workmen in the driveway we share with our neighbors. More barking. “Quiet Zoë! It’s fine,” I said. She grumbled more. When it came time to go out for the midday walk, I leashed up Zoë and opened the door only to see the garbage bag had been torn open and all sorts of chicken bones and food containers were strewn about. “Paydirt!” quoth the Dingo and Spaniel. So I had to hurriedly pull them away from the garbage. In my haste I failed to close the mudroom door, but that was okay. I was just going to put them in the car, and then come back up and clean up the mess. So I open the Element and put Zoë in. I then turn to tell Pippa to get in, but something was wrong. Pippa looked very strange. But in the frenzy of the moment I couldn’t figure out what it was. And then I shook my head like a hallucinating cartoon character and realized that the spaniel at my feet about to get in my car wasn’t my spaniel. It was some new, different, spaniel. This raised two questions, one more obvious than the other: 1) Who is this spaniel? But also: 2) Where is my spaniel? Pippa, who always starts from the assumption that any strange dog is a mean dog, had gone off to hide in the bushes. Meanwhile this new spaniel wanted to get in the car and go to the park with us. Zoë did not like this plan. She started yelling at the interloper and even tried to jump out the open window to repel this invader. So I had to get into the car, turn it on, and close the window while holding onto Zoë to keep her from escaping while using my foot to keep the interloper from getting in the car. Good thing I’m so lithe. I managed to lock up the dingo and even get my spaniel in the car. But all the while the door was still open and Gracie was supervising the whole thing from the top of the steps. Then, I could hear Jaws music playing, which made me realize that Chester, the neighbor’s cat who likes to bully Gracie, was land-swimming toward us. So I had to shoo away Chester while holding onto the new spaniel. That turned out to be fairly easy because the new spaniel wanted to hang out with me. Several times he just rolled on his back to ask for belly rubs (which I provided). I saw from his collar that his name was Monty. I really liked Monty, who I think is an American springer spaniel. I called the number on the tag, and his owner, a very nice lady, eventually came and got him.

Anyway, the girls are all good. They even have a new album cover.

I’ll be on The Chris Wallace Show Saturday morning.

And I went on a bit of a tear about all of the right’s “Trump = Navalny” B.S. on Anderson Cooper’s show.


Last Friday’s G-File

Last weekend’s Ruminant

Navalny’s death and the moral rot of the American right

The Remnant with Jake Tapper on America’s wildest political scandals

On the asininity of presidential rankings

The Remnant with Brad Wilcox on why you should get married

Nerding out with David French about Dune: Part Two, exclusively for Dispatch members

The Dispatch Podcast on bringing back political factions

And now, the weird stuff

Bad hair day

Love machine


Das Bots



Year of the pig

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