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7: Secular Ideologies: A First Anatomy

Secular Ideologies versus Traditional Religions

The relation of the secular ideologies to traditional religions is complex, overlapping, partly hostile. There is the question too of how they relate in function and spirit as compared with the older, more deep-rooted spiritual traditions. For though it would be too simple to say that the ideologies are in effect modern religions, there is undoubtedly much in the analysis of religion which applies to them too. They are analogues to religion. Tillich said quasi-religions, but that is too suggestive of a kind of fraud or failure, as though they were religions manqué. For the present, it is best to look at them as secular ideologies, but to note that they occur along a spectrum another part of which is occupied by the traditional religions. For they mobilize deep sentiments and often demand great sacrifices; they give a sense of identity and purpose; they propound a theory of the world, a placement of men’s lives in action and feeling.

How best should we categorize these worldviews and schemes of living? Maybe it is best to look very briefly at the history of the last two centuries or so. It is a stunning thought that it is less than two hundred years since the French Revolution, and yet what sea changes have we seen since then! Liberal legislation, mass armies, tricolours, national flags and symbols, laissez faire capitalism, the rise of the old machine age, the unification of Germany, Italy; the romantic age and the forging of national sentiment; the new industrial state, the flowering of liberal democracy, the Great Wars, the Soviet Revolution, the struggles for colonial independence … And the new science: evolution, relativity, quantum physics, the Big Bang, the nuclear age, the dawn of the silicon era, genetic engineering. The changes have been immense, shaking, disturbing, liberating. We have seen the glories of affluence succeed upon the darkness of depression; and we have seen both the renewal of Russia and the Gulag Archipelago. We have seen great glories and great horrors, and most devastatingly among men’s massacres of men, the insane, unintelligible, monstrous Holocaust. So much, then, have we seen, and in much of it we have seen ideas as engines of change: liberal economics, the Protestant spirit, the Keynesian solution, socialism, nationalism, racism, humanism. It is to these mental engines of change and of identity formation that our gaze is now directed.

The French Revolution and ‘The National Assumption’

The French Revolution, by restructuring French society and making possible a new mobilization of citizens’ energies, had a double effect on other European countries. The amazing path of Napoleonic conquests helped to reshape France’s satellites somewhat according to the French model and thus prepared the ground for the emergence of a powerful middle class; but at the same time, the very fact of conquest by French arms helped, especially in Germany, to arouse, by contrast, German national sentiments. The national movement in Greece, followed by the struggles for Italian and German unification, foreshadowed the eventual prevalence of ‘the national assumption’, that is that the state and the nation should in principle coincide, and that nations were entitled to independent existence. That principle was at the fore at the Treaty of Versailles, which succeeded in reshaping Eastern Europe out of the ruins, primarily, of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Indeed the extraordinary thing about the Hapsburg rule was how long it managed to last, given that by the latter half of the 19th century the processes of the formation of national consciousness were well advanced among the subject countries of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. We shall later look in more detail at this question of nation-building. But it was assisted by the new industrial age, which not only demanded larger units to work with, than the old feudal jigsaw, but also encouraged new concentrations of manpower and resources in the state itself. Imperialism also, in a sense, exported nationalism in the Victorian and Edwardian ages. For briefly one could define the imperial idea as this — that the imperial nation has some kind of right or destiny to rule over other peoples. Those peoples themselves may not be self-conscious particularly; but this self-consciousness is undoubtedly stimulated by the humiliation of being conquered, and it is natural for the rising educated classes of the conquered peoples to borrow from the imperial country’s milieu the theory of nationalism, that is the theory that a people nationally has a right to its own sovereign state.

The Theory of the Nation State

The nation state was in many ways a modernizing force. The fact that for many peoples, the differential was the language led to an immense revival and flowering of literature, and in turn this had its effects on schooling — now penetrating downwards and more widely to the lower classes, preparing them for a role in the growing industrial state. Also, because the main agents of national renaissance and political revival were middle class, nationalism was frequently tied in with forms of constitution which were adapted to the capitalist wave. But the relation to traditional religion was more variegated. The liberal ideal was that of toleration; and the Napoleonic era had seen the emancipation of European Jewry, bringing a great efflorescence of Jewish culture within the fabric of modern national culture. But sometimes religion itself has been one of the defining characteristics of a nation in its own selfconsciousness: thus, for instance, Ireland, by and large speaking the same language, if more extravagantly, than the English oppressor; but rooted in a different faith. Again, in Romania and Poland, Orthodoxy and Catholicism respectively have combined with language in nurturing the national past and keeping alive its hope for the future. But often liberalism found itself in conflict with religious tradition, partly because of the authoritiarian pretensions of the Church, and notably in Catholic countries, which have often nurtured a good deal of anti-clericalism (in the Italy of the Risorgimento; in France; in Spain). In general, we may say this: that the nation state has to choose not only independence but a further theory on how to run itself. It has, that is, to choose some kind of ideology and bureaucratic-economic structure. The ideology itself may be curiously mixed or even split-souled, as in contemporary Romania, which nurtures both Marxism and the Church. So with regard to nations, we have to look not just to nationalism, but to a further layer of ideology on top of that. We have a double decker ideological superstructure: at one level there is the nationalist assumption and its expression in this particularity, in other words our patriotism (whoever we may be: Americans, Scots, Poles, Yugoslavs, Indians, New Zealanders, Turks, Chinese); and at another level, there is our way of life — social democracy, Marxism, etc. There may even, in effect, be three layers: thus Britain, in the imperial age, could be described as expressing a complex national identity at one level; it was organized according to (roughly) the principles of emerging liberal democracy; and yet it also possessed an imperial ideology sometimes indeed in conflict with the democratic ideal (though the two could be somewhat harmonized through a paternalistic doctrine that subject peoples could be suitably nurtured and raised to such a condition that they too could benefit from liberal ideas and practices).

Nationalism and Chauvinism

In general, then, we need a cross-classification between particular nationalisms, built according to the general theory of ‘the national assumption’, and the political and other ideologies which were used in the structure of the nation state. Before, however, turning to these ideologies briefly, it is as well to say something about a particular form of nationalism which may be described as chauvinistic, and which found its most extreme expression in Nazism. There may be a nation such as the Finns who really do not have any particular ambition to conquer anyone else, and if they do have territorial ambitions these are the modest ones of trying to get back that great part of Karelia which the Soviets took after the Winter War and got again in the peace settlement at the end of World War II. The Finns are primarily concerned with independence; they are not given to chauvinism; it would, in any case, be highly unrealistic, for the badger does not try to overrun the bear. This kind of basically defensive nationalism is very widely acceptable in today’s world, and unless a nation does something quite horrific internally, the general view is that it is wrong to interfere; some even then doubt the wisdom of such interference. Nyerere got much criticism over his ridding Uganda of Amin, and the Vietnamese were likewise upbraided for overrunning much of Kampuchea, despite the vast slaughter of the senseless Pol Pot and Khieu Sampan era. But, by contrast with this defensive nationalism, there has, of course, been a fairly rampant national chauvinism, where nations, in effect, aspire to empire, and feel they have some kind of right to conquer or humiliate other peoples. The most acute and paranoid form of this doctrine was, of course, Nazism, and what made it particularly repellent and dangerous was its explicit theory that Jews and Slavs were inferiors, the former to be finally massacred, the latter to be killed at will and used as slaves. But, of course, what fuelled Nazism above all was the humiliation and insecurity inflicted on Germany by Versailles and by the Depression. But to make the war of revenge and conquest fully credible to the faithful, nationalism had to be built up into a racist theory — or, as I shall prefer to call it, an ethnicist theory.

Ethnicism and Oppression

I use the term ‘ethnicist’ because in a way the expression ‘racism’ or ‘racialism’ is misleading in drawing a distinction between oppression or humiliation based upon race and oppression or humiliation which is based upon other marks of ethnic identity. Thus, Palestinians may regard themselves as being oppressed by Jewish Israelis, though technically they are supposed to belong to the same race. Animosities between Kurds and Iraqis are no different in principle from hatreds existing in Southern Africa between blacks and whites. The fact is that where ethnic groups occupy the same territory, in the modern world of nation states, the oppression by the majority of the ethnic minority is the rule rather than the exception; or at least considerable tensions between the communities exist. The Han Chinese oppress Tibetans; the Protestants have oppressed Catholics in Northern Ireland; the Basques feel oppressed by the Spanish; the Turkish minority in Cyprus felt itself threatened by the Greek-speaking majority; the Christians and Muslims of the Lebanon have been engaged in civil war; the Kurds have long and intermittently been in revolt; the Han Chinese in Vietnam are under threat; the smaller ethnic groups in Kampuchea were oppressed by the Khmer Rouge; the Chinese in Indonesia have been under attack … Ethnicism may be defined as the oppression of, or tendency to humiliate, another ethnic group. The oppressed themselves typically respond with hatred, which motivates attempts to assert rights, or to take revenge on the oppressor. Such ethnic hatred is very widespread in the world. Moreover, the trajectories of cruelty are long, since cruelties are remembered at the mother’s knee, in the marrow of the family and clan, in the very bones of the community. It is hard to forgive. Armenians still recall the terrible Turkish massacre; Irish memories run long and deep; the Holocaust is burned deep into Jewish memory; why, schoolboys still remember in Scotland the massacre of Glencoe — can a Macdonald boy decently play with a Campbell? I remember the question quite seriously from my childhood by neighbouring children. And the iron of the slave’s shackles still rust away and stain the souls of their black descendants. It is a memory of cruelty and — worse — humiliation. So, we must remember that though the face of the world may shift with great speed through technological change, the trajectories of memory are much slower. Those who travel by jet still harbour the same feelings and resentments as their grandfathers of the days of the sailing ship and the horse. The outer shells of life have altered greatly, but the burning passions smoulder on long fuses. We shall later have to go more deeply into the question of why insiders can treat outsiders so cruelly and callously. Briefly, it is a bit like the ethnicism of the Nazis: the others are seen as not fully human, as semi-persons, and so not to be accorded the same rights and love as one’s own folk. It is wonderful what moral blindness can be induced in humans once a category is invented which makes divisions between us and them.

The Development of Totalitarianism

One feature of Nazism which gave it a strangely modern stamp for all its atavism was that it was a totalitarian regime, that is, that ultimately the distinction between private and public life was dissolved, since the Party demanded absolute loyalty to the Fuehrer and commitment to the values of the Third Reich. The apparatus of the state police, the concentration camp, the informer, skilful propganda, strict censorship, party rituals to cement solidarity and a whole range of other rites and performatives to make the presence of the Party all-pervasive — these measures made it contrast sharply with the older liberal and social democratic ideals. The sadness of the Weimar Republic was that these goals were under secret or open attack from too many quarters — the army high command, the President, the Communists and the brawling brownshirts. But it is the Marxist countries which have produced the most stable type of totalitarianism. And, whereas in Nazi Germany the capitalist dimension of the economy was considerable, and this meant a certain devolution of economic power, in socialist countries the whole economy is bureaucratically concentrated in the hands of the state. This makes it possible for the state to enforce certain kinds of rapid social change. But such centralization of power actually reinforces tendencies to nationalism: for the definition of the boundaries of a socialist state remain national in character, and for all the talk of international solidarity, ‘the people’ in practice is bound to mean a particular people (Poles, Hungarians, Chinese, etc.). However, the international character of Marxist ideology does mean that nationalism itself can acquire, under the aegis of Marxism, an imperial posture. The justification for the domination of the Soviet Union by the Greater Russians is that there must be a unified socialist state; while it is in the name of internationalism that the satellite states of Eastern Europe are kept in check by troops and economic intergration into the Soviet Union.

Marxism and National Identity

Because of this interplay between Marxism and the sense of national identity, it is often unwise to treat Marxism as though its internationalism is overriding. The weakness of Western and particularly American foreign policy in the decades after World War II lay in seeing Marxism as a threatening and monolithic ideology, neglecting the fact, more apparent even to the dimmest Presidential adviser today, that Vietnam, China, Korea, the USSR, Yugoslavia, Romania, Albania, Cuba, Angola have differing styles of Marxism, adapted to the goals of national independence and national substance. But of course the leaders of such nations see the way forward to a reassertion of identity through a form of social reconstruction. Societies threatened with collapse or dependency by war and Western incursions and exploitation can often only gather the hard strength to struggle for liberation from outside influence or oppression through internal reconstruction. Such a drastic inner social change is rather like being converted: society is born again. Yet, though it is born again, a new people, it still is identical with the old people. National identity persists through the painful purgation of a social revolution. This centralization and discipline, the imposition of new norms upon the people and the reshaping of the economy toward greater independence constitute the attractions of Marxism in the Third World. But the upheaval is great. For oné thing, traditional religion is identified with the bad past and has to be purged.

Marxism and a New Identity

Further, Marxism has the attraction, from the national point of view, of promising modernization and a scientific approach to economic and social problems while at the same time providing a historical theory which can justify constructive hatred for the imperialist Western world. In other words, modernization can be imported in order to cope with the problems posed by the West itself, both in its imperial and exploitative aspect and in its aspect as generator of modern industrial and technological powers; but this is not a matter of slavishly adopting foreign values, because Marxism is itself in violent opposition to the traditional values of the West. Moreover, adaptive Marxism can be indigenized, as in the case of Maoism. Constructive hatred is important as a mechanism for generating pride in the face of damaging humiliations. So: discipline; social reconstruction; a theory of history; a blueprint for revolution and war against the oppressor; a promise of modernization; a way of imposing a new centralization upon a nation; an anti-Western ideology — such are the attractions of Marxism in the non-European world. And to some extent the same analysis applies to the Russian Empire itself: tsarism overthrown, a new Soviet man born, an analogue to the old sacral kingship created in the Kremlin. In brief, it is important to see the growth of Marxism in terms of the restoration of national identity. I shall be later pursuing this theme in somewhat greater depth by analysing the nature of Maoism.

Social Democracy in the West

Social democracy as an alternative general ideology to Marxism has a predominantly capitalist structure, but heavily modified by socialist and welfare measures through which the state intervenes in the direction of a more equal society and the protection of the relatively poor against the possible harshness of the system. Even in America, the least socialist of Western democracies, the Roosevelt era injected a strong dose of welfare measures into the fabric of American capitalism; and the social and environmental legislation which has grown since World War II has helped to promote better opportunities and to modify the effects of capitalism. So, America too has its own kind of mixed economy. But highly important to social democracy is the freedom of opinion, toleration of differing religions and outlooks, protection of the rights of the individual: in brief, a respect for individuals, combined with an open society. The personalism of such a system is, up to a point, enhanced by the consumer orientation of modern semicapitalist societies. A strong strand of scientific humanism runs through social democratic thinking; so that though such societies are indeed tolerant of traditional religions, the technocratic assumptions upon which they are run tend to be those of scientific humanism and utilitarianism. One of the strongest elements in such societies is that they do more easily nurture scientific thinking and enterprise, because of their openness: education is intended to breed enquiry and criticism, and free speculation and debate is of the essence of the scientific approach. It may be that a totalitarian society can permit enclaves of such freedom; but the tensions between censorship and science, between ideological conformism and scientific thought are very considerable. Thus despite the pretensions of Marxism to be scientific, it is in practice inimical to the spirit of scientific enquiry. It is no coincidence that so large a proportion of Nobel Prize winners in science come from the United States.

The Conditions of Social Democracy

But the conditions for the achievement of a social democratic society are hard ones. Thus, a partial suspension of citizens’ constitutional rights has occurred in Northern Ireland, precisely because personal freedom, social justice and an open society cannot be worked together effectively in a deeply divided community, erupting into sporadic violence. In fact, the easiest background for such democracy is where the vast majority of the population belongs to the same ethnic group. Thus, though Czechoslovakia before World War II was democratic, it was imperfectly so in that German speakers and some other groups did not genuinely have equal rights with the Czechs and Moravians. It might be countered that the USA incorporates many ethnic groups. But this is a partial illusion. The formation of the American nation involved rites of passage, past the Statue of Liberty, through the high schools, on the baseball and football fields, in the universal use of English: rites which transformed the old ethnic groups into the new American citizens. The immigrants were (rightly) deprived of most of their old culture in order to take on a new one. Such a thing is possible in a great liberal nation founded largely on immigration. The melting pot produced a relatively homogeneous population. Thus, sometimes Americans misunderstand the situation of ethnic minorities elsewhere, which would bitterly resist a melting pot in their own case, as it would amount to a kind of aggrandizement on the part of the majority ethnic group.

There is little doubt that special arrangements — typically of a federal kind — need to be made in nations which comprise more than one ethnic group. Thus, not unnaturally, the Republic of India has since independence rearranged itself into mainly linguistic states, while certain understandings, caste groupings, special rights for the Harijans and so forth keep something of a balance between the various religious and social groups within the incredible mosaic of Indian society. Moreover, as 20th century history has indicated, it is hard to preserve the openness of society and devotion to individual rights — ideas largely the product of 19th century bourgeois political thinking — when a large section of the population is socially deprived and alienated. Thus, for the Marxist, liberalism is a sham because it is tangential to social justice: but the fact is that the two ideals are quite compatible, and have to be achieved if social democracy is to work. There is a point where the need of bread overrides all thoughts of critical enquiry and habeas corpus. But, as events have also shown, without the critical, open society there may remain forms of exploitation which are enforced by military and police power, as riotous workers in Poland, East Germany and Romania have found out. In a planetary context it is likewise ominous if the democratic nations of the North treat the Third World countries to the South largely as a kind of external proletariat and peasantry, allowing them to suffer in deep poverty and despair. For that way leads to extreme action, and new social tyrannies. In the long term it is better to adapt the Keynesian techniques to the Third Worldenhance its purchasing power in order to also stimulate the economies of the North.

The Analysis of the Nation State

Thus, of all the secular forces which have run like fire through the 20th century, it has been the drive to nationalism which has been the most widespread. It is thus important to analyse it. And in so doing we come to some very basic facts about human nature. For what has happened is that the nation state has become the predominant grouping of which modern men are conscious, and it is the one which demands the most overriding loyalty. Thus one can look at it in terms of the licence to kill. Among Albanian clans, even today, the clan is the group that can kill. Vendettas are frequent, for it is reasonable and indeed often a duty to kill on behalf of the clan group. In feudal times the lord was someone to whom one was bound by great oaths and for whom one would fight. Or again, in the Scottish Highlands until the 18th’ century, warfare between the clans was accepted practice (but not by the government in London, for it was a challenge to its own rights to monopolize force and killing). In modern days we regard clan killings, tribal warfare, Mafia operations and the like as somewhat primitive and basically unacceptable in ‘decent society’. But our decent society now is the nation state, and it, if it wishes will command us to kill, as a duty. Warfare against other nation states is on the whole taken for granted as a possibility. So, in various stages of history we can look to differing significant groups, which have a kind of ultimate hold over the individual. Residually, we may think of the family as such a group; but that is false. Strong as the bonds of blood may be, they only in the most residual way allow me the right to kill on behalf of my family; that is in certain situations of self defence. But the nation would expect me, perhaps, to betray my brother if he were to be working against the state. So, the nation state now has become the ‘ultimate’ group. And not only does the state demand my obedience in the matter of killing or suffering death myself. It also imposes upon me taxes, partly to finance the glory of the nation and its defences.

Warfare as a Sacrament

I have placed emphasis on the matter of killing because warfare itself is one of the great sacraments of mankind. Warfare is much more than killing or being killed: it transforms men, baptizes them with fire, leads them to the highest sacrifice, gives the nation a sense of its own destiny. It aims at victory, and the aggrandizement of national substance. The defeat of the enemy marks too a significant change both in him and us. Warfare ends up with the performative: the acknowledgement by the others that we have won. But, above all, in causing and suffering death, warfare feeds the national glory. That men should lay down their lives for their country adds to the sacred substance of the country. These are meaningful deaths. And for many modern nations, the way to national independence and liberty was through battles, revolution, warfare, blood. Consider: the Greeks, who fought with dash against the Turks; the Italians, via the glories of the Risorgimento and Garibaldi; the struggles in South America of Bolivar and Martin; the battles which preceded Polish independence and followed it, after World War II; the guerrilla struggles of Tito and the creation of modern Yugoslavia; the Long March and the Chinese Revolution; the bitter struggle of Algeria against France; the warfare in South Yemen; the long long struggle of Ho Chi Minh and his successors; the battle for Bangladesh to break away from greater Pakistan; the still unsuccessful warfare of the persistent Kurds; the various wars to establish Israel on a firm foothold in the land; the Cuban revolution; the Sandinista fight for a new Nicaragua. And those wars which cemented patriotism: as with the Russians in 1812 and in the Civil War and intervention, not to mention the Great Patriotic War against the Germans; the warfare for Finnish independence and above all the cruel and glorious Winter War of 1939–1940; the Revolutionary War in America; the two World Wars for Britain, France and even Germany itself. Thus, it is not surprising that for many people the charged events of their history are decisive battles — Blood River for the Boers; Trafalgar, Waterloo, Clive’s campaigns, etc., for the British; the victory on the Isonzo for the Italians and before that the battles that Garialdi fought; and so on. Children are often taught through battles. So, in brief, war has a kind of sacramental significance in enhancing the substance of the nation and conferring solemnity and a sense of glory upon the nation’s children.

What Constitutes a Nation?

But it is at first sight a puzzle to know what it is that constitutes a nation. Sometimes we seem to have a state with scarcely a definable people; and when we do come to definitions they seem to vary widely. Thus it may be to do with a language; or it may have to do with a religion; or maybe some kind of cultural tradition. It always involves a territory. So, let us just begin with that, for the land of a people itself has symbolic significance, and a kind of sacredness. In today’s world a people without a land cannot become a nation, so for instance the Gypsies cannot now easily maintain their lifestyle, for they are increasingly expected to conform to the ways of the majority population, and so get sucked into the bureaucratic procedures of the modern state. This was also the painful predicament of the Jews of the European diaspora during the rise of nationalism: assimilation was one path; but it was natural to cry out for a land — hence Zionism and the return to Israel. The land most typically has a double significance. For, first of all, it is the space to which the people have a right, where they are at home. And it is also the scene of past deeds, and has its own characteristics which may impart a sense of warmth and beauty to the national heritage. Thus, the Scot not only looks to Scotland as his home, but also boasts of its beauties — the Highlands, the islands, the lochs, the ageless mountains, the bonny banks of Doone. Beautiful these are in themselves and also they are haunted by the ghosts of many a past heroic and significant deed! The territory is something over which the nation has control: and if any soldiers of a foreign power cross the frontier it is a kind of sacrilege: an invasion, which must be met by counterforce. It is a kind of outrage to the people invaded: they rally to defend their sacred soil. Sometimes it is supposed that homo sapiens is essentially a territorial animal, that he likes to have a piece of territory and to keep others out. But for vast numbers of men in distant generations and even for some men even now, life is a walkabout, nomadic, wandering from place to place. The sacred space of the tent or the cave is merely transitory, to be shifted onwards as times may require. It is most clearly among modern men that there is a feeling of popular sovereignity over a block of land, a country. Spatiality thus is a cultural phenomenon. So it is that the word for a nation is country. One dies for one’s country. The territoriality of men is greatly amplified by the modern sense of the nation. Men are tied by bonds of affection and possession to their country. It provides the material base and the physical milieu for the life of the nation. It provides too a potent source of conflict when two quite distinct groups mingle on the same land.

Another Mark of a Nation

But in addition to the land as a mark or sign of the nation, a people is defined by some other mark: by, for instance, a linguistic heritage, or by a religion setting them up as different from their neighbours, and by some consciousness of the historic past and how it is that the members of the group come to belong to it. Consider first the manner in which descent occurs. It is, of course, a biological matter, but only in part so. When a baby emerges from the womb it might be possible, as sometimes happens, to leave it on a doorstep. This is to take no responsibility for it — in essence not to acknowledge it. But most typically, of course, the baby is welcomed into the family, and through such welcome and all the performatives which are used in connection with its arrival, the baby is acknowledged as ‘one of us’. It would be very hard indeed for the child later to repudiate this cultural descent. It takes strong performative action to effectively repudiate the family and one’s forebears. So, more broadly in the nation state, the new child is acknowledged as citizen, as part of the fabric of the people. And again it is hard, often impossible later on for him to effectively repudiate his heritage. So, joining a group, even in so natural a way as by being born among it, involves performative acts. The national group partly defines itself by descent, since it is through a chain of acknowledged descent that the present group, however defined, came to be. The young person moreover is inducted into the values of the group, which means his taking on the mark of the group. This is where the use of language as the major mark makes things so easy: for the baby learns the language painlessly and with every advance in his grasp of the tongue he embeds himself more deeply into the national group. Descent, territory, a mark or marks: these factors are what give coherence to the national idea. But consciousness of these things is important, and this is in part a performative matter too. For I do not just hear about descent and the ancestors in the history which has given rise to the group. I also endorse that history and celebrate it too, if I am a loyal citizen.

History, Nationhood and Symbols

As I tried to show earlier, the fashioning of history in the 19th century has itself been a means toward creating national self-consciousness, so that history had, so to say, the function of myth. As myth it guides the celebration of the value-laden past which enhances the group’s substance; and it also provides a kind of charter for the group itself, for ‘if anyone asks for our credentials, we shall tell them that this is how our nation came to be’. History fuses descent into the mark, for it tells of the ancestors: it tells how our ancestors already had the distinguishing characteristic of the nation in some way. But not only this. A nation has heroes and prophets other than those of power and battlefield. The rise of modern nationalism has seen a great flowering of national culture. Verdi in Italy, Dvorak and Smetana in Czechoslovakia, Chopin and Paderewski in Poland, Sibelius in Finland, Grieg in Norway, Beethoven and Wagner in Germany, Berlioz in France, Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov in Russia … So we might go on. Poets and writers, artists and architects also try to catch and express the national spirit. A nation bedecks itself with the garnishings of the romantic state: the opera house, the museums, the theatres, the university, the academy and so forth. In the 20th century the symbols of modernity are the air line and steel plant. In all these ways the substance of the nation is shaped and enhanced. And because international competition gives a convenient opportunity to manifest pride, the sports contests and the stadiums provide further occasions of patriotism: new manifestations of a secular religion. As for more formal rites: every nation now is expected to have its badge of identity, its flag; and the running up of the flag and the saluting of it constitute ways in which members pay tribute to the collective. Every nation has its anthem in which the nation’s substance is celebrated. The head of state condenses in suitable pomp the glory and solemnity of the nation. The military parade is an exhibition of power designed to give the citizens a sense of machismo and security and to impress outsiders.

The Structure of National Substance

In all this, the nation is more than the sum of its citizens, for it includes the land, and it includes the substance of the group as condensed and organized, such that the nation can enter into men’s consciousness as a kind of ‘thing’ which simultaneously transcends them, for it lays great demands upon them, and in which they, in some manner, participate. Each person’s efforts and tributes to the state enhance the substance of the nation; and also, the more the nation has glory, the more the individual feels raised by it. What citizen did not rejoice when the War ended in Europe, and Britain found itself victorious? What Indian did not feel larger in his soul when an atomic device was exploded, adding machismo to the nation? What Japanese does not feel a quiet pride as he notes how the GNP has risen again this year? What Egyptian did not feel enlarged at the stealthy Yom Kippur crossing of the Suez Canal? Sometimes it may seem to us quite pathetic that human beings should find pride in such things. But a person rarely can fall back totally on his own resources. His place in the world, his security and substance — these he derives in great measure from the groups to which he belongs; and as we have seen, in the modern world the nation state is over-whelmingly the most solemn and ultimate group in which he participates. And, as we have seen, there is a kind of analogue to the religious idea of sacramental participation. For the nation, as I have said, is a kind of ‘thing’ which is both other than the individual and yet something too of which he is a part. The cult of personality, the Fuebrerprinzip, — these are ways in which the nation is incarnated in a single person. Those who adulate him also indirectly enhance their own substance, for the more effective and ideal the leader is the stronger is the nation.

‘We’ or ‘Ushood’

We may add to these considerations a more general analysis of what it is to belong to a group. Or to put matters another way: How do we get in the position to say ‘We’? It is remarkable how little attention has been paid in philosophy to the first person plural: it is as though since Descartes, if not from earlier on, there has been an obsession with the lone ego. Thus, there has been posed the formidable problem of how knowledge is built upon the basis of the individual’s experience — as if the fabric of human knowledge were not well known to be a communal effort. While Buber wrote his famous I and Thou, we perhaps ought to turn our attention to Us and Them. How, then, do we say ‘we’? What is, to coin a word, ushood (as opposed to themhood and youhood)? I think if a group forms itself, for instance to undertake some project — perhaps it is a group forming itself into an action committee — a certain performative transaction takes place, namely that the persons involved mutually acknowledge each other as one of us. Is this not circular, for it makes use of the notion of us, which is what we were trying to explain? Well, not quite: for I was trying to bring out what may be called the subjectivity of the group. What constitutes a group is not just that there are several or many people conjoined together in an organization, but they perceive themselves as acting from within towards the outside, that is, they perceive themselves, being members of the group, as us. One role of the first person is to serve as subject for expressed intentions. In the plural there is a presupposition of a mutually acknowledged joint project. We may look at this through the example of what happens when someone joins the group, however casually formed. A group of us are on our way to a film; we bump into John. If we say ‘Would you care to come with us?’ this is the smoothest and most explicit way in which he is invited in, and becomes if he accepts, one of us in this transitory group. He does not become one of us by proximity, but by a mutual agreement. In general, ushood, then, is a matter of a performative act, and it is indeed in an important sense a performative construct. Give the group any degree of permanence and it acquires its own substance. For instance, a family has this. A person, of course, might be ashamed of his family, because of its low degree or the unpleasant configuration of its substance (its members are perhaps poor and slothful). But it takes strong acts of distancing, itself a kind of symbolic act, if the taint of the substance is not to come down to the individual.

The notion of the nation as a kind of ‘thing’ is reinforced by the fact that those who may be ashamed of the nation’s actions can say that it is the fault of the leaders who betray the true interests of the nation. They can thus appeal from actual national behaviour to the ideal. It is thus a function of a head of state (for example) to incarnate the essence of the nation in a way that attracts loyalty, even if there may be conflicts at the lower level between the government and its critics. Perhaps the most extreme and clear expression of this notion of the essence is found in the Japanese conception of the kokutai. In general, though, despite the possibilities of criticism, the national group, like any longstanding group, does demand a certain loyalty. This is where the figure of the traitor comes in for especial opprobrium. The enemies of the nation are expected to act against our interests; but people feel that, for one bound from birth onwards by performative ties to the nation, to act against it deserves the most extreme punishment.

The National Assumption and Others’ Rights

Though modern nationalism has tended to occur within the ‘national assumption’, that is the notion that all nations should in principle be self-governing, there is built into it a tendency toward what I have called ethnicism. For other peoples can easily be considered by the patriot to be inferior, especially because the nation state finds the presence of minority groups within the territory of the country hard to deal with, given the nature of the patriotic myth. Moreover, since the nation generates very solemn duties of solidarity and self-sacrifice, because it is the ultimate group in so much of the modern world, its members are bound together in ways that imply that members of other nations have very slight rights. Thus, though the citizen of one country does not think it right to kill (meaning, right to kill a member of society, primarily one’s own nation), he will have no compunction about killing citizens of another country as soon as the state calls on him to do this. Nevertheless, it is part of what I have called ‘the national assumption’ that national groups have equal rights to independence, and given this outlook there is nothing intrinsic to nationalism that it should be rapacious or aggrandizing.

Indeed, the national assumption seems to have a consequence: that living cultural traditions have a continued right to existence, for it is they are the stuff of national groups. Moreover, it suggests that special arrangements have to be made in countries where there unavoidably remains a minority cultural or national group — unavoidably, in that it it not easy in a lot of cases to disentangle populations which mingle, or where there are pockets of nationality ‘A’ within the area dominated by nationality ‘B’. The Balkans notoriously have been the scene of such intermingling and untidinesses. In such a situation the federal idea, or the strong application of autonomy arrangements, must be the humane solution to the recurrent problem that within a patriotic nation state the minority will feel that it is likely to be oppressed and overruled about many of the things which it holds important for its existence — e.g. regarding the education of its children. This is where democracy as it is often practised in the West is no guarantee of minority rights, for the notion that power should be wielded by that party which gains a majority of the votes tends to mean, in a divided country, that majority and minority are defined nationally and culturally and consequently that the minority group will be liable to be oppressed by the ‘patriotic’ majority. This is a vitally important observation, for it touches on another matter to which we shall be paying heed later, namely the conditions for openness and criticism, in a free society. Security of outlook seems to be one such condition, and this is not easily gained in divided societies.

The Nation as a Daily Sacrament

So far we have noted that nationalism is something which provides a new matrix of group identity. Ernest Renan referred to the nation as a daily plebiscite, but it might be better to say that it is a daily sacrament. Its citizens are woven together by the strong threads of rituals — the very speaking of the same language, the performative character of upbringing within the nation, the shape of values imparted through education, the more explicit rites of the nation through its anthem and flag, the sense of belonging and pride celebrated through football matches and Olympiads, the solemn demands of war, the remembrance of the sufferings of the past and their sad but glory-giving celebration, the feel for the ancestors, the general willingness to join one’s country’s armed forces, the expectation that to die for one’s nation is a great and glorious thing. Such consciousness is acknowledgement of a particular and solemn ushood, in which we individuals merge together in solidarity, and are conscious of the nation both as something which is out there and as something in which each one of us participates. But it is not just that we owe great services to the nation: we also feel that it owes something to us, and in the age of the welfare state the nation becomes a universal provider for its children. Full-scale socialism with its centralized bureaucracy may add to a sense of close solidarity. In all this we may see the typical nation as a country whose population is held together by a particular consciousness of belonging in virtue of some mark such as the common language and of a mythic history which is charged with values relevant to the identity of the nation. The nation has its ‘objective’ side — the land and the people, etc.; but it also has its ‘subjective’ component, namely the consciousness of the people that they belong together as a nation — and this consciousness is not a matter of knowing something or believing: it is not just a kind of descriptive consciousness, for it is strongly performative in that the sense that ‘we belong together’ is itself shot through with performatives, such as mutual acknowledgements. The nation, in the last resort, is a performative construct, created performatively out of materials supplied by land, genes and the past. It is, in this sense, a daily sacrament.

The Problem of Nation Building

The sacramental, collectivist sense of nationhood can seem artificial in that the ‘national assumption’ has sometimes been applied, and especially in the transition from colonial rule, to groups which have very little in the way of homogeneity or inner meaningful relationship. This is notoriously so in much of black Africa where new nations are heir to colonial boundaries which cut across ethnic groupings and where, in any event, the mosaic of ethnicity is so highly complex that it is relatively rare to find a group, such as the Somalis, forming the primary base for a whole people. There may be dominant tribal formations, such as the Buganda and the Kikuyu, but this already suggests problems in that smaller groups may fear an unjust dominance by their rather big brothers. Thus, in such countries the problem is that there is a State, but is there yet a nation? By devices such as one party rule and the creation of some suitable history, a sense of identity can be slowly born: often the future must be brought in to redress the thinness of the remembered past. At any rate, the prime activity of the modern world is nation building: in black Africa, in the Caribbean, in some areas in Asia — for instance Singapore, born of the Empire and the entrepreneur, sternly guided in welfare and prosperity by the skillful Lee Kwan Yew (thinking too that washing machines can spin away the charms of Mao Zedong). But a price in such mosaic and mingled countries has to be paid: the centrifugal forces being so deep and strong, the regime usually has to have a strong dose of authority, or simply the terror of arms. Thus, the conditions here for the emergence of more open societies are not altogether propitious. But more of that anon.

A Balance Sheet on the National Assumption

If one were to draw up a balance sheet of the national idea, we might think it to have the following shape. On the one hand, nationalism has given birth to ethnicist or racist tendencies often and has proved to be markedly hard and cruel indeed to those groups who do not have a territorial home — the Jews, insofar as in Europe and elsewhere they could not lay claim to a distinctive territorial base (other than Israel itself, part offspring of Zionism); and the Gypsies. But though aggressive nationalism has and is a cruel thing, the general ‘national assumption’, if worked out in a defensive way, has much merit. For the nation state is an agent of forms of modernity which are benign. Thus, only something on the scale of the state, one of whose properties is the ability to collect taxes, can create the educational and welfare network which has come to be a part of the fabric of social justice in the modern age. For the most part it is necessary for the State too to subsidize many cultural and sporting activities which add grace to the lives of citizens. Moreover, the State, by its being, enforces inner peace; even if, by wielding the same powers, it can also create inner terrors. Modern communications make it easy for citizens to identify with a larger whole than the clan, and the State, if properly conducted, can give people a satisying sense of security and substance, proud to belong. Even so, there remains for most nations a willingness to engage in machismo, often expressed in the manufacture or purchase of many weapons; while the modern bureaucratic nation state itself can bring into being new forms of exploitation: the power of party and bureaucracy can divert great resources into the fattening of the elite under the pretext of increasing the substance and welfare of the people. Nor has the modern nation learned widely the lesson of federalism, that it is important for minority groups to have substantial rights even where necessarily they lie outside of the cultural stream of the group which forms the main basis of the nation. It is ironically often the case that nations which themselves are highly sensitive to their own rights and the importance in their case of the national assumption, become fiercely resistant to the rights of others lying athwart their boundaries. The case of the Kurds is perhaps the clearest. The Ayatollah Khomeini, great protagonist of Persian nationalism in the name of brotherly Islam, thinks that the Kurds are unbrotherly in resisting the majority, of whom they are afraid and from whom they demand rights. They become the enemies of God in Islamic Iran. The Kurds are equally mistrusted by the Iraqis, who parade their Arab socialism, but at the expense of this great minority (who, alas, also can threaten some oil fields). The Kurds do not get too much sympathy from the Turks or the Soviets. They are a people with a land, but the land is in the grasp of others. In brief, one may regard the nation state as a virtually inevitable development in the modern world. But it is a mixed blessing. Moreover, the very sanctity of its demands, its solemnity in demand for loyalty and sacrifice can combine with other tendencies in the world, towards collectivism and facile consumerism, which mean that individuals can be crushed and washed away in the great floods of ethnic and social sentiment.

The Rights of Individuals within the Collective

Thus, one of the deep questions which we have to pose to this great national passion is how the individual’s rights and personality are to be protected. The question of the individual and, for that matter, of lesser groups than that of the nation is not made easier by the fatal merging of differing senses of freedom. The excitement of the cry of uhuru or of the ‘liberation’ of countries from the yoke of the Nazis at the end of World War II — such a cry signifies that we can get rid of one kind of oppression. But it in no way follows that individuals or lesser groups will, as a result of that, have any greater freedom. The contrary may well be the case. From the angle of pride and self-esteem perhaps the cruelty of one’s own kind is better than the superior benevolence of the alien. Yet how many individuals thus can get sacrificed to the Moloch of independence? The problem is as to how the two freedoms are to be created together. And this, in an important way, relates to the problem of the conditions for the establishment of the open society, to which we shall be returning.

The Nation and the Open Society

The participatory character of the nation as a sacramental being and its existence too ‘out there’, in the mind of those who belong (and also in the mind of their enemies) give the nation an uncanny resemblance to Christ: both ‘out there’ and a Person in whose substance the individual can take a share. The nation too is like a vine: and when the nation essence gets to be incarnated in a Leader, the national essence is given a personal symbolization. But the sacramental nation can, of course, be betrayed by the actual State which controls it and is supposed to express it. Thus, the transcendental character (in a way) of the nation does give it a power of fuelling loyal criticism or even loyal revolution. This is where the revolution itself comes to be seen as a kind of rite of passage of the nation, shedding its old incarnation and taking on a new identity, yēt still within the pattern of an ongoing substance which is identified with the hidden national essence. But here again, we often find a conflict between differing ideals, the collectivist and the individualist. For the engine of revolutionary change in the modern world is social injustice. The most attractive theory of revolution available is Marxist, for it simultaneously cries brotherhood and blood. It marries the thirst for justice with the Kalashnikov. But revolutionary change which deals with the problem of social deprivation, as in Cuba, can also bring about the totalitarian state in which the rights of the individual are so strictly shrunken. If the liberal is often naive about the tragic bitterness of the shanty-towns of the Third World, the socialist revolutionary is often naive about the black effects of the apparatus of power which he constructs on the ruins of the old order. Sadly, men find it very difficult to think about ideals which have more than one condition for their realization. Both social justice and freedom for the individual: this demand turns out to be too complicated for many minds.

I should add too: not just freedom for the individual, but also some freedom for groups within the greater group — in other words a degree of pluralism in society: this also may prove to be of vital importance. For often the ideologies go with a certain love of homogeneity. Thus, for many liberal rationalists, older traditions or religious affiliations are not rational and should be dissolved by the acids of rational modernity. For the Marxist, typically the older traditions, because they represent forms of exploitation, should be swept away.

A Conclusion on Nationalism

In this chapter I have analysed nationalism in the modern world and related it somewhat to the prevalent northern ideologies of Marxism and social democracy. I have not yet directly brought it into confrontation with the transcendental worldviews which we have been analyzing in the first part of the book. But already we may perceive hints of how they might be related. For it is doubtful whether religion can be whole-hearted in its acceptance of the national ideal, however strongly it may have entered into the fabric of the nation upon which the State is predicated. It is a grave weakness of modern Christianity, for example, that, because it has — to a great extent in the protestant countries itself — been organized upon the ‘national assumption’, it has lost some of its power to criticize the State and the nation. Likewise, modern Buddhism has not been too effective in resisting the forces of nationalism. If belief in the Transcendent cannot give one a base for criticism of the cruelties and excesses of the world, must not prophecy fail?