When someone asks about my political view, I reply by saying that I’m a nationalist. Unfortunately this causes some misunderstandings because people have very different impressions of the meaning of that word. Both colloquial language and academic works have many kinds of definitions for nationalism. The same thing can be said about patriotism, which some people even use as a synonym of nationalism. I cannot prove, nor do I intend to prove that the definitions I use are better than all the others, but just to avoid misunderstandings I shall now briefly explain what I mean when I use the words nationalism and patriotism.
Writers have given different descriptions for nationalism and patriotism. For example, George Orwell wrote that nationalism is ”power-hunger tempered by self-deception” and he accused nationalists for distorting history. According to Orwell, nationalism is aggressive while patriotism is defensive (Orwell, George: ”Notes on Nationalism”, Polemic 1/1945).
The way how I use these words is pretty much the opposite of Orwell’s way. When I talk and write about nationalism, I mean the idea that every nation should have the right to live peacefully in its own area without being ruled by any other nation or any supranational dominator. The purpose of the state as an organized political community is nothing more than being a guardian for the citizens and a defender of justice. In my opinion, the state has value only as an instrument. However, a state might need a wide range of societal services to protect and serve its citizens as well as possible. That is why I don’t necessarily support the idea of a minimal state.
Do I think that the total number of peoples should equal the number of countries in the world? No. Some minority peoples are so small in number that creating a new state wouldn’t be practically reasonable. Furthermore, states can be founded due to political, economical and other non-national reasons. I just want to emphasize that people of all nationalities should have the right for an independent nation-state, even when they don’t want to use this right.
There doesn’t have to be disharmony between nationalism and international actions. People and cultures have always interacted with each other and adopted each other’s memes. Getting to know foreign cultures can help us improve our own culture, but no cultural phenomenon or tradition should be above criticism. Every nation has the right to prefer its own culture, but no nation has the right to force its culture to people who live in other parts of the world.
Nationalism includes the right of all nations to live peacefully and independently. Therefore, imperialistic and colonialist actions are absolutely wrong from the nationalistic point of view. In my opinion this is one of the main differences between nationalism and patriotism. For example, the governments of superpowers are usually patriotic rather than nationalistic.
Patriotic persons are usually united by citizenship, not nationality. They are united by symbols (flag, anthem), not by things as such. In many countries there are patriots who have almost nothing in common, except for the colour of passport. The cohesion of this kind of a group can be fragile and artificial. The fragility is compensated by believing in a common enemy, or by having a strong leader. In countries of several nationalities, like the former Yugoslavia, patriotism is a unifying ideology. In nation-states it is simply unnecessary.
A considerably simplified example: In the Grand Principality of Finland (1809–1917) most nationalists supported independence, whereas patriots wanted the governance of the Russian Emperor to remain. Nationalists think that if the government is not promoting the nation’s benefit, it should be strongly criticized and even resisted.