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What Putin and liberals share Both are willing to sacrifice the nation state

Don't listen to Orwell (Alexey Furman/Getty Images)

Don't listen to Orwell (Alexey Furman/Getty Images)


May 17, 2022   10 mins


Putin’s aggressive war on Ukraine may have had the unintended consequence of reviving a moribund Nato alliance, but for many liberals, that isn’t enough. Just as the war saved Johnson from seemingly inevitable ejection from Downing Street, so have defenders of the sclerotic liberal order seized on Ukraine’s valiant defence of its territory and people to borrow lustre for their own tarnished project. In the post-liberal writer Sohrab Ahmari’s telling, the war “offered a gleaming opportunity for elite ideological reconciliation in the West”, as liberals and nationalists in Europe and Washington tentatively made peace with each other against the threat of Russian imperialism.

Indeed, the world has been turned upside down: liberal pundits bedeck their Twitter profiles with blue and yellow bunting, declaring the inviolability of Ukraine’s borders, while self-styled American nationalists make sympathetic excuses for the revanchist ambitions of Russia’s sprawling, multiethnic empire. So is nationalism acceptable again in polite society?

The belief that there is such a thing as a Ukrainian people, who speak a Ukrainian language and are the shared heirs to a common Ukrainian culture, and who therefore have the right to self-governance in an independent Ukrainian nation state is by definition a nationalist statement. That is what nationalism is: in the anthropologist and theorist of nationalism Ernest Gellner’s pithy definition, “nationalism is primarily a political principle, which holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent”.

Furthermore, for Gellner, “if the rulers of the political unit belong to a nation other than that of the majority of the ruled”, for example, “through the incorporation of the national territory in a larger empire” (as would be the case if Ukrainian-populated territories were absorbed by conquest into the Russian Federation), “this, for nationalists, constitutes a quite outstandingly intolerable breach of political propriety”. By this definition, most people reading this would be nationalists — or Ukrainian nationalists by proxy — and rightly so: it offends our basic moral sense of how things should be that Putin could decide otherwise.

Yet nationalism has become, in recent decades, an unfashionable doctrine. A product of 18th and 19th-century liberalism, which aimed to liberate the small peoples of Europe from the grip of sclerotic empires either unresponsive to their needs or directly oppressive, nationalism became taboo after the Second World War, following the destruction wrought by Nazi German and Italian imperialism on the European continent.

A meaningless folk distinction between “nationalism” and “patriotism” has become current among many non-academic pundits, in which “nationalism” is simply “patriotism, but bad” and “patriotism” merely the safely-neutered version of nationalism. This seemingly derives from Orwell’s essay Notes On Nationalism, in which the requirement of a jobbing journalist to churn out copy on time has been granted an afterlife far longer than it deserves. The fact that Orwell’s primary examples of “nationalism” in the essay are Communism and political Catholicism indicates the analytical uselessness of his definitions: then as now, “nationalism”, like “fascism”, is just a catch-all descriptor for things the writer happens to dislike.

At a slightly higher level, much of the debate on nationalism — and the certainty that it is both a bad thing and a superseded relic of a destructive past — derives from the “Modernist thesis” of its origins. This was most notably put forward in the Seventies and Eighties by Eric Hobsbawm, Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson, the last of whose book, Imagined Communities, is probably only matched by Edward Said’s Orientalism for its deleterious effects on political discourse through skim-reading by lazy undergraduates.

There is not the space in this essay to adequately deconstruct the Modernist thesis on the origins of nationalism (interested readers should turn to Anthony D. Smith’s Nationalism and Modernism for that), but to summarise: rather than nationalism being a product of the political aspirations of pre-existing nations, nationalism creates nations, as social elites elevate aspects of peasant folk cultures into a never-before-existing high culture with political secession from a multiethnic imperium as their goal.

As the historian Richard Drayton notes in a recent essay historicising the Modernist turn: “Since around 1980 social constructionist views of nationalism have been predominant, seeing it as principally artificial, as invented tradition, a fictive relationship of ethnicity to culture to territory to political destiny propagated by manipulative elites who are the beneficiaries of imagined communities and the nation state.” This is the hegemonic understanding of nationalism among the educated classes of the West, through dissemination of the Modernist thesis through university education.

Yet as Smith notes sadly of Anderson’s reception, “the postmodernist reading, and its accompanying cultural analysis, can always be detached from its modernist moorings”. Anderson’s focused emphasis on print capitalism has been sidelined, and instead it is “the role of imagination, and the idea of the nation as a discourse to be interrogated and deconstructed, that have proved most influential
 developed by the many theorists in the postmodernist traditions who have drawn their inspiration from a partial reading of Anderson’s work.”

The “imagined community” is thus misread as an imaginary one, an entirely fictional construct of political elites with little basis in reality. As Smith notes, both Gellner and Hobsbawm agreed, to differing degrees, that nationalism required some pre-existing sense of social or ethnic cohesion to work, and “with the exception of Hobsbawm, most modernists have in fact been reticent about the fate of the national state and the prospects of nationalism. It has been left to so-called ‘postmodernists’ to proclaim the demise of the ‘nation state’ through an overwhelming combination of political dependence, economic globalisation, mass communications and cultural hybridisation.”

This position reaches its most debased and vulgar downstream form in the iconoclastic glee with which, say, British Twitter liberals race to inform us each April 23 that actually St George was a Palestinian refugee or Turkish immigrant or whatever they deem most shocking to their notional English nationalist readers. Surely now, newly-armed with this brave puncturing of national-mythmaking, the backward old certainties must fall away, with the harrumphing major or knuckle-tattooed yob finally accepting, chastened, the borderless utopia of global liberalism? This is, sadly, the intellectual terminus of the Modernist thesis.

Yet the Twitter liberals share a most unlikely ally in what they view as their iconoclastic deconstructing of the nation state, and its petty myths: Putin himself. In his rambling 2021 essay On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians, Putin adopted the tropes of the Modernist thesis to prove his contention that the Ukrainian nation has no rightful existence outside Russia’s embrace.

Putin begins by emphasising the diverse origins of the “Slavic and other tribes” across the ancient Rus state, united by shared dynastic rule and latterly a common language and faith. He emphasises the ethnic and linguistic diversity of the Ukrainian lands, noting that: “the south-western lands of the Russian Empire, Malorussia and Novorossiya, and the Crimea developed as ethnically and religiously diverse entities. Crimean Tatars, Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Karaites, Krymchaks, Bulgarians, Poles, Serbs, Germans, and other peoples lived here.”

Yet over time, as in Gellner and Hobsbawm’s narrative of nationalist development, “the idea of Ukrainian people as a nation separate from the Russians started to form and gain ground among the Polish elite and a part of the Malorussian intelligentsia. Since there was no historical basis and could not have been any, conclusions were substantiated by all sorts of concoctions,” including elevating folk dialects into a standardised Ukrainian language. In Putin’s Modernist theory of Ukrainian nationalism, Ukrainian elites, through the logic of seeking their own advancement, created a Ukrainian nation where none had existed before, just as Gellner characterises the ideal nationalism of his fictional Ruritania.

Just like Hobsbawm, Putin blames Lenin’s Nationality Policy for invigorating nationalist sentiment among Russia’s subject peoples, claiming that the 1924 Constitution “planted in the foundation of our statehood the most dangerous time bomb”, while warning that Ukrainian nationalism is forcing “the path of forced assimilation, the formation of an ethnically pure Ukrainian state” in “a country, as I have already noted, that is very complex in terms of its territorial, national and linguistic composition, and its history of formation”.

The Modernist thesis on nationalism, and on the fraudulent novelty of the nation state, is thus put to effective use for Russian imperialist purposes. We can argue further that the Modernist thesis is tacitly imperialist, in that it views nationalism as a destructive innovation with broadly deleterious effects, compared with the benign patchwork of faiths and languages in the empires that preceded it. Both Hobsbawm and Gellner were born in the wreckage of the multiethnic Habsburg Empire, and both preferred it to what followed, in their cases quite rationally: both fled the rise of the Nazis for England and academia (Anderson, from an aristocratic Anglo-Irish background like his brother Perry, also had a complicated family relationship with nationalism).

In Hobsbawm’s case — he would write to a friend that “I remain in the curious position of disliking, distrusting, disapproving and fearing nationalism wherever it exists” — the latent imperialism of the Modernist thesis in general (which by highlighting the novel, unnatural nature of nationalism makes its predecessor “natural” by default) was made explicit. He regretted the collapse of the Soviet Union, remained one of its last supporters in British intellectual life, and would inform an audience of Budapest students in 1993 that “although many of you will not welcome my saying so, that up to a point [the USSR] worked better than anything since the break-up of the monarchies in 1918. For the common citizens of the more backward countries in the region — say Slovakia and much of the Balkan peninsula — it was probably the best period in their history”.

It’s worth noting here that Hobsbawm wrote in to the Daily Worker on the topic of the USSR’s crushing of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising to say that “While approving, with a heavy heart, of what is now happening in Hungary, we should therefore also say frankly that we think the USSR should withdraw its troops from the country as soon as this is possible.” Perhaps we can therefore term him a moderate, even conservative imperialist. On the topic of Ukraine, he would note that “Ukraine remained relatively quiet while Baltic and Caucasian republics demanded secession, remained under the control of the local Communist Party leadership, and did not resign itself [my emphasis] to separation until after the failed coup of August 1991 destroyed the USSR”. As does Putin, Hobsbawm emphasises that “Russians, in the nineteenth century, regarded themselves as Russians, and this included many Ukrainians and Belorussians, today zealous defenders of their national identity.”

Observing Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he warned that “the eggs of Versailles and Brest-Litowsk are still hatching”. For Hobsbawm, “the permanent collapse of the Habsburg and Turkish empires and the short-lived collapse of the Tsarist Russian empire produced the same set of national successor-states with the same sort of problems” leading inexorably to “mass murder or forced mass migration
 However, unlike the Habsburgs and the Ottoman empire, the multi-national Russian empire survived for another three generations”, while “Victory in the Civil War eliminated the possibility of Ukrainian separatism”.

As with Marx himself, a certain wistful conservatism can be glimpsed in the Modernist worldview, with Gellner observing sadly of capitalist modernity that “the old structures are dissipated and largely replaced by an internally random and fluid totality
 There is very little in the way of any effective, binding organisation at any level between the individual and the total community”, paving the way for nationalism to fill the gap.

But then, as Drayton notes of the Modernists: “It is usually forgotten that these kinds of arguments about the fraudulence of nationalism first emerged on the Right of European politics. From Klemens von Metternich’s attempt with the Carlsbad Decrees to force the nationalist genie back into its bottle, to the reactionary Catholic and monarchist regionalist response of figures such as Charles Maurras to the Third Republic in France, the proposition was made that nationalism was artificial, a subversive project of sinister minorities.”

As nostalgic as any throne-and-altar Catholic Integralist for the multi-ethnic Habsburg Empire, Hobsbawm was as paradoxically conservative as only committed Marxists and genuine reactionaries can be, seeking a return to the polyglot imperium shattered by nationalism, under a new communist guise. A fierce critic of the Wilsonian liberalism that saw Europe’s great multi-ethnic empires divided into squabbling ethnostates, Hobsbawm takes the Modernist thesis to its conclusion. His conscious undermining of the symbolic narratives undergirding shared nationhood, and of the desire for political autonomy deriving from them, finds dark echoes in Putin’s claims today.

Where does all this leave us? As Gellner notes of nationalism, “if we are to understand the fate of these societies, we are sometimes obliged to look carefully at the words, doctrines and arguments of the thinkers who forged the faiths that dominate them”. As Hobsbawm observes, nationalism’s proponents were historically the educated classes: “the lower and middle professional, administrative and intellectual strata”, and “the people who formulate those myths and inventions are educated people: schoolteachers lay and clerical, professors (not many, I hope), journalists, television and radio producers. Today most of them will have gone to some university.”

But today of course, this stratum of society does not adhere to nationalist ideals: it has instead adopted a vulgar Postmodernist anti-nationalist ethos that ultimately derives much of its tropes from a cursory reading of Hobsbawm, Gellner, Anderson and others. How did this come to be the case?

Smith notes that, through the work of writers such as Stuart Hall, a Postmodernist extrapolation of the modernist thesis creates “alternative discourses of peripheral ethnicity, newly constructed out of popular experiences, and predicated on the celebration of diversity”, a new, diverse Imagined Community for an era of mass immigration which “is the premise, and justification, of the politics of multiculturalism”.

Similarly, Drayton observes that “this rise of historiographical skepticism toward nationalism in the Seventies coincided with the attacks from the Right on the legitimacy of the Keynesian and the socialist developmental state, and on the claims of Third World states to a new international economic and political order
 The secret sharers of the analysis of Anderson, Hobsbawm, and Fred Cooper” were the neoliberals “who through the Washington consensus and ‘structural adjustment’ sought to limit the postcolonial state’s power to intervene in its economy and social welfare” and the liberal imperialists “who sought to legitimise the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s intervention in Yugoslavia and the Iraq and ­Libyan wars”.

When the rising American state’s rivals in 1918 were sprawling, multinational empires, the official doctrine of the US was to break them up into self-determining nation states. Now that the US is itself a sprawling, multiethnic empire, whose long-term survival seems as questionable as that of Austria-Hungary at the turn of the last century, the emphasis is — perhaps we can now say was — on the fictitious backwardness of the nation-state ideal, and the progressive necessity of its dissolution, and incorporation into a globalised world. This is, as Smith observes, a globalised culture which “though it presents itself as universal, bears the imprint of its origins and flows from a single source, the United States”.

There is then an imperialist quality, at times latent, at other times overt, in the hostility to nationalism displayed by both the post-Marxist, progressive Left and by the nakedly imperialist reactionary Right. Has nationalism therefore returned to the liberal fold, and will liberals, enraptured by Ukraine’s struggle for self-determination, fall back in love with nationalism? That is perhaps unlikely: yet analysis of the intellectual origins of the discourse shaping our world provides hints as to the future directions of our politics, in all their contradictions and ambiguity.

Writing in 1990 just before the collapse of his beloved Soviet Union, Hobsbawm would claim that “the very fact that historians are at least beginning to make some progress in the study and analysis of nations and nationalism suggests that, as so often, the phenomenon is past its peak. The owl of Minerva which brings wisdom, said Hegel, flies out at dusk. It is a good sign that it is now circling round nations and nationalism.” The willingness of younger historians to place the Modernist thesis itself in historical context as an ideological construct of intellectual elites at a very specific, vanished political moment suggests the same could more accurately be said of the post-national era.

As Smith warns, “Nationalism will not be easily tamed and categorised to fit the prescriptions of moral and political philosophers”. Without returning to an idealistic faith in the progressive certainties of Communism or capitalist globalisation, or subsuming ourselves in a revived imperial polity, it is doubtful there is any alternative to the nation state, for the love of which ordinary Ukrainians, of all political persuasions, are fighting and dying right now.


Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.

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A Spetzari
A Spetzari
2 years ago

The fact that Orwell’s primary examples of “nationalism” in the essay are Communism and political Catholicism indicates the analytical uselessness of his definitions

That’s just a load of rubbish though isn’t it Aris? You’re projecting what you want to take from his text.
Paragraph 2; first he mentions Italian and German nationalism as an obvious starter (he’s writing in 1945 after all…) he then lists some other examples:

includes such movements and tendencies as Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, Antisemitism, Trotskyism and Pacifism

He later goes on at length to describe different subcategories of nationalism, as well as variations on those subcategories. Christ the whole passage is a soup of myriad types of nationalism.
Methinks you’re just making a point of how sophisticated you are by dismissing Orwell as somehow beneath you. Too close to the bone some of the text? Particularly the parts where he skewers people who are just anti western to the point of cognitive dissonance?

Last edited 2 years ago by A Spetzari
ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

Blasphemer! But otherwise spot on!

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

Orwell’s annoyance at Catholics seems to stem from the English elite who thought it was cool to convert, Catholicism or Communism or both, and the aristo snobbery of old-school Anglo-Catholics, “the Anglo-Catholicism of Brideshead, of Cardinal Newman, of Jacobite Lairds and priest holes carved into Elizabethan oak”
Maybe I was taking it too personally, but I always thought he called his 1984 villain “O’Brien” partly in revenge against these types although Wiki suggests Brendan Bracken and perhaps Hugh O’Donnell as the inspiration.

Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
2 years ago

Naw. It was designed to put fear into the Anglo Saxon.

It’s a while since I read On Nationalism but it struck me that he was really talking about tribalism – what would now be called in-group preferences. With that aside it’s a good read if I recall.

Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
2 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

Funny support for the Marxist Orwell on here, the home of anti woke conservatism. I’m not sure why you think Ari is anti western at all. Unless you take American liberal ideologies to be “western”.

Ari is clearly conservative, possibly even reactionary.

Last edited 2 years ago by Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
Peter B
Peter B
2 years ago

Orwell certainly considered himself to be a socialist. But Marxist ? Really ?

Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
2 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

I just read it. British nationalism and other nationalisms are barely mentioned but he spends a few paragraphs on political Catholicism and communism. These are his major themes in the first few paragraphs and then he talks about the pathologies of these “nationalisms”.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
2 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

Yes, it’s a poor reading of ‘On Nationalism’. Orwell isn’t defining Communism, political Catholicism, etc, as literal examples of nationalism in a literal typology of nationalism.
He refers to the idea of ‘Transferred Nationalism’ to describe a kind of tribal psychology which is common to both nationalists and people with other strong emotional investments politically. (E.g. you could say that current E.U. fanatics – FBPE – are participating in this kind of flag-waving psychology, ironically, without literally being nationalists themselves)

Last edited 2 years ago by Benedict Waterson
martin logan
martin logan
2 years ago

The article actually suggests that intellectuals just aren’t very good at understanding often very contradictory human reality.
Ernst Renan’s dictum that “a nation is a nation when it thinks it’s a nation” is probably the best definition, avoiding useless arguments about supposed origins, be they cultural or racial.
Ibn Khaldun’s idea of “asabiya” is even better. The idea that group cohesion is the main factor in the rise and fall of states can be shown operating in both empires and nations.
And it helps explain very much about Ukraine’s resistance just now.

Sam Sky
Sam Sky
2 years ago
Reply to  martin logan

Yes. And such group cohesion is almost always formed by a perceived common threat.

Deborah Bromley
Deborah Bromley
2 years ago

This article epitomises the pointless intellectualisation of ordinary people’s feelings about the country they live in or were born in and the shared sense with others of what this means in practice.
Or maybe I’m sick generally of pointless intellectualisation.
How is it possible to write so many words, many of them designed to self-aggrandise the author and belittle lesser mortals, without getting to the heart and soul of this matter?
The love of your country and that deep sense of collective community that accompanies it.

Mathieu Bernard
Mathieu Bernard
2 years ago

My thoughts exactly, as I was slogging through this thing.

Sam Sky
Sam Sky
2 years ago

If you actually bother reading his writing he is entirely sympathic to that point of view.

No one is forcing you to read this, I’m not sure why you think we should all write and read at the reading level of an 11 year old just to assuage your inferiority complex.

Last edited 2 years ago by Sam Sky
Peter Gardner
Peter Gardner
2 years ago

The article does not mention democracy once. Democracy cannot be extended beyond the nation state. Brexit came about because the Governing classes and institutions were accountable as much to a foreign power as to the British people. t was not sustainable. the EU will fail, ultimately for this reason: as Enoch Powell, observed, it has no demos. Even the EU itself recognises this, calling it euphemistically a ‘democratic deficit’.

Pamela Booker
Pamela Booker
2 years ago

Spot on. How nations were built started with the nuclear family then the tribe/village, then the city and then the country all based on bringing security and stability to life.
That certain “intellectuals” question – even sneer at – the natural desire for security and stability is indicitative of the limits of their own reasoning.
Those who wish to breakdown the social order in nation states invariably have access to their own ivory towers to escape from the disorder and chaos their interference brings.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

Thanks again to my favourite UnHerd writer.
And not because I agree with him – I often don’t.
There is much to digest here and I will take time to dig in.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
2 years ago

Yes he can be excellent – but this isn’t one of those pieces. Too often he deliberately exaggerates or mischaracterises to suit the point he desperately wants to make.
Shame as he often has some superb analysis and does great research

Last edited 2 years ago by A Spetzari
Saul D
Saul D
2 years ago

Nationalism comes in two types – Greater Nationalism, which is the one Orwell describes, of a nation that desires to grow and dominate others; and, more normal, Small Nationalism which is a yearning for self-determination and independence tied to geography and mutuality.
More than half of Europe has been through some form of independence struggle at some point in their history. Ideas of nationality are strong historical drivers of political action, particularly as reactions to the tendency to centralisation and empire-building from Greater Nationalists.
Even so, many current nations also weren’t considered nations when they formed. For some in Britain the Irish weren’t considered a nation in 1910s, the Castillian Spanish don’t consider the Catalans to be a nation in the 2000s.
The ying-and-yang of history is one of centralisation versus decentralisation, and ‘small’ nations emerge from the struggle against, and dissolution of, Greater Nation imperial movements. Nations ain’t going away.

Last edited 2 years ago by Saul D
Sam Sky
Sam Sky
2 years ago
Reply to  Saul D

“The ying-and-yang of history is one of centralisation versus decentralisation” – indeed may people buy the Chinese propoganda of a millenia old empire bit in reality its history was a constant shift between centralised imperial control and multiple squabbling polities, the last great era of decentralisation being before WW2.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
2 years ago

“Imagined Communities is probably only matched by Edward Said’s Orientalism for its deleterious effects on political discourse through skim-reading by lazy undergraduates.”
So sad, so true. Enjoyed this very much.

N T
N T
2 years ago

Heavenly They, save us from senseless babble.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
2 years ago

The “progressive Left” and the “reactionary Right may be the depiction favored by the Left, but it’s a lie. The Left reacts immediately to whatever the going thing is, and often violently. They set fire to cities, hound people on social media, sic law enforcement on perceived ideological threats. They’ll put a little Ukrainian flag next their avatars without giving a thought to victims of wars currently raging elsewhere in the world and pat themselves on the back for it, no questions asked. To the Left, “Nationalism” is a form of barbarism favored by ignorant xenophobes. The idea of putting one’s nation first and questioning foreign entanglements is regressive and deserving of scorn. My left-leaning friends who support war with Russia in defense of Ukraine can’t get beyond the emotions they’ve been manipulated into feeling by the media, who also can’t be honest about American interests there. Perhaps the anti-nationalists would gain some insight by reading “The Man Without a Country”.

Ian McKinney
Ian McKinney
2 years ago

I enjoyed this.

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago

Great analysis and extremely well written of course, but it seems to leave out a rather crucial qualifier: democracy itself. The dismissal of the false distinction between nationalism and patriotism as being nothing more than bad or good flavours of the same thing fails for that reason: nationalism is uncomfortable with at best and more usually hostile to democracy, and it is this qualifier surely that places a clear logical and ideological distinction between nationalism and patriotism?

On the leading theme of the article I am in agreement, but for reasons that are somewhat simpler than the details that follow: Liberals and the modern Russian state have always had more in common than officially recognised, simply because modern Liberals are actually authoritarians and have been for some time. Putin expresses his authority through direct force while Western Liberals exclude everyone from their own citadel of power who will not adhere to the beliefs of the Liberal-Orthodox secular religion. It is obviously better to be the victim of a Twitter witch-hunt than to be arrested and tortured by Putin’s FSB henchmen, but the purpose of both is the same.

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
2 years ago

What then to make of Switzerland? It seems to be overlooked when people bring out the ‘shared language and culture’ pinning for nationalism. It may be that all that is needed is a) a desire to be independent and b) the political and military wherewithal to make your neighbours respect your boundaries.

Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
2 years ago

Switzerland isn’t a nation state, of course. That’s the answer. It has its own solutions to separatism including its own overarching culture, extreme democracy, federalism and unique geography too – which melds it together.

Sam Sky
Sam Sky
2 years ago

Not sure Switzerland is not a nation, knowing it well Swiss identity is extremely important to such peoole. ideas can be a glue that creates a nation. Like the US that is a nation formed from philosophy, those very things you talk about form a national identity above form a self-conception of a people.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
2 years ago

“it is doubtful there is any alternative to the nation state”

Really? You’re overlooking the UK, which is not a ‘nation state’ but a successful Union of several different types of ‘state’ (all of which disappeared altogether in 1707, but all of which kept their local legal systems), the Union Jack being a non-national flag (more of a memory than a fact). If the EU had abolished all European nation states as a precursor to creating itself, it might have been as successful as the UK. But it will never be unless it does this at some point in the future. It has condemned itself to endless nationalist rivalries over land borders, still mysteriously popular now in the more resentful sections of the UK populace.
Just to clear up one thing: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are still merely lines on a map. They are not ‘countries’.

Last edited 2 years ago by Arnold Grutt
Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
2 years ago
Reply to  Arnold Grutt

The U.K. has any number of separatist movements, some of them violent. Parts of it have broken away already.

So despite the United Kingdom being a successful state, a long term democracy, the center of a once works empire, it’s clearly not that stable at all as a union. And the EU would have accelerated its breakup had it tried to “abolish” all nation states. How absurd.

Sam Sky
Sam Sky
2 years ago
Reply to  Arnold Grutt

Except there was a conscious effort once, largely abandoned in the last century, to turn Britishness into a national identity. To be fair it never really worked and even in its time tended to subconsciously elided with Englishness but still. But it was successful in creating a single language and other more quotidian forms of unification.

Last edited 2 years ago by Sam Sky
Peter Gardner
Peter Gardner
2 years ago

What about democracy? No mention of it in this article. Democracy relies on free debate among a community that can cohere only within certain boundaries. Nation states alone provide the necessary – but not sufficient -conditions for democracy. Democratic nation states also provide diversity of forms of self-government, because each will decide independently but with knowledge of others, how to resolve their internal issues. Others may resolve similar issues in diferent ways. Comparisons can be made, lessons learned and applied. Such organisations can freely adapt themselves to new challenges. Democracy, ie the exclusive accountability of the governing people and institutions of the state to the governed people, cannot be extended beyond the boundaries of the nation state.

Derrick Hand
Derrick Hand
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter Gardner

Actually, democracy can only be pure in a group small enough to vote with a show of hands. Ironically, democracy works best in bands of hunter gatherers. Anything larger and corruption sets in quickly from intimidation, to bribes, to miscounts, to vote harvesting, to limited choices, etc. The larger the entity, the greater the corruption. Nations can function and thrive under a verity of different government types as did Germany in the Third Reich. Few Americans appreciate that the republic is not a democracy or what that distinction entails.

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
2 years ago

Both the Russian Federation and the EU are in their different ways empires not nations, as in its own way is the USA. So neither side is ‘sacrificing the nation state’. All are preserving and extending empire.

Steve Gwynne
Steve Gwynne
2 years ago

The simple fact of the matter is that the nation state remains the most efficient and coherent political unit to manage the relationship between population levels, gdp levels, biocapacity levels and trade levels.

Without the ability to manage this critical relationship, as with the EU Treaties, then a transnational political unit has no choice but to become imperialist in order to sustain its share of ecological power.

In this respect, the nation state is the most feasible political unit to achieve ecological homeostasis. The only alternative is a global technocratic solution but then the question remains, who will be in charge.

Sam Sky
Sam Sky
2 years ago

So this touches on themes I have been thinking about for a long time. A very thought provoking piece even if I disagree on some points.
For me the crux is this line:
‘The “imagined community” is thus misread as an imaginary one, an entirely fictional construct of political elites with little basis in reality.’
Well, yes, but what is the basis in reality? I wish the author had been less coy on that. That basis in reality is a singular as every nation that exists, a language, a religion, an ethnicity, an idea, a confraternity, a national mythology or some admixture of all of above? These things are real, yes, but all intersect in strange and often confusing ways. So when you read:
“This position reaches its most debased and vulgar downstream form in the iconoclastic glee with which, say, British Twitter liberals race to inform us each April 23 that actually St George was a Palestinian refugee or Turkish immigrant or whatever they deem most shocking to their notional English nationalist readers.” 
This seems a strawman, an example of the most idiotic of sub-intellectual but hyper-educated froth that emerges from higher education now. But alas, there are real intellectuals questions at stake here.
Three other points:
Each blend of nationalist origin stories is often mutually incompatible with others, especially its neighbours, so like religion it seems quite clear they can’t all be true.
Secondly many of the nations that exist now did emerge unorganically, especially in Africa, South America and the Middle East. Their nationalism amounted to sticking a flag and an anthem to some random territory and it is unsurprising these nation-states ended up warped by tribal conflicts.
Thirdly it is obvious that very few or almost no modern nationalisms made sense 2000 years ago in the Roman empire. They may have had proto-nationalisms, but they were on boundaries and social structures very different to ours. Many of the feelings that led to 19th century nationalism long existed (just read Shakespeare!) but the way in which these were channelised, say, in the medieval era was under rather different structures. Many modern nations underwent a great state-centralisation – Cornish or Occitan were clearly only survival in a feudal context, not in a modern state. Ethnicity is a powerful force for producing coherent tribes and eventually nations, and yet the churn of peoples shouldn’t be underestimated. Much of the Roman Empire converted natives to Latin speakers. The Anglo-Saxons likely dominated the conquered Briton’s under their control into linguistic and genetic assimilation. Egyptians no longer speak Copt but the Arabic of their conquerors. And yet the languages they spread were critical to the formation of modern Herderian national communities.
So whilst nationalism has very real roots, it is also partly a bit of make-believe, but all of this seems so obvious to be trite. The more interesting question is under which conditions can a nationalism emerge that actually has emotional valence.
The strongest nationalisms seem to me to be the product of great national efforts and trials, a psychological process that bonds many people.
Look at Britain with the Napoleonic wars, WW2, etc. The Scots with the war of independence, England which unified under the pressures of Viking invasion and the destruction of petty kingdoms, the Americans with theirs, the Canadians with the War of 1812, the Australians and New Zealanders in Gallipoli, France in the 100 years war, Germany and Russia in the Napoleonic wars, Poland in its struggles against the Russians, Greece against the Turks. Such collective efforts can help turn a loose sense of ethnic or linguistic kinship into the potent force of modern nationalism, and yes this psychological bonding is very much real and potent. It is why what Putin did in Ukraine was so counterproductive for him.
Real power does seem to be a crucial part too. Which nationalisms stick and which don’t? A important factor is realpolitik, and the existence of powerful states to back national myths with steel. On some level we all know this is true. It is not the only factor, but for nationalisms to revive there has to be some kind of military or economic power. Even minority nationalisms like Catalan or Basque nationalism owed their existence to the fact they were industrially and economically richer than the rest of Spain. And not only the existence of present power but past power is a great fillip towards the continuing survival of a national movement. Poland was reborn after 100 years of nationalist agitation because it once had power and a state, otherwise it would be as relevant as the Republic of Buryatia. The same, indeed is true of Aris’s ancestral homeland, Greece survived because of its image of the past – though more that of the Eastern Roman Empire/Byztantium than Classical Greece pace Byron and other Western romantics. So power is not solely a factor but it seems strange to discount it entirely. Like most things in history it is complex and overdetermined and specific for every people.
Regarding Hobsbawm and the old left, these are very accurate observations. I am surprised you failed to mention The Invention of Traditions which was a great assault on what he saw as the phony myths of modern nationalism he co-edited with Africanist Terence Ranger and included attacks by the more conservative Hugh Trevor-Roper on Walter Scott’s invention of supposed ancenstral tartans for Scottish clans. That is a really clear example of the alliance of Marxist and old conservative disdain for nationalism.
With regard to nationalism vs. patriotism, well, again, perhaps one should appeal to the particularity of the English, I don’t think it can be understand outside of that context. Most English people know what Orwell was saying. It made little sense outside England, maybe it makes some sense if not practised in the English speaking world but certainly none outside the Anglosphere. It is tied to the language. It reflects the English distate, especially among the upper and upper middle class, for the vulgar boaster, for the obsessive monomaniac, for the person who desires victory at all costs, especially for individual gain, for the professional sportsman, the gamesman. And let us be hones, in the lexicon of English prejudices those are associated with ridiculous and not-so-ridiculous foreigners and a certain type of self-important bore (be that on nations, religion, morality, whatever) within English culture who is to be the victim of merciless persiflage. That is the connotations that Orwell was really expressing with this idea – you can see the same expressions of this in his denuciation of leftist juice drinkers or what he saw as Ghandi’s ostentatious saintliness.

Last edited 2 years ago by Sam Sky
Derrick Hand
Derrick Hand
2 years ago

First lets start by answering the question, “what percentage of the population will read or understand this article. The answer is damn few. Okay, “read the books or authors he cites?” Again, damn few. So few that it will ultimately have no consequence on the discussion. So let’s simplify things so that the average reader might understand and take interest.
The world is complex (understatement). All societies are comprised of cultures, or communities or groups. They form as a matter of expediency. They can be as simple as two people, (a couple) or as large as the planet Earth (earthlings) or Mars (potential Martians).
The world is dynamic. Everything changes all the time. Including nations. Every metric involves a spectrum and people as well as nations fit on some spectrum.
Life for everyone is a timed exercise that involves expending energy to solve problems in search of fulfilling desires. This also includes animals, insects, plants and every other living thing. There is nowhere near enough time to scratch the surface of the number of solutions to all the problems we face daily. From finding air, in the case of a drowning man, to planning an estate for a tycoon. To assist in this decision making process, we form and join cultures. In cultures, you accept some things as absolute as a cost of admission. For example, the cloths you wear, the vernacular you use, or to the nature of God. These issues are not up for debate or vote. They are settled science. Many of these cultures we are born into and some we accept to keep things simple. Some members leave and some join. Some cultures are exclusive and some proselytize. Some enslave. These cultures overlap for everyone all across the globe. Everyone belongs to multiple cultures and their membership is fluid to some extent.
Nations are mega-cultures that rank somewhere near the top of cultures by size. They provide protections and benefits to their citizens for a cost. They rank just below continents, empires and hemispheres and above states, cities and territories. The largest governable entity is an empire followed by a nation.
It can be argued that the USA is a modern empire, and while empires wield a lot of power, they still don’t control all nations and it is from that that nations get their ultimate power as do the members of that nation. Nations aren’t something that came from some grand plan by anybody. They simply evolved socially into existence. They will thwart any and all attempts to form a world government or efforts to equalize or homogenize mankind. IMO.

Last edited 2 years ago by Derrick Hand
UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
2 years ago

Since 2014 the people of the Donbas and Southern ‘Ukraine’ felt they were being discriminated against by the nearly ideological government in Kiev. They found themselves in an arbitrary ‘union’ that they no longer wanted to be a part of. So they rebelled in 2014 and in the intervening 8 yrs suffered daily bombardment by neo-naz1 forces funded in large part by the US. Over 10,000 were slaughtered. Nobody in the West cared less.
Is their sense of nationalism/identity any less valid than the sense of nationalism held by Kiev. If it is then, why?
If their nationalism is just as valid and strongly felt how to reconcile two competing nationalisms?