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A Liberal Defense of Nationalism

Among political liberals, “nationalist” is often used as an insult or a criticism. The adoption of the label by Donald Trump, and the efforts of his former strategist Steve Bannon to build avowedly nationalist movements on the European right, give many liberals the impression that nationalism is an inherent threat to their values. At best, they think, it is narrow-minded and provincial; at worst, it is racist, xenophobic and reactionary.

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Nationalism, however, is not an inherently illiberal or bigoted ideology. The identification with one’s own nation, and concern for its interests before those of other nations or institutions, can take many shapes. It comes not only in conservative and reactionary forms, but also in forms that are compatible with liberal values, including antiracism and anti-imperialism. Liberal and even left-wing forms of nationalism have had a significant impact on countries around the world. By studying these forms and discovering their commensurability with their values, today’s liberals can gain a better understanding of nationalism’s appeal.

In nineteenth century Europe, many nationalist movements sought to free their peoples from the rule of distant, unaccountable foreign monarchs. Poles seeking to liberate their country fought three kingdoms – Austria, Prussia and Russia – that had partitioned Poland in the late eighteenth century. Leading Italian nationalists Giuseppe Garibaldi and Giuseppe Mazzini favored a republican government in the united Italy they fought to create. Mazzini opposed the unified Italy’s constitutional monarchy, and called for its replacement with a democratic republic. Both Poles and Italians fought the Austrian Empire, a defender of the illiberal, undemocratic status quo in Europe since the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

These nationalists’ belief in freedom was not limited to their own countries. Polish revolutionaries forged links to their Italian and German counterparts, seeing their struggles as part of a movement toward a Europe of free peoples. Meanwhile, during the American Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Garibaldi wrote to him saying, “while your tremendous courage astonishes the world, we are sadly reminded how this old Europe, which also can boast a great cause of liberty to fight for, has not found the mind or heart to equal you.”

In the twentieth century, nationalism was a major force in the fall of European colonialism. The Irish War of Independence was a nationalist undertaking, pitting advocates of a free Ireland against the might of the British Empire. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of an independent India, described himself both as a socialist and as a nationalist. During the Cold War, many militant anti-colonial movements, like the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algeria and the Viet Minh in Vietnam, espoused nationalist sentiments as well as left-wing economic beliefs.

Liberals need not agree with everything these movements did in order to respect the importance of nationalism to their adherents. The FLN and the French military both committed atrocities against civilians, while Vietnamese independence was followed by two further decades of conflict that ended in communist rule. But if modern liberals criticize imperialism and the racist domination of peoples by outside powers, they have reason to respect certain forms of nationalism, even if the ideology is not completely compatible with their own.

While Trump may be the most prominent nationalist in the United States today, there is a liberal form of nationalism with a long pedigree in U.S. history. The musical Hamilton draws attention to the title character’s progressive beliefs – particularly his opposition to slavery – but it does not make clear the extent to which nationalism motivated Alexander Hamilton. Ron Chernow’s biography, the basis for the musical, repeatedly describes its subject as a nationalist. Hamilton’s status as an immigrant, not wedded to any particular state, made him “a natural spokesman for a new American nationalism,” writes Chernow, while the Report on Manufactures – part of Hamilton’s promotion of industry that angered defenders of plantation agriculture – was “a prescient statement of American nationalism.” Hamilton’s vision of national unity and industrial might stood in stark contrast to the slaveholder Thomas Jefferson’s preference for a weak central government.

More than half a century later, Lincoln took up Hamilton’s cause of a free country, united by a strong national government. Despite publicly stating that preserving the Union took precedence over the abolition of slavery, Lincoln privately urged members of Congress to reject a compromise that would have prevented Southern secession in exchange for protecting slavery. His objective was one nation, free of slavery, and he was willing to fight a devastating war to achieve it. Lincoln also pursued Hamilton’s goal of national economic development, granting federal lands to railroads and raising tariffs to protect domestic manufacturing. The Union victory was also a victory for liberal nationalism.

Even if the most vocal nationalists in Western democracies are found on the populist right, nationalism should not be considered inherently right-wing or illiberal. It has meant different things to different people in different eras, and it has frequently been a force for liberation and progress. Liberals would do well not to completely cede nationalism and its power to their opponents.


Michael Purzycki

Michael has worked as an analyst in the Pentagon and at Bloomberg LP. His primary interests are U.S. defense policy, the Middle East, and energy policy. He has been published in the Washington Monthly, the Truman National Security Project, and France 24.
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