What "Nationalism" Really Means
Budapest, Hungary just hosted CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, which bills itself as “the largest and most influential gathering of conservatives in the world.” Since it was first organized in 1973, CPAC has hosted annual conferences in the U.S. that are watched as a leading indicator of the direction of the conservative movement and the Republican Party. In recent years, as the movement embraced “nationalism” as its watchword, the organization has also hosted conferences abroad, with events in Australia, Bolsonaro’s Brazil, and now Orbán’s Hungary.
The attraction of Hungary for the American Right that has been building for years has been extensively documented and commented upon. In quick summary, Orbán’s self-described model of “illiberal democracy,” combining heavy-handed evocation (and convenient editing) of past national glory, stringent immigration restrictions, aggressive gerrymandering, constitutional rejiggering, and an increasing grip over civil society and the media in an attempt to engineer a permanently conservative polity, is an example which American conservatives look at with admiration and envy. As Hungarian communists once attempted with their liberalized “Goulash communism” to create “communism with a human face”—the expression was Hungarian long before the Prague Spring made it famous—Orbán appears to have accomplished a kind of fascism with a human face—tight social control without the overt use of violent repression.
Suffice it to say, the spectacle of American conservatives, especially ones who are self-described “nationalists,” drooling over a European nation, with a homogenous population about the size of New York City, is not without irony: this is apparently a kind of nationalism that has to look abroad and can’t find much inspiration in the American tradition anymore. When they aren’t praising a petty strongman in a relatively small and economically poor European country, they are constantly denigrating the citizenship of their own countrymen and undermining their country’s own institutions. The fact of the matter is that the American Right, while barking about “nationalism” and “America First,” have turned against their own nation and even grown to hate America as it actually exists. The “C” in CPAC feels like a throwback to an earlier time: they openly state there’s nothing to conserve and nurture more radical dreams of counter-revolution.
This is not particularly new, except maybe in its degree of openness and intensity. Since the beginning of the modern movement in the post-War era, American conservatives have periodically looked longingly across the ocean at authoritarian regimes like Salazar’s Portugal, Franco’s Spain, and even apartheid South Africa, a tradition that they’ve kept going in recent years. Even prior to the Second World War, reactionary business leaders contemplated a coup to overthrow Roosevelt and institute a direct dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. The sense of despair over one’s own nation, leading to its abandonment and even traducement, is not just a feature of American conservatives, but lies at the origin of the ideology of nationalism as such. Charles Maurras, royalist opponent of the republic, anti-Dreyfusard, and founder of the “integral nationalism” that hovers behind so much political thought today, expressed perhaps the key sentiment of this kind of nationalism: “In order to love France today, it is necessary to hate what she has become.”
In a recent essay for UnHerd, Aris Roussinos argues that Putin, with his imperial nostalgia, and liberals, with their belief that nationalism is actually a manufactured ideology and, notwithstanding its liberal origins, is now backwards and reactionary, actually share a homologous prejudice against the nation-state. He calls any wish to separate a good “patriotism” from a bad “nationalism,” a “meaningless folk distinction” that he traces to George Orwell’s 1945 essay Notes on Nationalism: “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.” This is very hasty and unfair to Orwell, who gives a clear definition of “nationalism” as opposed to patriotism. The point of its application to other forms of politics that “nationalism” is often not really national at all, as one could clearly see from the global megalomania of the Nazi racial state and its pre-cursors in the Pan-German movement. Orwell writes:
By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’. But secondly – and this is much more important – I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.
This distinction is certainly polemical, but not entirely without analytical content that could be used to judge a concrete situation. Orwell’s rubric is also supported by the historical record. Setting aside the long and complicated academic debate on the origins of national sentiments—whether or not its an ancient and perhaps permanent principle of organization of human societies or an invention of the 18th and 19th century intellectuals—the fact is that “Nationalism,” both as a word and an explicit, self-conscious political orientation, is newer than “patriotism.”
In his essay “Open Nationalism and Closed Nationalism,” Michel Winock writes, “Dictionaries indicate [nationalism] first appeared in 1798, but throughout the nineteenth century, it was only a learned and forgotten word, Littré overlooked in his great dictionary compiled during the Second Empire. It was only in the last ten years of that century that the adjective—and the corresponding noun—came to designate a political tendency clearly on the right and even the far right. It appears the introduction of the word can be attributed to an article by Maurice Barrès in Le Figaro in 1892.” Winock notes the subsequent ambiguity of the word “nationalism” and divides it into categories:
Fist there is the nationalism of peoples who aspire to create a sovereign nation-state—this movement is sometimes also called nationalitaire—which in Europe resulted in the treaties that ended World War I and completed the desctruction of the great empires. In the twentieth century, that nationalitaire movement, which I shall henceforth call “nationalist,” was primarily conducted by colonized peoples; the result was access to independence by Third World states. In addition, the same world “nationalism,” has been used, especially since the Dreyfus affair, to label the diverse doctrines, that in already constituted state, subordinate everything to the exclusive interests of the nation, that is, the nation-state: to its force, its power, and its greatness.
France, by some measures the oldest continuous nation-state in Europe, experienced what could be called nationalist sentiments and politics before the invention of the term “nationalism.” Like the ideology of the American War of Independence, this could be fairly labeled “patriotism,” and indeed called itself patriotism, as the word nationalism hadn’t even been invented yet:
At the end of the eighteenth century, nationalism merged with the democratic impulse. When the soldiers of Valmy, shouted ‘Long live the nation!’ in September 1792, as the first Republic was about to be founded, that cry not only asserted patriotic enthusiasm in the face of foreign armies, it also asserted the liberty and equality of a sovereign people. To the Europe of dynasties, it opposed the Europe of nations; to the Europe of monarch, the Europe of citizens.
Winock contrasts this old “nationalism, on the left, republican, based on popular sovereignty and calling on enslaved nations to deliver themselves from their chains” and the newer nationalism of the Right, but he reminds us that it would “wrong to imagine that between the nationalism of patriots and the nationalism of ‘nationalists’” there existed “a watertight partition.” Still, Winock describes that conservative nationalism had a much different vibe, to use the parlance of our time:
I believe it’s just this “mortuary nationalism,” in Winock’s delectable phrase, this anti-Dreyfusard nationalism of pessimism, despair, decline, and decadence that’s reasserted itself on the contemporary Right. Like its precursor, it’s searching for its General Boulanger, the providential man on horseback, in figures like Trump, Orbán, and even Putin. It’s not even free of anti-Semitism, which usually has to be toned-down or disguised in the American context, as the appearance of the violently antisemitic Hungarian journalist Zsolt Bayer at CPAC shows.
Unlike Roussinos or Russian propagandists, I don’t believe that this nationalism is identical to the patriotism demonstrated of late in Ukraine, but we should admit with Winock that there are not “watertight partitions” between the two traditions and that there undoubtedly representatives of a nationalist far-right fighting in Ukraine. But, as Winock points out, there are possible compromises between the two types of nationalism; particularly in wartime, with a signal example being the Union Sacrée of the First World War, where the anti-Dreyfusard nationalists and the Republican patriots united in defense of France. By the Second World War, “nationalism” had grown as fully decadent as it believed the nation itself had, and found itself betraying its countrymen and colluding with a foreign enemy. As Hannah Arendt writes, “Where the concrete approach of the realistic nationalists eventually led them is illustrated by the priceless story of how Charles Maurras had ‘the honor and pleasure,’ after the defeat of France, of falling in during his flight to the south with a female astrologer who interpreted to him the political meaning of recent events and advised him to collaborate with the Nazis.”
It’s not always easy to distinguish these two forms of nationalism; they can inform each other, and make compromises and alliances: Orbán’s nationalism draws on both the memory of the Revolution of 1848 and the Nazi-collaborator Admiral Horthy’s dictatorship; Ukraine’s nationalism has Zelensky as its hegemonic figure today but includes those that glorify Stepan Bandera. We also must be admit that both can lead to disasters and crimes: the First World War was no less of a bloodbath for taking place under a Republican tricolor. But I still believe it’s of both analytical and political importance not to succumb to nihilism, but instead to insist on a real distinction between the patriotism of Valmy and the nationalism of Vichy. And I believe it’s clearly the latter that we see now represented at CPAC.