(The original Finnish version was published in the online newspaper Uutiskynnys on 18 May 2010.)
Philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) is frequently mentioned when the development of nationalism is discussed. He put the state above the individual and said that peoples that form sovereign states are the only real elements of history. For him the constitution equals the collective spirit of the nation. When it comes to absolute idealism and idealistic dialectic, Hegel certainly is the most important developer.
The Hegelian dialectic suggests that the world is a black-and-white place where everything has an opposite, where changes happen through big reformations and where historical events are predetermined. Slow and gradual progress is disregarded. This extremist way of thinking gave plenty of ideas to those who later on came up with socialism and national socialism. But what about nationalism?
The roots of political nationalism can be found from the time before Hegel. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) composed significant writings about concepts that are pivotal within nationalism, such as popular sovereignty and general will. Then again, his philosophy promoted huge all-inclusive social reforms instead of a single ideology like nationalism. He also made a clear difference between his own work and (actual) nationalism by looking down on the society and culture. Rousseau believed that it’s better for a human being to live in the nature as a fictional ”noble savage” than to be surrounded by civilization. It’s indeed justified to quote Ph.D. Arthur Melzer who has noted that ”Rousseau’s theories included seeds of nationalism”.
”Nationalism” as a term was coined by Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803) in the 1770s. Herder, who was known as a poet, theologian, literary critic and philosopher, hated ideological absolutism and provincial patriotism. However, people’s community and recognizing one’s own nationality were appreciable concepts for him.
Herder stated that working for one’s fatherland is both virtuous and important for maintaining the identity of the individual. Languages, geographical circumstances, heredity and culture are the key factors that form nations and make them survive. Herder i.a. supposed that the forthcoming generations of Western Europe shall abandon their cultural traditions and lose their influence in Europe.
Today many people associate the word ”nationalism” with discrimination and totalitarianism. One reason for this is that nationalism has been misused to justify racism. National socialists intended to cite Herder in their propaganda even if he wasn’t fanatically glorifying his own folk (and neither was Hegel; in fact Hegel was accused for being unpatriotic).
What was Herder’s original idea of nationalism like? He threw doubt on the class divide that oppressed the majority of the people. He wrote that there is only one class in each country, the folk, and the rulers belong to this class as well as the peasants. All members of the society should cherish the national values in order to secure the community’s future.
Nationalism is not hypocritical and gold-plated hooray-patriotism. Herder precisely warned his readers by writing that national glory is a ”deceiving seducer” and no nation has all the wisdom of the world. Individuals, generations and nations must learn from each other and with each other.
Herder strongly believed in culture and he had a quite modern opinion of different cultures being incommensurable. That is to say, Herder thought that in order to understand foreign cultures we must examine them through their own premises. Nowadays many Western people value other cultures by the amount of wealth that can be found in their territory, even if richness isn’t considered the highest possible aim everywhere. Herder underlined that all cultures have their own standards and unique genious. In the mind of today’s reader this may cause an evocation with cultural relativism or even moral relativism, but understanding foreign ways of life doesn’t require accepting them.
Is it logical to advocate totalitarianism with Herderian nationalism? Experts such as Dominic Eggel, Andre Liebich and Deborah Mancini-Griffoli have emphasized how Herder denounced despotism and excessive bureaucracy. If national cultural traditions are vigorous, there is little need for central government. Nationalism isn’t based on the state or dictatorship. Nationalism is based on equal citizens.