Woodrow Wilson, "Speech on the Fourteen Points." January 8, 1918. Available online at: http://www.powerfulwords.info/speeches/Woodrow_Wilson/.
"It is the artificial creation of nation states that lays the ground for the invasion of personal liberties. Moving borders often leads to the shedding of blood, as Europe discovered to its cost during the 20th century."
This is the year when we commemorate the start of the First Word War, a ghastly conflict in great part attributable to the fanning of nationalistic feelings by politicians and soldiers playing power games. The human cost of that war should have forever put an end to the cultivation of tribal feelings in Europe. It was not to be. The break-up of old empires on the losing side resulted in the creation of a myriad of small fractious states. Russia, the first to leave the battlefield, conceded the independence of the Polish, Ukrainian, and Baltic nations and some in the Caucasus. The Turkish Sultanate had to cede its sovereignty over many of its subjects in the Middle-East and North Africa. On the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire new nations were redrawn or born anew: independent Poland received territories from Germany, Austria, and Hungary; Hungary itself lost one third of its territory [see Addendum at the end of this article]; two short-lived Slav confederations were formed, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia; the Balkans were split into rival states. Many had been at war before 1914 and just as many voraciously claimed lands that had been theirs in more glorious historical times. Clearly the results did not fulfill the hopes of President Woodrow Wilson that there would be lasting peace among nations.
Wilson's Fourteen Points
President Wilson, at a joint meeting of the United States Senate and House of Representatives in January 1918, presented his plan to rebuild Europe and the territories round the Mediterranean on the bases of nationality and self-determination in his "Fourteen Points". War still raged in Europe, and Wilson hoped to end it by having his fourteen points accepted by all the belligerent countries. Let me quote a passage spoken by the President of a nation still at war with Germany.
We have no jealousy of German greatness, and there is nothing in this programme that impairs it. We grudge her no achievement or distinction of learning or of pacific enterprise such as have made her record very bright and very enviable. We do not wish to injure her or to block in any way her legitimate influence or power. We do not wish to fight her either with arms or with hostile arrangements of trade if she is willing to associate herself with us and the other peace- loving nations of the world in covenants of justice and law and fair dealing.1
President Wilson's proposals for establishing permanent peace were based on the belief that the satisfaction of the just claims of all peoples would make war an unnecessary instrument of politics, unless it be to repel aggression.
What we demand in this war [...] is that the world be made fit and safe to live in; and particularly that it be made safe for every peace-loving nation which, like our own, wishes to live its own life, determine its own institutions, be assured of justice and fair dealing by the other peoples of the world as against force and selfish aggression.
To this end, Wilson proposed two organizing principles: that the nation be the building block of a new and more just Europe; and that self-determination, a tacit application of the democratic idea, was to help in defining the limits of the different nations.
Enlightened opinion, both in America and in Europe, was attracted by the Fourteen Points. There were to be no reprisals on the vanquished. The post-war world would be organized on the principle of justice and attention to the wishes of the different peoples. Peace would be guaranteed by a League of Nations. It is a seductive but really utopian document that must be read to be believed. But French and British public opinion was intent on retribution, so the Fourteen Points were not taken as the basis for the Peace Treaties. A "Carthaginian Peace" was instead imposed on the losers. The disappointment of the defeated powers would fester in the succeeding years.
All this was to be expected. The nationality principle proved to be a source of conflict as it meant the dissolution of multinational states and empires, which was sure to be resisted by at least one of the contending sides. Also, it soon became clear that nationalities were inextricably mixed in Central Europe, so that borders could not easily be drawn on the ground of 'one nation, one state'. No remedy could be found in self-determination: even if the people of disputed territories were allowed to decide with their votes to which states they wished to belong, there would always be minorities feeling they belonged elsewhere; and it was adamantly resisted. The victors did not want to be deprived of their territorial spoils. Finally, the US and the USSR refused to enter the League of Nations, which proved unable to cope with the ambitions of Mussolini and Hitler.
The spread of the nationalist idea
Certainly President Wilson was not the first to invoke the principle of nationality. Its roots are found in the French Revolution and the victorious efforts of the French to push back the concerted attack of the conservative states of Europe. The essential ingredients of nationalism are to be found in the Revolutionary Wars, before Napoléon arrived on the scene: one, a people ready as a body to take sovereignty from the hands of kings; the other, the productive capacity of the modern economy.
The contention that people, not least free people, are naturally organized in nations is a relatively modern concept. There are three special moments when the idea of a nation bloomed. The first moment was during the French Revolution, when a people in arms pushed back the armies of Europe and then victoriously invaded the Continent. The second was at the end of the World War I, when at the behest of President Wilson, the right of each nation to become a state was proclaimed. The third was on the occasion of the Bandung Conference of 19552, when the idea was launched that the countries of the third world had a right to become independent states on a par with the older nations of Europe that had lorded over them. At each of these three moments, the idea of the nation and the right of a people to become a nation-state was presented as self-evident, but soon showed deep contradictions. The French revolutionaries worshiped at the altar of Universal Reason but then tried to impose French civilization on the peoples they allegedly freed. The European nations born of the splitting of the Austrian, Russian, Ottoman and German Empires discovered that they were multinational themselves and were soon at war within their own borders and with their multifarious neighbors. The new third world states had no compunction to stamp out all freedoms within their new and somewhat artificial borders in the name of national liberty.
The origin of the two kinds of nationalism
Let me start with the ideological element. There are two kinds of nationalism. The first was born in the 17th century with the English revolution and the beheading of King Charles I. This was the concept of the nation as a framework for freedom. The poet John Milton (1608-1674) did not battle to free England from a foreign yoke but to deliver "man from the yoke of slavery and superstition". He wanted to go back to the ancient laws of England, so as to protect the Englishman's personal, civic and religious liberty. In his famed pamphlet Areopagitica3 (1644) he argued for "the liberty of unlicensed printing". In other political writings he defended the execution of Charles I for being a tyrant, and demanded that Parliament recognize that "the whole freedom of man consists either in spiritual or civil libertie". 4 John Milton's ideas were put in practice in a prudent and progressive way in England over the centuries, starting with the Glorious Revolution, when James II fled the country after throwing the Seals of State into the Thames and William and Mary ascended the Throne.5
The Americans with their Declaration of Independence in 1776 wanted to defend English traditional liberties: the Common Law, personal and religious freedom, civic representation, federal devolution.6 Here, too, the nation was conceived not as a personalized political and spiritual entity, but as a home and framework for the enjoyment of liberty by the people.
The second conception was based on the romantic ideas of Rousseau. Always the Genevan puritan, he had nothing but disgust for the luxurious way of life of the French Court. Mankind, when unspoilt by civilization, showed its original goodness. "Man is born free, and everywhere is charged with chains" was the starting phrase of his earth-shaking book, Le contrat social (1762). Power in the city was based on the agreement of the sovereign citizens when not moved by their particular interests or joined in association or party.
There often is a great deal of difference between the will of all and the general will; the latter only looks at the common interest, the other looks at private interest and is only a sum of particular wills. (Rousseau, Le contrat social, Chapter III)
Thus society itself acquires a personality and lives for the good of the people when differences disappear and only the common good is sought. Each member of the city, after having agreed by covenant to alienate himself totally with all his rights to the whole of the community finds that:
Each one of us puts in common his person and all his power under the supreme direction of the general will; and as a body we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole. (Rousseau, Chapter VI)
For more on these topics, see The Economic Consequences of the Peace by John Maynard Keynes at the Library of Economics and Liberty, and Henderson and Gochenour on "Presidential Greatness", by David R. Henderson, March 27, 2012, EconLog. See also the EconTalk podcast episode Weingast on the Violence Trap.
This was the political philosophy of the Jacobins during the French Revolution, whereby the individual alienated himself to the salut public, or public health and safety.7
Lord Acton in 1862 put the two views of nationality most clearly, as corresponding to the French and English systems. For him they were at the opposite poles of political thought.
In one case, nationality is founded on the perpetual supremacy of the collective will, of which the unity of the nation is the necessary condition [...]. Connected to this theory in nothing except in the common enmity of the absolute state, is the theory which [...] is distinguished from the other, because it tends to diversity and not to uniformity, to harmony and not to unity. [...] While the theory of unity makes the nation a source of despotism and revolution, the theory of liberty regards it as the bulwark of self-government.8
Modern industry and democracy
Reducing the spread of nationalist ideas purely to intellectual evolution does not paint the whole picture. Here I will contrast the views of two critics of nationalism whose lectures I attended at the London School of Economics in the 1960s, Elie Kedourie and Ernest Gellner.
An outright rejection or a melancholy understanding of nationalism has characterized the writings of many an enlightened thinker, especially after the shambles brought by the Wilson doctrine between the two World Wars. Those who have most deeply lamented the havoc brought by nationalism in Europe and later in the world at large usually come from countries that used to be a part of 19th century multinational empires. Joseph Schumpeter, for example, was an old style Austrian gentleman who never really felt at home in America. The nostalgia for non-nationalistic days was especially keen in assimilated Jews, such as the Viennese Karl Popper and the Estonian Isaiah Berlin, as also the two writers whose views I want to consider now.
Elie Kedourie was an Iraqi Jew who found it impossible to live in the post-Ottoman Middle East. Ernst Gellner was the son of German speaking Jews who had fled Bohemia. Both writers found a home in Britain, then a land free of nationalistic fever though undoubtedly patriotic. I often conversed with them when writing my thesis on Mill. They both wanted to find an explanation for the phenomenon of unbridled nationalism, which had so impacted their lives.
Kedourie considered nationalism a venomous ideology born of the philosophy of the Enlightenment.
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 of its own, for the legitimate exercise of power in the state, and for the right organization of a society of states. (Kedourie, Nationalism, page 9)
The doctrine he thus criticized had its roots in Kant's idea that the individual was free only when moved by her own conception of the good, impervious to rewards and with no regard to consequences. Self-determination justified all actions in search of the moral life, both of the individual and the nation. This doctrine, he added, became a part of the political rhetoric of the West and then of the whole world.9
Gellner thought that nationalism was more than an ideology. He thought that the kind of society created by industrialization was fertile ground for the spread of nationalism, so that nationalism was not a contingent intellectual development but a necessary consequence of the new mode of production: the population became mobile, literacy spread, individuals lost their local ties, expectations became egalitarian, government turned centralized, the state was able to mold their peoples and regiment them. The role of ideology was only to help stateless intellectuals and politicians exploit those conditions.
Gellner did not want to deny that "humanity has always lived in groups" and that "a certain amount of patriotism is a perpetual part of human life". But for him nationalism was a very concrete kind of patriotism transformed by the social conditions of the industrial world. Nationalism changed a constant trait of humanity, to live in groups, into a powerful political force taken over by the state.
Gellner should have added that industrialization came before nationalism. From the time of Adam Smith to that of Bismarck, liberal capitalism seemed to have opened the way to unrestricted globalization. The effect on wealth had been spectacular and trade seemed to have guaranteed lasting peace among civilized nations. There even was strong resistance to the acquisition of colonies, especially in England, voiced by Jeremy Bentham and the philosophical radicals, and by Richard Cobden and John Bright. This period of progress through commerce culminated with the 1865 free trade treaty between Victorian England the France of Napoleon III, signed by the Trade Secretaries Cobden and Michel Chevalier. But around 1870 trade and the economy were 'nationalized' and put at the service of state-building. Protectionism was launched by Bismarck, the German Chancellor, and that policy slowly spread among other nations in Europe. Brink Lindsey in his book The Dead Hand (2002) has proposed two theses: that globalization was not inevitable and could be reversed, as had happened in other historical instances; and that from 1870 to 1950 there seemed to be no limit to the political use of the capacities of capitalist production. Lindsey calls this backward-stepping period the "industrial counterrevolution". The egregious politicization of industry and trade in the period before World War I and during the war itself showed the terrible consequences of putting the new industrial capacities of national expansion at the service of the national state.10
Concepts of liberty
Isaiah Berlin in his deservedly famous essay "Two Concepts of Liberty11" (1958), drew the difference between 'liberty from' and 'liberty to'. If one studies the essay carefully, it becomes clear though that Berlin added a third kind of liberty to the first two. For him there was first 'liberty from', which unfortunately goes by the name 'negative liberty' but should be called 'formal liberty'. Second came 'liberty to' or 'positive liberty'; and thirdly 'status liberty' or 'national identity'. The three kinds of liberty are best summed up under the motto of the French Revolution: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. Let me attend to Fraternité.
This third kind of freedom Berlin defined as group dignity and self-rule.
I may be seeking not for [...] security from coercion, arbitrary arrest, tyranny, deprivation of certain opportunities. [...] What I may seek is to avoid simply being ignored, or patronized or despised [...]—in short, not being treated as an individual, having my uniqueness insufficiently recognized. [...] This is hankering after status and recognition. (Berlin, "Two Concepts of Liberty," pages 157-158)
In the 19th and 20th centuries the demand for status at the expense of individual liberty took at least two forms: privileges for trade unions and the right of national self-government. As Isaiah Berlin noted:
It is this desire for reciprocal recognition that leads the most authoritarian democracies to be, at times, consciously preferred by its members to the most enlightened oligarchies. (Berlin, page 157)
As to trade unions, in Britain they slowly gained privileges that made them special kinds of association. Unions were legalized in 1851 and gained exemption from liability for strike action with the Trade Disputes Act of 1906. This Act also legalized closed-shop clauses, whereby workers could be forced to join the shop union under pain of dismissal. The 1992 Trade Union and Labor Relations Act passed at the behest of Margaret Thatcher reversed the trend and forbade closed shop arrangements, demanded a ballot before a union called a strike, and made 'sympathy strikes' illegal. In the US, under the inspiration of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935, the Wagner Act legalized collective bargaining and closed shops, and set up the National Labor Relations Board. The worst anti-competitive features of this Act were corrected by the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, allowing states to pass right-to-work laws, whereby nearly half of American states are union free. Similar developments were seen in other European nations. Though they did not impinge directly on national policy, they did indirectly on the demands for wider representation.
Self-determination in the 21st century
Nationalist aspirations have certainly not disappeared in the present century. I will apply the notions examined above to three instances of aspiration to separate from encompassing states and the creation of new ones: oslovakia, Scotland, and Catalonia.
The two countries had lived separate lives under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as Bohemia and Moravia, on the one hand, and Slovakia, on the other. On the dissolution of the Empire they were merged into a single country independent from 1918 to 1945. The Communists formally kept a united Czechoslovakia until 1969, when the Prague Spring was forcibly put down: the country was turned into two 'Socialist Republics' with separate puppet governments. With the dissolution of the Soviet empire in 1989 they returned to being a single state. Four years later, they split again. From the point of view of identity it was clear they were different nations.
The romantic hankering after a separate nation-state has not turned out to be as dangerous for personal liberties as could have been the case, because both countries wanted to enter the European Union with its provision for human rights. Only Klaus has denounced the dangers of the bureaucratic interference of Brussels, where the establishment hankers after a centralized European federation.
The grounds for complaint in both nationalities before the split was the weight of fund transfers from Prague to Bratislava. The Czechs bore the taxes needed to pay for subsidies to the Slovaks. The recipients of the transfers fretted under the interference of the grantors. After the "velvet divorce" the Slovaks govern themselves and have had to learn from their own mistakes: they are a model member of the Union and the euro. And political relations between the two governments and personal intercourse of ordinary people of the two nationalities are more cordial.
The peaceful divorce between the Czech Republic and Slovakia leads me to three conclusions: (1) The two countries had many precedents of separate existence, so that the separation did not even need a referendum; (2) the umbrella of the European Union abated worries about personal freedoms after a victory for what I have called "romantic nationalism" but substituted Brussels' interventionism for that of Prague's; (3) multinational states have great difficulty in staying together with a background of financial transfers from one region to another and with bloated welfare states.
After the Union, the peace and quiet of Scotland was disturbed by at least four Jacobite expeditions attempting to restore the Stuarts to the throne of Britain. The first was led by the son of the deposed King who styled himself James VII, in 1689: he found his main backing in the Highland clans. The second was in 1715, led by James VIII, the Old Pretender who soon was forced to return to France. The third was aborted in 1719, despite the landing of a Spanish force. The fourth in 1745 was the most forceful, led by the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie, who invaded England down to near London vainly hoping for an enthusiastic reception of a Catholic king in the south of the United Kingdom. The uprising was finally routed at the battle of Culloden.
In the end, it was a clash was between the Highlanders and their Tory supporters in England, and the more forward looking Lowlanders and the Whig Party. When the conflicts ended, Scotland was fully on the path of the ideals of the Enlightenment. Thus, the circle around Hume and Adam Smith was clearly in favor of the new regime, despite attempts of the Scottish Nationalists of today to enlist these luminaries of the past: Hume spent time in Paris as a member of the British Embassy and Adam Smith, in the last part of his life, was a UK Commissioner for Scottish Customs.
Nationalism in all parts of the world unscrupulously enlists history in its cause with scant interest in the past wie es eigentlich gewesen war, as it actually happened, in the words of Leopold von Ranke. The deformation of Scottish history has gone from ignoring that the Jacobite uprisings were a civil war between clans to forgetting the many Scots and English who preferred the William and Mary as their new King and Queen. From Sir Walter Scott novels to the film Braveheart, history is used to paint a romantic and false picture of Scotland's past.
The recent referendum campaign, which I followed very closely, was in reality a dispute about how much England sent Scotland (and Wales and Northern Ireland) as a subsidy to try and reduce the inequality among the nations of the UK. Now that they have lost, the Nationalists are sure to try and get as much devolution as they can. In principle that is not bad, since one should reduce centralization as much as possible. From what I heard, the Nationalists wanted to have more say in their own affairs mainly to ensure the continuity of their profligate welfare state: National Health free at the point of service; more generous public pensions; better unemployment benefits; greater assistance to single parent families and poor children; free University education for Scots; and subsidized re-industrialization to counter Margaret Thatcher's "trail of destruction". To finance it all they also demanded full control of Scotland's share of North Sea Oil. They also hoped to renew European regional subsidies as soon as they could. For me, the main lesson from that campaign is that calls for independence would not be so keen if the democratic state did not suffer from elephantiasis: people use nationalism to increase their share of the pie. Well, as long as the Scots pay the full bill, let them try.
Another proposal was to send away the Trident submarine base at the Clyde Loch back to England, as nuclear arms were "immoral weapons of mass destruction". The phrase had an echo in the predominantly leftist opinion of the Scots. During the debates, someone asked Alex Salmond whether, after independence would he visit Vladimir Putin in Russia and Kim Jong Un in North Korea to ask them to follow suit. Though he spoke of creating a Scottish Armed Force, the truth is that those peace-loving nationalists always rely on someone else to defend them—be it England or the United States.
Of course there is an element of the subordinate Principal Minister wanting to become an independent Prime Minister and partake in the councils of the EU on a par with the 28 nations at present in that organization. Mr. Salmon said he wanted to keep the Queen and the pound sterling forever, and get the help of England to return to the EU. The irony is that in due course we could see Scotland in the EU, selling whisky and festivals to its European partners, and using the euro, so as to have a respectable currency under the protection of the ECB—while England was out of both.
Why do I see Scottish independence less kindly than the "velvet divorce" between the Czechs and Slovakia? I am unhappy with the idea of 'self-determination'. Whose self-determination? We have seen the vote for independence lost 45% to 55%. Public opinion in a country whose inhabitants and culture are so intertwined by centuries of common history has been split in two by the referendum. The Scots living in England and the rest of the world were denied the vote, and the unionists within Scotland were accused of voting with their pocket books and not with their brave hearts. The Referendum could have been won by a simple majority a question on whose wording David Cameron, the Prime Minister, did not even consult the UK Parliament. To split the country thus would have been a flagrant instance of the abuse of power of a slim majority over a large minority.
My point is again one of 'self-determination' as an abuse of democracy. Both the imposition and the rejection of independence in a country split down the middle would be discrimination against a large minority. At present the Catalan Nationalists are visiting shops to ask them to put up a sign of sympathize with their aims: To say no is to signify oneself. Large and small businesses are mostly keeping quiet for fear of losing clients in Catalonia—or in the rest of Spain. People who would prefer not to be separated from Spain are being tarred with the brush of treason.
Catalonia has a degree of devolved power that Scotland can only dream of. Surely devolution could be taken further. It should also be possible to review the excessive amount of regional transfers borne by the Catalans and also the Madrid Autonomy. The roots of nationalism are to be found, not only in the wish of local leaders to see their importance increase by playing on romantic feelings, but also in the temptation to keep their funds for the local welfare state. They would have great difficulty in financing the pensions and health care promised the population let alone bearing their part of the Spanish public debt—now at an equivalent to 100% of GDP.
Nationalism and patriotism
My rejection of the excesses of nationalism from the point of view of individual freedom does not mean that I overlook the existence and force of patriotic feelings. It is one thing to aid and abet aggressive uses of power to form nations or increase their territory, and quite another to feel a deep attachment to one's country. Spain is not better than other countries in the world in its past history or its present state. Would I be ready to take up arms to defend her from an unwarranted attack? My answer would be yes. And I am sure that many people in Catalonia would say the same, as they heroically showed in the resistance they put up against the French invasion during the Napoleonic Wars.
It is the artificial creation of nation states that lays the ground for the invasion of personal liberties. Moving borders often leads to the shedding of blood, as Europe discovered to its cost during the 20th century. Attempts to build new nations by carving up or forcefully joining old and settled societies, gives rise to the kind of tensions we are today witnessing in the European Union.
The paradox of nationalism
The presumption that nations have a natural right to form their own state deserves criticism. Nationalism is a case of abuse of the principle of majoritarian democracy. Nationalists usually claim to be democratic or at least claim to be answering the wish of the sovereign people. Nationalism is not freedom-loving by nature. At birth, nations are created out of disparate elements. In the course of their lives, they must be maintained against centrifugal forces, since the principle of nationhood can be claimed by other regions in the nation. However, political self-government, which ideally is the corollary of individual self-government, can normally only be organized within a nation-state. Liberal democracy and nationalism are antithetical but citizenship needs a nation-state to function politically. Here is a contradiction that modern democracies do not seem to be solving neatly.
Woodrow Wilson, "Speech on the Fourteen Points." January 8, 1918. Available online at: http://www.powerfulwords.info/speeches/Woodrow_Wilson/.
More information available online at https://history.state.gov/milestones/1953-1960/bandung-conf.
"The Readie and Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth" (1650, 1999), pages 439-441, See also "The Defence of the People of England" (1651 and 1654). Areopagitica and other Political Writings of John Milton. Liberty Fund, 1999.
Hans Kohn (1955): Introduction (2.), Nationalism, its Meaning and History. Van Nostrand, Princeton.
John Milton also defended individual merit and local devolution of power. "The other part of our freedom consists in the civil rights and advancement of each person according to his merit [...]. Both of which in my opinion may be best and soonest obtained, if every countie in the land were made a kind of subordinate Commonaltie or Commonwealth." ("The Readie Way", pg. 441.)
Rousseau's economic ideas tally with his political philosophy of enmity to civilization. A fragment in Volume III of his Collected Works (edited under the direction of Bernard Gagnevin and Raymond Avec, page 52), demands that all work-saving devices be proscribed, "all machinery or invention that give the same results as human labor with less effort".
Lord Acton (1862): Essays on Freedom and Power. Extract included as Reading 8 in Hans Kohn (1955): Nationalism: Its Meaning and History. Van Nostrand, Princeton.
Elie Kedourie (1961): Nationalism. Hutchinson University Library.
Brink Lindsey (2002): Against the Dead Hand: the uncertain struggle against global capitalism. See also the book by Margaret MacMillan (2013): The War That Ended Peace: How Europe abandoned peace for the First World War, on the Paris Universal Exposition of 1900, pages 1-7; the change in society due to industrialization, pages 9-24 and chapter 9; and on Socialism, pages 285-293. In general, this distinguished book gives an excellent picture of the social and economic scene in the years before 1914.
*Pedro Schwartz is "Rafael del Pino" Research Professor of at San Pablo University in Madrid where he directs the Center for Political Economy and Regulation. A member of the Royal Academy of Moral and Political Sciences in Madrid, he is a frequent contributor to the European media on the current financial and social scene.
For more articles by Pedro Schwartz, see the Archive.