Sorting nationalism and patriotism with John Lukacs

One of the most curious things in the last few years has been the reinvigoration of the term "nationalism" as a political signifier and "nationalist" as a self-identification. In both scholarly and popular Christian discourse, at least, this is curious especially because, so far as I can tell, "nationalism" became in the last few decades a consensus word for the extreme, blasphemous, and/or heretical corruption of the virtue of patriotism. I have books on my shelf—one for college freshmen, another for graduate students, another for the broader reading public, another for fellow academics—all of which trade on this settled usage.

Now "nationalism" is back, not just as a historical-political force but as a terminological boundary marker. Unfortunately, though, its political associations as well as its function as a football in ideological disputes have contributed to something less than clarity. So that, e.g., to be nationalist is to be for "America first," or in less loaded terms, to be committed to one's fellow citizens and immediate neighbors in lieu of foreign adventurism and nation-building abroad. Or, e.g., to affirm that Christians can be nationalists means little more than that Christians can affirm the modern project of the nation-state, the regional boundaries within which such a state exists, and the groups and goods and cultural endeavors internal to that state. Or, e.g., even just to be happy in one's given national context and to be proud of its accomplishments and civic life.

That's quite the range. It seems to me that "patriotism" is a perfectly fine term for the last example. And the second-to-last example does not make one a nationalist in the prescriptive sense; it merely means that one accepts and/or approves of there being nations (of this sort) at all. It seems to me that "nationalism" should retain the stronger—not to say (yet) the inherently pejorative—terminological definition and concomitant evocations and allusions. Or else we're just going to be loose in our language and keep talking past one another.

There is no better thinker from whom to learn about nationalism defined in strict terms than John Lukacs, the Jewish-Catholic Hungarian-American immigrant and historian who died earlier this year at the age of 95. His 2005 book Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred is one of the crucial texts for understanding our moment. A helpful byproduct is lucidity regarding terms, their histories, and their political uses and connotations.

Let me close with a sample set of quotations on the topic of nationalism. I commend the book along with Lukacs's voluminous output to any and all who find themselves interested by this (pp. 35-36, 71-73; my bold print, for emphasis):

"Soon after 1870 there appeared something else: a phenomenon whose evidences, here and there, were there earlier, but the breadth and the substance and the character of which began to change. This was modern and populist nationalism. Yet 'nationalisme' and 'nationaliste' became French words only after 1880; in Britain, too, they had appeared not much earlier. The reason for this relatively late gestation of the nationalist word was that 'patriot' and 'patriotism' already existed; and, at least for a while, it seemed that the meaning of the latter was sufficient. When, a century earlier, Samuel Johnson uttered his famous (and perhaps forever valid) dictum that Patriotism Is The Last Refuge Of A Scoundrel, he meant nationalism, even though that word did not yet exist. One of the reasons why there exists no first-rate book about the history of nationalism is that it is not easy to separate it from old-fashioned patriotism. And these two inclinations, patriotism and nationalism, divergent as they may be, still often overlap in people's minds. (When, for example, Americans criticize a 'superpatriot,' what they really mean is an extreme nationalist.) Nonetheless, the very appearance of a new word is always evidence that some people sense the need to distinguish it from the older word's meaning: that a nationalist is someone different from a patriot.

"Patriotism is defensive; nationalism is aggressive. Patriotism is the love of a particular land, with its particular traditions; nationalism is the love of something less tangible, of the myth of a 'people,' justifying many things, a political and ideological substitute for religion. Patriotism is old-fashioned (and, at times and in some places, aristocratic); nationalism is modern and populist. In one sense patriotic and national consciousness may be similar; but in another sense, more and more apparent after 1870, national consciousness began to affect more and more people who, generally, had been immune to that before—as, for example, many people within the multinational empire of Austria-Hungary. It went deeper than class consciousness. Here and there it superseded religious affiliations, too.

"After 1870 nationalism, almost always, turned antiliberal, especially where liberalism was no longer principally nationalist. ...

"The state was one of the creations of the Modern Age. Its powers grew; here and there, sooner or later, it became monstrously bureaucratic. Yet—and few people see this, very much including those who prattle about 'totalitarianism'—the power of the state has been weakening, at the same time the attraction of nationalism has not.

"Hitler knew that: I have, more than once, cited his sentence from Mein Kampf recalling his youth: 'I was a nationalist; but I was not a patriot.' Again it is telling that in Austria 'national' and 'nationalist' meant pro-German, and not only during the multinational Habsburg monarchy and state. Well before the Second World War an Austrian 'nationalist' wanted some kind of union with Germany, at the expense of an independent Austrian state. This was also true in such diverse places as Norway or Hungary or other states during the Second World War: 'national' and 'nationalist' often meant pro-German.

"Nationalism, rather than patriotism; the nation rather than the state; populism rather than liberal democracy, to be sure. We have examples of that even among the extremist groups in the United States, too, with their hatred of 'government'—that is, of the state. We have seen that while true patriotism is defensive, nationalism is aggressive; patriotism is the love of a particular land, with its particular traditions; nationalism is the love of something less tangible, of the myth of a 'people,' justifying everything, a political and ideological substitute for religion; both modern and populist. An aristocratic nationalism is an oxymoron, since at least after the late seventeenth century most European aristocracies were cosmopolitan as well as national. Democratic nationalism is a later phenomenon. For a while there was nothing very wrong with that. It won great revolutions and battles, it produced some fine examples of national cohesion. One hundred and fifty years ago a distinction between nationalism and patriotism would have been labored, it would have not made much sense. Even now nationalism and patriotism often overlap within the minds and hearts of many people. Yet we must be aware of their differences—because of the phenomenon of populism which, unlike old-fashioned patriotism, is inseparable from the myth of a people. Populism is folkish, patriotism is not. One can be a patriot and cosmopolitan (certainly culturally so). But a populist is inevitably a nationalist of sorts. Patriotism is less racist than is populism. A patriot will not exclude a person of another nationality from a community where they have lived side by side and whom he has known for many years; but a populist will always be suspicious of someone who does not seem to belong to his tribe.

"A patriot is not necessarily a conservative; he may even be a liberal—of sorts, though not an abstract one. In the twentieth century a nationalist could hardly be a liberal. The nineteenth century was full of liberal nationalists, some of them inspiring and noble figures. The accepted view is that liberalism faded and declined because of the appearance of socialism, that the liberals who originally had reservations about exaggerated democracy became democrats and then socialists, accepting the progressive ideas of state intervention in the economy, education, welfare. This is true but not true enough. It is nationalism, not socialism, that killed the liberal appeal. The ground slipped out from under the liberals not because they were not sufficiently socialist but because they were (or at least seemed to be) insufficiently nationalist.

"Since it appeals to tribal and racial bonds, nationalism seems to be deeply and atavistically natural and human. Yet the trouble with it is not only that nationalism can be antihumanist and often inhuman but that it also proceeds from one abstract assumption about human nature itself. The love for one's people is natural, but it is also categorical; it is less charitable and less deeply human than the love for one's country, a love that flows from traditions, at least akin to a love of one's family. Nationalism is both self-centered and selfish—because human love is not the love of oneself; it is the love of another. (A convinced nationalist is suspicious not only of people he sees as aliens; he may be even more suspicious of people of his own ilk and ready to denounce them as 'traitors'—that is, people who disagree with his nationalist beliefs.) Patriotism is always more than merely biological—because charitable love is human and not merely 'natural.' Nature has, and shows, no charity."

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