Whose Nationalism?

Don’t Matter How Raggly the Flag, It Still Got to Tie Us Together; artwork by Thornton Dial
Indianapolis Museum of Art/© 2020 Estate of Thornton Dial/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Thornton Dial: Don’t Matter How Raggly the Flag, It Still Got to Tie Us Together, 2003

In 1989, at the end of the cold war, Francis Fukuyama wrote an essay on “the end of history,” which he expanded in 1992 into the best-selling book of that name.1 Even then, skeptics were noisily dubious that history had come to an end with the joint triumphs of liberal democracy and a controlled capitalist economy. Events proved the skeptics right. Far from bringing about an era of peaceful, if boring, post-ideological politics, the collapse of the Communist bloc in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the Soviet Union in 1991 unleashed a surge of nationalist passion. The most alarming case for European observers was the former Yugoslavia, which dissolved into its component states, which in turn were ravaged by genocidal ethnic cleansing. It was as if the ethnic hatreds of pre-1914 Europe had simply been repressed after 1945 and then sprang back into ugly life.

We perhaps should not have been surprised. Decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s was driven more often than not by movements of national liberation, and even where these were led by professed Marxists or marxisant socialists, it was clear that nationalist sentiments were what gave them mass appeal. With the demise of the Soviet Union and the discrediting of communism almost everywhere except China and Cuba, what remains in the developing world is nationalism. Even in China and Cuba, the Marxism seems skin-deep and the nationalism heartfelt. In Europe, nationalism had an evil reputation after two world wars, which explains a good deal of the impetus behind the creation of the multinational European Union. And yet most people in most modern states have a strong sense of national identity, even if it is unclear just what constitutes it.

The three books under review have one thing in common. They each revisit territory their authors have explored before, indeed a quarter of a century before. Liah Greenfeld’s Nationalism: A Short History returns to themes she first discussed at greater length in Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity (1992). The earlier book received mixed reviews, but the analytical categories that she employed have stood up well. Amitai Etzioni is a familiar figure in the communitarian movement, the loose grouping of philosophers and social theorists who emphasize our indebtedness to society and repudiate what they see as the extreme individualism of many forms of liberalism. Unlike some communitarians who see liberalism only as the solvent of community cohesion, Etzioni has always called himself a liberal communitarian; his earlier work insisted that we must not simply sacrifice individual rights in the name of social solidarity, and now he calls himself…

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