In 1960, sociologist Daniel Bell argued that centuries of ideological debates were coming to a close. The end of tyrannical communism and rise of the welfare state were producing what he called the “end of ideology”. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama in 1989 also argued that the history of the world was coming to an end (he actually wrote a book with the title ‘The end of history’). The human endpoint propounded by Hegel – free people living in free societies – was at last upon us. Fukuyama said that communism having been beaten, there were no longer any ideologies to challenge capitalist democracy. Though one would doubt today these theses proposed by Bell and Fukuyama, there is certainty at least for the time being in one ideological aspect: Nationalism.
Nationalism has percolated into all political ideologies. Often, the clash of political ideologies is not over the political or economic programme but the nationalistic one. Let’s define nationalism for the sake of dwelling deeper: it is the exaggerated belief in the greatness and unity of one’s nation. In other words, it is a heightened sense of cultural, historical, and territorial identity, and sometimes, greatness. It is a reactionary ideology often guided by irrational passions and set against occupation and repression by foreigners. The cornerstone of it is resentment against people labelled as others. As political philosopher Edmund Burke remarked, humans are only partially rational, for they have irrational passions. To contain them, society over the centuries has evolved traditions, institutions and standards of morality. But these standards of morality are organic. They evolve and are often self correcting. With the onset of nationalism a new set of moral standards evolved, i.e, nationalistic morality (will come to it in later paragraphs).
Let’s explore its history first. Nationalism is often attributed to the French Revolution of 1789, which was based on “the people” and heightened French feelings about themselves as a special, leading people destined to free the rest of Europe. Later, Bonaparte’s legions ostensibly spread a radical liberalism, though tacitly they were spreading nationalism. By the 1850s, the thinkers in Europe, particularly in Germany and Italy, defined the nation as the ultimate human value, the source of all things good. Italian writer Guiseppe Mazzini asserted that freedom was not for individuals but for nations.
Nationalism holds that it is terribly wrong to be ruled by others or unlike peoples. Thus, Bosnian Serbs didn’t consent to be ruled by Muslims, Palestinians by Israelis, and Luthunians by Russians. Quebecois want to separate from Canada, Basques from Spain, Tibetans from China, etc. It was nationalistic zeal that finally divided the Middle East after fighting alongside allies in WW1 against the Ottoman army, during which a secret Sykes-Picot agreement was signed between UK and France on dividing the Middle East and turning it into colonies.
The important thing to understand is why nationalism is such a potent force that unites people, even at times against humanity itself. Hitler propounded socialism but his true aim was war, as war builds heroes. Is it the “will to power” as Friedrich Nietzche argues, the main force that drives humans? Or is there a pleasure in it – “will to pleasure”, which Sigmund Freud considered to be the main motivation. Some cognitive psychologists like Jean Piaget suggest that children undergo a socialisation process that moves from egocentric to socio-centric, as they build attachments to groups. Numerous theories from psychologists like Freud and Maslow agree that the need to belong is a fundamental human motivation; national attachment can fulfil that need and help individuals construct their identity.
Having set the context and understood what it means, and the psychology behind it, now we must look at nationalism from a critical lens. It no doubt stimulates economic growth and pushes a people to gain their freedom. Consider India as an example. Jawaharlal Nehru enacted an economic policy based on import substitution and industrialisation. The Nehru-Mahalanobis approach (2nd Five Year Plan) emphasised the development of basic and heavy industries as a means of accelerating economic growth. Over 1950-65, India’s acceleration of per capita income growth had increased on average of 1.7% every year, a value not exceeded since. This growth, many economists argue, was due to nationalistic steam generated by the movement for independence. It was also the zeal to make India better than its rival, Pakistan. Or consider the impact of nationalism in the form of Swadeshi movement after the Partition of Bengal in 1905-06, which gave India several colleges (including Bengal National College, inspired by Rabindranath Tagore’s Shantiniketan) and several enterprises due to the Atma-shakti campaign. Similar was the impact of nationalism on Europe after the French Revolution. It was one of the factors due to which nationalist leaders often were re-elected. But over time this nationalistic zeal subsided, resulting in the overthrow of these leaders. At this juncture the nationalists come up with tactics rather than strategy. They instigated a war with a projected enemy country or they used fear to turn hatred into violence.
There are other serious drawbacks of nationalistic attitudes. They include narrowing of national identity in a diverse and pluralistic society. Nationalism often projects the minorities as “other” peoples. It was the growth of nationalism that caused the partition of British India. By organising the Shivaji and Ganapati festivals, B.G. Tilak was leaving the Muslims out of the nationalistic fold. The Muslims, in turn, started revering their medieval past as glorious, while Hindus referred to their ancient past as glorious, further widening the gulf. There are three broader criticisms of nationalism. First, it engenders intolerance and discrimination. It is always assertive and discriminates on grounds which are often beyond human control, e.g., race, colour, ethnicity, language etc. It is this aspect that produced Hitler and Mussolini.
Second, it restricts the domain of universalhood and humanitarianism and defines a new code of morality. It asserts that killing of black and white doesn’t equal in gravity of a sin. All wars are justified on this ground. Albert Einstein remarked, “Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.”
And third, it is a challenge to spiritual evolution. Spirituality demands narrowing down the prejudices one holds towards others.
It seems that nationalism is inescapable, both as vital medicine and as dangerous drug. But one should try not to be swayed by its emotional appeal. How? Ask that question to yourself and to the nation to which you belong.