26 November 2010

Be careful with nationalism and patriotism

In his post, Walter extols the virtues of patriotism. Walter’s loved one is the nation state as opposed to political identification with one’s town or region. The reason is hard-nosed: only the institutions of the nation state can achieve socialism and a majority for socialism can only be achieved through love of the nation state.

In an earlier post, I dealt with the role of the national state in the developed capitalist countries in the age of market fundamentalism. Here I want to look briefly at the meaning of Walter’s patriotism.

Walter’s use of patriotism in this context is indistinguishable from the notion of nationalism, i.e. the belief in the promotion of the “values of the nation” which Walter believes could and should contain socialist values. After all who does not become a little nationalistic when arguing with Americans about the virtues of the NHS?

The problem for me lies in the construct of nationalism. If one means, in the tradition of the French Revolution, the notion of “citizenship nationalism” – i.e. everybody with a British passport (plus long-term residents in the UK), then that is acceptable, so long as we don’t deny other levels of identification: municipal, regional, pan-European, and of course universalistic ones. In fact citizenship nationalism is not only desirable it is inevitable.

Yet nationalism in many people’s minds is not citizenship nationalism at all, but ethic nationalism: a group of people defined by origins, race, religion, language, etc. This is pernicious because what it is about is “taking possession and excluding the other” When the English flag is raised it summons up notions of ethnic, not citizenship nationalism.

To back up my argument against ethnic nationalism I will give the wonderful quotation of Ludvik Zamenhof.

“I am totally convinced that every nationalism presents only the greatest unhappiness for humanity, and that the aim of every people should be the creation of a harmonious humanity. It’s true that the nationalism of oppressed people – a natural reaction of self-defence – is more excusable than the nationalism of oppressors; but, if the nationalism of the strong is ignoble, the nationalism of the weak is imprudent; yet each reinforces the other and presents a vicious circle of unhappiness from which humanity can never escape unless all of us give up our self-love of the group and try instead to establish ourselves on a wholly neutral basis.”

In conclusion I could say this. If the citizens of Britain value socialism and struggle for it in Britain, fine. If the fires of ethnic nationalism are fanned by talk of patriotism and nationalism, then that’s bad. I fear that in highlighting the notion of patriotism, one will cause the latter rather than the former.

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