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Revisiting Nationalism

Revisiting Nationalism NIRAJA GOPAL JAYAL Ashis Nandy (


Revisiting Nationalism


shis Nandy (‘Nationalism, Genuine and Spurious’, EPW, August 12, 2006) has given us a characteristically provocative account of “post-nationalism” in the ideas of Tagore and Gandhi, which turns quite substantially on the contrast between patriotism and nationalism. Nationalism, argues Nandy, is an ideology, while patriotism is a sentiment; nationalism is statist, patriotism is not; nationalism gives primacy to national identity as represented in and by the state, while patriotism expects the state to serve the needs of society and culture; nationalism presumes a degree of modernity, while patriotism is more suited to a post-nationalist, postmodern world; nationalist ideology has a positive content against which deviants and traitors are typically identified, but patriotism is fluid and does not benchmark the features of a patriot; and, finally, nationalism is subject to the anxieties of ideology, especially insecurity about the nation, while patriotism is assumed to be free of such anxieties and insecurities. These contrasting features lead Nandy to make two attributions of political significance: the first, that patriotism is more inclusive and accommodative of plurality than nationalism, which is by definition intolerant of these; and second, that patriotism is naturally comfortable with civil society, while the central motif of nationalism is the Hegelian state.

The power and persuasiveness of Nandy’s critique of nationalism notwithstanding, his account of patriotism as nonnationalism is riddled with difficulties, whether we approach the concept of patriotism from the viewpoint of the history of ideas in the European tradition or from the standpoint of local meanings. In this response, I seek to address essentially three questions: first, is patriotism normatively superior to nationalism, whether for the reasons suggested by Nandy or for others. This logically entails the second question, viz, if the ideology of nationalism is irretrievably tainted by its association with modernity, the state and violence, are the history and content of patriotism substantially different? Is, for instance, the citizen very differently constituted within the framework(s) of nationalism and patriotism? Do nationalism and patriotism make very dissimilar demands on the citizen? Consequently, and finally, how tenable is the claim that patriotism provides a robust basis for political affiliation in a postmodern, postnational world?

Normative Concept

In terms of the normative content of the concept of patriotism, we are familiar with the tradition, in the history of ideas in western philosophy, in which patriotism was strongly associated with emphatically political ideals such as republicanism, civic virtue and the love of liberty.1 It would be nice to be able to say that patriotism (at least as defined in this tradition) is a normatively superior concept, even if it has, as a political slogan, been used in less than desirable ways in actual lived history. There are two obvious difficulties with such an argument: the first, philosophical, concern is the problem of morally defending the demands of unconditional loyalty implied in patriotism, such that one’s country is not, under any circumstances, a legitimate subject of rational criticism.2 The second is the impossibility of making a tenable distinction between a “good” history of the idea of patriotism, led by political philosophers, and a “bad” history of patriotism led by kings and political rulers. Even today, for every Habermas advocating “constitutional patriotism”3and for every Appiah celebrating “cosmopolitan patriotism”,4 there is a George W Bush enlisting patriotism in the service of extremely dubious foreign policies.

However, this is not merely a question of the disjuncture between the history of an idea and the way in which this idea has been deployed in history. Even a purely conceptual history of patriotism in the western tradition conveys many ambiguities. From classical antiquity, and in particular the writings of the Roman philosopher Cicero, the idea of patriotism has disappeared and reappeared over the centuries, witnessing phases of decline and revival, and registering a plurality of meanings over time. From being a rallying-cry used by kings to mobilise finances and enlist citizen-soldiers to fight wars in the 11th and 12th centuries,5 patriotism had, by Machiavelli’s time, come to be associated with the republican ideals of civic participation, love of liberty and the conditions for sustaining republican political institutions. In this sense, patriotism was distinctively modern and robustly political. Following a period in which the idea went out of fashion, it witnessed a revival in 17th century England, with both the Whigs and the Tories laying claim to the label of “patriot” on account of its association with the preservation of liberty. The continuity with the republican tradition was strong, for patriots were those engaged in the defence of their rights – to liberty and property, of course – against monarchical absolutism. Subsequently, in the writings of Shaftesbury, Montesquieu, and Rousseau, and many others, patriotism once again came to represent civic virtue and attachment to republican values, rather than attachment to territory. The language of patriotism in this intellectual tradition constantly invoked the politics of the ancients (republicanism) as opposed to the politics of the moderns (states, princes, kings), and projected republicanism as the essence of good, because self-government, for Montesquieu and Voltaire, ‘patrie’ was not represented by language, culture or ethnicity, but by the rule of law, liberty and self-government. In early 19th century England, the idea of patriotism was even deployed in the service of political reform, for example in the demand for the extension of civil and political rights to the poor and working classes. This intellectual and political tradition spawned many attractive conceptions of patriotism, from Mazzini to de Tocqueville, to whose interpretation the idea of democratic citizenship was central.6

The Ambiguity of Patriotism

However, the narrative of patriotism is full of ambiguities, some of which – in particular, the relationship of patriotism with territoriality, the state and violence – deserve attention. There is some, largely etymological, truth in the view that patriotism is aligned to the idea of the ‘patria’, the fatherland,7 and so to territory. However, the view that patriotism expresses the relatively harmless and culturally neutral idea of territoriality while nationalism

Economic and Political Weekly October 21, 2006 seeks cultural unity and homogeneity, ignores both the desire of nationalism for territorial rootedness, as also the ambiguous relationship of patriotism to territory. As far as the relationship of nationalism to territory is concerned, while it is true that all nationality claims do not find expression in the form of a territorial state and that there are “nationalities” which are territorially dispersed, it is equally true that the search for a “habitus” for its members is generally a part of the nationalist’s claims. Aspirationally, at least, nationalism does seek a territorially bounded homeland.

On the other hand, the relationship of patriotism to territory is much stronger, as is implied in the very root – ‘patria’ – of the word patriotism. However, history – including the history of ideas – provides us with important counter-examples to the view that the chief or only referent of patriotism is territory while the main referents of nationalism are culture, history, language and so forth. Though the emotive significance of the patria as fatherland is generally associated with Roman history, the expansion of the Roman empire itself generated another competing and more philosophical strand of thought that delinked patria from territory or location, privileging instead human membership of the universe. While early Christian thinkers (like Augustine) expressed this “universalist” conception in spiritual terms, the idea of patriotism was on the whole, in mediaeval times, tied to the person of the king.8 Much later, when Jean-Jacques Rousseau turned his back on his native city of Geneva, the territory, language, institutions and laws of Geneva remained unchanged. The reason he left Geneva was because it was no longer a republic, a state in which citizens could enjoy liberty.

Indeed, historically, the territorial rootedness of patriotism has not inured it from associations with blood, honour and soil. As such, patriotism has been no less vulnerable to justifications of violence than nationalism. It has been used to rally citizens to combat various “Others”, and not merely defensively.9 The infamous Jacobin revolutionary, Robespierre, justified the reign of terror in France as a conspiracy against the Revolution and as a threat to “the patrie in danger” from enemies, both internal and foreign. In his justification for violence and terror, the patrie represented not merely France, but was equally strongly linked with the Revolutionary ideal and somewhat questionably with the principle of democracy.

Terror is nothing more than speedy, severe and inflexible justice; it is thus an emanation of virtue; it is less a principle in itself, than a consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing needs of the patrie.10

The claim that patriotism has a natural affinity with civil society, while nationalism is firmly aligned to the Hegelian state is also contestable. For a start, Hegel himself saw patriotism as a distinctively modern and rational virtue that supplied the subjective dimension of the constitution, whose objective dimension was embodied in the institutions of the state. For Hegel, as Rupert Gordon has argued, “patriotism is a disposition toward a formal political community – in its institutions of governance”.11 Political communities that were not modern were, in Hegel’s view, unworthy of patriotism. This is why the quotidian practice of the patriotic virtue in ordinary life underlies, for Hegel, the willingness of citizens to, of their own volition, make extraordinary sacrifices for the state in situations of war, because war threatens the institutions and freedoms that are valued and cherished by the citizen.

On a rather more mundane level, the idea of patriotism is obviously manifest not only in the calls of loyalty to king and country in centuries past, but equally in the manner in which the US government has, in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, sought to mobilise for the “war on terror”, by establishing “a powerful, often jingoistic, symbiosis between nationalism as ideology and patriotism as creed”.12


Are we saying, then, that patriotism and nationalism are really the same thing? Not quite.

What distinguishes patriotism from nationalism is the fact that the country is not defined in terms of ethnic purity or linguistic unity or some other cultural attribute. Patriotism can, especially in the context of the European tradition, be viewed as a political idea, while nationalism – odd as it may seem to those located in histories of colonisation and anti-imperial struggles – is essentially a cultural idea that strongly inflects and shapes the political project of the nation-state. In the history of ideas, patriotism did not require a cultural content, in terms of religion or ethnicity, precisely because it was associated with republicanism and a culture of the practice of citizenship embodied in shared memories of a commitment to liberty, to traditions of social criticism and resistance to oppression and corruption in the republic. As a political slogan or a call to arms, however, patriotism did need an Other which could hardly have been defined without any reference to cultural attributes and cultural difference.

To the extent that nationalism introduces a cultural dimension into a primarily political conception of patriotism, it overwrites and replaces the latter by its insistence that the love of country must be not merely political,


Economic and Political Weekly October 21, 2006

but also cultural. In this sense, it could be argued that both patriotism and nationalism are sentiments, different ways of loving one’s country. The emergence of nationalism required patriotism to be absorbed within the spiritual unity of the nation, and what followed was the “nationalisation of patriotism”, as Viroli has termed it. More dramatically, Schaar refers to nationalism as “patriotism’s bloody brother” which has indelibly stained it.13 It may be difficult to recover a purely political meaning of patriotism, sanitised of all cultural associations. Patriotism in a postnational world can hardly be what it was in the pre-national world.

As in Europe, nationalism in India drew upon the symbolic resources of older patriotisms even as it overwrote them. Unlike Europe, however, patriotism was not a purely political ideal – in the sense that it had no historical association with ideas of citizenship, civic virtue and liberty, though Bayly has argued that it was connected with ideas of wise and good government – but one with a substantively cultural content. Bayly identifies precolonial regional patriotisms in many parts of what is today India, most notably in Maharashtra where the creation of a regional culture – including elements of ‘bhakti’ traditions and the forging of a regional language from local vernaculars

– was rooted in territory, and coincided with state formation and economic integration in the form of a cash economy and the commercialisation of agriculture.14 Here, as in Europe, conflicts with Others were invested with ideological significance, and collective memories of war were used to shape the construction of identity. Regional patriotisms like these, Bayly suggests, were proto-nationalist in character, found expression in localised revolts and resistance, as also in the events of 1857, and provided symbolic resources for the later construction of nationalism.

Intriguing Question

What is intriguing is the question of whether such patriotisms, with their ineluctably particularistic characters, could be inclusive or even tolerant of pluralism and diversity. In the history of western ideas, as we have seen, though patriotism is characterised by particularism, this is the particularism of the republic, rather than of the nation. In India, to the extent that nationalism drew upon the histories and symbolic resources of older regional patriotisms, it would appear that the ideology of nationalism was in fact more inclusive and diverse than the bounded regional patriotisms could be. While it is true that nationalism excludes, can we say with equal certainty that patriotism is always and necessarily inclusive? Does nationalism not make immanent something that is already implicit in patriotism and contained in it? Take, for instance, the willingness to sacrifice oneself for the country. What are the circumstances under which a citizen would be called upon to make such a sacrifice except those that involve a defined Other? Even wars made in the name of an abstract ideal such as democracy or against an apparently depersonalised enemy such as terror, make implicit references of this kind.

It is not at all clear that such claims on the loyalty of citizens entail a sentiment greatly at odds with nationalism. The similarities, even the convergences, between patriotism and nationalism suggest that critiquing nationalism while romanticising patriotism can sometimes lead us to approvingly label as patriotism what is little more than nationalism divested of its more reprehensible, absolutising and exclusivist features. Nationalism may well be all the dreadful things that Nandy tells us it is, but it is hard to be convinced that patriotism is altogether free of those same flaws. If nationalism is indeed a vice, is patriotism necessarily a virtue?

Contemporary concerns about patriotism and nationalism inhabit two levels simultaneously: the first is about identifying a principle of political affiliation that can create the conditions for citizenship in diverse societies; while the second is about creating citizens for a world beyond national boundaries. The first has been greatly accentuated in today’s world where historical diversities come to be overlaid with the “new” diversities introduced by immigrant populations. The second takes many forms: from models of supranational citizenship (as in the European Union) to those of cosmopolitan patriotism or even plain cosmopolitanism that renders all patriotism “morally irrelevant”.15 In some sense, these are not altogether discrete questions, for the impulse to forge civic nationalism is not in essence very different from the impulse to create cosmopolitan patriots. The first has as its referent the political life of the citizen within the nationstate, while the second has a global or at least supranational reference point. The challenge of rendering patriots into cosmopolitans involves purging patriotism of its particularistic nationalist content. In substantive terms, however, this is not very different from the challenge of creating citizens bonded by ties of civic (as opposed to ethnic, or something akin to it) nationalism. Ultimately, both are projects about reconciling culturally defined identities within or beyond the nation state, with shared political visions of the common good, again within or beyond the nation-state.




1 For a detailed historical account of this tradition, see Maurizio Viroli, For Love of Country: AnEssay on Patriotism and Nationalism, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1995.

2 Alasdair MacIntyre, ‘Is Patriotism a Virtue?’in Ronald Beiner (ed), Theorising Citizenship, State University of New York Press, NewYork, 1995. It should be pointed out that thisis not MacIntyre’s own position, merely hiscritical elaboration of the argument of liberalmorality for which patriotism as devotion tothe nation cannot be allowed to violate the impersonal and rational moral judgment of thecitizen. MacIntyre counterposes to this anargument about the situatedness of ourmorality in the community to which we belong, such that it is only within the communitythat we can flourish as moral agents.

3 Jurgen Habermas, ‘Citizenship and NationalIdentity’ in Ronald Beiner (ed), qv.

4 Kwame Anthony Appiah, ‘CosmopolitanPatriots’ in Critical Inquiry, Vol 23, No 3, Spring, 1997, pp 617-39.

5 Mary Dietz, ‘Patriotism’ in Terence Ball, JamesFarr and Russell L Hanson (eds), Political Innovation and Conceptual Change, CambridgeUniversity Press, Cambridge, 1989, p 178 ff.

6 Cf, Viroli, op cit.

7 This particular form of gendering suggests anobvious, though under-illuminated, contrastwith the Indian usage of the “motherland”.

8 Dietz, op cit.

9 George Orwell famously argued that patriotismmeans devotion to a particular place and attachment to a particular way of life, which onebelieves to be the best, but which one does not wish to force upon others. Thus, “patriotismis of its nature defensive, both militarily andculturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, isinseparable from the desire for power.”‘Notes on Nationalism’ in The Collected Essays,Journalism and Letters of George Orwell,Volume 3, As I Please 1943-1945, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, Middlesex,1968, p 411.

10 From a speech by Robespierre in February 1794,quoted in Marisa Linton, ‘Robespierre and theTerror’ in History Today, August 2006, p 26.

11 Rupert H Gordon (2000), ‘Modernity, Freedomand the State: Hegel’s Concept of Patriotism’,The Review of Politics, Vol 62, No 2, Spring,2000, p 323.

12 Richard Falk, ‘Testing Patriotism andCitizenship in the Global Terror War’ in KenBooth and Tim Dunne (eds), Worlds in Collision: Terror and the Future of Global Order, PalgraveMacmillan, London, 2002, p 328.

13 John H Schaar, ‘The Case for Patriotism’ in his Legitimacy in the Modern State, Transaction Books, New Jersey, 1981, pp 285-86.

14 C A Bayly, Origins of Nationality in SouthAsia: Patriotism and Ethical Government in the Making of Modern India, Oxford UniversityPress, New Delhi, 1998, pp 21-26.

15 Martha Nussbaum, cited in Margaret Canovan,‘Patriotism Is Not Enough’, British Journal of Political Science, Vol 30, No 3, July 2000,p 430.

Economic and Political Weekly October 21, 2006

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