The Old Cause
by Joseph R. Stromberg

November 7, 2000

Random Thoughts on Nationalism


There is a widely accepted reading of recent history which puts the blame for such disasters as World Wars I and II squarely on the shoulders of nationalism. This might be true and it might not. It is convenient for some because it removes blame from a certain murderous internationalist ideology, which famously ran aground some ten years ago. More importantly, it removes blame from the institution which made possible – or indeed demanded – world wars, mass murder of marked class or ethnic enemies, and so-called "totalitarianism." That institution, as Martin van Creveld teaches us, is the modern, abstract, bureaucratic state. The modern state is implicated in many bloody social "experiments" of the 20th century, and not just world wars, which is one reason I allude to our late friends the Soviets.

The Soviets did most of their killing in times of international peace, as did the regime of Chairman Mao. Hence focussing on crimes of nationalism, or even fascism, leaves out fully half the important cases, as A. James Gregor said a couple of years ago. Nationalists have tried to use states, but states likewise used nationalists and their "ism," and it seems likely that states got more out of the deal. Blaming nationalism for the 20th century seems a rather incomplete explanation.


But we come here to bury Caesar, not to praise him, or rather to understand nationalism, not necessarily to make a case for it. Some writers have sought to distinguish nationalism from patriotism. Asked by newly arrived Union soldiers why he was fighting them, a North Carolinian reportedly uttered those famous words, "Because you all are down here." Cased closed. Stay out of that guy's county and he won't fight you.

Some writers define patriotism as precisely a commitment to defending what is local, known, and shared. Patriotism, so defined, bears a close resemblance to particularism, and seems much more appealing and defensible than nationalism, at least as we now conceive it. John Lukacs and Edward P. Lawton, among others, have favored making such a distinction.


Now I am not setting up a standard libertarian complaint about nationalism, nor do I claim that nationalism must always consort with protectionism, irredentism, imperialism, and war. The actual historical record is a bit more complex. Rudolf Rocker's Nationalism and Culture (1937) tried to show that the large territorial state or empire is always the enemy of cultural freedom and achievement. Rocker's argument was an anarchosyndicalist restatement of Friedrich Nietzsche's radical Hellenism, which saw ancient Greek political divisiveness as the seedbed of Greek cultural accomplishments. It seems to me that Nietzsche's 20th-century admirers – fascist and postmodernist alike – underplay his aversion to the German Empire, its centralization, etc., and his fear that political centralization would spell the end of German cultural creativity – as perhaps it did, and is still doing, albeit under different management.


But we have not agreed on a definition of nationalism. Is the trunk, the tail, or the legs the best handle on this conceptual elephant? The late Murray Rothbard was always known for championing national resistance movements, when and where he believed they aimed at preserving or reclaiming historically genuine political and territorial rights. He made a distinction, in effect, between aggressive and defensive nationalisms.

The problems attendant on too closely identifying "nations" with particular states arose first, in modern terms, during the French Revolution. Certainly in the radical phase of that revolution there was a fusion of the notions of the French people, a territory, republicanism, a language, and culture. Busy suppressing a counterrevolution of Catholic peasants which they had provoked, revolutionary leaders spoke of eradicating unFrench elements such as Celtic-speaking Bretons and German-speaking Alsatians. Whether this would be done by forced assimilation, expulsion, or mass murder remained somewhat open. The war against the Vendéans certainly suggested what this "nationalist" regime was capable of.

This raises some obvious questions: if we think of a "nation" as made up of people who are, or believe themselves, related by blood, language, religion, culture, and other things, were not the Bretons their own nation? In which case, who asked Paris to make Frenchmen of them? By what right?


A good guide to such matters is Walker Connor, who may be the most perceptive scholar currently writing about nationalism.1 He despairs of taking back the word "nationalism" as defined above, and therefore uses "ethnonationalism" in his work. I won't say that he has solved all our problems, but the destructive side of his work is impressive indeed.

Connor attempts a full-scale critique of the inconsistencies and conceptual sloppiness to be found in most standard writings on his subject. They abound. All through the 1960s we suffered through political science tomes about "nation building," which some of my contemporaries derided as "Pye in the Sky." These books rested on the imperial confrontation between the American and Soviet empires – allegedly the main reason for being alive in those years – and drew up programs to build nations out of recently independent third-world collections of peoples within boundaries imposed by British, Belgian, and French imperialism.

Such collections were referred to, variously, as nations, nation-states, countries, whatever, and it was imperative for them to be unified, politically stable, parliamentary, and all the rest, before they fell into tribal anarchy or chose the wrong side in the Cold War sweepstakes. Connor makes the excellent point that since these states were not "nations" in any real ethnonationalist sense, so-called nation-building meant nation-destroying for those groups who were not clothed in state power.

Connor doesn't stop with the clear-cut cases, however. He observes that most supposed nation-states contain unresolved national questions – the cases of the Basques, the Welsh, the Scots, the Germans in the South Tyrol, and others. On strict ethnonationalist criteria, there are very few real nation-states. Iceland, Japan, and a few others seem to qualify. I shall not raise the question of the Ainu.

Throwing out more bolts of lightning, Connor holds that we cannot usefully judge these matters on the rather anomalous cases of Switzerland and the United States. I would add that the Swiss model may prove the opposite of what certain writers claim for it. Do the four language groups in Switzerland "just all get along"? Not exactly, they live far enough apart and with enough political autonomy to allow for unity on a few common political matters. As for the American model, it seems to prove that you can bring in peoples of differing nationalities in some numbers, provided they agree to assimilate to the existing rules, language, and culture (broadly speaking). These days it would be a hate crime to ask that of them, so I move on.


The world-improving US elite is moving on, too, and wish to impose their recently grasped understanding of the American experience globally – by force if necessary. Never mind that their "new model" nationhood hasn't even been shown to work here.

The advocates of the so-called New World Order have given us, at last, a reason to appreciate existing nation-states, as flawed, un-national, and criminal as they are. This needs some explaining. I am not among those who believe that a "transnational elite" exists, fully formed, which aspires to run the world. At this time, international institutions with any real power are still fronts for the US Empire. Nation-states stand between various peoples and the empire. It makes sense for the Danes, or the Austrians, or the Brits to demand to know what they are getting into in the EU.

For Americans, the case is different. It is our own "denationalized" state that has become the empire. Supporting "our" central state – no longer national and certainly not federal – against imaginary UN conspiracies, sinister foreign NGOs and quangos makes no sense at all. It is enough to ask us even to tolerate it. I therefore recommend, as usual, radical devolution of power to states and localities, where – as a libertarian – I hope they won't make much use of it.

But the matter of scale is important, a point often lost on the average libertarian. The Left lectures us daily that the personal is the political. Well, it is now, and it's becoming a very miserable experience. Even the alleged beneficiaries may tire of it some day, but probably not before a lot of genuine societies and natural orders are lying in ruins. I would only add that since what the Left believes is a fairly reliable guide to what is untrue, it follows logically that a radical depoliticization of everything in sight is the royal road to recovery. And, as Ludwig von Mises suggested, it is the path most likely to defuse and accommodate those real national differences about which people care deeply.2

This approach is more Burkean than utopian and may not fix everything, but it seems more promising than decades of aerial sorties by the usual suspects. Meanwhile, everyone should get ready for the new book by Dr. Hans-Hermann Hoppe, which will demonstrate the role of that much overrated set of procedures we call "democracy" in bringing about our present discontents. It may turn out that democracy has been a bigger culprit than nationalism, however defined.


1. See Walker Connor, Ethnonationalism: The Quest for Understanding (Princeton University Press, 1994)

2. Ludwig von Mises, Nation, State, and Economy (New York University Press, 1983).

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