Podium: The powerful claim of nationalism

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Fred Halliday

From the Ernest Gellner Lecture given by the professor of international politics

at the London School

of Economics

THE PRIME principle associated with nationalism is the right to self-determination: nations exist and have a right to independence, on their own territory and with equal rights to other states. This may not be entirely practicable - some bits of the nation-people, or some bits of territory - may be excluded, but the assumption, universally proclaimed, is that this is the supreme goal.

At the risk of appearing naive, I would ask why. Why should this be the supreme goal? Is it not subject to other considerations? In reality, of course, this is so.

There are 195 nation-states in the world and many thousands of candidate nations. The matter has been decided pragmatically: it is no secret that the fond hope of most existing nation-states is that not many more come into existence - Palestine and New Caledonia seem set fair, Kosovo maybe, and one or two more.

But such considerations of convenience aside, is it not possible to ask whether the right to independence should always be exercised, whether, in other words, it is worth it?

I would answer this by analogy with two other formative processes in the modern world: war and revolution. In war there is an ethic: of when it is legitimate to go to war, just ad bellum, and what it is legitimate to do in war, just in bello.

In revolution, on the other hand, there is not: the assumption of those who are revolutionaries is that the cause justifies everything. We have seen the consequences of that in this century.

In this regard nationalism is akin to revolution, rather than to war. In nationalist struggles the mere aspiration justifies action, and whatever measures it takes.

Nationalism allows of no higher ethical adjudication. This makes it impossible to question whether the nationalist causes being made by their advocates merit support or not.

This is not a question of whether the nationalist cause commands support, but rather of evaluating whether, given the costs involved and given the kind of state being proposed, action is justified.

We hear a lot about Kosovo, but almost nothing about what kind of society the KLA say they want to create, or might plausibly be thought to be going to create, if they get independence.

The case of Chechnya is another striking example: the Chechens fought, most heroically, for independence from Russia, but in order to create what? An authoritarian, militarist, violent society, implementing cruel punishments in the name of religion, and with recurrent violent conflicts between their leaders? From a nationalist point of view, there is no criticism to be made. It might be better if there was.

It should be possible to evaluate a nationalist cause in terms not of its fulfilment of its own, self-defined, supreme goal - independence - but in terms of other, defensible, political goals. As with war it would only be justified to act if there was sufficient justification, in terms of goal, and use of suitable means of struggle.

National independence may be a desirable goal, but it should not be taken as the supreme one.

The tensions between the claims of the nation and the rights of the individual is an issue that for three centuries, at least, political theory has sought to resolve: contract theory, Rousseauian community theory, and much of democratic theory addresses this issue.

The claim of nationalism is, however, a strong one: it is indeed two- fold, that all individuals have to belong to a nation and, secondly, that individuals owe prime loyalty to that nation, prime in the sense of this loyalty being greater than, as supervening, loyalty to any sub-national group, such as the family, tribe or locality, or to any supranational loyalty, be it humanity as a whole, or religious or social groupings.

That the world should be divided up into different states, and groups of citizens living within them, seems indeed a reasonable arrangement. That they should feel some affecting for that state, and for that culture presented as a particular tradition, is also reasonable. We all belong to entities that have such a particular character - families, football teams, alumni associations, political parties.

But that this should be the supreme normative basis for ordering either domestic or international affairs, for deciding on the behaviour of individuals or groups, seems both unnecessary and unjustified. Neither within societies nor internationally does nationalism offer an answer to the decisions we have to take as individuals and groups, nor can it, because of its inbuilt restrictions, offer a way forward for the resolution of those problems.