Nationalism Is Not (Always) The Enemy of Liberalism
In the 19th century, nationalists were the standard-bearers of liberalism—democratic, forward-looking, progressive. This is no longer the case.
Imagine a time of globalization and modernization, of decadence and alienation. Imagine living in a country where the mother tongue is devalued at the university, where elites pride themselves on declaring stronger loyalty to foreigners than to socially inferior compatriots, where the universalisms of the elites most of all benefit themselves. Envision, if you can, a young man who longs to be part of the new elite, who travels to the metropolis, ready to be refined, civilized, reconstructed. And imagine that the young man discovers that contact with a foreign culture can not only breed familiarity, but also disgust.
The year was 1770, and the 26-year-old son of an organist, Johan Gottfried Herder, who came from a sand heap located in what is now Poland, had found his calling. He had served as a Lutheran pastor among the German congregation in Riga and had studied philosophy under Immanuel Kant in Königsberg. But though he had studied under Kant, Johann Georg Hamann, Kant’s friend and colleague, was obviously a more important influence. A biographer writes:
Kant made reason the rule of his life and the source of his philosophy; Hamann found the source of both in his heart. While Kant dreaded enthusiasm in religion, and suspected in it superstition and fanaticism, Hamann revelled in enthusiasm; and he believed in revelation, miracles, and worship, differing also in these points from the philosopher.
Hamann believed that humans are motivated more by what we believe than by what we know. Hamann advised young Herder to “think less and live more.”
On his way from Paris to Germany, Herder met the young Goethe in Strasbourg, a meeting of historical significance if there ever were one. For this meeting was by some accounts the birth of Sturm und Drang—“struggle and longing”—the epitome of a revolution of the mind that would help destroy aristocratic Europe and prepare the ground for the nation-states of the bourgeoisie. Goethe credited Herder for his stopping writing “dehydrated classicism” and becoming a populist in a poetic sense—by writing for the commoners in their own language.
Herder saw the contours of a modernity that fragments human communities. Michel Houellebecq has built an authorship on this insight. In his writings from Paris, we meet a Herder who feels personally affronted by snobbish French intellectualism purporting to tell people how to live their lives. Herder was skeptical of building societies on the abstract and “universal” truths that, upon closer inspection, were neither one nor the other. Instead, he found the answer in culture.
Herder encouraged the Germans to throw up the “slime from the Seine.” A proverb from the time says that one speaks Latin with God, French with women, English with men, and German with your horse. Herder thought Germans should aspire to be more than second rate Frenchmen. He believed that everyone thinks most clearly in their mother tongue. For Herder, language is the essence of a people. “The very first words we garble,” he declared, “are the cornerstones of our knowledge.” Therefore, he fought to stop the colonization of German universities. He saw the dominance of the French tongue as reducing Europe to a “graveyard of cultures.”
Sturm und Drang’s emphasis on the subjective inspired students, who, with their long hair, hipster fashion, and experimentation with sex and drugs, became the countercultural icons of the late 1700s. The young nationalists cultivated subjective experience over strict rationality—rough Germanity over French sophistication.
Herder brought a new focus on cultural differences. Charles Darwin famously divided the academy into “lumpers” and “splitters:” Lumpers like to group things into ever larger categories, while splitters divide things into smaller groupings. Lumpers look for what unites, splitters on what sets apart. Herder was keen on what makes different cultures distinct. Partly because he viewed man as a herd animal, where the tribe is the framework for the individual to attain his potential in the Aristotelian sense. He thus broke with French philosophers such as Racine and Corneille, who declared fellowship with all and sundry based on supposed shared identities.
Isaiah Berlin called understanding what it means to belong to a group “Herder’s populism.” Herder saw society as an organism, a living whole. But he was, according to Berlin, strongly influenced by the natural sciences. Herder believed in progress, but he did not share the notion that humanity is progressing on a broad front, driven by rationality and knowledge.
Herder loved the nation, but not the state. “Nature creates nations, not states,” he wrote. His German nation was divided into some 300 principalities. His native Prussia was characterized by faded autocracy and habitual militarism, perhaps an example of what he called the state’s “dehumanizing potential.” He loved organic communities that grow from below, not the ones imposed from the top down. He raged against imperialism—when a society wipes out another’s culture, even if done in the name of progress. He was certain that those who force their way of life on others guarantee that their victims will rise up against them and use their own slogans, methods, and ideals against themselves one day. The idea is that ideals and institutions that are progressive—good in the context in which they emerged—can be poison if they are transplanted into a foreign body. In his essay “The West and the Rest,” historian Arnold Toynbee pointed to communism as an example of a Western idea that first poisoned the Russian empire and then transformed into an anti-Western project.
Herder is a thinker of our time. Francis Fukuyama thinks Herder “is not sufficiently read in the English-speaking world” and rightly concludes that the discrediting of Herder by anti-nationalists today is grossly unreasonable. Herder shared the Enlightenment view of humanity as one of a human dignity that dwells in equal measure in all human beings. This basic humanism made Herder an early opponent of slavery. He also believed that the quality of a culture could be assessed according to how women are treated. All experts seem to agree that Herder’s starting point is that of a Kantian—cosmopolitan and pacifist.
Johan Gottlieb Fichte also studied under Immanuel Kant in Königsberg. Both he and Herder internalized Kant’s philosophical universe, but, unlike Herder, Fichte experienced the Prussian defeat at Jena in 1806. Herder did not live to see the revolution overthrowing the German patchwork of statelets and French civilization being offered at the end of a bayonet. For Fichte, this left a mark.
In 1791, 29-year-old Fichte travelled from Saxony, through Silesia, to Warsaw, hoping to take up a teaching position. “I walked a lot of the way on foot,” writes young Fichte. The diary is useful, not least since Fichte’s philosophical works are almost unreadable. Young Fichte’s diary charts the transitions of cultures. Poland does not start at the border. Fichte is fascinated by how German culture changes and yet remains the same. The walk from Dresden to Warsaw gave Fichte the chance to reflect on the myriad of little things that conspire to give the feeling of being near or far from home. He noted the small differences between the refined Saxony and the rougher Prussian Silesia, and how the German and Polish influences appeared in changing mixtures until he had one day come to Ponnichowo, a village where the last remnant of German culture was gone. He was in Poland.
Higher education is often a handicap when it comes to instinctive insights. In his Addresses to the German Nation, Fichte pointed out an historical fact: that national identity and patriotism are a strong and positive force, stronger than political ideology—and stronger than religion, one might add. Although it is common to pretend that all peoples are very similar, anyone who has travelled knows that there are great differences between nations—differences in perspective. What is perceived as good, healthy, right, and important varies from country to country.
Culture binds us to those who have gone before us, to our fellow human beings, and to the generations to come. The significance of the small differences is that the fragments are not just fragments. They are distinctive fragments. Fichte finds his Germany in the “eagle, whose powerful body rises to the heavens and hovers on strong and able wings.”
The 1968 icon Wolf Biermann would later use the same image of Germany in the song about the eagle, the “Prussian Ikaros.” He saw Prussia reborn in the GDR. Historian Fritz Fischer would develop the thesis as the German Sonderweg—the distinctive path that set Germany on a course towards two world wars. Fischer drew this path from Luther and the Reformation, but it could be argued that this theory finds its most convincing zero-hour in the French occupation that necessitated a German nation-state, legitimized Prussian militarism, and ultimately unified Germany under its most authoritarian constituent state.
The nation-state was a natural consequence of nationalism. The meeting between the nation and the state created the nation-state, and the nation-states created the international system. Democracy was born along with patriotism, both by tying power to the people and by proclaiming a fundamental equality between individuals. And out of this order springs a national culture that has the capacity to unite a mass of people who do not know each other, and to inspire loyalty among them. In the 19th century, nationalists were the standard-bearers of liberalism. They were seen as democratic heroes, the embodiment of everything that was progressive and fair. This is no longer the case.
Herder’s nationalism is something quite different from the identitarianism of today, which arguably owes more to Fichte’s reaction to the conquests of Napoleon. The anti-nationalism that characterizes liberals today is a source of strength in an interconnected plural world, but also a political weakness. For many—arguably most Europeans—the nation is more meaningful and more valuable than any gleaming promises that a post-national world might hold.
Herder’s diagnosis of alienation as the companion of modernity made him an intellectual superstar of his time. Herder realized, well before Marx, that a feeling of being separate from the world—from one’s job and from one’s own self—is a black mark against Western modernity. Many nationalists who followed often sought to overcome this sense of alienation by focusing on enemies, foreign and domestic, but it is unreasonable to put this at Herder’s door. After all, few in the 18th century could imagine the cavalcade of events that would climax in the wars at the end of Fritz Fischer’s Sonderweg. And in his defense, Herder’s nationalism is not reactionary. It is tolerant, a celebration of what unites us in the largest groups capable of creating a genuine sense of “we”—which is the nation.
Today’s anti-nationalists conveniently forget that they live in a world created by nationalism and that, on balance, nationalism has given more than it has taken. Especially outside of the American context, nationalism has given us government of and by the people, the welfare state, the rule of law, and civil rights. Even Americans forget at their peril that individual rights are tender shoots that wilt and die in the harsh light of the state of nature. Without the protection of the nation-state, rights tends to become a luxury for the few.
The upsurge in identitarianism we see across the West today has roots in circumstances similar to those that birthed a more toxic kind of nationalism in earlier times. This identitarianism seeks to provide an answer to universal liberalism’s erroneous assumptions and predictions about the future, about human nature, and about happiness. For man is not merely rational. We have a heritage that anchors us, which makes sense to us and helps us make sense of the world. The postmodernist sensibility that structures the worldview of our educated elites may pay eloquent lip service to abstract ideals, but for many individuals the world they have created has proved to be a barren, alienating place.
For his part, Herder saw that those who want to liberate us from traditions—from culture and history—often only succeed in freeing themselves from their duties towards actual compatriots in favor of a universal “humanity” that does not exist apart from those who claim to speak on behalf of it. Just look at the culture this postmodernity produces in Europe. Look at the public artworks. Listen to the hit songs. Look at the architecture. It is as if we had lost some war and are currently occupied by a rival civilization that detests us and is eager to rub our collective noses in what they think of us.
We now find ourselves in a standoff between what amount to cultural classes across the West. Each sees an authoritarian tendency in the other, and neither recognizes it in themselves. The so-called “national conservative“ wave that is currently permeating the conservative movement in both the United States and in Europe is generating enthusiasm, but also concern. Traditional conservatives are issuing starker warnings against the dangers of this national conservatism than they ever did when our urbane elites set out to spread the gospel of democracy by way of military occupation, or when they opened European borders for uncontrolled immigration, or when they support a vision of the European Union that is a dagger aimed squarely at the heart of the nation-state.
But when smaller languages (like my native Norwegian) are increasingly marginalized at our own universities, when national parliaments hand over power to Brussels to the point that they become almost provincial assemblies, when immigration outstrips a society’s capacity to integrate new members, when our intellectuals agree that our culture is both toxic and at the same time does not exist—then it is tempting to smile wryly at the dire warnings of the supposed perils of national conservatism. The way things are going is unsustainable.
And yet those warning are timely, and conservatives are wise to “Draw Rein; Draw Breath.” National conservatism indeed has a problematic legacy, and though history never repeats itself, it is worth pondering the fact that the standard-bearer of national conservatism today is Russia. Like the French aristocrat Astolphe de Custine, who, embittered by the events of 1789, travelled to Imperial Russia to experience its authentic autocracy (and came away horrified), so our modern critics of liberalism need to experience applied Putinism first hand.
But beyond that, it’s important to not be categorical in one’s thinking about these matters, and to keep in mind that the difference between Herder and Fichte is small, but critical: There exist both tolerant and intolerant forms of nationalism. The difference between the two forms can perhaps be compared to the differences between social democratic and communist versions of socialism. Nationalism is malleable; it can be both liberal and illiberal. Now that we again find ourselves in an age of nationalism, conservatives must return to the sources, beginning with two students of Kant.