Nationalism and democracy are qualitatively different and incommensurable. Nationalism is a conglomerate of emotions; democracy is a system of government. If nationalism and democracy are fully compatible in any given case that is a most fortunate circumstance. Not all peoples are so lucky.
In defining nationalism as “a conglomerate of emotions,” I have in mind the nationalism which has been a driving force in history, and especially in modern history. This form of nationalism almost invariably makes its appearance with an accompanying adjective of national identification: “French nationalism,” “German nationalism,” and so on. The various nationalisms have so much in common in their manifestations, however, that it is possible to use “nationalism” as a general term to refer to these common characteristics, collectively. The “conglomerate of emotions” I have in mind as composing nationalism are those that cluster around landscape, ancestors, language, traditions, and cultural patterns, often including religion.
Textbooks on nationalism often refer to the phenomenon as of modern origin, usually tracing it back no further than the late eighteenth century. What really happened during that period, however, is the separation of national feeling from religion, the emergence of secular nationalism. But nationalism, as a conglomeration of emotions, linking faith and fatherland, goes back very far indeed. It appears on both sides of our Judeo-Hellenic heritage. The Hebrew Bible was about a Chosen People in a Promised Land; in classical antiquity we have the cult of those who died for the “polis or the patria.” In Christian Europe certain powerful figures—for example Joan of Arc and Oliver Cromwell—derived their power from the fusion in them of religion and nationalism. The idea of a Chosen People in a Promised Land was taken by virtually every Christian nation and applied to itself. I can’t be sure of the full number but writers of the following nations explicitly referred to their peoples as chosen and their land as promised: England, France, Germany, Spain, Poland, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, Ireland, and especially and insistently the United States, for both whites and blacks took up the theme.
I have been using the word nationalism up to now in the sense in which we normally use the word when we use it with an identifying prefix, as in “French nationalism,” etc. There is, however, a distinct sense in which nationalism is used without an identifying prefix. In this sense the word is used to refer to a theory or ideology according to which people of every nation are encouraged to take pride in their national identity, cultivate their national traditions, and so on. The father of this type of nationalism was Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803). Those of Herder’s intellectual progeny who followed his path of nationalism-in-general were, however, very few. Mostly, the writings of Herder, which were influential both inside and outside Germany, served to stimulate and encourage the other kind of nationalism: the conglomerate of emotions around the idea of a particular nation. In Germany, this type of cultural nationalism entered into the…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.