Política y Administración Pública

On nationalism


This essay just try to be a commentary on nationalism aiming towards showing a personal point of view rather than a philosophical analysis. We are facing such a complicated problem with such a long history and such lots involvements in every day life, that I just dare to explain my personal opinion hoping it gives a little light to the question.

Although lots of contemporary states have their own unresolved national question -specially in Third World- I think that the problem -and the solution- get darker and harder to delimit in Western states, where national conflicts has quite a lot to do with cultural and social movements, not enough developed democracies, globalisation problems… and not just -as, speaking personally, it happens in Africa, for example- with still opened post-colonialist wars and international interests easily recognizable. So I will focus my essay on contemporary nationalist conflicts -specially Basque Country nationalism, since I know better this concrete case, because of it takes place mainly within my own state (although, I know it's not reason enough to prove that I know what I am talking about)- and on a light glance at its historical origin.

I will develop my essay engaging in a dialogue with your lecture text “Nationalism and its critics”.


I would like to consider first the John Stuart Mill claim in favour of the integration of some communities -for instance, Breton and Basque people- in the nearest and more powerful states beside them. And I would like because of two reasons: first, because it's a good summary of the Enlighten ideas about the topic; and second because we can recognize that Enlightenment project in the not as enlightened opinions of our main politicians and intelligentsia.

That opinion, that tendency of thought could be called, somehow, the “common sense” opinion, and it would mean something like this: since Basque Country, for example, in its own, having its own state would be a small force to face the European Union, lets integrate it in a bigger entity; since Basque language (Euskera) has a smaller field of action, a smaller business usefulness, a smaller speakers and writers community than Spanish, lets the former disappear, lets assume the more cosmopolitan language.

Now it have to be said that Mill's claim, understood in its context, can be more easily defended than the same idea in our present situation. That's exactly the point, I think, since the fallacy is not as much in the argument itself as in the timelessness, ahistoricity and universality that the argument is attempted to be endowed now with. I mean, it's not necessary the case that Breton people could obtain advantages of being part of French Nation, but it can be argued: it could be reasonably said that bourgeois habits, invents, hygiene, economical and political system… would give more comforts and even individual liberties to them than a probably tribal, male chauvinistic and hierarchical social organization.

However, in some cases, such as Irish Republic, Catalonia, Basque Country, Sahara… the advantages of being ruled by another nationalities are clearly limited.

Anyway, I wouldn't like to fall in the same universalising fallacy regarded from the other side. I want to mean that independence not always and not in every case brings benefits to population, neither in terms of national freedom improvement, neither in terms of standards of living. A good example of it could be Croatia, now ruled by German Mark (the official coin), a corrupt political elite and a formal representative democracy quite far from the participation and people decision possibilities achieved in the federal model of the former-Yugoslavia -warts and all-.


We must distinguish, obviously, between the historical development of nations and the historical development of nationalism. At the risk of be simplistic, we could place the birth of the European State-Nations at the beginning of the Modern Age, as a result of bourgeois struggle against feudal productive system which constrained the new economic developments, the new ways of sell and produce. We can interpret Modern States as much as a result as a condition of possibility of that development and the development of the new cultural and social system, since it needed a strong and centralised state which could compel the nobility to abandon their land rights and, at the same time, open and secure the new routes and markets for the increasing production

Nevertheless, nationalism birth took place, as we know it, much later, within the Romantic reaction against Enlightenment excesses. Against the common nature of human kind (cogito, God, monad…) they put the rich difference of each human being; against the universal reason they put the emotion and art as ways of understanding; against the exaltation of the universal values and aims of human kind, they claim for local difference and traditional values; so, finally, against the Union of Sovereign States and the subsequent Eternal Peace proposed by Kant, they put the national soul and pride. This can be considered the origin of nationalism, which makes it be unavoidably chained to some kind of emotive nature and claims for tradition with no previous examination.

This brief drawing defines nationalism as an anti-Enlighten phenomenon, but it mustn't be forgotten that even Romanticism is still a Modern movement, and it defined itself within the fight with Enlightenment, so it's not absolutely alien to it. So I think that nationalism has carried quite a large amount of Enlighten principles.


The previous sketch in what can be considered the origin of nationalism it's not trying to assert the idea that nationalism is a monolithic phenomenon with some precise patterns of behaviour. On the contrary, none of the definitions given in your “Nationalism and its critics” by several authors, not even those which involve various possible types of nationalism, seem to cover all the cases. Maybe the five fold distinction given in the postscript is more useful than any other.

But what I think is that is quite difficult to find the characteristics common to every nationalism everywhere and every time, of course. For instance, O'Brien two fold definition (cultural nationalism and nationalism in general), leaving aside its implications, states pride of cultural heritage as a common characteristic, what I think that can be cast doubt on by a three side historical example: Chinese Revolution, Vietnamese Revolution and Cuban Revolution. The three of them were understood by their creators mainly as a national liberation struggle against metropolis (all the powerful Western nations, France and E.E.U.U., and E.E.U.U., respectively), and it can be said that the supporting of the nationalistic idea of national independence supported by the three socialistic movements was what make the population crowd together around them. But, however, these movements based their idea of national pride more in getting rid of metropolis than in tradition. In fact, they created a new national feeling, based precisely in the struggle carried on, in the change of social relations (although we could doubt whether they achieved it or not), to sum up: in the liquidation of tradition. Mao's Cultural Revolution is a very clear example of what I'm trying to mark.

So, to difference between the several kinds of nationalism make harder to state a valid definition. Previous exposition is just a part of the problem, which can turn darker if we talk about political nationalism (left wing nationalism vs. right wing nationalism, democratic nationalism vs. no-democratic nationalism…), about cultural nationalism, about struggle for independence, about struggle for independence outside of nationalistic contexts…


The concept of nationalism is, in general, quite dark, so reducing the question just to the enough vast field of socio-political movements, leaving aside the question of the personal behaviour (since to be proud of one's country is not the same that to be nationalistic) could help us in centring the issue.

To understand nationalism is necessary to get through nation concept. And here we cannot reduce the question to its institutional representation, since it would leave outside of it all the nation which claim for a non-yet-achieved state, and this is to scorn half the problem.

Thus, for instance, Ignatieff distinction between civic nationalism and ethnic nationalism has the fault, precisely, of being such distinction. I think we cannot separate both affirmations, this is, that is the nation -understood as an ethnic, religious or emotional entity-which creates the state and that is the state which creates the nation. First of all, we can say that the second statement, that is a claim for a kind of civic nationalism is more a desire than a fact or, on the contrary, is historically ingenuous. Because it's quite obvious that almost all of the contemporary nations had their origin in one ethnic or religious or cultural community. More indeed, I would dare to assert that ethnic and religious were the main agglutinative elements -and they are in some cases nowadays-.

But, on the other hand, we can see how the state can shape a nation. The political structure which a nation, or better just a territory, is endowed with can make disappear a entire nationality or, on the contrary, it can make arise inexistent nationalities (although I know this assertion could be controversial) or give strength to calmed ones.

An illustrative example of what I'm trying to demonstrate could be, again, Spanish state, its history and its present situation.

If we look briefly at the period before the birth of Spanish nation (which colud be placed around 15th century, when the Arabic Caliphate in the peninsula was definitively defeated) we can distinguish quite clearly five kingdoms: Castilla, Leon, Navarre, Aragon and Portugal. The second one, in despite of its long existence, was deeply assimilated by Castilla -culturally, linguistically (Castilian, the source of current Spanish)- as well as most of what have been the Al-Andalus Arabic Caliphate. Navarre, that now is supposed to be the origin of Basque Country succumbed military and politically, but not linguistically (they conserved the Euskera -Basque language-) neither culturally (for instance, quite a lot of them were not catholic at the 15th century -they believed in naturalistic rites mixed with catholic liturgy- and the evangelisation lasted until the 18th century). Part of Aragon territory, political independence and linguistic zone was removed little by little too, surviving in what now is Catalonia. Portugal was intermittently a province of Castilian Kingdom (and later of Spanish Kingdom), but finally obtained its independence. Nevertheless, Galicia stayed within the Spanish Kingdom, although conserving in large measure Portuguese heritage and its own linguistic and cultural development, although it never reached any kind of political independence until the 2nd Republic, in this century.

So, in despite of the risk of being simplistic, we can say that we have four objective nationalities in our state, with four different languages (all of them former dialects of Latin) and a sort of historical and cultural tradition: Basque, Catalonian, Galician and Castilian, that has tried to be the genuine Spanish nationality.

However, Spain is administratively divided in Autonomous Regions that don't coincide exactly with the zone of influence of each nationality: Basque nationalists claim Navarre Autonomous Region for being within Basque Country, due to a certain amount of Basque speakers in that region; Galician nationalists claim some Galician speakers zones of Castilla for them… That's not an innovative phenomenon: nationalism and frontiers problems are always together. But there is one: the fact that in almost every other Autonomous Regions (they are 19 in total) nationalist feelings and nationalist or regionalist political parties have arisen; even entire nationalities and languages has been created “ex nihilo” through philological and political juggling and demagogy.

Here is necessary to say that Autonomous Regions have quite a lot independence from central government, at least in theory. They concern with education, some taxes, European Financial Aid, and health care soon; some of them have autonomous police and their own sports teams. But, above of all, all of them have their own parliaments and elections, which means money, campaigns, promises, subsides and, then, a real political and institutional context in which local claims and grievances (nationalistic or not, legitimated or not) can take place. Furthermore, electoral laws favour the parties that contest only in one region.

So, finally, we have quite strong political movements and feelings non-existing before and within the context of a 25 years old artificial regional division, for instance, in Cantabria, Asturias, and Extremadura (with no previous history, language or tradition) and with representation in municipal and regional governments. We have too the return of forgotten nations and languages rescued from the darkness of the ages as, for instance, Leon independence claim. But we have as well claims for the independence from two nationalities, one of them still without an independent state; these are the cases of Valencia and Balearic Islands, both of them traditionally within the Catalonian nation, because of their common language, cultural heritage and history, and where we have seen the emergence of representative nationalistic movement against both Spain and Catalonia.

To sum up, nations can be considered as the dialectical interaction between institutional realities, historical process and political will; as a sort of state of mind of a community that feels itself integrated in a superior entity.

All of this tries to aim towards the fact that nations, along history, has been created, destroyed and rebuilt again, and that this process is still opened and, as I think the Spanish case help to demonstrate, people's will or people's beliefs (although lots of time they are wrong, manipulated and consciously oriented) are not the smaller factor in it, more than the historical rights or the real benefits of those struggles. Nevertheless, we can find in the nationalistic claims the reminiscence of the Modern ideal of self-determination for the individual through the self-determination of nation. That's the reason because I think that a nationalistic movement only can be legitimated and believed if it's firmly rooted in Human Rights and engaged with the real development of its agenda, what mean to be engaged with the struggle for local autonomy inside the own nation, and with individual autonomy, which only can be achieved, speaking personally, by means of the peoples democratic control over every level of the social goods.

Paragraph 3 of Nationalism and its critics

Although I would like to add a couple of questions: first, it could there be quite a lot of good values in Breton culture which deserved to be maintained; second, maybe the decision of accept or refuse that “gift” should be in the people; and third, it's certainly debatable that French interest on convert the “barbarians” was motivated by philanthropic intentions.

Catalonia and Basque Country, for instance, with a high per capita rent, would earn more money if they didn't have to pay taxes of any kind to the central government (although there are more factors to be considered). Sahara circumstances are more flagrant and illustrative: ruled by Moroccan Monarchy, living as refugees in Algeria without enjoying the already limited rights of Moroccans and the big profits of the phosphates resources placed in Saharan country, they have anything to loose, “except their chains”.

Maquiaveli and Hobbes philosophical supporting of a strong state could show the theoretic side of the issue. Both of them were harshly fought by the still strongly present rest of the Feudal Regime.

Nevertheless, I would want to make an observation: it's quite easy to agree with the opinion that a) civic nationalism and b) patriotism are morally acceptable -although not so admirable as could be others ways of love one's own people and country, for instance internationalism- and that d) ethnic nationalism and e) imperialism (although I think one can track a hint of imperialism in almost every nationalism) are morally deplorable, in their principles and in their historical consequences. But the problem is in c) independence nationalism, regarded as morally controversial because of the use of violence. First of all, speaking personally, I think the moral criterion to judge nationalism, as an individual behaviour and as a political movement, should be the benefit expected to be achieved by national population and the matter of whether that benefit is taken justifiably from the opposite national people or not. Second, I cannot see the necessary link between independence nationalism and terrorism, since for instance, in the dispute between Basque Country and Spanish State: a) the Constitution picks up the possibilities of development of Historical Nationalities (Basque, Catalonian and Galician) -and for the rest of Autonomous Regions, although in less proportion- until high levels of self-government (although the short-minded reading of it carried forward by centre-right, centre-left and right governments successively has restrained that development), b) the Constitution can be constitutionally changed, as it happens more or less frequently in France or in Germany, c) extra-parliamentarian methods, such as demonstrations, strikes, civil disobedience… are democratic methods too, and they are quite far from terrorist violence.

So, to sum up, I think that independence from a democratic state is possible within the democratic rules (and that is thought for thousand of nationalist and non-nationalist people and several political parties) or, at least, without resorting to armed struggle. And I think as well that it is morally controversial (I mean c) ), but not because of the violence, which doesn't have to be necessary involved, but because the criteria previously exposed.

Paragraph 9 of “Nationalism and its critics”.

Paragraph 13 of “Nationalism and its critics”

We can find a similar proposal on Habermas idea picked up in “Identidades nacionales y posnacionales” -a compilation of Habermas' articles on German reunification - of a nationalism of the Constitution. He tried to place the new German identity in the shared laws and democratic principles derived from the struggle for the consolidation of democracy carried on by German people: one side trying to rebuild a country destroyed physically and morally after Hitler and against of some remains of his regime and ideals -still alive- and towards the Wellfare State -now retreating-; the other side emerging from an oppressive and no-democratic system. Habermas' aim is to allow a common identity without resorting to tradition, now tinged with Nazism's re-appropriation. This interesting proposal is based in the pride of a historically developed and presently changeling entity as the Constitution is, with the advantage that it is -theoretically- under the control of the citizens, which make of it a better starting point than diffused emotive nature or reactionary traditions.

It explains the tendency towards a re-integration in Portugal present in the main nationalist stream of Galicia, represented institutionally by BNG (Bloque Nacionalista Galego -Nationalist Galician Block-), second political force in the region and in the government of the most populous city.

These possibilities of autonomous development have been truncated by the fact that the party that win the central government elections use to win in most of the Autonomous Governments and city Town Halls; anyway, none of the parties that have reached central government have been very interested in develop the Constitutional text, which is regarded as a concession to the power of nationalist and communist movements after Franco's death.

Another concession to nationalist, but that has served for stop the communist left and any other alternative and minority options.

I have to leave aside the question of international interests pressure on national feelings, that can provoke a national holocaust just with a bit of poverty and the diffused reminiscence of a couple of Middle Ages battles.

Enviado por:Vladimir
Idioma: inglés
País: España

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