Can Nationalism be Progressive?


In the debate leading up to the 2015 General Election, it is noteworthy that of the three significant parties opposing austerity, two are overtly nationalist.  To some this seems suspicious as nationalism has always had a reputation as a rather right wing ideology.  The fact that the Scottish National Party used to be described as Tartan Tories only adds to this.  But are such suspicions well founded? Does a broadly left wing position preclude any form of nationalism?

Right at the outset we have a glaring paradox.  The most vicious and evil political ideology the world has suffered operated under a party name that, in English, would be ‘National Socialist Workers’ Party’.  Far from showing that nationalism and progressive politics are poles apart, this fact raises an immediate question.  It is apparent to anyone that party leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Leanne Wood and their respective parties could hardly be further removed from what Adolf Hitler stood for.  It seems as if nationalism means something very different to them than it meant to Hitler.  I would like to suggest what the crucial differences are.

Any form of nationalism is dependent on the belief that one can identify a group of people who share a culture and an identity.  Usually, there will be a belief in some sort of shared history as well.  This group of people will value political self determination and will wish to elect its own government.  It desires freedom on a national level in the same way that individuals want personal freedom.  The analogy is useful because nationalist approaches can diverge in much the same way as individual ideas of freedom.  Just as some people want as little identification with society as possible and resent governmental intervention in their lives, some variants of nationalism are essentially isolationist.  UKIP comes to mind as an obvious example.  Others decide that their freedom includes the liberty to decide what is good for others and ‘clean up the neighbourhood’.  On a national level this seems to be fundamental to the United States’ sense of its identity.  Others again, accept that individual freedom is a social contract and that the ideal is to sustain ones own identity and aspirations in dialogue and interchange with others under a framework of commonly agreed laws.  The political counterpart of this is the kind of balance between nationalism and internationalism to which the European Union, not always successfully, aspires.  Finally, we have the criminal; the person who does not believe they should be subject to law or any principles beyond their own desires and who is willing to use force to achieve their ends.  Elevated to a national policy this is Nazism.  Nationalism, then, can coexist with a very wide range of other beliefs and we can infer a lot less than we often do when we identify a person or party as nationalist.

So what about internationalism? Nationalists are sometimes seen as not progressive on the grounds that the modern world is becoming increasingly interdependent.  Internationalism, it is said, is the only approach adequate to our future.  Behind this criticism are two assumptions that need to be identified and examined.  The first is that nationalism and internationalism are mutually exclusive opposites and the second is that internationalism is always a progressive force.  To consider the first we need to decide what we mean by ‘internationalism’.  It is not helpful to confine ourselves to the very particular meanings that ‘international’ and related words acquired as part of the history of Communism.  Important as that is, the concept has a much broader sense these days.  Internationalism is, in essence, the opposite of the isolationist version of nationalism.  It holds that national distinctions are of less importance than the fact that we all live on one planet and that the peoples of every nation are all human beings and have rights and duties that transcend their particular citizenship.  It also argues that it is beneficial for nations to co-operate to the greatest extent possible and that non co-operation is ultimately damaging to the self interest of even the strongest nations.  While this certainly is the polar opposite of the kind of nationalism represented by UKIP, it looks as if the positions of the SNP and Plaid Cymru on membership of the EU demonstrate that they see a significant degree of internationalism as in the interests of Scotland and Wales and thus entailed by their nationalist philosophies.

Is internationalism always a progressive force?  If we take the view that it is desirable to preserve, encourage and share cultural diversity in the world then it is not.  Globalisation is of necessity an internationalist phenomenon.  It is driven by powerful multinational capitalist corporations and its inevitable tendency is to produce the same kind of burger bars, coffee shops and clothes retailers around the globe.  Even more disturbingly, we see in TTIP that it can move to supplant the power of elected governments.  Just as isolationist nationalism is culturally sterile and limiting, so is a globalised monoculture dictated by corporate interests.

The conclusion then is that nationalism can be progressive but is not necessarily so and that internationalism is essential to a progressive position but, in some forms, can be very anti-progressive.  Each can act to counteract the worst potentials of the other.

© John Snelling

April 2015.