The main focus of this paper is on the relation between contemporary liberal nationalism and communitarianism. Despite some affinities between these two doctrines, there is a paucity of reflection on their precise relation, except by default. This paper analyses the relation, taking note of both affinities and differences. In this sense, the paper is a ground clearing exercise. Another undercurrent runs through the latter part of the discussion, namely, an underlying unease that both doctrines fail to address a crucial issue of late modernity -- radical difference and pluralism. Eric Hobsbawm has remarked, "The owl of Minerva, which brings wisdom, said Hegel, flies out at dusk. It is a good sign that it is now circling around nations and nationalism".(1) Possibly we should now add communitarianism to the owl's circuitous twilight jaunt.(2)
After a few brief introductory remarks, this first section considers five basic affinities between contemporary communitarianism and liberal nationalism. I contend that these form the basic groundwork for any immediate or intuitive judgement we might make concerning the relation between these doctrines.
Images of the coherent, consensual, unified society, community or nation have obsessed European social and political thinkers over the past two centuries. In the closing two decades of the twentieth century these images have once more gained currency within communitarian and nationalist discourse. In one reading, increasing mobility, globalisation and rapid technological change have led to a subtle but worrying decline of social cohesion, a loosening of identities and the fragmentation of communities. In fact, in recent literature, this fragmentation has now acquired the dubious appellation "detraditionalization".(3) Postmodern, poststructuralist and difference theorists (of various stripes) see such loosening as a matter for rejoicing; for the community-minded though, of whatever shade, it is a matter of some anxiety.
There are clearly stronger and weaker senses of both nationalism and communitarianism.(4) The stronger sense, of both terms, is usually premised on a belief in a more objective, political, moral or cultural order. The kind of society envisaged is more homogeneous. The individual self, in this stronger sense, is merged totally into the social whole. For critics of this view such a notion is difficult to uphold in an advanced industrial scenario with developed individualism, rapid social, political and economic change and mobility.(5) In addition, there is a sense that the stronger view can either be foolishly nostalgic or just deeply reactionary. Exponents of a weaker sense of community (or nation) have limited its application to citizenship loyalties or generalised commitments to a common culture or legal code. In this scenario, the individual self is not totally merged and can retain other allegiances, although the overall community is still of prior importance.
The stronger variants of "communitarianism" resonate directly with the stronger expositions of "nationalism". Historically, these variants would include figures from the conservative and fascist pantheon, like Joseph de Maistre or Carl Schmitt In recent debates in Anglophone political theory, however, the weaker liberal forms of communitarianism have figured most strongly. What criteria enable us to identify this weaker communitarian view? Inevitably, any such criteria will be shaky given the tendency of theorists to repudiate the term or change their perspective.(6) Nonetheless, most theorists, who are quite regularly identified by the "scholarly community" of political theorists (and often discussed as such in text books and articles) as communitarians, adhere to the following general theses: first, political and moral goods cannot be determined by abstract reasoning, they arise out of historical communities. Second, the community forms the basis of practical reason. Thirdly, the human self is seen to be constituted through the community, although it is not absorbed by the community. Basic individual rights and freedoms are still upheld. Fourthly, there are no external rational foundations to draw upon outside the community. There are a number of subtle variations on these theses, but in a broad sense, the above are (or have been) shared by political theorists like Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor, Michael Walzer or Alisdair McIntyre. The focus of this essay will be largely on the weaker modern expositions of liberal nationalism and (liberally-inclined) communitarianism.(7)
It should be noted that much contemporary liberal interest in nationalism has its roots in the rediscovery of the weaker civic or liberal nationalist variant. The favoured typology underpinning this interest is usually a twofold classification. John Plamenatz's work is particularly apposite here as one of the unwitting prime movers, although in my reading he reflects Hans Kohn's earlier ideas. For Kohn, nationalism largely stemmed from the eighteenth century and was divided into two diametrically opposed types: Western and Eastern.(8) This distinction keeps reappearing -- in slightly different dress -- in contemporary debate.(9) The former, premised on Enlightenment liberal values of reason and universalist humanism, aimed at a more open, plural, outward-looking society. It tended towards democracy, liberalism and constitutional rule and its communal bonds were envisaged more loosely. Its aim was to liberate the individual. The latter was more overtly authoritarian, closed, inward-looking, particularist and xenophobic, with more inclusive communal views of the self. Plamenatz echoed this distinction directly. He distinguished, qua Kohn, between an acceptable weaker Western civic nationalism -- essentially the candidate for liberal nationalism -- and a more bellicose East European cultural nationalism.(10) For Plamenatz, many critics of nationalism often saw it tainted with illiberalism, yet he contended that, by and large, the brutality of nationalism was dependent on historical context.(11)
Surprisingly, there is little attention given in the existing literature to the relation between liberal nationalism and communitarianism.(12) In fact, one might even say that there is a relative indifference. Thus, some take the affinity (between nationalism and communitarianism) for granted, without any overt anxiety. David Miller, for example, comments, in his 1995 book On Nationality, that
liberalism versus nationalism may be a specific instance of what is
frequently now regarded as a more general contrast between liberals and
communitarians. It turns out that, if there is a contest here at all, it
occurs at the level of justifying theory rather than at the level of
political principle: most `communitarians' adopt recognizably liberal
In other words, nationalism (or "nationality" as Miller prefers) translates directly and unproblematically into the language of communitarianism. Yael Tamir also notes that her 1993 book, Liberal Nationalism, "takes liberal theory as its starting point, it attempts to `translate' nationalist arguments into liberal language. In so doing it relies on the current terms of communitarian discourse, which is akin to the nationalist one in its content."(13)
In one sense, there are reasons for this lack of anxiety. There are quite definite resonances between recent expositions of liberal nationalism and communitarianism which might make the doctrines look relatively synonymous. Five formal comparative themes can be identified m the contemporary debates: the embeddedness of human nature; a mutual anxiety about a particular species of liberalism; an ontological thesis concerning the role of pre-understandings; the demand to respect communities; and, finally, the particularistic ethics found in both.
First, the structural embeddedness theme asserts that humans are intrinsically social beings. These social beings find their idiosyncratic roles, values and beliefs from within nations or communities, which are the most fundamental social units. The outcomes of such social agency might be very diverse, since different nations and units of communities …