Liberal Nationalism-A Critique

By Kirloskar-Steinbach, Monika | Trames, June 2001 | Go to article overview
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Liberal Nationalism-A Critique


Kirloskar-Steinbach, Monika, Trames


"What is the Nation? It is the aspect of a whole people as an organised power. This organisation incessantly keeps up the insistence of the population on becoming strong and efficient. But this strenuous effort after strength and efficiency drains man's energy from his higher nature where he is self-sacrificing and creative. For thereby man's power of sacrifice is diverted from his ultimate object, which is moral, to the maintenance of this organisation, which is mechanical (...) He feels relieved of the urging of his conscience when he can transfer his responsibility to this machine which is the creation of his intellect and not of his complete moral personality" (Tagore 1995: 66-67).

Liberal nationalism--a critique

Justifications of nationalism seem to be making a headway in political philosophy (1). Its proponents contend that liberalism and nationalism are not necessarily mutually exclusive and that they can in fact be made compatible. Liberal nationalists urge one to consider nationalism not as the pathology of modernity but as an answer to its malaise. For them, nationalism is more than an infantile disease, more than "the measles of mankind" as Einstein once proclaimed it to be. They argue that nationalism is a legitimate way of understanding one's role and place in life. They strive for a normative justification of nationalism which lies within liberal limits. The main claim which seems to be involved here is that as long as a nationalism abhors violence and propagates liberal rights and equal citizenship for all citizens of its state, its philosophical credentials can be considered to be sound.

This essay attempts to show that liberal nationalism is more problematic than it is made out to be. For the sake of clarity, I will mainly concentrate on a very consequent defence of liberal nationalism propounded by Yael Tamir. Since most of the arguments which are interesting from a philosophical point of view are found in her book 'Liberal Nationalism', I will often refer to it along with her other essays on the subject.

At the very outset I would like to point out that I refer only to contemporary liberal theory in my frequent usage of the word 'liberalism' or 'liberal(s)'. Liberalism is understood in this paper as a 'family of positions' with its multifarious strands being concerned about individual rights. Contemporary liberal theorists try to envisage a framework (rule of law, democracy, etc.) which will protect these rights and ensure human flourishing. After having sketched the main ideas involved in Tamir's liberal nationalism, I will try to work out the inherent tension between liberalism and nationalism, especially when one presumes that there are many different nations in one state. This tension comes to light when one considers liberal arguments for the defence of liberal institutions. The contention of this paper is that a liberal nationalism a la Tamir fails to resolve this tension.

Tamir's liberal nationalism

Tamir tries to "translate" nationalistic arguments into liberal language since she wants to explore ways in which liberalism can profit from nationalism. Her liberal nationalism thus combines a "commitment to personal autonomy and individual rights" with "the importance of membership in human communities in general, and national communities in particular" (Tamir 1993:35). By using terms of communitarian discourse as a stepping stone, she hopes to seek a union between nationalism's positive aspects like belonging, loyalty, and solidarity and liberal ideals like personal choice, reflection, and autonomy (2).

Before we proceed further, let us clarify what Tamir means by a nation. According to her, self-awareness of a group, a subjective "we-feeling" is a necessary condition of a nation (Tamir 1993:65-66; 1995:422;1996:87). A number of shared objective features of a nation like religion, territory, language, etc. are thought of as being sufficient.

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