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A primer on Internationalism and nationalism

Nationalism, nativism, populism are in the air these days. Their relation to democracy is widely seen as problematic. Can political philosophy help? I offer Village readers this ABC of the so-called “national question”:

A. For democrats and progressives internationalism, not nationalism, is the primary value.

We are internationalists out of solidarity as members of the human race. As internationalists we seek the emancipation of mankind. The human race is divided into nations. Therefore we stand for the selfdetermination of nations. The right of nations to self-determination was first proclaimed as a collective human right, a democratic principle of universal validity, in the Declaration of the Rights of Man of the French Revolution. It is now a basic principle of international law and a core principle of modern democracy enshrined in the United Nations Charter.

Internationalism does not mean that one is called on to urge people of other nations to assert their right to self-determination, but that one respects their wishes and shows solidarity with them if they do that. It is as true of the life of nations as of individuals that separation, mutual recognition of boundaries and mutual respect based upon that – viz. legal and political equality, neither dominance nor submission – are the prerequisites of free and friendly cooperation between the parties, of internationalism in other words. Good fences make good neighbours.

B. Nations exist as communities before nationalisms and nation States.

Some nations are ancient, some young, some in process of being formed. Like all human groupings, for example the family, clan, tribe, they are fuzzy at the edges. No neat definition will encompass all cases. The empirical test is to ask people themselves. If people have passed beyond the stage of kinship society where the political unit is the clan or tribe, they will know themselves what nation they belong to. This is the political and democratic test too. If enough people in a nation want to establish their own State, they have the right to do that, for normally political democracy exists only at the level of the national community and the nation State.

C. To analyse nations and the national question in terms of ‘nationalisms’ is philosophical idealism, looking at the mental reflection rather than the thing it reflects.

Nationalism developed as an ideology legitimating the formation of nation States in the 18th century, although its elements can be found centuries before in some of the world’s oldest nation States – Denmark, England, France, China, Japan. Nations evolve historically as stable, long-lasting communities of people, sharing a common language and territory and the common culture and history that derive from that. These generate the solidarities, mutual identifications and shared interests that distinguish one people from another. Such features characterise the demos, the collective “We”, that constitutes a people possessing the right to national self-determination.


D. Nationalism, properly understood, is the complement of internationalism, not its opposite.

The word nationalism can refer to very different things. Hitler and Mussolini are stigmatised as nationalists in their countries. Gandhi and Mandela are praised as nationalists in theirs. Pearse and Connolly in ours. Nationalism can mean imperialism, xenophobia and chauvinism in one context, or patriotism, love of country and support for its political independence in another. If policy discussion is to be fruitful, one should indicate the sense in which one uses the word.

E. As there are different social classes in every nation, national movements are normally multi-class.

If the political Left does not stand for a country’s national independence and democracy, the political Right will. The Left then often stigmatises movements for independence as ‘right-wing’. That is the main reason why much of the Left in Europe today is truly “left “- namely left high and dry, wanly contemplating developments it cannot influence or control, bereft of the capacity for ideological hegemony. Ireland’s James Connolly taught that the Left should above all else be national, but Connolly has had small influence on the evolution of Ireland’s “Left”.

F. Mankind is still at the relatively early stage of the formation of nation States.

Only a dozen or so contemporary States are more than a few centuries old. The number of States in the United Nations has gone from some 60 in 1945 to a little under 200 today. European States have increased from 30 to 50 since 1989. This process has not ended even in Western Europe where people have been at the business of nation State formation for centuries. For example Scotland, Flanders, Catalonia. It has scarcely begun in Africa and Asia, where the bulk of mankind lives, where large numbers of people still belong to clan-tribal societies based on kinship, and as yet have only an embryonic national consciousness. The world is almost certainly moving towards an international community of 400 or more States.

G. Multinational States, whether unitary or federal, must respect the right to selfdetermination of the nations that comprise them if they are to be stable and endure. The right to self-determination does not require that a nation seek to establish a separate State. Nations can co-exist amicably with other nations inside a multinational State, as for example the English, Welsh and Scots have done for centuries inside the British State, or the many Indian nationalities inside India. They can do this, however, only if their national rights are respected and the smaller nations do not feel oppressed by the larger ones, in particular culturally and linguistically. If this condition is not observed, political pressures are likely to develop to break up the multinational State in question.

H. Shared civic nationality is the political basis of multinational States; shared ethnic nationality the political basis of nation States.

In both cases, if the State is a democratic one, all citizens will be equal before the law and the rights of minority nationalities in multinational States and of national minorities in nation States will be equally respected.

I. Internationalism and supranationalism are opposites.

Internationalism, from Latin “inter”, “between”, refers to co-operation between nations. Supranationalism, from Latin “supra”,“above”, implies rule over nations by a higher authority. This can embrace a multinational Federation where sovereignty is divided between a superior federal level and a lower national or regional level as in such federal states as India, Pakistan, Russia or Nigeria. It can refer to classical empires such as the British, French, Spanish, Dutch or Austro-Hungarian, where different peoples were ruled from a distant imperial capital. Or it can refer to the contemporary European Union where national powers have been shifted to unelected supranational institutions, the EU Commission, Council of Ministers and Court of Justice, bodies that lack a European “demos” that could give them democratic legitimacy. The supranationalism of the EU has made the national question, the issue of national independence and democracy, of who makes or who should make the laws, the central issue of politics all over Europe today.

J. Globalisation as an ideology is also the antithesis of internationalism.

As a description of contemporary fact globalisation comprehends such features of modern life as the internet, mass travel, world trade and climate change, that have shrunk our planet to a Global Village. As an ideology, however, globalization, also known as global capitalism, extols free movement of capital, which hollows out democratic States and frees private owners from the social controls that sovereign States alone are strong enough to impose on them, either individually or in concert, with a view to restraining the perennial “furies of private interest” and advancing the common good of the State or States in question.


Anthony Coughlan is Associate Professor Emeritus in Social Policy at Trinity College Dublin