Can nationalism be a force for good? This question may seem jarring in a time when nationalism is only discussed in the negative. But perhaps nationalism can be a good if it incorporates an affirmation of a nation’s particular merits and an informed solidarity for other nations. Groups such as the National Socialist Party represent an ugly type of nationalism, a collective egoism, in which the state becomes obsessed with affirming its own specific traits while negating traits it sees as “other.” Collective egoism results in conflict. In the words of Leo Tolstoy, “the egoism of the individual is terrible. But the egoists of private life are not armed. . . . Quite otherwise with states.” An egoistic state cannot stand that which is not itself. It works to find and destroy the other.
Here, one thinks of Mr. Fenchel in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which is set in California during WWI. Fenchel is a kind old German tailor who encounters “every cruelty” for his cultural ties. The narrator writes of his encounter with the German:
“He broke into a smile and said, ‘Gut efning, Chone.’ ‘Gut efning, Mary.'”
“We stood stiffly side by side and we said in unison, ‘Hoch der Kaiser!’”
“I can see his face now, his startled innocent blue eyes. He tried to say something and then began to cry. Didn’t even try to pretend he wasn’t.”
For the crime of sharing a language and culture with the enemy, Mr. Fenchel is bullied by his whole town, eventually fleeing after his house is lit on fire by American patriots.
Collective egoism cannot stand difference. When the public “exalts as the virtue of patriotism” the theft of other people’s property, nationalism has become egotistically obsessed with the other, set on conquering their differences and therefore defined by destruction. This nationalism is rightly condemned.
A better, though still imperfect kind of nationalism is “collective camaraderie.” This type of nationalism is not motivated by hatred of the other. On the contrary, it is motivated by a love of the real merits of a nation. And it has the positive result of unifying citizens and feeding their affections. That is because the merits it celebrates, while virtuous per se are also (as Alasdair MacIntyre points out) “the merits and achievments of this particular nation.”
But the problem with collective camaraderie becomes evident when we hear the way it is defended. Mao Tse-tung once said, “We are at once internationalists and patriots, and our slogan is, ‘Fight to defend the motherland against the aggressors.’” Love of country (collective camaraderie) is here in the form of patriotism and a willingness to be internationalist: no necessary hatred of the other is sensed. But there is also a note of defensiveness, an assumption that “aggressors” will be a problem. Ronald Reagan expresses a similar sentiment, saying, “If we lose freedom here, there’s no place to escape to. This is the last stand on earth.” The quote is a cry to defend freedom, yes, but in its focus on America it implicitly casts other nations aside as others or even enemies. We can use collective camaradarie to rally a nation through loyalty to a particular country’s merits, but while it is better than collective egoism, it is still problematic from the vantage point of cooperative international relations.
The best form of nationalism is one that is compatible with international solidarity. For all its potential, collective camaraderie cannot meaningfully interact with differences unless it learns to love that which is not a part of it. Love of one’s nation for its merits and love of others for their merits is then the completion of this nationalism. This love is expressed through solidarity.
The great film Casablanca exemplifies this perfectly. When Nazi soldiers oppresively sing their national anthem to a Moroccan nightclub full of French refugees, Victor Laszlo, a leader of the Czechoslovak Resistance, orders the band to play La Marseillaise. He bellows out the opening lines and is soon joined by dozens of voices, drowning out the Nazi officers. Though not a Frenchman himself, Laszlo is able to use French nationalism to express solidarity for a people occupied and oppressed. His love has motivated him to not only learn of France’s character but also to stand beside her as she is attacked. He loves his nation but that love extends to others, meeting them in ways informed by their own national character.
Somehow collective camaraderie must make itself compatible with a parallel collective camaraderie of other nations. In the words of the Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara it must stand “in solidarity with all the oppressed peoples of the world,” even to the point of struggling “ for the independence of other countries.” The love of one’s own is good, but if we cannot meaningfully meet other nations in their own nationalisms, then we risk isolating ourselves completely and engaging internationally only in a posture of aggressive “defense.” We must then tread a middle ground, loving our own nation as well as others for their merits. We do so in powerful displays of solidarity founded upon a patriotism for one’s own nation and others. Solidarity is then the ultimate perfection of nationalism.
So what is nationalism’s place in our world? How can we both love our nation for its unique merits and love others for theirs? How can we engage in difference with love and without conflict? The answer to these questions is not obvious. Here, then, are the questions that need urgent attention as we think about the phenomenon of nationalism and the proper attitude toward it.