Liberty Opposes Nationalism

The nation is the outcome of the will of human beings to live together in one state.

The principle of nationality does not represent the liberal solution of the international problem. The liberals urged self-determination. The principle of nationality is an outcome of the interpretation which people in Central and Eastern Europe, who never fully grasped the meaning of liberal ideas, gave to the principle of self-determination. It is a distortion, not a perfection, of liberal thought.

The right of self-determination which Renan has in mind is not a right of linguistic groups but of individual men.

We have already shown that the Anglo-Saxon and the French fathers of liberal ideas did not recognize the problems involved. When these problems became visible, the old liberalism’s creative period had already been brought to an end. The great champions were gone. Epigones, unable successfully to combat the growing socialist and interventionist tendencies, filled the stage. These men lacked the strength to deal with new problems.

Yet, the Indian summer of the old classical liberalism produced one document worthy of the great tradition of French liberalism. Ernest Renan, it is true, cannot really be considered a liberal. He made concessions to socialism, because his grasp of economic theories was rather poor; he was consequently too accommodating to the antidemocratic prejudices of his age. But his famous lecture, Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?, delivered in the Sorbonne on March 11, 1882, is thoroughly inspired by liberal thought. [See: “What Is a Nation”] It was the last word spoken by the older Western liberalism on the problems of state and nation.

For a correct understanding of Renan’s ideas it is necessary to remember that for the French—as for the English—the terms nation and state are synonymous. When Renan asks: What is a nation? he means: What should determine the boundaries of the various states? And his answer is: Not the linguistic community, not the racial kinship founded on parentage from common ancestors, not religious congeniality, not the harmony of economic interests, not geographical or strategical considerations, but—the right of the population to determine its own destiny. The nation is the outcome of the will of human beings to live together in one state. The greater part of the lecture is devoted to showing how this spirit of nationality originates.

The nation is a soul, a moral principle (“une âme, un principe spirituel”). A nation, says Renan, daily confirms its existence by manifesting its will to political coöperation within the same state; a daily repeated plebiscite, as it were. A nation, therefore, has no right to say to a province: You belong to me, I want to take you. A province consists of its inhabitants. If anybody has a right to be heard in this case it is these inhabitants. Boundary disputes should be settled by plebiscite.

It is important to realize how this interpretation of the right of self-determination differs from the principle of nationality. The right of self-determination which Renan has in mind is not a right of linguistic groups but of individual men. It is derived from the rights of man. “Man belongs neither to his language nor to his race; he belongs to himself.”

Seen from the point of view of the principle of nationality the existence of states like Switzerland, composed of people of different languages, is as anomalous as the fact that the Anglo-Saxons and the French are not eager to unite into one state all the people speaking their own language. For Renan there is nothing irregular in these facts.

The main excellence of the liberal scheme of social, economic, and political organization is that it makes the peaceful cooperation of nations possible.

More noteworthy than what Renan says is what he does not say. Renan sees neither the fact of linguistic minorities nor that of linguistic changes. Consult the people; let them decide. All right. But what if a conspicuous minority dissents from the will of the majority? To that objection Renan does not make a satisfactory answer. He declares—with regard to the scruple that plebiscites could result in the disintegration of old nations and in a system of small states (we say today Balkanization)—that the principle of self-determination should not be abused but only employed in a general way (d’une façon très générale).

Renan’s brilliant exposition proves that the threatening problems of Eastern Europe were unfamiliar to the West. He prefaced his pamphlet with a prophecy: We are rushing into wars of destruction and extermination, because the world has abandoned the principle of free union and has granted to the nations, as it once did to the dynasties, the right to annex provinces contrary to their desires. But Renan saw only half the problem involved and therefore his solution could be but a half-way one.

Yet it would be wrong to say that liberalism has failed in this field. Liberalism’s proposals for the coexistence and coöperation of nations and states are only a part of the total liberal program. They can be realized, they can be made to work only within a liberal world. The main excellence of the liberal scheme of social, economic, and political organization is precisely this—that it makes the peaceful coöperation of nations possible. It is not a shortcoming of the liberal program for international peace that it cannot be realized within an antiliberal world and that it must fail in an age of interventionism and socialism.

In order to grasp the meaning of this liberal program we need to imagine a world order in which liberalism is supreme. Either all the states in it are liberal, or enough are so that when united they are able to repulse an attack of militarist aggressors. In this liberal world, or liberal part of the world, there is private property in the means of production. The working of the market is not hampered by government interference. There are no trade barriers; men can live and work where they want. Frontiers are drawn on the maps but they do not hinder the migrations of men and shipping of commodities. 

They have burdened the state, which could be a more or less efficient night-watchman, with a multitude of other duties.

Natives do not enjoy rights that are denied to aliens. Governments and their servants restrict their activities to the protection of life, health, and property against fraudulent or violent aggression. They do not discriminate against foreigners. The courts are independent and effectively protect everybody against the encroachments of officialdom. Everyone is permitted to say, to write, and to print what he likes. Education is not subject to government interference. Governments are like night-watchmen whom the citizens have entrusted with the task of handling the police power. The men in office are regarded as mortal men, not as superhuman beings or as paternal authorities who have the right and duty to hold the people in tutelage. Governments do not have the power to dictate to the citizens what language they must use in their daily speech or in what language they must bring up and educate their children. Administrative organs and tribunals are bound to use each man’s language in dealing with him, provided this language is spoken in the district by a reasonable number of residents.

In such a world it makes no difference where the frontiers of a country are drawn. Nobody has a special material interest in enlarging the territory of the state in which he lives; nobody suffers loss if a part of this area is separated from the state. It is also immaterial whether all parts of the state’s territory are in direct geographical connection, or whether they are separated by a piece of land belonging to another state. It is of no economic importance whether the country has a frontage on the ocean or not. In such a world the people of every village or district could decide by plebiscite to which state they wanted to belong. There would be no more wars because there would be no incentive for aggression. War would not pay. Armies and navies would be superfluous. Policemen would suffice for the fight against crime. In such a world the state is not a metaphysical entity but simply the producer of security and peace. It is the night-watchman, as Lassalle contemptuously dubbed it. But it fulfills this task in a satisfactory way. The citizen’s sleep is not disturbed, bombs do not destroy his home, and if somebody knocks at his door late at night it is certainly neither the Gestapo nor the O.G.P.U.

The reality in which we have to live differs very much from this perfect world of ideal liberalism. But this is due only to the fact that men have rejected liberalism for etatism. They have burdened the state, which could be a more or less efficient night-watchman, with a multitude of other duties. Neither nature, nor the working of forces beyond human control, nor inevitable necessity has led to etatism, but the acts of men. Entangled by dialectic fallacies and fantastic illusions, blindly believing in erroneous doctrines, biased by envy and insatiable greed, men have derided capitalism and have substituted for it an order engendering conflicts for which no peaceful solution can be found.

Aggressive Nationalism

Etatism—whether interventionism or socialism—must lead to conflict, war, and totalitarian oppression of large populations. The right and true state, under etatism, is the state in which I or my friends, speaking my language and sharing my opinions, are supreme. All other states are spurious. One cannot deny that they too exist in this imperfect world. But they are enemies of my state, of the only righteous state, even if this state does not yet exist outside of my dreams and wishes. Our German Nazi state, says Steding, is the Reich; the other states are deviations from it. Politics, says the foremost Nazi jurist, Carl Schmitt, is the discrimination between friend and foe.

In order to understand these doctrines we must look first at the liberal attitude toward the problem of linguistic antagonisms.

He who lives as a member of a linguistic minority, within a community where another linguistic group forms the majority, is deprived of the means of influencing the country’s politics. (We are not considering the special case in which such a linguistic minority occupies a privileged position and oppresses the majority as, for example, the German-speaking aristocracy in the Baltic duchies in the years preceding the Russianization of these provinces.) Within a democratic community public opinion determines the outcome of elections, and thereby the political decisions. Whoever wants to make his ideas prevalent in political life must try to influence public opinion through speech and writing. If he succeeds in convincing his fellow citizens, his ideas obtain support and persist.

In this struggle of ideas linguistic minorities cannot take part. They are voiceless spectators of the political debates out of which the deciding vote emerges. They cannot participate in the discussions and negotiations. But the result determines their fate too. For them democracy does not mean self-determination; other people control them. They are second-class citizens. This is the reason why men in a democratic world consider it a disadvantage to be members of a linguistic minority. It explains at the same time why there were no linguistic conflicts in earlier ages, where there was no democracy. In this age of democracy people in the main prefer to live in a community where they speak the same language as the majority of their fellow citizens. Therefore in plebiscites concerning the question to which state a province should belong, people as a rule, but not always, vote in favor of the country where they will not be members of a linguistic minority.

The domestic policies of a nationalist state are inspired by the aim of improving the conditions of some groups of citizens by inflicting evils on foreigners and those citizens who use a foreign language.

But the recognition of this fact by no means leads liberalism to the principle of nationality. Liberalism does not say: Every linguistic group should form one state and one state only, and each single man belonging to this group should, if at all possible, belong to this state. Neither does it say: No state should include people of several linguistic groups. Liberalism postulates self-determination. That men in the exercise of this right allow themselves to be guided by linguistic considerations is for liberalism simply a fact, not a principle or a moral law. If men decide in another way, which was the case, for example, with the German-speaking Alsatians, that is their own concern. Such a decision, too, must be respected.

But it is different in our age of etatism. The etatist state must necessarily extend its territory to the utmost. The benefits it can grant to its citizens increase in proportion to its territory. Everything that the interventionist state can provide can be provided more abundantly by the larger state than by the smaller one. Privileges become more valuable the larger the territory in which they are valid. The essence of etatism is to take from one group in order to give to another. The more it can take the more it can give. It is to the interest of those whom the government wishes to favor that their state become as large as possible. The policy of territorial expansion becomes popular. The people as well as the governments become eager for conquest. Every pretext for aggression is deemed right. Men then recognize but one argument in favor of peace: that the prospective adversary is strong enough to defeat their attack. Woe to the weak!

The domestic policies of a nationalist state are inspired by the aim of improving the conditions of some groups of citizens by inflicting evils on foreigners and those citizens who use a foreign language. In foreign policy economic nationalism means discrimination against foreigners. In domestic policy it means discrimination against citizens speaking a language which is not that of the ruling group. These pariahs are not always minority groups in a technical sense. The German-speaking people of Meran, Bozen, and Brixen are majorities in their districts; they are minorities only because their country has been annexed by Italy. The same is true for the Germans of the Egerland, for the Ukrainians in Poland, the Magyars of the Szekler district in Transylvania, the Slovenes in Italian-occupied Carniola. He who speaks a foreign mother tongue in a state where another language predominates is an outcast to whom the rights of citizens are virtually denied.

The best example of the political consequences of this aggressive nationalism is provided by conditions in Eastern Europe. If you ask representatives of the linguistic groups of Eastern Europe what they consider would be a fair determination of their national states, and if you mark these boundaries on a map, you will discover that the greater part of this territory is claimed by at least two nations, and not a negligible part by three or even more. Every linguistic group defends its claims with linguistic, racial, historical, geographical, strategic, economic, social, and religious arguments. No nation is prepared sincerely to renounce the least of its claims for reasons of expediency. Every nation is ready to resort to arms to satisfy its pretensions. Every linguistic group therefore considers its immediate neighbors mortal enemies and relies on its neighbor’s neighbors for armed support of its own territorial claims against the common foe. Every group tries to profit from every opportunity to satisfy its claims at the expense of its neighbors. The history of the last decades proves the correctness of this melancholy description.

This essay is excerpted from Omnipotent Government.

Further Reading

{{article.Title}}

{{article.BodyText}}