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Nationalism and Beyond

313 pages

"There is nothing quite like this book in the contemporary literature. It fills a salient vacuum and would make a fine contribution to a number of debates." - Philip Pettit, Professor of Social and Political Theory, Australian National University, Canberra. "The book offers high-level philosophical analysis of a topical issue, that of nationalism. The author takes a partisan, cosmopolitan position towards his subject. His main aim is to show that cultural isolationism, hostility towards the neighbors etc. . . . are logical consequences of nationalism." - János Kis, Professor of Political Philosophy, Central European University

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Nationalism and Beyond

Introducing Moral Debate about Values

Nenad Miscevic
  • Publisher : Central European University Press
  • Year of publication : 2001
  • Published on OpenEdition Books : 23 January 2013
  • Serie : Hors collection
  • Electronic ISBN : 9789633860083

OpenEdition Books


Electronic reference:

MISCEVIC, Nenad. Nationalism and Beyond: Introducing Moral Debate about Values. New edition [online]. Budapest: Central European University Press, 2001 (generated 17 December 2013). Available on the Internet: <http://books.openedition.org/ceup/440>. ISBN: 9789633860083.

Printed version:
  • ISBN : 9789639241121
  • Number of pages : 313

© Central European University Press, 2001

Terms of use:

"There is nothing quite like this book in the contemporary literature. It fills a salient vacuum and would make a fine contribution to a number of debates." - Philip Pettit, Professor of Social and Political Theory, Australian National University, Canberra. "The book offers high-level philosophical analysis of a topical issue, that of nationalism. The author takes a partisan, cosmopolitan position towards his subject. His main aim is to show that cultural isolationism, hostility towards the neighbors etc. . . . are logical consequences of nationalism." - János Kis, Professor of Political Philosophy, Central European University

Nenad Miscevic

Central European University, Budapest 

Table of contents
  1. Preface

  2. Part One. Nationalism as a political program

    1. Chapter one. Introduction

    2. Chapter two. Portraying nationalism

    3. Chapter three. Invidious nationalism

    4. Chapter four. The even-handed nationalist: summarizing the argument

    5. Chapter five. The right to self-determination

    6. Chapter six. The right to self-defense

    7. Chapter seven. How successful is the nation-state?

    8. Chapter eight. Does nationalism support liberal-democratic values?

    1. Chapter nine. Political alternatives to nationalism

  1. Part Two. Identity, Culture, And Tradition

    1. Chapter ten. Nation and culture

    2. Chapter eleven. The general value of culture

    3. Chapter twelve. Human flourishing and understanding of values

    4. Chapter thirteen. National tradition as a school of morals

    5. Chapter fourteen. Is national identity essential for the identity of persons?

    6. Chapter fifteen. The value of diversity

    7. Chapter sixteen. The anti-cosmopolitan argument

    8. Chapter seventeen. Recapitulation: nationalism against culture

    9. Chapter eighteen. Ultra-moderate nationalism

  2. Part Three. Conclusion

    1. Chapter nineteen. Why nationalism might be immoral

    2. Chapter twenty. Pluralistic cosmopolitanism

  3. The beginner’s guide to the literature

  4. Bibliography

  5. Index


1This book was born from my experience with nationalism and war in the former Yugoslavia. It has been further shaped by both my political experiences in Croatia under the Tudjman regime and by political and philosophical reflections on the issues of national identity, culture, and politics. It is intended to introduce the reader to the contemporary moral and political debate on nationalism, from a standpoint that is critical of nationalist views. It is thus both an introduction and a polemic with a postulated ‘thoughtful nationalist’, not a sociological investigation into causes and roots. Confrontation with this postulated ‘thoughtful nationalist’ occupies center stage; such a nationalist would defend the view that states should be organized on an ethno-cultural basis; that cultural and intellectual life should be officially organized around ‘national’ culture; that individuals have basic duties and obligations to their nation; and that such duties normally trump many other moral obligations. The book presents and attempts to answer the standard arguments of such nationalists and criticizes their views.

2I have divided the arguments to be discussed into two groups. In the first group are the more narrowly political ones, having to do with issues of self-determination and with the alleged democratic credentials of nationalism. The second group is more philosophical, and centers around the relation between ‘national identity’ and various goods, such as the free flourishing of individuals, moral insight, and the cultural goods that traditions offer to individuals who participate in them. Does national identity really provide such goods, and is it a better provider than some alternative identities? This is the question which occupies most space in the book. The arguments addressed appear in nationalist literature and political discourse, often concealed by a great deal of rhetoric; they also make their appearance in serious philosophical literature. This brings me to a particularly important point about this book.

3The biggest intellectual problem that I have encountered in writing the book has to do with the recent resurgence of very mild forms of nationally minded philosophical thought. A year ago, when putting together my anthology on ‘nationalism and ethnic conflict’ (Miščević, 2000), I noticed that most authors eager to write about the topic were at least sympathetic to nationalist movements, whereas philosophers who are less sympathetic simply tend not to write about nationalism at all. Now, this philosophical pro-nationalism is vastly different from anything I know as nationalism from my personal experience: it is liberal and generous, allowing all sorts of concessions that no one whom I would classify as a political nationalist would ever accept. All of the authors who see themselves as liberal nationalists are well aware of the painful realities of nationalist conflicts. They react to them by trying to exculpate nationalism and dissociate it, as such, from the aggressive forms made manifest in these conflicts. In their eyes it is not nationalism as such that is responsible, but the fact that the nationalisms in question were not liberally minded. Some of them go as far as claiming that nationalism is originally, or considered in itself, liberal and democratic (whereas others see themselves as proposing liberal limitations on nationalism). Since such mild pro-nationalism—which I am not at all sure is ‘nationalistic’ in any real sense—seems to occupy center stage among serious philosophical papers on the subject I was faced with an unpleasant dilemma. I could either ‘join the club’, and put mild pro-nationalism at the center of this book, discussing it at length and trying to show its shortcomings. In that case, the book would have been philosophically more ‘in tune’ with the academic mainstream, but it would not have reflected actual political life in countries with ruling nationalistic parties. Instead, I have focused on a more typical nationalist attitude, much tougher than the one popular in academia, but more common in everyday life. I have done so in the belief that my debate with nationalism should reflect political realities, rather than adapt itself to the mild climate of gentle and liberal academia. I have tried to do justice to ultra-moderate, ‘liberal nationalist’ philosophers by discussing their views in a separate chapter, but I am aware that the richness and variety of their positions would merit more space, and I apologize to them for not placing their views at the center of the discussion.I have learned a lot from many authors, and perhaps most of all from those I criticize. I owe a special intellectual debt to Judith Lichtenberg: her paper on varieties of nationalist arguments (listed in the bibliography) gave me the idea of organizing this book around particular pro-nationalistic arguments. For discussion and criticism I wish to thank professors Kevin Muligan, Barry Smith, Andrew Oldenquist, Philip Pettit, Allen Buchanan, Alan Montefiore, János Kis, and Will Kymlicka; for direct help with the manuscript and its publication my colleagues Ferencz Huoranszki, Loránd Ambrus Lakatos, Nenad Dimitrijevic, Thomas Simon, Markus Haller, and Michelle Gadpaille; and most directly, the enthusiastic team at CEU Press. Special thanks go to the efficient and insightful copy-editor James Patterson. I have been discussing nationalism for years with Friderik Klampfer of Maribor and Miomir Matulovic and Elvio Baccarini of the University of Rijeka. For their hospitality I thank my hosts in Switzerland and Austria, professors Edward Swiderski, Lidija Basta and Peter Koller. I have also profited a great deal from talks at courses and conferences in France and Turkey organized by Ghislaine Deval and Sandra Aidara of Transeuropéennes.

Part One. Nationalism as a political program

Chapter one. Introduction


1Suppose a white male acquaintance confided to you one day his feelings about belonging to the Caucasian race:

Let me tell you how proud I am of being white; it is not that I hate other races, but I love my race, and prefer to associate with my kind. Allow me to put it more philosophically. Belonging to a given race means being within a frame that offers meaning to people’s choices between alternatives, thus enabling them to acquire an identity. We are lost if we cannot identify ourselves with some part of an objective social reality, say, a race, with its distinctive qualities. Race is found, not created, and is found in identification with others. But one should be careful! Too much interaction between races leads to the loss of the distinctive pattern of differences between men, to a bland, indiscriminate mix in which important contrasts are lost. Races should be preserved in a recognizable form. It is therefore the duty of each white man to exercise solidarity with other whites.

2Would this brutal honesty shock you? Nowadays, almost no serious writer would endorse the above statement, and with good reason. Racism—in particular, white racism—has no place in a decent society. Now, replace the word ‘race’ with ‘nation’, and ‘white’ with almost any nationality, and you will find the above passage transformed into the typical views of a nationalist. The passage begins to sound much less exotic. In fact, the more ‘philosophical’ sounding phrases in this ‘quotation’ have been culled from the writings of prominent contemporary political thinkers, except that they spoke of nation (in the ethnic sense) where your fictional acquaintance speaks about race. You will find the original sentences quoted in the course of this book, if you look carefully enough. Is there any reason why nationalist attitudes should be judged differently from racist ones? To begin with, our thinkers might point out that ‘ethno-nation’ is a cultural matter, whereas race is a (spurious) biological concept. Fine, but these same thinkers also insist that national belonging—in their sense—is non-voluntary, non-chosen: in what does a morally significant difference with racial belonging then consist? Race is at least a partly invented category, and so is nation, as these thinkers are the first to admit.

3I shall argue that nationalism is almost as problematic as racism: our attitude to national exclusivity should become more like our negative attitude towards the racial kind. I shall defend my assertion by attempting to show that the best arguments for the nationalist attitude—the one expressed by the above paragraph after replacing ‘race’ with ‘nation’—available in the literature are not valid. This systematizing presentation and criticism of arguments constitutes the main body of the book. I shall also try to produce some independent arguments pointing to the ultimate immorality of nationalism. Finally, I will briefly sketch an alternative which relies upon pluralistic cultural belonging, which can represent a much wider affiliation than the national one, and which for this reason I will describe as ‘graded culturalist cosmopolitanism’. I will recommend it to your attention only briefly, since a detailed argument would require another volume.

4Given that there are so many books dealing with nationalism, why bother with yet another one? Let me offer an extended apology. Nation and nationalism were burning issues of political action and debate in the 1990s and have accompanied us into the next millennium. Attitudes to these issues seem to revolve around a dilemma. On the one hand, atrocities are being committed in ethno-national conflicts all around the world, from Bosnia and Ulster to Azerbaijan, East Timor, and Tibet—and most people not directly involved in the conflicts condemn them. Also, many thoughtful people are inclined to blame ‘nationalism’—whatever it might mean—for the atrocities committed. The rule of nationalism in its ugliest forms saps the strength of intellectual and political life in many Central and East European countries; most drastically in the former Yugoslavia in the aftermath of the war, but also elsewhere. On the other hand, many of us are prone to tolerate and often endorse the struggle of oppressed peoples for ethno-national autonomy, although the struggle is often fought in the name of the same ‘nationalistic’ principles which we condemn when confronted with the realities of civil war. Can one do both in honesty and without contradicting oneself? What is the right stance to take? This is the main dilemma for a serious, honest, and thoughtful citizen confronted with nationalism. Of course, there are related issues that are less dramatic, but more widespread. Take isolationism. Many small, newly self-assured countries would like to separate themselves from their neighbors: the supporters of Jörg Haider in Austria intensely dislike their South-Slavonic neighbors; these same neighbors living on the edge of the Balkans do not want to be seen as ‘Balkanic’; and many East Europeans prefer to see themselves as ‘Central Europeans’ (with the odd result that ‘Eastern Europe’ in their imagination seems to recede eastwards towards the Pacific Ocean!). Inhabitants of other, much larger and more developed countries worry about membership of larger, transnational communities; EU membership is the most obvious case in point. What about immigration policy? Can a nation simply decide it does not want to live with members of another one? If not, why not? In all these cases, values and norms are at stake, issues about what we should or ought to do. They form the central topic of the present book.

5Particularly interesting in the contemporary debate is the special role played by the cultural underpinnings of nation and nationalism. Nationalists insist on the purity of culture, and condemn cultural influence as the ‘base imitation’ of foreign cultures (the expression is from Shakespeare’s Richard II [2.1.23], a scene which will later be quoted more extensively). Along the same lines, some intellectuals worry about modifications to—in their view, the corruption of—their mother tongue by foreign influences, influences from other languages or even other dialects of what is officially the same language. Many French people worry about Anglo-American loan words from pop culture or from computer jargon; Croatian nationalists worry about Serbian words; and some English writers worry about the corrupting influence of American slang in all domains of culture, from soap operas to philosophy. The French authorities have been trying for some time to forbid formally the use of foreign languages—above all, English—at scholarly conferences held in France; they gave up because of the energetic protests of the scientific community. Those who use the ‘corrupted’ language defend themselves, if they care to do so, on grounds of practicality or of the sheer appeal of the foreign idiom. How bad is the change in question? Is it just a matter of personal taste, or does it have serious moral weight? If the latter, should something be done about it, and might the offended ones use legal and political means to prevent others from ‘corrupting’ the language? These issues arise in most countries today, and in the more fortunate ones provoke moral debate.

6Finally, let me mention a less widespread issue (which has actually arisen in some of the successor countries to the former Yugoslavia) which illustrates everyday nationalism in a rather graphic way. Suppose a somewhat conservative national community has ‘built its identity around a handful of historical myths, featuring, for example, a battlefield victory, a martyr, or a deep injustice perpetrated by a neighboring nation. If historians subsequently discover that the victory in question was in fact a defeat, and that the alleged martyr was in fact a cunning collaborationist, what can and should be done? One party argues that the discovery should not be made public since it threatens the most sacred values of the nation; the other opposes secrecy on the ground of respect for the truth. The first party wins: what are the historians to do?

7In the moral debate the more thoughtful participants tend to appeal to general principles, besides historical and sociological facts and particular circumstances. Such principles concern the value of nation, or of tradition-bound communities in general, as compared and opposed to the value of internationalism, or perhaps of the autonomy of the individual. They are often discussed in professional ethics books and journals, often inaccessible— due to their style and assumed familiarity with the literature—to those who most need the relevant information. A standard paper on the morality of nationalism assumes that its reader is familiar with the work of authors like Rawls, Nozick, Dworkin, or Habermas, and rarely explains the general philosophical background it presupposes. As a rule, the literature on the moral aspects of nationalism is much less readable and accessible than the one on its sociological and historical aspects (which features true classics which are both profound and readable, from Gellner and Anderson to Smith). There are brilliant exceptions, which I note in the recommended reading, written from a more pro-nationalist viewpoint (Canovan, 1996; Kymlicka, 1995). The philosophical critics of nationalism, however, tend to write less accessible essays. The intellectual public in general, as well as non-philosophers who are specialists in related areas, require an accessible critical guide to normative issues on nationalism. I vividly remember a talk by a linguist friend who described, and tried to condemn, the linguistic purism in our home country, Croatia. The linguistic part was excellent, but as soon as he arrived at the evaluation and condemnation, it became painfully obvious that, in spite of his culture and erudition, he simply lacked the required conceptual and even terminological means to make his condemnation of purism really hit home. Here, then, is the intention behind the present book: to provide a readable and opinionated introduction to the moral debate. It thus has a double aim: first, to persuade the reader that the pro-national stance is ultimately morally more doubtful than the opposite, more cosmopolitan one, and might even be downright immoral; secondly, to introduce those readers who are not familiar with the philosophical debate to the concepts and principles that shape it. It is thus not a sociological analysis of nationalism, but an ethically based polemic against it.

8At this juncture, an impatient, activist fellow-opponent of nationalism may raise a doubt: assuming that nationalism is to be resisted, at least in its invidious varieties, what can theoreticians, armed only with their professional skills, do about it? Obviously, as a scholar one can do little, at least directly, about primitive, visceral nationalism which is impervious to discussion, not to mention its more intellectual, but still dogmatic variant which refuses to consider evidence and arguments. But this does not mean that nothing can be done. The primary target should be the intellectual (or quasi-intellectual) justifications of nationalism; and indeed one should address oneself primarily to other intellectuals, those who produce, support and spread nationalistic discourse, thus legitimizing the action of the viscerally nationalist hangmen and henchmen. Nationalist politics needs intellectuals: to use an example from the former Yugoslavia, let me mention that some of the best-known Serbian philosophers—most prominently Mihailo Markovic—have been successfully recruited by either Milosevic or by the nationalist opposition to legitimize the war waged against other nations in the area. The ex-foreign minister of the Bosnian Republic of Srpska Krajina, Professor Aleksa Buha, is also a philosopher, specializing in German Idealism. In the mid-1990s he toured Europe in an attempt to justify the genocidal policies of his government with philosophical nationalist arguments.

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