Elie Kedourie





This is Chapter I (Politics in a new style) of Elie Kedourie’s classic essay on nationalism. His insightful analysis of the phenomenon and the wealth of information he offers on the subject make it a text to be read in its entirety, not only for personal knowledge but also as a powerful antidote to the recurrent spread, by politicians of all sects, of the nationalistic virus.



Nationalism is a doctrine invented in Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It pretends to supply a criterion for the determination of the unit of population proper to enjoy a government exclusively its own, for the legitimate exercise of power in the state, and for the right organization of a society of states.

Briefly, the doctrine holds that humanity is naturally divided into nations, that nations are known by certain characteristics which can be ascertained, and that the only legitimate type do government is national self-government.

Not the least triumph of this doctrine is that such propositions have become accepted and are thought to be self-evident, that the very word nation has been endowed by nationalism with a meaning and a resonance which until the end of the eighteenth century it was far from having.

These ideas have become firmly naturalized in the political rhetoric of the West which has been taken over for the use of the whole world. But what now seems natural once was unfamiliar, needing argument, persuasion, evidences of many kinds; what seems simple and transparent is really obscure and contrived, the outcome of circumstances now forgotten and preoccupations now academic, the residue of metaphysical systems sometimes incompatible and even contradictory. To elucidate this doctrine it is necessary to enquire into the fortunes of certain ideas in the philosophical tradition of Europe, and how they came to prominence at this particular period.

The fortunes of ideas, like those of men, depend as much on accident as on their own worth and character, and if the doctrine of nationalism came into prominence at the turn of the eighteenth century, this was the result not only of a debate in which the philosophers were engaged, but also of events which invested the philosophical issues with immediate and obvious relevance.

The philosophy of the Enlightenment prevalent in Europe in the eighteenth century held that the universe was governed by a uniform, unvarying law of Nature. With reason man could discover and comprehend this law, and if society were ordered according to its provisions, it would attain ease and happiness. The law was universal, but this did not mean that there were no differences between men; it meant rather that there was something common to them all which was more important than any differences. It might be said that all men are born equal, that they have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or, alternatively, that men are under two sovereign masters, Pain and Pleasure, and that the best social arrangements are those which maximize pleasure and minimize pain: whichever way the doctrine is phrased, certain consequences can be drawn from it.

The state, on this philosophical view, is a collection of individuals who live together the better to secure their own welfare, and it is the duty of rulers so to rule as to bring about - by means which can be ascertained by reason - the greatest welfare for the inhabitants of their territory. This is the social pact which unites men together, and defines the rights and duties of rulers and subjects. Such is not only the view of the philosophes, for which they claimed universal validity, but also the official doctrine of Enlightened Absolutism.

According to this doctrine, the enlightened ruler regulates the economic activities of his subjects, provides them with education, looks after health and sanitation, supplies uniform and expeditious justice, and generally concerns himself - if need be even against their wishes - with his subjects' welfare, because the greatness of a state is the glory of its ruler, and a state can become great only in proportion to its population and to their prosperity. In this sense is to be understood the saying of Frederick the Great of Prussia, that a king is the first servant of the state.

A small work cast in the form of letters between Anapistemon and Philopatros, written by Frederick himself, Letters on the Love of the Fatherland (1779), may illustrate these views. The author seeks to show that love of the fatherland is a rational sentiment and to rebut the idea, attributed to 'some encyclopaedist' , that since the earth is the common habitation of our race, the wise man must be a citizen of the world. Of course, Philopatros concedes that men are brothers and should love one another; but this benevolence at large itself argues the existence of a duty more pressing and more specific, that towards the particular society with which the individual is linked by the social pact. 'The good of society', Philopatros informs Anapistemon, 'is yours. Without realizing it, you are so strongly tied to your fatherland, that you can neither isolate, nor separate yourself from it without feeling the consequence of your mistake. If the government is happy, you prosper; if it suffers harm, its misfortune will react on you. Similarly if the citizens enjoy an honest opulence, the Sovereign prospers, and if the citizens are overwhelmed with poverty, the condition of the Sovereign will be worthy of pity. Love of the fatherland is not therefore a mere concept of reason, it exists really.'

And Philopatros goes on to point out that the integrity of all the state's provinces touches the citizen directly. 'Do you not see', he asks, 'that if the government were to lose these provinces, it would thereby become enfeebled, and losing consequently the resources it had drawn from them, would be less able than now to help you, in case of need?'

On this view, then, the cohesion of the state, and loyalty to it, depend on its capacity to ensure the welfare of the individual, and in him, love of the fatherland is a function of benefits received. Side by side with the King's argument, we may set that of a private person Goethe, reviewing in 1772 a book entitled On the Love of the Fatherland, written to promote loyalty to the Habsburgs in the Holy Roman Empire, had this to say: ‘Have we a fatherland? If we can find a place where we can rest with our possessions, a field to sustain us, a home to cover us, have we not there a fatherland?’

Such was the current opinion in Europe at the outbreak of the French Revolution. It is essential to remember the significance of this event. It was not merely a civil disturbance, a coup d'état, which replaced one set of rulers by another. This was familiar to Europe, and the French Revolution was indeed widely taken at the outset to be one such commotion, or else an attempt to realize the programme of reforms which Enlightened Absolutism had officially made its own. But as became increasingly apparent the French Revolution introduced new possibilities in the use of political power, and transformed the ends for which rulers might legitimately work. The Revolution meant that if the citizens of a state no longer approved of the political arrangements of their society, they had the right and the power to replace them by others more satisfactory. As the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen had it: 'The principle of sovereignty resides essentially in the Nation; no body of men, no individual, can exercise authority that does not emanate expressly from it.'

Here, then, is one prerequisite without which a doctrine such as nationalism is not conceivable. Such a doctrine would want to lay down how best a society should conduct its politics, and realize its aims, if need be by radical changes: the French Revolution showed, in a resounding manner, that such an enterprise was feasible. In this, it greatly strengthened a tendency for political restlessness implicit in the reforms preached by the Enlightenment and ostensibly adopted by Enlightened Absolutism. These reforms were to be made according to a plan; and they were not to cease until society in all its particulars conformed to this plan. There grew, thus, an eager expectation of change, a prejudice in its favour, and a belief that the state stagnated unless it was constantly innovating. Such a climate of thought was necessary for the development and spread of doctrines like nationalism.

‘The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the Nation.’ What, then, was meant by a nation? Natio in ordinary speech originally meant a group of men belonging together by similarity of birth, larger than a family, but smaller than a clan or a people. Thus, one spoke of the Populus Romanus and not of the natio romanorum. The term applied particularly to a community of foreigners. Medieval universities were, it is well known, divided into 'nations': the University of Paris had four nations: l'honorable nation de France, la fidele nation de Picardie, la venerable nation de Normandie, and la constante nation de Germanie; these distinctions in use within the university, indicated places of provenance, but in no way corresponded either to modern geographical divisions, or indeed to what is now understood by 'nations'. Thus the nation de France referred to speakers of Romance languages including Italians and Spaniards; the nation de Picardie referred to the Dutch, that of Normandie to those originating from North-Eastern Europe, and that of Germanie to Englishmen as well as to Germans proper.

By extension, the word came to be used as a collective noun, sometimes in a pejorative sense. Thus Machiavelli speaks of the ghibelline nation, and Montesquieu refers to monks as the pietistic nation. This use of the word as a collective noun persists into the eighteenth century, and we find Hume stating in his essay Of National Characters that ‘a nation is nothing but a collection of individuals’ who, by constant intercourse, came to acquire some traits in common, and Diderot and D’Alambert in the Encyclopédie defining ‘nation’ as ‘a collective word used to denote a considerable quantity of those people who inhabit a certain extent of country defined within certain limits, and obeying the same government’. But the word also developed in time a special political meaning. A nation came to be understood as that body of persons who could claim to represent, or to elect representatives for, a particular territory at councils, diets, or estates. Church Councils were divided into nations; the Estates General of France meeting in 1484 comprised six nations; at the Peace of Szatmar of 1711, which ended the fighting between the Imperial forces and the Hungarians, the parties to the settlement were the Habsburg dynasty and the Hungarian nation: in such a context 'nation' did not mean the generality of the people inhabiting the territory of Hungary, but the 'barons, prelates, and nobles of Hungary', an exceedingly small part of the population, who nevertheless constituted to use Guizot's fruitful distinction, at once the pays legal and the pays reel. Such is the sense in which Montesquieu uses the term in The Spirit of the Laws, when he says that 'under the first two dynasties [in France] the nation was often called together, that is the lords and the bishops'. Therefore, when the revolutionaries stated that 'the principle of sovereignty resides essentially in the Nation' they may be taken to have asserted that the Nation was more than the King and the Aristocracy.

This is the claim implicit in Diderot’s and D’Alembert’s definition just quoted, and later made quite explicit by Sieyès. ‘What is a nation?’ asked Sieyès. ‘A body of associates living under one common law and represented by the same legislature.’

Such a claim is both simple and comprehensive. A  nation is a body of people to whom a government is responsible through their legislature; any body of people associating together, and deciding on a scheme for their own government, form a nation, and if, on this definition, all the people of the world decided on a common government, they would form one nation. But such an inference, though correct, is merely academic. Another inference could, however, be drawn, the effects of which were not as negligible. Suppose a number of individuals, living under a certain government, decide that they no longer wish to continue under it; since the sovereignty is theirs, they may now form a new government and constitute a nation on their own. Such a principle introduced into eighteenth-century Europe was bound to create turmoil. Relations between its states were the outcome of accidents, wars, or dynastic arrangements, and were regulated by the play of conflicts and alliances, of friendships and antagonisms which somehow managed to produce a balance of power. It may be that such a balance had no intrinsic merits of its own, that it was neither a principle of order nor a guarantee of rights, but a mere empirical contrivance liable to frequent and serious breakdown. But the working of such a balance rested on an assumption which itself served to limit and control any breakdown.

This assumption was that the title of any government to rule did not depend on the origin of its power. Thus the society of European states admitted all varieties of republics, of hereditary and elective monarchies, of constitutional and despotic regimes. But on the principle advocated by the revolutionaries, the title of all governments then existing was put in question; since they did not derive their sovereignty from the nation, they were usurpers with whom no agreement need be binding, and to whom subjects owed no allegiance. It is clear that such a doctrine would envenom international quarrels, and render them quite recalcitrant to the methods of traditional statecraft; it would indeed subvert all international relations as hitherto known.

Soon enough an issue arose which exhibited to the world the consequences of this new doctrine. When Alsace was joined to the French kingdom in the seventeenth century, the position of the nobility in the province was regulated by international treaty. Those among them who owned estates both in Alsace and in the Holy Roman Empire owed allegiance to the King of France in respect of their Alsatian estates, and, on the other hand, in respect of their Imperial territories, enjoyed the status to which they were entitled under the constitution of the Empire. Shortly after the outbreak of the Revolution all feudal privileges were abolished in France, and the rights of the Alsace nobility came into question. They owed, it is true, allegiance to the King and were therefore, to this extent, bound by French laws, but this allegiance, on the other hand, had been created by an international treaty and their privileges, it was argued, were guaranteed by the same treaty. These privileges, it was represented, could not be touched unless the revolutionary government was prepared to commit a breach of the treaty.

The revolutionaries recognized that special considerations applied and offered, as an act of grace, to compensate the Alsace nobility for the privileges they had abolished. But this unilateral action did not satisfy the Alsatian nobles: if their privileges were to be tampered with, let the French government negotiate, in the proper way, a new settlement, instead of handing down arbitrary decrees. The debate went on; and what was said on the French side is worthy of notice. The Constituent Assembly had referred the question to a special committee, and its rapporteur began his report by defining the new principle on which France would henceforth conduct her foreign policy. The incorruptible representatives of the French people, he said, having proclaimed the sacred and inalienable rights of the nations, recognize no other rule but that of Justice. Therefore all previous treaties and conventions which are the fruit of the error in which kings and their ministers were lost will no longer have force. The old international law was one thing, and the new one quite another. According to the old principles, the nobles of Alsace could rightly claim compensation under the treaty, but in the new era all is changed. The French nation had declared itself sovereign, and the people of Alsace, by an act of their will, united themselves to the French people and shared in their sovereignty. The union of France and Alsace is now legitimate not by virtue of any treaty, but by virtue of the manifest will of the people. The nobles have no right to compensation, since the will of the people has not stipulated that they should be offered any. 'Has the free union of one people with another', asked Robespierre in a debate, 'anything in common with conquest?' Similarly, what would have been confiscation before 1789 was, afterwards, a mere entering into lawful possession. Such were the miracles possible under the new dispensation.

The revolutionaries, then, were claiming the pacific exercise of an obvious natural right, and in the process, offering to the world a new international law which, they stated, would necessarily lead to peace. Article VI of the Constitution of 1790 declared: ‘The French Nation renounces all wars of conquest, and will never employ her forces against the freedom of any people.’ But the principle apparently admitted of an elastic interpretation, for it could still be used to justify the use of armies outside France. Barely two years after these categorical declarations, a decree of the Convention declared that the French nation, while it would not embark on a war against another nation, deemed it right to defend a free people against the unjust aggression of a king, and a later decree directed the executive power to give help to peoples struggling in the cause of liberty. The new international law, then, could not abolish quarrels and wars. France was still France, a state among European states with ambitions and views, and possessing the power to enforce them on other weaker states.

What the new principles did was to introduce a new style of politics in which the expression of will overrode treaties and compacts, dissolved allegiance, and, by mere declaration, made lawful any act whatever. By its very nature, this new style ran to extremes. It represented politics as a fight for principles, not the endless composition of claims in conflict. But since principles do not abolish interests, a pernicious confusion resulted. The ambitions of a state or the designs of a faction took on the purity of principle, compromise was treason, and a tone of exasperated intransigence became common between rivals and opponents. Consciousness of right bred a righteousness which excesses could never destroy, but only confirm. Terrorism became the hallmark of purity: 'There, is nothing', exclaimed St Just, ‘which so much resembles virtue as a great crime.’

It seemed, indeed, as though great crimes were the only way to ensure justice: “There is something terrible’, St Just also said, ‘in the sacred love of the fatherland; it is so exclusive as to sacrifice everything to the public interest, without pity, without fear, without respect for humanity … What produces the general good is always terrible.’

This style, spread and established by a successful revolution, found increasing favour in Europe after 1789. Under its influence doctrines like nationalism were developed and perfected. But it was not the French Revolution only which tended to such a result. Another revolution, in the realm of ideas, worked powerfully to second its action.


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