Today the fallacy that truth and morals are relative is pervasive and this has led to a pretence in the West that all cultures are a priori to be regarded as equal. This is in part due to loss of faith in the traditional modes of political organisation and cultural norms. There are many examples, but a notable one is nationalism. Several strands of nationalism have played a crucial role in the development of European culture, but the horrors thrown up by Nazi Germany have stained nationalism in the West to a point at which most attempts to rally people around a national identity are met with suspicion.
In political discourse nationalism is now beyond the pale; but academics have also long argued that history has marched on leaving nationalism behind.
In the 1990s, Hobsbawm wrote that nationalism ‘is no longer a major vector of historical development’ and that it is of ‘declining historical significance’. Fukuyama argued that soon nationalism would be relegated to the private sphere, essentially ‘defanged and modernised’.
A vapid internationalism is often the proposed replacement for nationalism. Historian E.H. Carr believed the then new Soviet Union style was the way forward, favouring nations being subsumed into the huge bureaucratic machineries of centralised super-governments. Ironically, not long after Hobsbawm made his comments the Soviet Union began to disintegrate and six former soviet republics declared their national sovereignty in the 1990s.
Just recently we have seen tensions soar between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh area and a multi-national UN force has been deployed in Estonia in an attempt to dissuade Russian aggression. It is clear from recent conflicts that nationalism is easily matching the march of history.
If nationalism is a very real part of the current political landscape it is worth separating its more obviously malign forms from the benign – a distinction not often appreciated today. Though Nazi Germany manifested extreme nationalist thinking that is hardly the last word on the matter. It is undeniable that the racist and hateful nationalist ideology was only stopped by a coalition of more benign nations that valued inherent human dignity and freedom.
The Americans, for instance, produced a poster that had soldiers from 1778 and 1943 marching side-by-side and it was captioned ‘Americans will always fight for freedom’. In this way of presentation America’s nature consisted of more than the living. It was a community of past, present and future and, as suggested by the picture, was built on values such as freedom.
In Britain the government often used pictures of the countryside on recruitment posters as if to remind people of that for which they would be risking their lives. Having a homeland can be a potent motivator of noble as well as evil things. The great toll of lives and sufferings that Britain and France underwent as a result of the war does away with any talk of self-interested interventionism. Too much was sacrificed.
There have been more positive views taken of nationalism in the past. Mill said that, ‘where the sentiment of nationality exists in any force, there is a prima facie case for uniting all the members of the nationality under the same government’. In this way the question of government would be decided by the governed. Unity and independence, however, cannot simply be willed into existence. Mill points out that the country must be ‘ripe for free institutions’; that there must be no ‘geographical hindrances’ to unity; and that the people had to meet one ‘purely moral and social consideration’.
Mill used this last point to argue that some people had not earned the right to political self-determination. Those ‘inferior and more backward’ people such as the Bretons, Welsh and Scottish Highlanders (according to Mill) who lived among ‘highly civilised and cultivated’ people ought to be pleased to be absorbed into those higher nations. Such frankness is abhorred today. It is almost impossible to speak of higher or lower cultures and it is certainly prohibited to speak of another country as ‘inferior and more backwards’.
As long as we insist on a relativist value system we will fail to build great and noble institutions that advocate human flourishing and freedom. If we cannot admit which way is good and which bad we cannot move purposefully towards our perceived goals. It is ultimately a matter of admitting what most people truly believe. Anyone who denounces nationalism or populism as ‘bad’ does so on the basis of a value judgement. In order to have made that judgement they must admit some kind of objective value system.
The late Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote that, ‘the bloody spectacle of nationalism at its worst, a nationalism that degrades religion as well as itself, may teach us to appreciate nationalism at its best, a nationalism tempered and elevated by religion as well as by all the other resources of civilisation’. It is curious that she should chose to include religion in observations on nationalism.
In a sense though, Mill’s third point of one ‘purely moral and social consideration’ is actually best fulfilled by religion. Nazi Germany was a nation without God and it did terrible things, and so do most entities lacking God. Religion provides moral absolutes which are the foundations of free institutions, and of customs conducive to human flourishing. If, however, we deny objective truth we cannot condemn spurious forces in the world.