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 ferment out of which rose the ominous cult of das Volk. East of Germany, it went into the ferment of many nationalisms which was to lead to the breakup of Austria-Hungary as well as to the First World War. That ferment is again at work both in the Soviet Union and in Yugoslavia. And if the project of turning the European Economic Community into a full-fledged Federal Union comes to fruition (which I think unlikely) then a similar ferment would be likely, in time, to manifest itself within the new union.

I will use here the term “nationalism” in the sense in which it is used in ordinary discourse—“nationalism as feeling”—and not in the sense of nationalism-as-theory, a sense which is mostly confined to academic discussions of nationalism as part of the history of thought. Nationalism, unfortunately, cannot be confined to the realm of the history of thought.

In the case of democracy, also, I shall be using the word as it is used in ordinary discourse. By “democracy” we understand a state of affairs in which all adult citizens periodically elect those who are to govern them for a given limited period, and in which the same citizens are free to reject the governors whom they formerly chose, and elect new ones in their place, at the end of the limited period, or earlier. And this state of affairs is linked—historically, though not necessarily logically—with other specific conditions: notably the rule of law and freedom of expression.

When the Soviet Empire first withdrew from the lands to the west which it had occupied at the end of the Second World War, and then became racked by the internal convulsions which are now increasingly shaking it, scores of millions of people hoped to see both the attainment of democracy and the fulfillment of their national aspirations. It often seemed to be assumed, both by the people concerned and by outside observers, that these objectives were essentially identical or at least easily compatible. In many cases, though not in all, it soon became painfully clear that these assumptions were open to serious question.


To illustrate some of the problems that can arise between nationalism and democracy, I should like to take a case history, that of my own country: Ireland. Like many twentieth-century Europeans, I was born in one state and grew up in another one, though without changing my physical location. I was, however, more fortunate than most other Europeans in comparable situations in that both the state I was born in and the one I grew up in were fully democratic.

The state I was born in in 1917 was called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. When I was four years old, that state broke up. Two successor states took its place: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, on one side, and the Irish Free State, now known as the Republic of Ireland, on the other. The manner in which this transformation took place has some instruction for us concerning the interplay of nationalism and democracy.

By the time democracy—in the form of adult male suffrage—arrived in the British Isles, a little over a hundred years ago, it was already apparent that democracy had a problem with nationalism. The problem—as is also the case in many other parts of the world today—concerned the extent of the territory which should form the unit for the purposes of democratic process and government. Most of the inhabitants of the British Isles assumed that the unit had to be the archipelago. On that view of the matter, the Irish already had full democratic rights, since they were free to elect representatives to the parliament of the United Kingdom.

Most Irish people were, however, nationalists and rejected the view that the archipelago should be the unit, for the purpose of democratic choice. Ireland, they held, was a separate nation and should have a parliament of its own. By the second decade of the twentieth century many British people—in the Liberal party—were ready to concede the demands of Irish nationalism; “If the Irish want to go, let them go,” was the general idea. But it soon became painfully clear that that was an oversimplification.

Most of the inhabitants of Ireland were Irish nationalists. But a sizable minority were not only not nationalists but were passionately opposed to being included in a polity in which Irish nationalists would be in a majority. There antinationalists—though a minority in the whole island of Ireland—were a local majority in the northeast corner. They opposed, in principle, any separate parliament for Ireland but they insisted that, if any such parliament should come into being, their own territory and population must not be included in its jurisdiction. Irish nationalists, however, insisted that the island of Ireland was a natural and historic unit, and the only acceptable basis for democratic choice. In the parliament of the United Kingdom, in the year before the First World War, a majority—made up of a coalition of Liberals and Irish nationalists—accepted the contention of the Irish nationalists, and rejected that of their opponents, the Ulster Unionists. An attempt was made to incorporate the refractory population of northeast Ireland into the jurisdiction of the Irish nationalists in a Home Rule parliament. This attempt was abandoned by the Liberals, after it had precipitated a crisis in the British Army, and brought the whole United Kingdom to the verge of civil war. Indeed the Home Rule crisis of 1913-1914 is among the causes of the First World War, since it led the German General Staff to believe that Britain would be incapable of intervening in Europe, even when Belgium was invaded.

Irish nationalists felt betrayed when their Liberal allies abandoned the thesis of the island of Ireland as a national unit, and allowed Ulster counties to opt out of an Irish parliament and remain in the United Kingdom, if they chose to do so. There would thus be two territories for democratic choice in the island of Ireland, and not just one, as the nationalists demanded.

Nationalist frustration at what nationalists regarded as the dismemberment of the nation led to two armed rebellions: one during the First World War, in 1916, and another in the immediate aftermath of that war, in 1919-1921. At the end of the second rebellion, the leadership of the rebellious nationalists found itself constrained to accept an Anglo-Irish Treaty which conferred statehood on the homogeneously nationalist area, leaving Northern Ireland as still part of the United Kingdom. The people of that area endorsed that decision. After two years’ experience of the realities of rebellion and repression, many people were feeling less nationalistic than they had believed themselves to be in 1918. A minority among the nationalist rebels, however, rejected the Anglo-Irish Treaty and a civil war ensued. This, be it noted, was a civil war among nationalists in what is now the Republic. Northern Ireland was not involved.


The anti-Treaty nationalists lost that civil war, but their leader, Eamon de Valera, came to power, through free elections, ten years later. While accepting the partition of Ireland de facto, he rejected it de jure. The constitution of Ireland, devised by de Valera in 1937 and still in force today, reasserts the old nationalist claim to the entire island. That constitution was enacted in a referendum which was confined to the homogeneously nationalist population of the Republic of Ireland, but it is deemed to apply to the whole island on the “natural unit” theory: the Irish Supreme Court, as recently as March of last year, held that “the reintegration of the national territory” is a “constitutional imperative,” presumably binding on all inhabitants of the island, including those who are known to reject the claim in question.

The Provisional IRA, in a campaign of violence that has now been going on for twenty years, are attempting to enforce that claim. They have no democratic mandate, but they derive a certain credibility—and durability—from the fact that their objective, a united Ireland, is also the professed objective of all the democratic political parties whose members are drawn from the nationalist population.

The Irish case shows nationalism as productive of disruption and violence, even under conditions of unbroken democratic process. But the predicaments of people now creating or seeking to create democracies, after two generations of totalitarian rule, are more formidable. Some have problems, as Ireland has, about the unit of choice. Should there be a democratic Czechoslovakia, for example, or should there be a Czech democratic state and a Slovak one? And if there are two, where exactly should their boundaries run? That last is a very dangerous question, since it is apt to excite nationalist passions on both sides.

Both in the Soviet Union and in Yugoslavia, the spread of democratic ideas and the relaxation of restraints over political discussion led to—or were at least accompanied by—an explosion of nationalism. In multinational and multilingual polities, freedom of expression releases nationalism and inflames it. Gorbachev, in offering glasnost to the people of the Soviet Union, believed he would now learn what that people wanted. But what glasnost revealed was, that there was no such thing as a people of the Soviet Union: only a lot of different peoples, several of which don’t want to be part of the Soviet Union at all and almost all of which are radically dissatisfied with the Soviet Union, both in their past experience of it, and in its present form (and probably in any form which it is capable of assuming).

Movement toward democracy and freedom of expression, in multinational polities, releases nationalism. But once nationalism has been released, and is then inflamed, it has a tendency to smother democracy and freedom of expression. This tendency operates on two levels, with a negative interaction between them. At the top, among the people who are trying to hold the multinational polity together, democracy and freedom of expression come to be associated with the disintegrating forces that have to be combated. And in each nationality that is struggling to emerge, aroused nationalism is intolerant of dissent, especially the dissent of local ethnic minorities. “No free speech for traitors!” was a slogan frequently heard in Ireland in the Twenties and Thirties, in the aftermath of the Irish Civil War. That slogan would be readily intelligible today in Georgia and Azerbaijan, or in Serbia and Croatia. And if any of those nationalities becomes independent it is unlikely to be democratic.

Both the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia were held together only partly by terror. The other integrating force was the possession of a common multinational ideology: communism. I don’t mean of course that the population at large ever believed in communism. Nor do I mean that the members of the Communist party necessarily, or even probably, believed in communism. It is hard to know what, if anything, Party bureaucrats believe, or even whether the concept of belief conveys anything distinct to their minds. But to be a coherent force in the governance of multinational polities, communism does not have to be believed. It only needs to hold a monopoly of public discourse and to be the universal language of the ruling class—the nomenklatura—and of the bureaucracy at every level.

Communism is analogous in some ways to the Mandarin language spoken by the ruling class in imperial China. But communism did more than provide a common language for an imperial bureaucracy. Communism, as developed by Lenin and Stalin—followed by Tito—became a wonderfully flexible instrument for the governance of a multinational polity. Tsarism had been a Russian affair, the tsars were always Russian, and the ideology of the Empire—the Russian Orthodox Church—identified itself as Holy Russia. As against that past, the communism of the Soviet Union was a multinational ideology, with an appeal, and places, for ambitious members of minority nationalities. Lenin’s successor was just such a person.

Alan Bullock, on the second page of his recent book Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives, calls Stalin “a Great Russian chauvinist.” This is, of course, a deliberate paradox, but it lacks the inner truth that is needed to make paradox valid. Stalin was not, and could not be, a Great Russian chauvinist. Great Russian chauvinism was a force which threatened him and which he needed to combat. Many ordinary Russians must have wondered privately, after 1928, what a Georgian was doing, ruling Russians. Stalin needed to prevent anyone from raising that question in public. In doing so, he had to be seen to set his face against all forms of chauvinism, including Georgian chauvinism, and this he did. On this ground, Bullock calls him “a renegade.” Georgians don’t think of him in that way, as is shown by the fact that the only statues of Stalin that survive in the Soviet Union are those in Georgia. I remember a relevant conversation with a Georgian. This took place in Kraków, shortly after Khrushchev’s disclosure of Stalin’s crimes. The conversation ran:

“Do you admire Joseph Stalin?”

“I can’t really say that I do.”

“A pity. He was from Tiflis, you know.”

Communism, as it developed in the Soviet Union under Stalin, and in Yugoslavia under Tito, was effective in sedating nationalism. As communism wore off, nationalism woke up again, and disintegration of the multinational polities set in. The early stirrings of nationalism appeared to be democratic, but later manifestations were more disquieting.

Democracy is more vulnerable than nationalism, in that, among people who have not grown accustomed to it, democracy is more likely to be judged by its immediate results. Thus economic hardship tends to discredit a new democracy. In the case of nationalism, on the other hand, the blame for hardship or defeat is likely to be placed on those who are believed to have betrayed the nation—as in the case of Germany, after defeat in the First World War. In Eastern Europe, many of those who are now attracted to democracy, because of its associations with success and economic wellbeing in the West, may well recoil from it when they find that democracy does not immediately deliver those good things. Also, the discovery of things like corruption in elected governments may be followed by a tendency to repudiate not just the particular people concerned, but the system they are felt to represent. Such conditions may be propitious for the emergence of national saviors, with military or paramilitary support. Some new democracies may therefore go under, at least for a time.

Yet democracy may also reassert itself, even against nationalism. That was seen in the case history I have considered, when the Irish electorate voted overwhelmingly in favor of the pro-Treaty forces in the general election of June 1922. And although nationalism reasserted itself ten years later, it was by then no longer a nationalism that challenged democratic institutions. Few people would have predicted in 1921 that the Irish State, then on the verge of civil war, would still be a functioning democracy seventy years later. And yet, that is the case: the Republic of Ireland within its de facto frontiers has been a fully functioning democracy throughout the seventy years of its existence, although its regrettable de jure claim to Northern Ireland lacks democratic validity.

I think that that case history, despite its many disquieting aspects, does carry at its core a somewhat reassuring message for the new democracies of Europe. Democracy in a newly emerging state can, after all, cope with nationalism, given a bit of luck. I would rate the chances for a democratic future as quite high, in most of the countries that were occupied by the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War. I’m afraid I would not rate them so high for those who hope to achieve democracy and national self-determination within the Soviet Union itself.

The Baltic Republics, if permitted to leave the Soviet Union, would probably be democratic, but I would not now rate their chances of being allowed to leave as high. As regards Yugoslavia, both Slovenia and most of Croatia seem likely to extricate themselves from the wreckage of the present federation. If so, Slovenia is likely to be a democracy, and also to enter into confederal arrangements with Austria, Italy, and perhaps Czechoslovakia (if Czechoslovakia holds together). Croatia is a borderline case. If it has the good fortune to lose to Greater Serbia that portion of its territory which is most densely inhabited by ethnic Serbs, then it might evolve into a democracy, because the Croat leadership would know that unless it does so it will not be accepted by the West, or aided by it. For the rump of Yugoslavia, dominated by the manic nationalism of Greater Serbia, I see little democratic hope at all, in this century.

This Issue

August 15, 1991